THE ENGLAND boss is under more intense media scrutiny than any man in the country except the Prime Minister. So said the FAÃ¢ÂÂs Middlesbrough-born spin doctor supreme Adrian Bevington as he ran a very smooth news management operation when the Steve McClaren media circus came to Teesside yesterday.
Counting the column inches and measuring the airtime the respective former right-hand men who have stepped up to the top job get he has a point, although arguably he has sold himself short.
While Gordon Brown has his hands on the levers of power and controls foreign and economic policy, burning interest in the minutae of his decisions is limited to a numerically small high-brow elite. McClaren in contrast is at the heart of a national obsession that provokes emotional turmoil among an opinionated audience of millions and his decisions are dissected on messageboards and in pubs and workplaces across the land with a passion that a White Paper on Private Finance Initiatives in Education never can.
Plus, lurking just below the surface is the unspoken knowledge that all the worst excesses of the tabloid press – the muck-raking, the creative bile, the sustained full-frontal assault, the cartoons of root vegetables – come quickly to the surface where Team England are concerned and Boro boy turned FA Director of Media Bevington knows he could quickly be thrown into the front-line of fire-fighting and damage limitation.
But for now, things are going smoothly. Former Boro boss Steve McClaren, who still lives in Yarm, unveiled his squad for next weekÃ¢ÂÂs crunch qualifiers on his own doorstep and the TV cameras, radio mics and press pack were jostling for position and exclusives in the usually genteel surrounds of the Tall Trees Hotel for Friday lunchtime press conference.
You would think that the national hacks would object to being dragged up to the frozen north for what is a routine job but Yarm does down well. Ã¢ÂÂWe should do them all up here Adrian,Ã¢Â? says a scribe. The lobby of Tall Trees is spacious and plush with impressive friezes, marble inglenook fireplaces and wooden paneling that are a Las Vegas version of what regency should be, although the impression of grandeur is spoiled by the incongruous crumpled bohemian shabbiness of the sports scribesÃ¢ÂÂ collective wardrobe.
In the carpark there are outside broadcast vans from Sky, the BBC and ITV. The lobby is full of big name writers from the nationals milling around while upstairs technicians are wiring up monitors, mics and cameras and checking lighting levels and camera angles. Ray Stubbs is sat revising his copious notes from a clipboard.
Bevington, a one time Boro junior press officer who has worked his way up to become one of the most influential men in the game, is charged with keeping it orderly, ensuring that the boss gets his message across and that the media go away satisfied with their sound-bites and quotes and that they produce stories that are broadly supportive.
Like the PM, McClaren was not just unveiling policies – his team – but also delivering a message: the need for unity when the pressure is on at Wembley next week. Ã¢ÂÂWe are all in this together,Ã¢Â? is his mantra for the day. Ã¢ÂÂThe coaches, the players, the fans… you guys (the press)… we all want the same thing. To qualify. We all need to pull in the same direction.Ã¢Â?
It is part manifesto and part statement of the obvious but also part a pre-emptive shot to head off the inevitable jittery backlash if England donÃ¢ÂÂt win the first game of the double-header against Israel comfortably next Saturday.
Of course it isnÃ¢ÂÂt really like the cynical manipulation of spin soap The Thick of It and Bevington isnÃ¢ÂÂt an Alistair Campbell figure working ruthlessly to manipulate the agenda. But he does run a tight ship. He meets and greets, organises the running order and negotiates with the various camps over the coachÃ¢ÂÂs time then with the preparations complete he guides Steve McClaren through a two hour flurry of carefully timed smaller press conferences organised to meet the needs of radically different mediums.
Different mediums maybe, but the same questions over and over again: the Beckham, Gerrard, Rooney injuries, the shock inclusion of Ashley Young, the rehabilitation of David Bentley, the keeper situation and – asked quietly but with a kernal of lurking menace – the possible consequences of defeat and failure to qualify.
And with every asking the responses were broadly the same, came gift-wrapped in a confident smile and the message of unity was tapped out in a series of soundbites. That McClaren, who so often looked uncomfortable in the spotlight at Boro, has had media coaching is clear. He is relaxed, his body language expressive and open, his verbal delivery pitched carefully to emphasis his main points and his gleaming toothy smile is used as punctuation.
And he switches smoothly between the concise answers needed by TV who must edit them down into 30 or 60 second nuggets but which speak directly to the audience and the more comprehensive replies to the written press that are more measured in the knowledge that they will be taken in isolation and filtered through whatever prism their editor demands.
The operation starts swiftly after the squad is officially released at 12 noon. First there is a session in the AR Khan Suite for the TV networks intended to give brief snippets on the squad and the importance of the game. This is done quickly so it can be to edited quickly ready for the lunchtime and early evening news bulletins.
With lights beaming down and four cameras whirring in a confined space it soon gets very hot and clammy in the room but McClaren looks cool as he bats questions aside.
He sits in front of an FA backdrop with his hands resting on a desk, slightly apart but with fingertips together and as he rolls out his bullet points he spreads the digits out in an inclusive gesture to underline and emphasise. As the same phrases echo throughout the day the rhythmic movement of his hands become metronomic and hypnotic.
Seven minutes later the network TV reporters scurry away to start work on edit suites outside while McClaren prepares for a live exclusive with Sky SportsÃ¢ÂÂs David Craig. The desk is cleared away quickly, two chairs are produced and the cameras and lighting moved in closer. Seeing a notebook that could compromise their exclusivity the Sky people ask me to leave but Bevington tells them I have access all areas clearance and I reassure them I wonÃ¢ÂÂt steal their quotes.
A rolling news channels gives Sky the luxury of the time to do set-piece interviews and as it will be broadcast uncut to a key section of the England audience it is very important in setting the agenda. Going out so soon after the squad is announced it is content gold dust, a fantastic chance for the boss to explain at length and in his own words his selections, tactics and expectations for the game and also for Sky to get in first with the questions everyone is asking. They get the same answers as everyone else but at least they get them first.
As well as a live head-to-head Sky can cull a string of 30 second snippets from this session that they will use over the coming week to boost their news broadcasts. One snatch about David Beckham is used soon after along with footage of the tackle that crocked the LA Galaxy man, another about LampardÃ¢ÂÂs crucial role in midfield appears later that evening as news breaks that Chelsea man has a thigh strain.
Ã¢ÂÂFive minutes,Ã¢Â? says Bevington firmly as Craig negotiates his slot then as that deadline is passed there is some frantic off-camera gesticulation as the FA man first points to his watch then indicates a winding up motion and, with McClaren still addressing the camera, Craig sticks a finger up and mouths Ã¢ÂÂone moreÃ¢Â?. At the end Bevington laughs and congratulates him: Ã¢ÂÂYou got nine, well done DavidÃ¢Â?.
Over the corridor McClaren is ushered into the Charles Amer Suite where watched by a stern portrait of the former Boro chairman 20 journalists from the national press – Ã¢ÂÂwe have invited just one each from every national paper plus the Gazette,Ã¢Â? explains Bevington – fire away with their questions. McClaren and Bevington sit at the head of a rectangle of table with a dozen dictaphones in front of them to face what is a potentially tricky grilling from the big-hitters.
For all the importance of Sky in delivering a big audience and conveying exactly what has been said it is the written press who can most vividly shape public perceptions and can most dramatically transform the political landscape with not just judicious use of the quotes but also adding colour and perspective to support shifting opinions and sometimes editorial directives.
The questioning is dominated by influential broadsheet top dogs Martin Samuel of the Times and Henry Winter of the Telegraph but everyone gets the same quotes.
Samuel lays a trap, asking if BeckhamÃ¢ÂÂs transatlantic timetable and injury were related, was his Stateside semi-retirement Ã¢ÂÂasking for trouble, but McClaren neatly swerves it. It is asked again and once more is sidestepped. The questions prompt longer, more comprehensive and more considered but at root the same measured answers.
The daily reporters leave to start pounding at laptops in the lobby as the writers from the Sundays take their turn. At this point I am asked to leave. I am a from a daily and it is the unwritten code of the engrained sports reporting caste system that once they get their quotes the dailies leave and give the Sundays, who need more esoteric quotes that are not time sensitive, a free-run. Ã¢ÂÂSorry about that but my life wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be worth living,Ã¢Â? says Bevington but no apology is neccessary. My life wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be worth living either.
Finally it is back across the corridor for the BBC cameras and a piece with Ray Stubbs for Football Focus. The Beeb have set up in a different part of the room, darker and with foliage as a backdrop, so the footage looks distinct from SkyÃ¢ÂÂs.
The 25 minute interview will be cut immediately down to four or five for SaturdayÃ¢ÂÂs show – Ã¢ÂÂIÃ¢ÂÂll finish about 2.30 in the morning then drive home then tomorrow is the busy day because of Match of the Day,Ã¢Â? says the editor – but is massively important because it is the only lengthy statement to the nation Steve McClaren will make on terrestrial TV.
It is friendlier in tone than the rest and McClaren visibly relaxes and laughs a few times at
StubbsÃ¢ÂÂ matey approach but nevertheless the answers, the inclusive message – and despite being out of shot, the hands – remain the same.
Ã¢ÂÂIt went well,Ã¢Â? said Bevington afterwards, and he was right. Everyone got what they wanted. Whether it will go so smoothly if results go badly next week, we will see.