What does it tell us about sports journalism when speaking up for fans is called ‘bold’?

So he’s finally gone. Steve Kean, that is, the now former manager of Blackburn Rovers. As I write this, Blackburn sit third in the Championship and, if they carry on like this, are in with a good shout at returning to the Premier League at the first attempt.

This, however, didn’t appear to be enough for Rovers fans. Since relegation, attendances have dropped by around 10,000. Fans, of course, have every right to express their thoughts on their club in any way they choose. Whether they were right to

turn on the manager, when the real problems seem to stem from the owners, is a source of hot debate (especially if you are a listener of TalkSport. Crikey).

And, to me, it seems blatantly obvious that if the fans – in large enough numbers – want the manager to go, this should be reflected by the local newspaper. Late last year, the Lancashire Telegraph ran this front page called on Kean to go.

The response from journalists on Holdthefrontpage at the time was interesting – generally the consensus was that the paper had got it wrong. Indeed, one commenter  called Ill-informed (unintentionally ironic, I think) posted a month later:

What’s the Telegraph saying about Kean and the Venkys now, I wonder?

This was after Blackburn had strung together a few points – but, as it turned out, not enough to stay up.

This week, as confusion reigned over whether Kean had quite or not – not helped by a tweet from local MP Graham Jones who has ‘sources’ saying Kean had been sacked but had refused to go, only to admit later his ‘reliable source was now confused’ the Lancashire Telegraph voiced its opinion again, this time calling on the club to ‘end this absurd farce.’

Lancashire Telegraph back-page opinion

Editor Kevin Young is quoted on Holdthefrontpage as saying:

“Our loyalty as a newspaper is to the fans. They are the club but they will stay away as long as Kean is at the helm.

“It’s pretty clear what Mrs Desai has to do to end this toxic situation.”

Sky Sports described the decision run that back page as a ‘bold move’. But was it really a bold thing to do? As Kevin Young says, fans are the club – and when a third are staying away and most of the other two thirds are calling for the manager’s head during a game, I don’t think the Lancashire Telegraph had much choice.

Sure, it perhaps makes relationships sour at the football club, and I know of plenty of newspapers which have stood up for fans, or taken a line the club didn’t want only to have threats made about access being removed to players and the manager.

To me, that’s a silly threat, and one which shouldn’t prompt fear. We live in an age where football clubs, generally, are keen to communicate directly with fans and where many football clubs try very hard to manage the access to players and managers. At the same time, the internet – always a broad term to use – means that fans can congregate anywhere online while anyone can have a voice. Neither of the latter two points are a bad thing.

With all that in mind, supporting fans in their call to remove the manager isn’t bold, it’s the sensible thing to do. It’s only bold if you believe that stories in which strikers promise to score this weekend or managers say they are confident they can get all three points this weekend – ie the stories the clubs want to see in the media – are the stories fans want to read. And, as a football fan, I don’t think they are.

That’s not to say the local newspaper – and its website – should be unrelentingly critical of the football club. When Aston Villa lost to Southampton the other weekend, the Birmingham Mail received a number of comments calling for Paul Lambert – in post since the summer – to be sacked. Backing that call would have been daft.

The Birmingham Mail was also the newspaper which carried a back-page advert from fans expressing their dismay at Alex McLeish’s run at Aston Villa towards the end of last season.  I suspect the club would have rather that advert hadn’t run, but it was right of the Mail to carry it. After all, the fans make Aston Villa what it is, not the current management.

Newcastle Evening Chronicle 2008

Newcastle Evening Chronicle 2012

In Newcastle in 2008, the Evening Chronicle ran a front page demanding that Mike Ashley, the owner of Newcastle United, ‘get out of Toon.’ This was shortly after club legend Kevin Keegan had been sacked as manager.

Ashley didn’t go – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing for the Chronicle to do.  The easy route would have been to keep on reporting what they club would like to see in print, or just focus on the football.

And it also doesn’t mean the paper can’t reflect the changing mood of fans, either. Fast forward four years and with a European place secured, the Chronicle ran its annual end of season survey – which revealed for the first time that a majority of fans had changed their opinion on Ashley, and were happy now with the way he was running the club. To be able to report accurately what the fans are thinking, you need to have their trust and respect. Would the Chronicle have the trust and respect of fans now if it hadn’t been so vocal in 2008? I think not.

Digital tools now make it easier than ever to place the newspaper as both a voice for the fans and a point of discussion for fans. If I was the editor of a title which covered a club which, by the end of next month, I’d be turning to Surveymonkey to ask fans a series of questions about how they thought the club should improve. (Using Surveymonkey in 2008 helped the Liverpool Daily Post set the agenda on the emerging fans revolt against Liverpool owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks – and asking Liverpool FC fanboards for support and crediting their support also helped build bridges with the those boards).

With football clubs determined to talk directly to fans – and why not? – it’s more important than ever that newspapers – and their websites – preserve existing relationships with fans and build new ones. Local newspapers have the unique privilege of being the place people expect news, information and opinion on a local football club. But it needs to be different from the agenda set by clubs. So when Sky Sports say the Lancashire Telegraph’s back page was a bold move, it really says more about them than it does about the Lancashire Telegraph, which was bang on the money – again.

2 comments

  1. nice piece. danger of following the fans’ lead is that they’re incredibly fickle. you only need to follow an inconsistent side to see the sack him, back him reactions to every result (I’m a bolton fan for the record).

    I’m not saying the LT was bold, but i would say it’s more interesting is how newspapers are more emboldened and prepared to take on clubs now than they used to be.

    at this point I think it’s fair to point out that i was a former LT sports reporter. when I started in the mid 80s the club I was assigned to had a long standing relationship with the local media. there was no press office, I had access to the manager on a daily basis and players when I wanted. we were an important conduit for club news and access extended to travelling to away games on he club coach with the players. you built up relationships, understood nuances and were able to reflect what was happening.

    now such access is laughable but as press officers and communications teams put up barriers, the internet and social media brings barriers down. sadly though clubs are increasingly more distant from their local media and that is why they can be far bolder. that control the clubs have brought has come at a price.

  2. Not sure if it was ‘bold’ to adopt the view of the fans, arguably the bolder move would have been to take the opposite view. Perhaps the more reasonable line would have been to stay neutral on the issue, reporting all sides without adding the paper’s own opinion into the mix (I’ve not read the paper’s coverage so don’t know if their football writers have been writing articles in favour of sacking or retaining Steve Keen).
    Not sure what if any of the above approaches would have been more commercially sensible for the Lancs Telegraph to follow, but perhaps the paper should have a higher opinion of itself than simply parroting the views of a section of fans? Should it not be confident enough in the ability of its chief football writer to put forward an argument to the fans that is the opposite of the consensus on the terraces? Of course, it could be the chief football writer, even the entire sports and news desk agrees with the fans and that’s why the paper has backed their calls.
    I wonder if the editor thought about Middlesbrough who sacked manager Gareth Southgate one September while in a similar position in the Championship table following their relegation from the Premier League a few years ago? Middlesbrough remain a Championship club.
    I’ve never been too sure if appointing football managers is a matter of luck or something more precise, but what qualifies the editor of the local newspaper (or an Indian chicken farmer) to make such decisions. It appears the paper here is seeking to put forward the views of fans, but as Tony points out, and the Newcastle Chronicle’s experience suggests, fans can be incredibly fickle.
    Perhaps the paper wasn’t so concerned about its relationship with the club however as Premiership and Championship clubs seem so keen to manage their own images so tightly it can seem some papers are simply reduced to repeating statements and news first issued to the club’s own website.

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