BACK IN the day, football club chairmen were usually the local greengrocer, butcher or transport company boss. They were simple, self-made men, wedded to their communities, and took pride in being the figurehead of what was one of the most significant assets of those communities.
They were rarely seen in the media, reserving their rosette-clad appearances for unexpected cup runs or end-of-season celebrations. They would occasionally be pictured stood over a new manager as he signed his contract, regret that the previous incumbent hadn’t worked out clearly visible in their eyes.
And they cared about the fans, the lifeblood of the club. They had to, to some extent. They employed them, worked with them, had them as customers and met them every day. There was no need for an officially-sanctioned fans’ forum when opinions were heard loud and clear in the queue for mince every morning.
But no more. The arrival of Mr Murdoch’s millions and the phenomenally successful Sky Sports channels also brought the demise of the old boys. They quickly sold up to the new breed of flash bastards brandishing their occasionally imaginary millions. And they were followed by an influx of foreign billionaires, who saw the ownership of a British football club as an entertaining plaything, a safe haven from possibly life-threatening problems back home and, allegedly, a convenient way of moving around inconvenient amounts of money.
These wealthy ‘benefactors’ cared nothing for a club’s fans or a club’s traditions. The club was their toy, thus they would do with it as they wanted. Hence we have a Malaysian billionaire changing the team colours of Cardiff City (nicknamed The Bluebirds) to red, and now further conspiring to change the club’s name to Cardiff Red Devils. Just one example of many.
Now when shit like this happens, it’s the local press who have to take up the gauntlet and stick up for the fans. The local football writer, whose only previous experience of confrontation was trying to negotiate a reduced price on a sell-by date Ginsters’ pasty to stick in the pocket of his shiny-elbowed sheepskin jacket, suddenly finds himself at the eye of the storm with angry readers on one side and an arrogant, bullying owner on the other. Increasingly, the outcome is then a petty and petulant ban on the local newspaper, its reporters and photographers.
As we speak, a cockney sportswear magnate has banned the Evening Chronicle, The Journal and the Sunday Sun from Newcastle United matches and press conferences. Their crime was reporting, pretty objectively from what I can see, a protest by a fans’ group unhappy with the running of their club. (Note: THEIR club.)
At Nottingham Forest, where people who might struggle to pass any ‘fit and proper owner’ test are somehow running the club, random national newspaper journalists are being banned for historic ‘offences’.
And in the Potteries enclave of Burslem, one of the country’s finest local newspapers, the Sentinel, has been banned by Port Vale for asking awkward questions about £55 football shirts that 1,000 fans ordered and paid for back in May but which have yet to turn up. The horrible irony of this situation is that the Sentinel has twice had to run campaigns to save Port Vale from administration, without which there would be no club for them to be banned from.
The idiocy of the egomaniacs who make these decisions is beyond belief. Local newspapers devote acres of space to their football clubs, almost all of it free advertising. They help sell the season tickets, they help fill the grounds on cold and wet February nights and they help spin whatever white lies the manager deems useful. Putting a column centimetre cost on such coverage would rack up a mighty bill. (Far more than the £10,000 a season that Port Vale is now bizarrely asking the Sentinel to pay for the privilege of covering matches.)
The temptation when such a ban is imposed is always to say: “Fuck ’em. We’ll not bother publicising their bottom of the table fixture this weekend.”. But we don’t do that because we care about our readers, the fans. So we’re left sneaking into the ground, taking pictures on mobiles and quietly hoping that someone will eventually see sense.
What’s needed, of course, is the solidarity shown in other trades. Ban one of us, and we’ll all ignore you. Imagine the impact of that action across all local and national titles. Sadly, our own selfishness – and that of our bosses – subverts that notion.
I hold out one hope. The chairman of Port Vale has a proper, old-fashioned football club chairman’s name – Norman Smurthwaite. Perhaps it might be in his genes to start acting like a proper, old-fashioned football club chairman should.
The Grey Cardigan has been in newspapers since the days of hot metal and expense accounts. After a lengthy career as chief sub on several regional newspapers, plus a multitude of shifts on the nationals, he was appointed editor of the Evening Beast in 2009 before being ignominiously 'rationalised' last year. He is currently collecting gas in jam jars in case the Russians cut us off. @thegreycardigan