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What sports fans can teach journalists

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Tim Franks | 14:27 UK time, Monday, 28 February 2011

It is very easy, as a journalist, to avoid the public. Whether you're covering politics or sport, you stick to the players. They're who matter, aren't they?

Wrong. The fans - they who number among that group journalists condescendingly refer to as "real people" - can also teach us.

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A fair amount was made, not least by me, on air, when given the opportunity, about French rugby coach Marc Lièvremont's comments on the moral worth of his opponents, England, ahead of their Six Nations clash at Twickenham.

"We all don't like the English", he said. He went on to explain, at some length why this was so, and provide extensive anecdotal evidence of other nations' antipathy. He then, hilariously, said that his comments - which amounted to a quite extensive anthropological thesis - "had been taken out of context".

There's a fat telephone directory of theories already out there as to why the English inspire such strong feelings. A perfect reason, then, to offer another.

Writing about anti-Semitism, the historian Salo Baron came up with the phrase "dislike of the unlike". Dare I say that dislike of the English may be more to do with "dislike of the like"?

The estimable Paul Hayward, in the Observer, said that he's witnessed "xenophobic hostility towards the English" at Murrayfield and Cardiff. But he also pointed out that "a lot of English don't like the English either".

Is it reasonable to take that futher and to ask whether hatred of the English, as with much sporting rivalry, is because of how much we have in common, rather than how much divides us? Isn't that why family splits can be so bitter, and why civil wars can be so vicious?

Maybe it was because England had won at home, but I only saw, er, bonhomie between the two sets of fans on Saturday evening. As we inched our way on to the trains at Twickenham station, beret rubbed up against Barbour.

The winning line belonged to the elderly England fan who wanted to alight two stops before the final destination . "Excusez-moi!" he sang out, as he moved through the packed carriage, towards the doors.

He was interrupted by the automated voice announcing where the train would terminate. "Ah, Waterloo," sighed the fan, at top volume. "How apt."

One of the most striking sounds at Twickenham, on Saturday afternoon, was of 82,000 people being quiet.

A minute's silence had been called for, to commemorate those who'd died in the Christchurch earthquake.

The odd mobile phone beep aside, it was impressively observed.

It's not always so. I remember reporting from the Waterfront Hall in Belfast in 1998, as Northern Ireland was preparing for its referendum on the Good Friday agreement.

U2 were playing. Bono introduced both David Trimble and John Hume on stage. He then called upon the audience to observe a minute's silence, out of respect for the victims of the Troubles.

The audience, though, was composed of 2000 sixth-formers, many of whom were out for a drink and a party. Not surprisingly, a few yelled and cat-called.

It was a shame for us. It would have been a good sequence in our TV piece, but a minority had spoiled our moment.

Intriguingly, though, I saw an entirely different version of events when I watched another channel's account of the concert later that night.

They ran Bono's call for silence, and then - hey presto - there was, indeed, silence. The TV team had simply shut the faders, during the edit. Why let reality spoil the story?

I watched the Carling Cup Final on TV, in the presence of a group of lifelong Birmingham City fans, who'd failed to get tickets for Wembley.

Their commentary was all that you might expect: pleading with Alex McLeish to substitute Nikola Zigic all the way up to the first goal; unfettered roars of joy, first at 1-0, then at 2-1; an assumption that they'd ship a goal each time Arsenal strung two passes together.

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But the fondest moment was when the oldest bluenose in the room turned to his 42-year old cousin who had followed him into supporting Birmingham City for all these trophy-less years.

They embraced, and then pulled apart. Said the older to the younger: "Do you forgive me now?"


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  • 1. At 7:27pm on 01 Mar 2011, TOB_theBlade wrote:

    Here's something that jounalists can learn, and this is from someone who DOES NOT support Manchester United. "The wagon need only be jumped on when the indians are attacking" - straight out of the Ian Hollaway school! The Rooney incident has been blown up out of all proportion and what Mark Clattenburg told the FA was correct. What Rooney did was barge his way past a defender who deliberately tried to block him, so, according to the rules who actually fouled who? Was McCarthy really playing within the spirirt of the game? Of course he wasn't. Did Rooney really elbow him - well he definitely threw an arm at him and as Mr Ferguson suggested, he's been crucified for it, initially by two ex-Liverpool defenders. No please don't be shocked - Messrs Hansen and Lawrenson both played for Liverpool you know? On the other hand, Englands finest of 2010 Mr CAshley Cole seems to have jumped under a stone despite shooting someone! Come on journalists lets have some perspective. A player runs towards the ball and is deliberately blocked by a defender and everyone wants him to stand there and do nothing, not to try, not to give 100% for his club, for the fans that pay £000's each season to watch him and his collegues win games. If he doesn't want to do everything in his power to get to that ball then he shouldn't be on the pitch in the first place and if you don't belive me ask Alan Shearer, Malcolm McDonald, Joe Royle, Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard et al. This is a physical game and we, the public, love it. Sometimes I do wonder if the journalists love it quite so much if their life is best filled by having a go at someone for doing what the fans of that team want - giving 110% - even to a lost cause.

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  • 2. At 9:07pm on 01 Mar 2011, thefrogstar wrote:

    We like to be disliked: it helps to induce feelings of self importance.
    Understanding the self-deprecation of Brummies is rather harder.

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  • 3. At 10:56pm on 01 Mar 2011, BigGiantHead wrote:

    Agreed. If the daily mail chose to attack the rules that the FA do not prosecute unless the referee sees it, the wheels would fall off. And since Ashley Cole's shooting wasn't reported to the police, any hospitals and certainly not the FA, then what was expected? I am sick of people desperate to attack 'modern day football' dragging out poor examples. And I'm still glad the wages are so high, or else the money would go to the owners, and football would be an even worse giant profit machine it is.

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  • 4. At 11:10pm on 01 Mar 2011, goonergetit wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 5. At 11:27pm on 01 Mar 2011, Steve Cooke wrote:

    Oh Dear ! Mr. Franks, methinks you're in DEEP trouble. If we apply your theory to Messrs. N.Robinson, Paxman, Humphrys et al, then surely we should have a different style of BBC reporting. Please get them to read just your opening lines. In the end, the "players" don't matter a jot. They play for 80 mins (rugby), 90 mins (football) or 5 years (1 parliament) & disappear. But the impact of what they do is on REAL people. The BBC would do well to remember this.

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  • 6. At 09:13am on 02 Mar 2011, Football_UK wrote:

    It is not only the football fans who can teach journalists but the entire football world. The BBC gave yesterday a very good example, yesterday, on the main blog of the day, with the title "Love not lost" (referring to Chelsea and Man Utd).

    A big derby was on the agenda.
    Many reasons for signs of animosity
    - timewiise easier for Chelsea, as United played 3 days before
    - the Rooney incident at Wigan
    - the Cole incident at Chelsea grounds.

    Yet, not Ferguson neither Ancelotti gave ground for hatred to be helped.
    The match was played in physical, fierce spirit, but as fair as you can expect.
    The fans were also fair, supporting their clubs.
    Who was the culprit in wrongdoing?
    It was the very BBC, with a well positioned article with 13 photographs displaying hatred on the last 50 years, perhaps wanting to 'educate' the public on reasons for hatred not to stop.

    Convenienty anonymous, as the name of the genius author was missing.
    Each photograph accompanied with speculation about anything from Kung Fu to whatever
    Vicious in intend to provoke hooliganism, one could say.
    Simply cowardly.
    It wasn't the News of the World, but the very BBC.

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  • 7. At 10:37am on 02 Mar 2011, Drooper_ wrote:

    There are negative reasons for the hatred, e.g. history, but there are also positive reasons, a dislike of the 'right', e.g. possibly, history again. I keep getting told in Japan how proud we are, too proud, but I agree with Paul Hayward, England doesn't seem to have the same bonding as other nations. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Might a foreign team singing their national anthem with tears rolling down their cheeks be blindly patriotic? Rather than a conspicuous silence from the commentators, why don't they report that a limp wind flag is more animated than half the England football team during God Save The Queen?

    A few years ago I went along to Whaddon Road pre-season with my friend and his girlfriend. My friend was wearing a Cheltenham shirt and had a red and white scarf wrapped neatly around his neck to go with the proud tattoo on his forearm. His girlfriend and I were more 'conventionally' dressed. Outside the ground my friend was approached by a long blonde haired girl from BBC Radio Gloucestershire, who seemed satisfied after he had given her the cliched answers to her cliched questions.

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  • 8. At 12:21pm on 02 Mar 2011, Storm of Swords wrote:

    What fans teach BBC Sports journalists on a daily basis:

    Phil McNulty is the worst journalist to ever grace the BBC and needs to be replaced.

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  • 9. At 4:23pm on 02 Mar 2011, frenchman87 wrote:

    PulpGrape - Totally agree with your comment and looking at other comments on his pages other people do too!! Why the BBC still hire him is beyond me, is he friends with the MD?

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  • 10. At 5:04pm on 02 Mar 2011, TheRealStelios wrote:

    journalists are nothing more than fans with pens, they have no extra insight or knowledge, its arrogant to believe otherwise so of course fans could teach journalists a whole range of things, and often their specialist knowledge of their own club would embarrass most journalists.

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  • 11. At 5:05pm on 02 Mar 2011, TheRealStelios wrote:

    tob blade is an idiot btw, mcarthy never even moved didnt see rooney at all let alone try to block him, it was 8 minutes in mcarthy is wigans best player it was a violent, thuggish and pre-meditated attack to intimidate a talented young player, anyone with a clue could not possibly believe otherwise.

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  • 12. At 5:20pm on 02 Mar 2011, SnoopDonnyDog wrote:

    Interesting article this. I was shown a piece from the Daily Mail on Saturday, criticising our manager Sean O'Driscoll for walking out of a press conference. The article suggested that SOD should be more respectful of 'professional journalists'. At that moment I was struck by the fact that this 'professional journalist' probably did not know that Donny had 14 players injured when we lost 0-6 to Ipswich, because he wouldn't have a clue about anything outside the Premier League, or even the top 6 of the Premier League. Not to mention that news journalists who get too close to the truth are often labelled conspiracy theorists by these 'professional journalists' some of whom don't even leave the office or the pub.

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  • 13. At 5:37pm on 02 Mar 2011, Chat2wayne wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 14. At 6:25pm on 02 Mar 2011, Ichi_1 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 15. At 6:28pm on 02 Mar 2011, Ichi_1 wrote:

    "A player runs towards the ball and is deliberately blocked by a defender and everyone wants him to stand there and do nothing"

    Seriously what are you on about? JM moved out to block him but Rooney curved his run away from him, and then all of a sudden decided to run back at him and throw an elbow into his face. Again, your post is a joke

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  • 16. At 9:41pm on 02 Mar 2011, gregw wrote:

    A lot of these replies are views which seem stereotypical, prejudice, malicious unproven hyperbole without any facts or actual research.

    Are you all journalists?

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  • 17. At 00:24am on 03 Mar 2011, Motihur Rahman wrote:

    Agree with red1977

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  • 18. At 10:49am on 03 Mar 2011, Tim Franks - BBC Sport wrote:

    Thank you to those who took the time to post.
    To TOB_theBlade (1) and BigGiantHead (3): you remind us sports hacks that it matters. It's easy to become jaded when it's your job (though I'm a long way off anything other than schoolboy enthusiasm). But for the punters it can be their passion and their pleasure -- often at some expense.
    To NonEnglish (5): I wouldn't say one is better than the other. We often have to focus on the powers that be, because it's their decisions which will affect us all. But you're right: examining those effects are hugely important.
    To TheRealStelios (10) and SnoopDonnyDoy (12): you get bad journalists and good journalists. It's not to excuse the lazy or the wrong. But there's enough good, insightful reportage and opinion out there to satisfy the hungry. Especially compared to the thin gruel in some other countries.
    And to thefrogstar (2) and Drooper_ (7): the great thing about national identity is that - for me, at least - it eludes definition. Try as you might, it's incredibly difficult to pin down. Unless you come from San Marino, where you can probably just lean out of your window and just ask the neighbours.

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  • 19. At 1:08pm on 03 Mar 2011, Bear7657 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

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