English football’s troubled relationship with the media came under scrutiny this week from a man well qualified to speak on both areas.
Gary Neville had the assembled national media hanging on his every word at the Soccerex European Forum in Manchester.
Naturally most of the ensuing headlines focussed on his forthright opinions about the vacant England hotseat – “I can feel the vultures are circling” – but those present for the entirety of the session hosted by Guillem Balague were treated to a compelling 45 minutes in the company of Neville, former FA chief executive Brian Barwick, Daily Telegraph chief executive Paul Hayward and another ex-pro-turned-pundit, Gaizka Mendieta.
“I think you’ll find that certain players have pockets of Press that they trust, pockets of Press that they don’t trust,” said Neville.
“Football players are very emotional, very reactive, they take things personally – like all of us do. If you are criticised you do tend to switch off from an individual or an outlet in the media.
“It’s difficult to think of one thing which would fix this 20, 30 or 40-year-old problem. If you are a young player of 16, 17, 18 years of age, coming into a squad, you are heavily reliant on the information which is passed to you from the experience players in the squad.
“If the experienced players are cynical towards the media, then you are going to pick up on that and you are going to follow that, and that mistrust continues. It will keep going.
“I think somewhere down the line there has to be a group of players – and I suggested this when I was about 25 or 26 with England – who let the Press travel with the England team, who stay in the same hotel as the England team. I suggested this at the time because there has to be a group of players who take responsibility and break down that barrier.
“If the Press are writing stories about you, they are probably a little bit more sensible if they are actually in contact with you every day, and they knew you as a person. The problem is at the moment is that the contact between the player and the journalist is actually going further away.”
Which is one of the reasons why Neville, or @GNev2, freely admits he has become fascinated by the effect of social media in recent years.
“I keep coming back to Twitter, there is now interaction between players and journalists on a daily basis. The clubs now have very managed press conferences; sponsors have very managed press conferences for players – very strictly controlled.
“And that is supposed to protect the players because of the mistrust and the ‘betrayal’ which is a word which has been used. I think that’s probably a little bit too strong but it’s a word that has been used, and some players do feel that way.
“But eventually football players do need the media, certainly as they get into their 30s they start to like the media a bit more because they potentially sense there might be a job on the horizon!
“Trust is the key word, I think,” says Neville, who believes that despite some of the scaremongering, social media is a “good thing”.
“If you had said to me two years ago would I go on Twitter, I would have said absolutely no chance. But I got to the point where I thought this thing is not going to go away. And if you can’t beat it, you have to join it because everybody will be on it.”
He added: “I think my Twitter account is 70% good, 20% funny and 10% abuse. That’s not bad, it used to be 50/50!
“It’s a brilliant source of information. If you are in the media, or you are a football fan, you cannot not be on it. I say to people forget the stories about the abuse, follow people and you will get so much information fed so quickly, and that is the reason I use it predominantly. All the journalists’ articles, all the news from the Premier League and the Championship – and it’s not going to go away.
“For me it is a good thing.”
Neville also offered an interesting opinion on how he thinks social media and football will evolve.
“The clubs will commercialise it. We mentioned that the clubs don’t know what to do with it – I think they do. I think they are just biding their time and they will commercialise it. I think players will commercialise it.
“Will football be on Twitter in five years? Do FIFA, UEFA or the Premier League bring their own ‘Twitter’ out that football players all go on, that the clubs all go on, that’s regulated, that fans can go on, that gets rid of the abuse through the regulation of words and it doesn’t allow you to put in certain words?
“Football will design something that will be removes Twitter. In five or 10 years I don’t think it will be Twitter, I think it will be something different. I think there will be another ‘game’, if you like, it might be FIFA or the FA – somebody will do something different.”
As for the immediate future, the Manchester United stalwart admits his former team-mates have been quizzing him about how to successfully cross the great divide.
“I still speak to them and they ask you more than anything ‘what is the feeling like?’ ‘How are you coping with that?’ ‘What’s it like being in the media?’
“They are almost fishing for information for when they get to the end. There have been players who had got to the end and found it very difficult to cope with the void that is left.
“They have recognised it’s not as rosy as it may seem to sit on the beach with a cigar in their mouth and glass of wine, that you need to do something at the age of 35.
“It’s important that you embrace the media during the career. Of course there are times when you don’t want to speak to them… but you also have to be open with them as well, because they can do serious damage to a football club, they can do serious damage to a manager.
“I’ve seen England managers, I’ve seen club managers, and I’ve seen football clubs go through really tough periods and lose their way, and lose their jobs, because of not dealing with the media correctly.”
What has really won the fans over, however, is Neville’s refreshing honesty and objectivity during his TV appearances.
“There have been a couple of instances this year which I can remember where you are thinking ‘here we go’. The 6-1 (defeat to Manchester City) obviously. There’s no getting away from it as a United fan, but the reality of it is, they lose, they play badly, they concede goals – you have to say that.
“I think Ryan Giggs at Anfield broke free of the wall and the ball went through the wall – it was his mistake. I remember Dave Jones the Sky presenter saying ‘what do you think of your mate Gary?’ That was his question and I felt like saying why not ask the other two on the panel!
“But the reality of it is that you can’t shy way from it. It is something that I am going to have to deal with more and more. The other night Manchester United (should have) had a penalty decision against them in the last five minutes and quite clearly, after the game, I said it was a penalty. If it’s not a penalty, it’s not a penalty. If it is a penalty, it is a penalty.”
As the session closes, one of the most decorated players in the English game signs off with a warning to young players coming into professional football who might have preconceived ideas about the media.
“Players have a responsibility to develop their own character during their careers. It’s no good everything being done for them. To have a newspaper column, be part of contract negotiations, sit in them, listen and learn. They have a responsibility to develop as people during their careers.
“That’s the thing that I would say, embrace the media – embrace everything, try everything. If you don’t you are not going to learn and experience things. That to me is the responsibility of a player.”
This article was originally produced for FC Business.