Playing with fire

Leon Hickman, the former Sports Editor at the Birmingham Post & Mail, looks at the dismissal of David O’Leary as manager at Premiership Aston Villa and sees that local newspapers can still carry some clout

There was a time when the power of a local newspaper was to be feared by a football club manager, or at least one who hoped to avoid a vote of confidence from his board.

It is no longer so. Newspapers that were once the full fusillade are now only a part of it. Radio, the web and, to a small extent, television are also in the firing squad.

Still, the Birmingham Mail showed in the clash last month with Aston Villa manager David O’Leary that it was to be despised at his peril when it rejected his demands that reporter Bill Howells should be transferred from the Villa beat. Within a couple of months, O’Leary was having his own collar felt by the Villa board.

If the Mail and other evening newspapers no longer have the leverage to eject a manager, they certainly retain the power to undermine him.

O’Leary appeared to have no understanding of this. He was one of the newer breed of ivory tower managers whose loftiness embarrassingly collapses once results show them to be less than modestly competent.

So it should have been no surprise when, his team having been beaten 5-0 by Arsenal, his first volley at the subsequent press conference was not aimed at his pathetic defensive stratagems but at Howell who was, he announced – hellfire and damnation! – a Baggie supporter.

If the manager thought that one was a killer blow, it wasn’t. It struck back at him when the Mail promptly ran pages of letters mostly from fans who asked “so what?”

They knew a squealer when they heard one. This was just the latest grunt in a long series of noises that underlined O’Leary’s lack of connection with the fans.

In reporting the angles, the Mail was doing what readers pay for “ independence of view. O’Leary didn’t like this and tried to apply pressure. During free lunches, the Mail‘s Sports Editor Ken Montgomery twice refused to replace Howell. Montgomery had been tougher than his rivals at the Express & Star whose editor had moved Wolves man David Instone a few years ago, reputedly because the then manager was fearful of his contacts book.

Told afterwards that he was a non-person at O’Leary sound-offs, Howell, like any decent reporter, went to other sources or Villa people, like chairman Doug Ellis, who would talk to him.

You have to think here what a clot O’Leary was, but he isn’t a clot alone. Few Premier League managers any longer regard the local and regional press as more than a mouthpiece for their views. Independence, impartiality and good reporting are as close to original sin as these martinets can imagine.

Last season, as the West Midlands did its best to complete a relegation treble, West Brom demanded reporters seek permission – usually refused – before speaking to players. In the final straight of their relegation season, Birmingham City ruled that only the manager could inform either publicly or privately. And a lot of good it did them.

Shoot the messenger has never been more alive than in football today and it isn’t going to go away. Local newspapers, O’Leary and his kind seem to think, can be kicked around because they are way down the queue.

This is partly so but by no means entirely. For all the presenter-induced froth and fury of phone-in radio or the crazy-man websites, it’s them heartfelt words on paper that have a lasting impact, aye it Dave?

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