ANTON RIPPON adds some perspective to the dispute in Crawley that has seen the local reporter “banned” by the football club because they took a dislike to her newspaper’s headlines
I was thinking about this Crawley nonsense – where a Crawley News sports reporter was banned from talking to Crawley Town FC’s manager and players because the manager was “upset” – when my mind drifted back to a winter’s day in 1969.
The door to the Derby Evening Telegraph’s two-up-two-down office in Burton upon Trent swung open, and in walked the tall, broad figure of Ian King, veteran of 300 appearances at centre half for Leicester City and Charlton Athletic, by then the player-manager of Southern League Burton Albion.
King came straight to the point. He wished to see the reporter who had written the previous Saturday’s “Albion Notes” for the Telegraph’s “Football Special”. The big Scot had taken exception to something in them. And he wanted to sort it out. There and then.
I could see two problems. First, the journo in question knew very little about the game of football – in fact, he professed hatred for it – but out at a district office, covering the local club was lumped in with the police calls, town council meetings and the weekly Rotary club luncheon.
Second, King appeared unusually annoyed. A face-to-face really didn’t seem a good idea.
So while the reporter – I’m not going to name him, even 40-odd years later – cowered upstairs behind several volumes of bound back numbers, I managed to persuade the player-manager that his quarry wasn’t at home. Eventually, he left and, on reflection, probably felt that he had better things to do than waste his time on a callow youth. Whatever, the moment passed. The following Saturday our man was able to slip quietly into the Eton Park press box once more, albeit he didn’t hang around for a drink in the supporters’ club bar afterwards.
It has always been a stony path, the one followed by local sports reporters, who on the one hand are trying to be as objective as possible, but on the other are having to tread so very carefully for fear of upsetting one of their most valuable sources of information and opinion – the football club’s manager.
Veer too far from the official line and the reporter suddenly finds that few at the club – certainly not the manager – are speaking to them. Stay rigidly on the straight and narrow, and readers complain that the newspaper is nothing more than the voice of the club, “toeing the party line”. It is a difficulty as old at the reporting of football itself.
Thus, Kaylee Seckington of the Crawley News recently found herself at odds with a football club manager, although in circumstances far removed from those I describe above.
In Seckington’s case … well, for a start she is a proper sports journalist, not someone who suddenly finds their name on the football diary when they’d rather be covering a flower show; and the manager concerned – Richie Barker – didn’t arrive at the newspaper’s offices looking to punch her on the nose.
His response was far more measured: he had her banned from conversing with him or any of his players. Former Brighton Argus long serving staffer, Bruce Talbot, now Crawley Town’s “media manager”, conveyed the message.
It was certainly bad PR.
Whatever dislike Barker may have taken to Seckington – this is the second time this season that he has tried to have her banned in this way – it portrayed a remarkable lack of appreciation for the role of the local press in football.
Stranger still, on this occasion it wasn’t even anything that she had written that had upset him – it was a couple of headlines for which, it was accepted all round, she wasn’t responsible.
At this point, one might ask whether this was one of those problems caused by copy being subbed and headlines being written in some remote “hub”, far removed from the eye of the action. Seckington’s paper is one of a group that no longer has its pages subbed and laid out on site, but done at a “subbing hub” miles away up the M23 and across the Thames in Essex. But in fact, the headlines summed up Seckington’s reports, the content of which hasn’t been disputed by the football club. Again, all rather odd …
Perhaps it isn’t too late to bring this daft situation amicably to a close. It is a long-held belief of mine that none of us – sportspeople or media – should take ourselves too seriously. It generally ends in disappointment and, sometimes, you can end up looking really silly.
In a Midlands brewing town all those years ago, Ian King was smart enough to see that. Maybe common sense will soon prevail at Broadfield Stadium, too.