“Darlings': a word most associated with Zsa Zsa Gabor, and with one lucky Premier League club, subconsciously selected by the nation’s sports desks in June and July, when they’ve nothing else to think about.
For an increasingly tabloid football media seeking out the ‘little guy’, playoff winners fit the bill perfectly, and not just for a fleeting cup run. After beating a more fancied club in the Wembley final, they are there all season, fighting the odds, snatching pyrrhic victories at Anfield or Old Trafford in classic underdog style, before a Survival Sunday denouement, preferably on goal difference. Just imagine; nine months of (insert your League Two club here) versus say, West Ham, on a freezing February night. What self-respecting hack could resist that?
In the 90s, Swindon finished fifth in the Championship, (a shameful 12 points behind 3rd placed Portsmouth) but beat Leicester in the play-off final. They proceeded to win just five games during 1993-94, conceding 100 goals in a season memorable for boss John Gorman’s theatrical head clutching, and the papers’ fawning acquiesence.
In a similar bracket were Watford, (playoff winners and sixth in the Championship), then-managed by the lauded Aidy Boothroyd. The Hornets’ boss, who pitched himself somwhere between South Yorkshire and East Side Chicago, went down a storm in Wapping, and was once One Of The Brightest Young Managers In The Country, before the Hornets went the way of most mid-table Championship sides promoted above themselves.
Perhaps it was the Premier League that did it. Journalists, so absorbed by the new product, and desperate to fill the expanding outlets with ever more copy, focussed on personalities rather than events.This tied in nicely with the phonein and messageboard mentality, initally a welcome addition to football coverage; soon a dull and abusive one.
Of course, phoneins are all about opinions, and presenters have long since lost any sense of balance, so a bit of prejudice is fair enough. The problems arise when the favoured club agenda seeps into match commentary. Alan Green (obviously) is the biggest culprit here, and woe betide any ‘big’ or unfavoured club that doesn’t kowtow to the fashionable underdog, adopted for the day by those desperate for a story.
Out has gone any serious analysis of players’ records and abilities. Instead, the squads are trawled for ‘characters’, to add that dash of colour to reports of a routine pasting. In this respect, Blackpool, were ideal during their Premier League season. Highly quotable, increasingly eccentric manager in Ian Holloway, player of the year contender in Charlie Adam, and an expansive, media-friendly brand of football.
The previously likeable, if slightly eccentric Holloway, went from quotable Cheeky Chappie to irritating media darling in a matter of weeks. He was soon complaining about ‘unfair’ FA charges for fielding weakened sides and coming out with Alan Hardaker-esque nonsense that the authorities should come to Blackpool to hear his excuses for fielding his reserves. Coverage of the Tangerines was nauseating at times.
Radio Five’s Steve Claridge broke cover completely by suggesting that Blackpool, who obviously played a better (if less effective) brand of pretty stuff than Arsenal, should stay up even if they finished in the bottom three.Worryingly, you got the feeling that he wasn’t joking. Sadly for our Steve, there are no points for artistic impression..Claridge then took some stick from Wigan fans who, unused to any media antipathy and with no sense of irony, criticised him on their messageboard for his pro-Blackpool stance on the relegation battle.
If it’s not playoff winners, then a good old-fashioned up-an’-at ’em ensemble will do. Step forward, Stoke City. Publicly attacked but secretly admired by tabloid hacks (sic) (‘how would Barcelona do against Stoke’, etc) for their ability to kick less robust players into touch, Stoke are the stout-hearted Englishmen of the Premier League, putting primadonnas to the sword in true Henry V style. Neck-and-neck in the physical stakes are Wolves, who did well to stay in the Premier League for as long as they did. But the ‘good, honest, no nonsense, plain-speaking Mick McCarthy’ routine was wearing pretty thin by the time a beating from West Brom forced his sacking.
Like playground bullies roughing up the classroom swot. the more physical Premier League sides target the Arsenals of this world with relish, knowing there’ll be little comeback. In the staffroom, the hacks look on with selective myopia, praising their robust charges, while forgetting that this brand of football does nothing for the national team, which the same media abuse with such enthusiasm at every major tournament. Arsenal’s intricate game is derided, despite Germany’s destruction of England in South Africa playing just this sort of football.
Last season Stoke continued their romance with the Redtops, while Wolves and Spurs received the usual uncritical coverage. Norwich and Swansea meanwhile h earned deserved plaudits for their football, while QPR, under ‘favoured son’ Warnock earned only grudging criticism for a series of inevitable Bartonisms. It’s doubtful whether Zsa Zsa would approve. As she said; “I like a mannish man……not just one with muscles”