Sports journalism in the UK is in a great state. The broadsheets are producing their own supplements, the tabloids have some fantastic writers and even the fanzines are going strong. Kevin Mitchell looks at exactly where it's at.
Jose Mourinho is by some way the most quotable manager in football. So, when he announced earlier this season that he would only talk to the media when contractually obliged to do so, football writers for the national newspapers, especially those from the competitive jungle occupied by the tabloids, were deprived of their best source of easy stories.
The incident describes perfectly the uneven and illogical relationship between sportswriters and those they write about. There is a mutual dependence dictated by whoever has the whip hand at any one time; if Mourinho was in charge of a club desperate for any scrap of publicity you can be sure he would not be excluding those who could provide it. The transformation (metaphorical, of course) from pimp to whore - and back again - can be swift and painful to the ego.
A leading Premiership footballer on the fringe of selection for England told me in a private conversation recently he trusts only one football writer, 'he doesn't stitch me up and I don't tell him any lies,' he said. So he talks to no-one else. If he did, he says, sooner or later he might have his name splashed across the front pages for whatever minor peccadillo the tabloids deemed was reprehensible that particular day.
'You can't talk to a girl in a nightclub without wondering if she is going to kiss-and-tell' the player said. 'So, for all the money we earn, imagine how hard it is to form any sort of proper relationship'.
It's a reasonable point - although he understands his dilemma will provoke little sympathy among supporters taking home perhaps a hundredth of his wages. And that is part of the problem; there was a time, probably 30 years ago, when footballers and fans - including journalists - were earning comparable money. It was not only easier to identify with heroes on the pitch, it was easier to talk to them.
Dave Mackay, immortalised at Tottenham in the 1960s, recalls regularly having a drink with reporters and whatever Spurs fans were in the Bell and Hare near the ground after a match. 'It was no big deal' he says. 'And nothing we ever said in front of the football writers ever ended up in the papers.'
Some might consider this a dereliction of a journalist's duty, especially if he or she stumbles upon a story that should be reported in the public interest. But writers from those days will confirm that the more informal rapport they had with players not only gave them greater insight into their football but into the sort of people they were. They knew their hinterland; they understood them as human beings.
Now, with many players on £50,000 a week and more (what some journalists earn in a year), the bond is broken. Not only do footballers not trust newspapers (rightly so in some cases), they are compartmentalised as commodities, sold off in parcels of pre-arranged interviews, maybe 15 minutes at a time and with their sponsor's public relations minder lurking. It is artificial, shallow and fairly pointless.
Players respond to the demands of this regime by answering in vacuous soundbites. Yet these are regurgitated - some times distorted - as earth-shattering revelations. The whole process of journalists acting as witnesses to what's going on in their part of the forest is devalued by the compromise.
Yet sport holds us all in thrall - especially so this summer. When England won the Ashes back for the first time in 18 years, coverage reached most available corners of the media. Page after page. Hour after hour on television and radio. Mobile phone networks jammed. Tens of thousands of people who previously had taken no interest in cricket (or sport at all, in some cases) could not get enough of it.
Journalists normally employed to ruminate over matters of state, the nation's moral health and generally enlighten our lives with the depth and scope of their wisdom - and the power of their well-paid pith - devoted their columns to reverse swing and why Andrew Flintoff deserved at least a knighthood. For a few, crazy weeks, cricket even nudged football off centre stage.
Once sport resided in what was snootily referred to as 'the toyshop'. Frivolous, dispensible and worthy of serious comment only in times of great national achievement: that is how the 'front end' of any British newspaper viewed sport as recently as a decade ago. Now every writer feels qualified, and is encouraged, to pronounce on what was once regarded as arcane or irrelevant.
When football became not just a billion-pound industry but a national obsession - probably about the time Sky snatched it away and the Premiership was born - what we used to call our 'magnificent triviality' assumed enormous social importance. It ceased to be merely a game. It didn't always attract positive comment - hooligans, on and off the pitch, saw to that - but it could not be ignored.
Then, in the space of a couple of months, cricket, for decades ignored as unfashionable, became a metaphor for all that was good about these islands, about a universal mood, about a gentler and sunnier disposition on the face of the nation - particularly the face of a well-oiled Flintoff, the day the team celebrated their series win at a rally in Trafalgar Square that stopped just short of rubbing it in.
It wasn't just an outburst of patriotism, though, that inspired such a media frenzy. Journalists are trained to react to trends and, in an age of prosperity and concomitant indulgence, sport has moved to the centre of our consciousness. Editors knows it sells newspapers (although advertisers have yet to be totally convinced of this).
It's a ghetto no more. It demands and gets saturation coverage. All of which throws up a couple of interesting questions: has the quality of journalism improved with the growth of sports sections and in other outlets - and will the bubble ever burst? Answering the last question first, probably not - and that is depressing or uplifting, according to taste.
Sadly, more has not proved to be better. We are deluged with trite, ghosted columns or interviews that have been begged for, some times with copy approval retained by the precious subject. Everywhere is the heavy hand of big business.
British sports journalism is often compared unfavourably with its equivalent in America, where it is held in higher esteem by its participants and its public. But it is not a judgement based on a wholly fair premise. Sportswriting in the United States sprung from a literary tradition, peopled by writers who used it as a vehicle for wit and whimsy, their world view and their many flights of fancy. Here, it was invariably parked at the back of newspapers and there was little encouragement among publishers to move it anywhere else.
Mainstream American writers such as Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, W. C. Heinz, Jimmy Breslin, Hunter Thompson (who resided up a creek of his own making), George Plimpton, David Remnick, Norman Mailer - they all attached themselves, in varying degrees, to sportswriting. They have been accompanied by those who started out in newspapers - Damon Runyon, A. J. Liebling, Jim Murray, Ring Lardner, William Nack, Red Smith, Gary Smith, Jimmy Cannon and many more - in enriching the reading of sport.
Here we have been privileged to have among our number Hugh McIlvanney, Frank Keating, Patrick Collins, Ian Wooldridge, Ken Jones, Matthew Engel, John Woodcock and scores of others. But they stand out because they have risen above a system capable of giving integrity the merest nod. They learnt their values and their skills in a time when they could share a beer with Dave Mackay and not turn it into a 'drink-related nightclub incident'. And they probably do not give a fig if Jose Mourinho ever gives another press conference.
Kevin Mitchell is the author of War Baby: The Glamour of Violence and writes regularly for The Guardian.