The relationship between a local newspaper and its closest football club can be a mutually beneficial one. Football remains the one item on the news agenda that is more likely than anything else, and a sizeable proportion of its sales will come from those that want the daily drip of coverage that they might not get from elsewhere. The flip side to this is that local newspapers are usually the biggest cheerleaders for a local club.
They provide a depth and breadth of coverage that lower division clubs will never get anywhere else, and keep it firmly in the spotlight if a local populace that might well otherwise find something better to do with its Saturday afternoons.
There is, however, a price to pay for clubs to for all of this free publicity. If publications are going to write independently about football clubs, then clubs should probably have to accept that not every single word written about them will be glowingly positive. The local football hack is often a fan as well, and has opinions that range far beyond merely being those that clubs would like to see made public. Even where that isn’t the case, a free press should be free to criticise rather than being little more than a mouthpiece for the club. If a football club wants no more than for the sports pages if its local newspaper to be little more than advertising, we might reasonably consider, then perhaps they should pay the going rate that other local businesses would have to for it.
All of this brings us back to AFC Bournemouth, a club whose season seems to be being repeatedly stabbed in the back by the very people that run it. Already this season we have seen owner Eddie Mitchell telling unhappy supporters that they can go and support Southampton if they’re unhappy with his running of Bournemouth, getting on the pitch after a match at Dean Court, microphone in hand and offering his critics the opportunity to meet with him one on one. This was followed up by turning up in the dressing room at half-time during a league match and allowing the co-owners wife to give a few inspirational words to the team before turning up on a national radio phone-in that evening, where he had to be cut off by the host after swearing repeatedly on air. His behaviour that day earned him a £1,500 fine from the FA for misconduct.
Yet somehow or other, the Bournemouth Echo has found itself banned by the club. It has, it’s fair to say, been a while coming. The newspaper has reported receiving an increasing number of calls over the last few months from manager Lee Bradbury, complaining at the newspapers coverage of his still faltering team, and this escalated further last week when the club’s media executive Max Fitzgerald banned the newspaper, first from asking questions at post-match press conferences and then from any of his interviews. Yesterday afternoon, prior to Bournemouths home match last night against Brentford, the newspaper was instructed that it would no longer be welcome at Dean Court.
The club may have been expecting a reaction from the newspaper over this decision, but it might not have been expecting the tongue-lashing that it received in this mornings edition, with an editorial piece which highlighted the work that the newspaper has done in the past to support the club and reminding the club of the fact that it is letting down supporters without internet access, for whom the Echo remains the primary source of news and opinion regarding the club. “Give our advertising representatives a call”, they write, “because the days of editorial backing for your football club are over until such time as you come to terms with what ‘free press’ means”, pointing out one attempt on the part of Eddie Mitchell to try and dictate a story to appear on the back page of the newspaper.
Mitchell only needs to look at the attendance for last night’s match if he wants to know how much AFC Bournemouth needs its local community. Just 4,563 people turned out to watch the match against Brentford, which is down by around 1,000 people from where crowds were a month ago – and they were already starting to slide. Perhaps the private investment that has come into the club over the last few months or so has made maximising every penny less important than it used to be for the club, but the recent behaviour of the owner has been appalling, and the ramifications of it can be seen in last night’s attendance, which cannot even be defended with the usual caveat that it was clashing with, say, a big Champions League match on the television. If he doesn’t want people to support the club, last night’s attendance figure would seem to indicate that he is going the right way about it.
Supporters of the club perhaps owed Mitchell a debt of gratitude for his role in rescuing the club from the dire straits in which it found itself several years ago. He should remember, however, that reserves of gratitude – particularly in football, where memories can be so short as to appear non-existent – are finite, and that supporters have reasonable expectations of how their club portrays itself to the outside world. Repeatedly over the last few months or so, the behaviour of Eddie Mitchell has dragged the good name of AFC Bournemouth through the mud with a series of behaviour, all of which was eminently avoidable. Perhaps, we might consider, he is feeling the strain of owning a League One club. If this is the case, he should resign his position and walk away, rather than dragging the name of the club down with his own. Otherwise, he should apologise unreservedly to the Bournemouth Echo for his petulance and allow it to resume a service for which many local people are doubtlessly grateful.
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