Forgive the journalistic self-indulgence. But we lost one of our own this weekend; a colossus of our trade, a titan and an inspiration to us all. Piers Morgan has written his last weekly column for the Mail on Sunday. Now, while some of you are no doubt holding back the tears at the news, there’ll be others of you who will never have had the “pleasure” of Morgan’s weekly sports, mainly football, column. It is difficult to encapsulate such a body of work in concise terms. But for those of you who didn’t have a flavour of the man, there probably is one term which points you towards an understanding of his column.
It was sh*te.
It was said of David Frost when he became famous in the early 1960s that he “rose without trace”, which was not meant as a compliment. You could sort of apply the same phrase to Morgan. He first became famous outside his own head as a showbiz columnist for the Sun newspaper. And he soon became editor of the Daily Mirror, involving himself in a couple of high-profile controversies, the second of which cost him his job at the newspaper but did little harm to his media career, which he is now continuing in America, replacing an old man who wore braces on a Cable News Network (CNN) chat show.
If you see little in that potted career history to qualify him as a sports columnist that’s because there is little. He just happens to be famous, supports a leading Premier League team (he’s an Arsenal season-ticket holder, as he never hesitates to remind people), and tends towards the controversial for the sake of it… unless he really believes some of the tripe he’s produced down the years. The most recent horror was the question “What exactly have those three men done so wrong?” Two of the men in the question being George Gillett and Tom Hicks.
But he’ll be most infamous for the about-face he performed two years ago when he declared “It’s time for Arsenal and Wenger to part company” only to snivellingly apologise seven days later, underneath the headline “I’m a prat,” – a headline sub-editors throughout the business would have written for free. Morgan excused such lurching opinions by claiming, in last Sunday’s column, that: “I’ve never tried to write as a seasoned journalist…I’ve tried to write as a fan would write: over-emotionally, angrily, reactively, inconsistently.” In other words, badly.
Bland punditry is a major source of current complaint among football fans. And while Alan Green (“I love this guy” says Morgan, unsurprisingly) has long become a caricatured bore, there is place for emotion, anger and honesty – even though such attitudes too often translate into right-wing diatribes in the hands of “tell it like it is” merchants such as Richard Littlejohn. But “honesty” is one of many things Morgan’s columns lacked. He may have tried to write as a fan, but despite his Arsenal protestations (“645 games in 22 years in seven different countries”) his “spectacular experiences while writing this column” were a list of famous names to drop, rather than anything to do with the column… or sport.
I cling onto the hope that his citing of “exchanging regular, hilarious text banter with Rio Ferdinand” as a “spectacular experience” was knowingly ironic. But his “man of the people” shtick was a sham. And having read dozens, though admittedly not all, of his columns, I wonder how much of the rest of it was a “sham” too. After Sunday’s column, it is difficult to trust even his famous Wenger change of mind. At the time, Morgan wrote of regretting actions when waking up later with “Jack Daniels coursing through my veins” (a real drinker, our Piers). But, he stressed, he regretted suggesting Wenger should go “having gone to bed stone cold sober and then sat bolt upright at 3am, sweating and shivering, thinking: ‘What the **** have you done, Piers?’”
On Sunday, his recollection was that “I rewrote this column late that night, fuelled by a few consolation pints of Harveys real ale, suggesting it was maybe time Wenger was replaced.” It makes you wonder whether he really exchanged anything at all with Rio Ferdinand. The bigger sin though is that he “never tried to write as a seasoned journalist.” Now, I’m happy to stand corrected, but I’m assuming that he was paid the “seasoned journalist” rate…and a bit more, I‘d hazard to suggest. And even if he only did the column out of the kindness of his heart or just to see his picture in the paper (I’d readily believe the latter), he was still taking up column inches that any number of real journalists would give their non-writing arm for.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a green-eyed “that should be me up there” rant – I know my place in the journalistic order (I’m not even the best writer on this site, for heaven’s sake). But there is something fundamentally wrong with a column like Morgan’s when… well… actually there’s just something wrong with a column like Morgan’s. Having, as I said above, only read about a dozen of his pieces – the “Wenger must go” shambles being what made me aware of the column – I did briefly wonder if I’d picked an unrepresentative sample of them and if much of the above was doing him an ill-informed disservice. I needn’t have wondered.
I had forgotten, of course, his rant at Franz Beckenbauer for offering some unkind thoughts on England’s “tired, burnt out” World Cup side in South Africa this summer, whose performances had been “paltry.” “Who the hell does he think he is?” asked Morgan, of… Franz Beckenbauer. FRANZ BECKENBAUER!! Again, the search was on for some form of knowing irony. And again the search was in vain. Morgan did at least have the good grace to apologise, and to make that apology line one of his column the following week. But there is surely justification in asking “what else could he do?” His ignorance could hardly have been more comprehensively exposed (except that it was on one subject, to which I shall return).
On the England team itself, Morgan was a “go-with-the-flow” populist hypocrite. Dependent entirely on the team’s previous result, Fabio Capello was either “a weak, grinning gimp who doesn’t appear to know his asino from his elbow” (30 August 2008) or “a steely-eyed disciplined winner” (16 September 2008) “who is fast restoring pride, grit and a winning mentality” (20 October 2008). And, never one to pass on a lazy stereotype, Capello was “the Godfather of football… with the ruthless, killer instinct of Don Corleone” who “turned out to be more Fredo than Michael Corleone” – although at least Morgan had the decency to leave eighteen months rather than eighteen DAYS between those contradictions.
Who should be England manager, according to Morgan? Harry Redknapp, of course, with whom Morgan once managed to spend “three hours in (his) stunning house in Sandbanks” without once asking him how he could afford such a multi-million pound property on the money he had been paid in his middle-ranking management career to that pre-Tottenham stage. “Overpaid, pampered and useless” was a common Morgan mantra when it came to Premier League footballers. It was a mantra with which it was difficult to argue when he laid into Didier Drogba for being “a very self-centred, arrogant, thoughtless and rude man” (and to those of you currently thinking “takes one to know one” – shame on you), even though the article began with the words “I’ve never met Didier Drogba.”
But it was another sense of irony failure when Morgan repeated the accusation in a piece where he explained his absence from an Arsenal home game “simply because I was in Paris, tucking into my usual pre-match meal – foie gras, prawn sandwiches, coq au vin and a cointreau-infused crème brulee” (the use of the word “simply” particularly getting my goat). Occasionally Morgan would think he was sticking his neck out. He claimed he was “about to commit an act of heresy” by suggesting in October 2008 that “the last thing Newcastle need right now is Kevin Keegan back as manager.”
A week later he noted that “I didn’t get a single e-mail disagreeing with me about Keegan, I rest my case” – a case which was, if you remember, that he was “about to commit an act of heresy.” Morgan had helpfully defined “heresy” in his first column. Turns out he was the one who didn’t seem to know what it meant. Much of the above, you could pass off as entirely harmless, if he was neither paid nor blocking a proper professional’s career path. One misjudgement, though, was a genuine journalistic disgrace.
In his predictions for the 2009/10 season, he predicted the title for Liverpool… and, yes, Benitez was “cretinous and incomprehensible” long before the end of the season. But prediction number 15 was the altogether more distressing: “Portsmouth will be absolutely fine. I know the guy who is buying them, Sulaiman Al-Fahim, and he is not only a very serious businessman, he’s also stinking rich. So relax, Pompey fans.” “Torres will fire Liverpool to the title” was just a mistake. This reassurance about the execrable Al-Fahim, after Morgan met him for the ‘Morgan in Dubai’ TV extravaganza, was also a complete lack of judgment and journalistic instinct. Oh… and humility. Morgan knew “the guy.” And he knew someone who was “stinking rich.”
Hindsight tells us all how wrong Morgan was. But let’s not forget how very many people were right about Al-Fahim from the word go. Mistrust and cynicism were the prevalent emotions among the more major journalistic figures, downright ridicule and disbelief coming from those of us with less to lose by being scathing. Morgan apologised again for his stunning journalistic inadequacies, but only in… YET… ANOTHER sense of irony failure. His repentance came beneath a piece he’d written lambasting Tiger Woods’ “performance of quite breathtaking insincerity” when the golfer – who was surely genuinely sorry… that he’d been caught – tried to limit the damage done by his marital infidelities.
Morgan suggested that no-one should believe Woods’ apologies, likening it to “the day I caught my dad swigging Santa’s sherry as he deposited my Christmas presents.” Morgan concluded: “I could never believe in Father Christmas again.” In smooth-talking “tycoons” with flash cars, flash jets and even flasher sunglasses, Morgan clearly still believed, however. Having had my hundreds of words, it is only fair to allow Morgan himself the last ones. Asked mock-seriously for some advice by someone whose “friend” wanted to be like Morgan but “couldn’t speak out of his own a**se.” Morgan replied:
“Tell him to think of a subject he knows little about and pretend he’s a world expert. Works every time for me.”
Never a truer word spoken in jest.
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