How Scottish Football Journalism Still “Works”

by | Jan 26, 2016

Republic of Ireland international striker Anthony Stokes has long been filed under “out of favour” at Celtic Park, particularly since current manager Ronny Deila took over in June 2014. Stokes’ presence among Celtic’s academy youngsters at Wycombe Wanderers’ Adams Park last October for a Premier League International Cup match indicated just how far down the pecking order Stokes was. Despite Celtic’s first team playing a Scottish League Cup tie the following day, a match in which “squad/fringe” players would normally expect a run-out, Stokes was huffing and puffing to limited effect against Benfica’s young ‘uns, ending a frustrating night with a yellow card and bruised pride.

Ireland have a 23-man Euro 2016 squad to name and Ireland assistant boss Roy Keane said in November, after Ireland’s play-off triumph over Bosnia that it was “important” for players “to go and get games under their belts because it will be very difficult for the manager to pick lads who may not have kicked a ball in six months.” Keane specifically referenced Aidan McGeady, Darron Gibson and Alex Pearce (“Gibbo and Pearcey” to be nickname-specific).

But the sentiment explains Stokes’ keenness for a regular first team slot (he barely kicked a ball at Wycombe, after all). As he said at his Hibernian unveiling: “I haven’t played consistently for five or six months now (but) I can win my Ireland place back. I haven’t spoken to Martin (O’Neill, Ireland’s manager) in the last while and there’s been no assurances (but) it’s down to me to put in the performances that will take me there and get my fitness back to 100%.” And while he reportedly had the choice of up to six clubs to join, Scottish Championship title/promotion contenders Hibernian were unsurprising favourites to land him. A one-level drop it may have been, but Stokes spent a fruitful 2009/2010 season at Easter Road, scoring 21 goals in 37 league games which helped resurrect his faltering club career and secured his move to Celtic early the following season.

So there is the story. If a Glasgow newspaper journalist needed 350-400 words on the Stokes transfer, they could add those Deila provided on the subject at his regular Friday press conference and an account of Stokes’ (lack of) first team action this season to a professionally-written version of the relevant of the above. However, in as much as Scottish Football journalism works at all, it doesn’t work like that. Hence the article written for the Herald and the Glasgow Evening Times newspapers by Matthew Lindsay on January 22nd, which largely focused elsewhere and whose headline began: Celtic manager Deila defends Stokes loan move to Hibs.

What, you may ask, with the facts to hand, was being attacked? Stokes’ salary, or personal terms? Nope. Deila had to do some defending amid Rangers concerns. For Lindsay met his word count requirements, in part, with the following: “The switch has been queried by many in Scottish football because Hibs are currently vying with Rangers, who are just five points clear in the second tier table with 16 games remaining, for a place in the top flight.” And what, you may ask, were these queries, from whom, and from how “many?” Was there an issue with Stokes’ registration? Were full details of his contracted payments kept from the relevant authorities? (which has been known in Scottish football, apparently). Were Scottish Football Association (SFA) or Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) regulations breached? And “who were these people?” (which has been asked in Scottish football, apparently).

The first place to look for the answers would, you’d assume, be Lindsay’s article. Relevant quotes would answer all “who, what and why” questions at once. You would, however, look there in vain. Or anywhere, in fact. If you had a mischievous suspicion that these concerns came from the voices inside Lindsay’s head, nothing in the article would disabuse you of that notion. Lindsay’s focus was that Celtic had maybe “chosen” Hibernian for Stokes specifically to undermine Rangers’ Scottish Championship title bid, hence his opening line: “Ronny Deila last night dismissed suggestions that Celtic were wrong to sanction Anthony Stokes’ loan move to Hibs – due to the fact the striker could help to prevent Rangers from winning promotion to the Premiership.”

Deila was therefore forced to comment on that Championship race. “For me the most important thing for Stokes now is that he goes to an environment where he is wanted, where he will play and where he is happy so that he can get games and get his career on track again,” he said, covering all genuine aspects of the move. But, in the world in which Lindsay’s voices operate, what Deila added was more important: “It will benefit him, it will benefit Hibs and it will benefit us” (my emphasis). As a result, Deila had to add further that “every club now is getting new players in during January. If Rangers or Hibs or whoever is coming up, then they have to be good enough to get into the top division. That is how I am thinking about it.” And there was a hint of justifiable irritation in his insistence that “I want to have the best teams in the top division, but I don’t care who comes up.” And as a further result, Lindsay was able to shoe-horn: “Deila has only played against Rangers once since he moved to Scotland from Norway two years ago. His Celtic side beat their Glasgow rivals 2-0 in the semi-final of the League Cup at Hampden last season” into an article about a loan deal between Celtic and Hibernian.

These inferences are all the more remarkable/ridiculous given that Lindsay and pals have frequently been pushing the narrative that Celtic “need” Rangers back in the top flight. Indeed, Lindsay references the most-quoted basis for this view in the article, noting that “Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, last season admitted the Ibrox club’s absence from the Premiership costs the Parkhead club £10 million every financial year.” The inherent contradiction is obvious. And it is a wonder that Lindsay didn’t run with the idea of a “rift” between manager and chief executive (Transfer turmoil at Celtic Park is a headline which writes itself and which, you suspect, Lindsay would happily endorse if the Herald newspaper group still have sub-editors on headline-writing duty). Legally unwise, maybe.

Lindsay’s Evening Times colleague Chris Jack receives his and a few others’ share of online criticism for his obsequious writing on Rangers, which often resembles a direct lift from the world of PR and often contains the sort of out-and-out Rangers advertising (particularly for season and match tickets) which has no place in genuine news features. Jack, however, has one mitigating circumstance, in that he is the paper’s Rangers correspondent. Lindsay has no such specific remit. But in his desire (desperation?) to insert a Rangers perspective into this piece, he has resorted to uncorroborated, evidence-light “queries” and “suggestions”, work which would be red-lined and returned for re-writing by journalism training tutors.

Thus is a loan move designed to assist a striker in search of selection for Euro 2016 portrayed as potential anti-Rangers skulduggery and an example of Scottish clubs cutting off their proverbial noses to spite their proverbial faces.  But the Scottish domestic game does enough proverbial facial mutilation as it is. The SFA recently announced SPFL club Hamilton’s New Douglas Park as the venue for the forthcoming Scottish Cup tie between fifth-tier East Kilbride and Celtic, a “David and Goliath” clash the likes of which “the magic of the Cup” is largely based. However, they neglected to tell…er…Hamilton. whose first public comment on the matter was: “We have a full programme already planned for that weekend and have no intention of altering (it)” and “will not be in a position to make New Douglas Park available” (trans: “get tae ****”).

So Scottish football journalism is not the domestic game’s sole nightmare. It could indeed be argued that Scottish football’s journalism and authorities deserve each other and are both part-responsible for the domestic game’s woes. The SFA fabricates a venue for a headline-attracting tie in its flagship competition while Lindsay “discovers” suggestions about a loan transfer deal and he and his colleagues miss the real story and the genuine concern. Scotland’s football journalists completely missed the century’s biggest football story by focusing elsewhere. Have no lessons been learned? And could they do it again?

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