Those who use the blunt instrument of media control that is banning newspapers do so on the basis of a presumed power dynamic that, with his current track record, and Manchester United’s current position, simply does not exist for Erik ten Hag.
The bans issued by United on Tuesday to various media were a bad move. One notes United’s explanation that stories should first be run past the club yet, with this reaction, the embattled Ten Hag has turned a one-day story into a long-running saga with the potential to become more toxic.
The bans for Sky Sports News, the Daily Mirror, ESPN and the Manchester Evening News appear to have flowed from a manager’s wish to wrestle back control, and one cannot blame him for wanting that. Yet this is one battle he and the club would have been better served avoiding.
There is much written about Sir Alex Ferguson’s appetite for banning media, a pretty inglorious era all said, when newspapers and journalists – myself included – would have been better served standing together. Nevertheless, the Ferguson approach of the early 2000s, before the traditional media’s digital revolution, before social media, and before the advent of the footballer as mini-corporation in his own right, are utterly redundant in the modern landscape.
Ten Hag might as well have his players running up and down terraces or passing round a restorative half-time Woodbine. The old rules do not apply, and one doubts whether they were ever that effective anyway.
The bans handed down under Ferguson never stopped what he saw as unfavourable coverage, as Ten Hag will find out. For the old boy they were a crude demonstration of his power. He was the biggest show in town and so the media – national and local – liked to be in the room when he spoke. They had little appetite in prosecuting a longer battle with him. For Ten Hag, there is no such certainty.
At the turn of the 21st century Ferguson was a very powerful figure in what feels now, a much smaller English game. My reporting stint in Manchester began in January 2002 amid a ban from the Carrington training ground for all national newspapers, which was lifted shortly after, although not for the Daily Mail. One forgets the reasons – it hardly matters – but, as with Ferguson’s longstanding feud in that decade with the BBC, it was not so much about the transgressions, as the power.
Then, the Friday press briefings for reporters were held in a small room off the old reception at Carrington and conducted off-camera. There would be recriminations, sulks, blame, argument, bad language – and that was before Ferguson walked in. Then it would get much worse.
Ferguson banned newspapers because he knew he could get away with it. Rivalry meant newspapers would not back one another. Also, Ferguson felt like an eternal presence. In 2002, for example, he had cancelled his own retirement on learning of the salary that Sven Goran Eriksson would earn upon replacing him. There was an odd sense that Ferguson might go on forever. Newspapers that would be much more disputatious in other areas simply saw out their bans and returned.
It changed in May 2002 with the infamous “Youse are f------ idiots” outburst. A number of newspapers, this one included, decided to publish Ferguson’s words in full. Previous generations of reporters who knew Ferguson better might simply have sighed and let it pass but for those of us in the new generation at least, attitudes had changed. Opinion is still divided over whether it was the right decision. From then on Ferguson was notably more careful about what he said and did.
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Even so, the bans continued. I had one in 2004, delivered with moderate levels of anger by Ferguson beside the luggage carousel at Lyon airport on a Champions League away trip. I only have a few recollections. The first being that I had no idea as to the offending story – which turned out to be innocuous.
The second was that I should try to remember as much of it as possible, as it was likely to be one of the few events in my career I would be asked to recount in 20 years’ time. I was right about that.
Ultimately Ferguson understood power. He knew when to wield it or when to make a play for a sympathetic hearing, as he would occasionally do in press briefings. He had done so with an older generation of reporters in his difficult first years at United in the late 1980s and then again when the Rock of Gibraltar saga threatened his hegemony.
The bans were just a bit of silliness. A grumpy old Scot’s revenge on his irritants in the media. Ten Hag’s mistake was taking it seriously and turning a small story into a big one.