Media talk Goebbels as Drogba dives headlong into controversy…

It was possibly a combination of sleep depravation and alcohol, but a scene from the movie ‘Airplane’ came to mind whilst watching Didier Drogba’s post-match interview on ‘Match of the Day’ at the weekend.

In the absence of a handy clip, I’ll attempt a description. Trouble is brewing at the airport. Several newspaper hacks get a sniff of a story; an impending disaster. They run frantically as one toward a line of telephones to make calls to their editors, hitting the ‘phone booths with such force that they keel over as if clattered by a marauding rugby scrum.

OK, maybe it is funnier on-screen.

But whilst time and technology have moved on, the press pack must surely have used a similar level of force when hitting the quick-dial buttons for their news desks upon hearing the big Ivorian utter the words “sometimes I dive…” in his best broken English.

It’s a wonder that the sudden upsurge of radio waves and ferocious tapping of fingers in the near vicinity didn’t cause our man of the match to collapse in a heap clutching a sundry body part.

The obvious element of confusion added when a player gives interviews in his second language aside, the revelation was pure tabloid fantasy. Footballer sometimes dives shocker! No, stop it. You’ll be telling me that Bernard Manning doesn’t buy salads from a Pakistani-owned corner shop next.

I couldn’t be bothered to get up and browse through the redtops yesterday morning, but I’d hazard a guess that the inevitable lead Chelsea story went something along the lines of:

“Ian Huntley may be a filthy paedo pervert with no right to breathe oxygen that might have kept Diana (God bless her, queen of our hearts) alive, but I’ll bet he doesn’t dive like that big tart Drogba when the Belmarsh Serial Killers XI play Kiddie Fiddlers AFC…”

Such is the nature of the boy Didier – two goal match-winning hero one minute, shameless cheating girl’s blouse with a balance problem the next. And the papers had plenty to write about for their bumper Sunday editions, courtesy of the Blues. Thus it ever was.

Drogba-gate. Red cards. Failing to control our players. Chelsea fans selling their Blue Peter badges on eBay. Poor old Peter Kenyon must despair – he’d probably find it easier to reinvent Pete Doherty as a ‘Songs of Praise’ presenter than he would to nail the signature of some multinational on a new sponsorship deal with the Nasty Blues at the moment.

On more than one occasion, our CEO has suggested that “everyone wants to be loved”. Not every Chelsea fan would agree with him, but then again most of us just want a fair hearing for the club rather than several million pounds from a conglomerate of image-conscious capitalists. Priorities clearly differ in the modern game.

We seem to have got ourselves what the professionals call an ‘image problem’. So what do we need to put things right? The street-smart tabloid guile of Max Clifford? The steely-eyed Machiavellian determination of Alistair Campbell? Or just the “Oh, do love me darling sweetie daaaaaaahling” vacuous air-kissing of Ab-Fab’s Eddie?

PR in football is a strange business; for the average fan to even think about how the club handles its relationship with the media is an indication of how much the game (and Chelsea) have changed during the last decade. Whilst it is ridiculous in terms of football as we once knew it, how you are portrayed in the media plays a huge part in the perception of the club as a ‘brand’ in the wider world. So how do the experts do it? How do you get yourselves good coverage?

Liverpool recently suffered a degree of criticism after a small number of ‘fans’ attacked the ambulance carrying the stricken Alan Smith to hospital after their FA Cup clash with Man United. It was also reported that during the same game, excrement was dropped onto the travelling supporters by a tiny percentage of the Anfield crowd. Bad apples in every barrel; statements were hastily released to that effect, distancing the club from those responsible.

As much as anyone can do under the circumstances?

Maybe. No more than two weeks later, Match of the Day 2 carried a short piece about Dolly, a sweet, grey-haired octogenarian Liverpool fan of many decades who had been named as ‘Barclays Fan of the Month’. Dolly was a lovely old dear; she loves the club, the club loves her. It was all terribly nice, a world away from the thugs who bother ambulances and choose not to trouble the overworked local sewers with last night’s dead rat and chips.

I’ve personally never seen a Barclays Fan of the Month featured on the programme before. And I’d go as far as to suggest that Dolly probably didn’t call the MOTD office to get herself some airtime.

This is not a criticism of or a sly dig at Liverpool, far from it. Nor is it a cynical conspiracy theory spouted by a bitter Chelsea fan, but an observation on Liverpool’s handling of their relationship with the media. It may not be the case that the two events were directly linked, but a fortnight after some fairly unsavory coverage Liverpool were on national TV as the subject of a very human and heart-warming story. To use the football parlance, the press officers involved played a blinder.

A relationship with the media is all about give and take. Trying to place a positive Chelsea-related story in the current climate must be about as easy as trying to staple salt and vinegar crisps to an angry Rottweiler, but the “we’re not playing” stance taken by the club and Jose in recent weeks is clearly starting to take its toll.

The traditional Friday player / manager press conference is no longer a feature of Chelsea’s pre-match build-up, cancelled by the club after a series of misquotes and inaccurate representations of Mourinho’s words. We are, I’m told, unique in this approach. Jose can be the very worst of loose cannons when he speaks, but his controversial character and words are seen by many as a buffer between the players and the pressures that they face. He may have taken offence that the press have twisted his words, but his silence will not stop Chelsea appearing on the back pages. It is more than likely to have exactly the opposite effect.

Whilst it would be easy to believe that Jose the brooding control freak has final say over every representation, quote or statement given to the media, the ultimate responsibility for dealings with the news outlets lies with the club’s communications director, Simon Greenberg. A former Evening Standard sports editor, Greenberg seems to be regarded as a fairly unpopular figure with those involved in the media side of the game; a recent column by Crystal Palace chairman Simon Jordan on the subject of the tabloids makes reference to Greenberg’s methods. Read that and then consider that this is the man in charge of the relationship between the country’s most newsworthy football club and the press.

At present, the sports editors at the nation’s newspapers will demand that their back pages carry some sort of Chelsea story on an almost daily basis. To suggest this is neither arrogance nor a myth borne out of a misplaced belief that we are the world’s largest club. But Chelsea are the team on top of the pile at present which attracts column inches, and plenty of them. Remember the days when it was someone else in the same position? We trawled the back pages looking for news on the Blues, often finding only small snippets related to something Uncle Ken had spouted forth upon in his infamous programme notes (imagine how much fun the media would have if he were still producing those?). We grumbled angrily, holding the rather exaggerated belief that the media only ever wrote about Liverpool, Arsenal or Manchester United.

Now the boot is firmly on the other foot. We as supporters can take or leave it, but the club has a responsibility to play its own part in how we are portrayed.

Journalists will write about Mourinho and Chelsea and they will do so with or without co-operation from the club. In the absence of press conferences or contact with the key figures, old quotes will be recycled, twisted and revived – heaven forbid, stories might even be invented (something which will always happen, of course – see the “Sven to step in at the Bridge” tale from this week’s Mail On Sunday for a perfect example). The hacks will form their opinions and stick to them, and it is rare to find one that is prepared to stand out from the crowd and offer a differing viewpoint from the one offered by the pack. One well-respected football writer for a broadsheet recently responded to an e-mail questioning him about a fairly barbed article he had written about Jose Mourinho, suggesting that he had never known such a “unanimity of opinion” amongst fellow sports writers in their dim view of our manager.

Fine, it’s their opinion and they are entitled to it. Whilst Greenberg may well be on a hiding to nothing trying to place positive stories in a world supposedly full of Chelsea-hating hacks, in the absence of any attempt by the club or Jose himself to enter into some form of dialogue, very little is likely to change their minds. Terse statements denying stories are not enough to quench the collective thirst of both reporters and consumers of Chelsea-based news in the current climate.

In Jose’s defence, after an initial barnstorming season in England he was always likely to become the pantomime villain in a nation that loves to knock down those it has built up. More recently, despite his bullish protestations to the contrary he was clearly stung by the manner of the defeat by Barcelona and has set about closing ranks and steadying the ship, leaving the post-match duties to his players with varying degrees of success. Everything else must come second; his concern is retaining the title.

We remain on course to do just that after a functional but refreshingly confident win against an under-strength Manchester City on Saturday. Drogba’s first was sublime, brilliant football, the second fortuitous but hardly crime of the century; his theatrics for the finale were just plain irritating and we can only hope that the message is starting to get through to him. Rob Styles’ dismissal of Sylvain Distin was petty by-the-book refereeing at its worst – the City captain was foolish to pursue the issue but a red card was pointless. The hunt for the third goal gradually diminished during the second half when the game became an exercise in safety and possession; frustrating for some but understandable given the result against Fulham a week earlier.

So this is the modern day Chelsea; streets ahead on the pitch but in a Sunderland-esque position in the popularity stakes – universally disliked, the most vilified manager in the business, destroying the Premier League with our ill-gotten gains and ruining the careers of young English players by putting them on the bench and teaching them to dive instead of play football. We are a team of unsportsmanlike cads and principle-free cheats, far worse than any other team in the history of the game.

The last word this week goes to the original PR man and tabloid football hack before his time, Dr. Joseph Goebbels:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it…”

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