Larry Ryan: Hard to keep it real in football’s version of reality

A tantalising glimpse, this week, of what we must now call in this trade potentially ‘premium content’.
Larry Ryan: Hard to keep it real in football’s version of reality

A tantalising glimpse, this week, of what we must now call in this trade potentially ‘premium content’.

George Clooney is part of a consortium interested in buying Malaga, the story went, with a view to turning the club into a ‘European Hollywood’.

There are even plans, one report panted, to constantly film the club’s players for ‘a 24-hour Truman Show style documentary’. Though it may be a struggle to replicate the Truman experience now prospective signings have been tipped off by a flood of clickbait.

Nevertheless, on the same day that story ‘broke’, Oxford City swiftly made it clear that Love Island winner Finley Tapp must see out his contract at the non-league football club. Surely to head off any come-and-get-me-pleas.

What a prospect it would be. Clooney popping in every now and then to fire another gaffer in a reprisal of his Up In The Air role as a ruthless corporate ‘downsizer’. Tapp flexing in the dressing room, and later on showing the love. Throw in, for global audiences, a combustible British gaffer in the John ‘bring your dinner’ Sitton mould and you have the perfect real-time mash-up of Dream Team, Footballers’ Wives, Hard Knocks and The Hills.

Sadly, Clooney’s ‘people’ have since quietly distanced him from the story, with George having enough on his plate loudly distancing himself from the Guatemalan child workers seen picking Nespresso beans in a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation.

But if George doesn’t grasp this opportunity, somebody, somewhere soon will.

This was also a week when Manchester United managing director Richard Arnold noted, at a quarterly investors call, that Odion Ighalo was the top worldwide trend on deadline day, holding off ‘Brexit’ and ‘impeachment’. Which presumably means both Trump and Boris are out of the running to succeed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Never mind that most of the social traffic was generated by Manchester United fans deriding the signing, or rivals amused; no matter how many goals the lad scores this season, he’s already earned his corn by the key social engagement metric. Something to consider next time we judge Ole’s nose for the market.

Or the next time we wonder; what is the point of it all?

Certain players have always been signed to shift shirts, of course, but this blurring of objectives is now baked into the strategies of the world’s leading football clubs.

We may soon pine for those quaint days when sporting corporations were content to cruise to a top four finish for a European payday. Soon it may just be enough to create good content along the way.

“In terms of business, we decided to evolve into an entertainment company,” is how Barcelona director Didac Lee put his club’s venture into reality TV — Matchday, an eight-parter narrated by John Malkovich.

After it invited Amazon to be a fly on the Etihad walls, Manchester City’s group chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak talked of his “strong belief in the opportunities being presented by the convergence of entertainment, sports and technology”.

Tottenham are also in bed with Amazon and — coincidentally, I’m sure — sacked their much-loved, over-achieving coach and hired a human clicks guarantee.

They are all ushering us ‘behind the scenes’ these days, except there’s always another curtain. There is something unreal about all this reality.

The shows have been largely underwhelming. Unguarded moments tend not to compromise our old friend, brand values. The editors must be PR men first, journalists second.

Paco Latorre, the director behind Matchday, said: “The portrait of the players that comes out of the series is something that is very positive for them.”

No wonder a show that has been out since November, and purports to shadow the world’s greatest footballer, doesn’t appear to have generated many news stories.

And Barcelona’s players objected to the only scene in Matchday anyone paid attention to — a desolate dressing room after the 4-0 humbling at Anfield. That might worry them on the investors calls, a lack of engagement with the content. Love Island’s ratings were down too.

So what’s the next frontier? If clubs are unable to assemble a squad full of Trumans for the full, unedited Big Brother experience, perhaps they will need to work harder on the old ‘situational-manipulation’, as they used to call it on The Hills.

Concoct the odd training ground spat for the viewers, maybe. This generation of players are certainly good enough actors, as evidenced by Liverpool’s magnificent ad for Chaokoh Coconut Water this week.

Or, and this seems like a long shot, clubs might welcome back journalists behind the scenes to tell the real stories.

You could argue the great rise of reality TV underlines the failure of journalism to tell people what it’s really like, behind the curtain.

Though Channel 4 produced another harrowing example of reality journalism this week, in its exposé of child trafficking in Scottish football.

But that kind of journalism is not easy, in the modern legal climate.

On last week’s A Footballer’s Life podcast, Stephen Henderson talked about what it’s really like in some dressing rooms. He talked about his son Stephen, the Crystal Palace goalkeeper, and the cruelty and bullying he suffered at the hands of a coach at another English club. Stephen was careful not to name names and his son is well-travelled. But maybe if you pieced together the timelines you could narrow it down, inviting legal jeopardy.

So the Irish Examiner had to cut most of that out. It can be hard to keep it real.

A footballer's life: 3 Stephen McPhail

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Saturday, November 27, 2021

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