The Guardian's chief football writer on the title race, FFP, and the "agenda"
Hi Danny, many thanks for taking the time to answer the questions. First off, how do you see the title race panning out? Chelsea have a five point advantage (and arguably easier fixtures remaining), but City have the experience of two successful title run-ins in 3 years.
DT: I had City as my tip for the title at the start of the season because I wasn't sure whether Chelsea would be able to cope if Diego Costa was injured for a long time. As it has turned out, he has missed only a few games and it's Aguero, Dzeko etc who have had the injury issues. The problem though for City is maybe not actually in that department. It's in defence where City look unusually vulnerable. Everyone has seen how poor United are that way this season – well, look at the table, United have conceded 21 goals, and City 22! It just hasn't had the same exposure (typical anti-City press!). Joe Hart has had only seven clean sheets and the balance isn't quite right at the moment between attack and defence. Chelsea have conceded 19 goals so far and more than a quarter of them came in one match at Spurs. So that could be the key issue ultimately.
How do you think City will fare against Barcelona this season? Last year we fell short, losing 4-1 on aggregate, but do we stand a better chance this time around with the problems at Barca and uncertainty over Messi's future?
DT: It depends if that win in Rome has changed the team's mentality. Before then, you could sometimes detect an inferiority complex when City played the big teams. Yet that was the first time perhaps when City have really looked like a team that was comfortable at that level. Let's not kid ourselves that Roma were a great team but it isn't easy going to Italy to play the second-placed side in Serie A and putting on that kind of performance. So does that give the club a new kind of self-belief? Hopefully. It's been strange seeing City in the Champions League, with the relatively poor crowds and the slightly flat atmosphere sometimes. I know, and understand, the ill feeling towards Uefa but, seriously, you really don't know what you're missing going out early every year. Those big games – the quarter-finals, the semi-finals – they're something else. It was interesting what Gary Neville was saying on Sky the other night as well – this is where City's owners expect to be and if this group of players don't take that next step soon there has to be a doubt about whether some of them ever will.
What are your thoughts on FFP? It seems that there has been a shift in opinion, as more and more commentators are seeing it for what it is - i.e. a concerted attempt by the established elite to preserve their hegemony.
DT: Exactly that. It was brought in by the powers-that-be to pull down the shutters on everyone else and try to keep it nice and cosy between themselves. And it will do just that. Yet you look back through the history of football and there have always been rich people – the super-rich sometimes - buying clubs and bringing glory through their money. It is just that never before has anyone done it quite so spectacularly, perhaps, as Chelsea and then City, and it was threatening to blow a lot of the other clubs out of the water. Those clubs saw what was happening, didn't like it and made sure that rules were put in place to make sure City didn't get it all their own way. So all this talk of Messi coming to the Premier League… well, it won't be to City because there is absolutely no way you can get away with it. Someone in a suit will pop along and say it breaks rules, so get back in your place and show more respect. It stinks really, especially when you see some of the people who have made it this way and you know they are doing it for their own interests.
As you have no doubt noticed from reading social media and fans forums, many City supporters are unhappy with the coverage we receive in the press, with some suggesting there is a media agenda against the club. Some of it is patently ridiculous, with people obsessing over Match of the Day running orders and so on, but is there a legitimate argument that we get overly negative coverage?
DT: Well, first off, you're not alone. Manchester United fans have been complaining about ABUs - Anyone But Uniteds - in the media for years. Chelsea's supporters reckon they get a hostile press. Arsenal, it's the same. It's a big-club thing. But yes, it is definitely more pronounced with City fans. Sometimes I wonder if it is a more deep-rooted thing and goes back to the years when City could barely get in the newspapers while obviously United were cleaning up trophy-wise and getting all the publicity. I can remember what it was like back then – and it's true, the newspapers had little time or space for City on a week-to-week basis. I've been to press conferences in the Joe Royle era at Platt Lane when there was me (working for a press agency), the MEN, a radio guy and that was it. You were marginalised, sometimes patronised, and there was that famous back page on the Mirror on the night you played Mansfield and United were playing Bayern Munich (I was at the next game at Maine Road and I can remember what it was like around the pressbox) and I can see why that has built up a festering grudge.
But do I think you get an unduly negative press? Not at all. I can hopefully provide a bit of context as well. For example, this story here: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2015/jan/14/manchester-united-suspend-european-scout-torben-aakjaer-facebookThis was a front-page splash in our sports section and was picked up by various other newspapers, not just in England but all around Europe. The reason why? Because the club is Manchester United. Whether you want to believe it or not, the simple fact is it wouldn't have had the same kind of exposure or reach if it was a City scout.
Balotelli scrapping with Mancini? Imagine if that was Rooney and Fergie. There would be television cameras outside Old Trafford for two weeks, people doorstepping Rooney at home, questions in the House of Commons. Balotelli's fireworks night? Trust me, that would be News at Ten if that was Rooney or Gerrard or Terry.
At times – as with all clubs – you have legitimate complaints about various articles. At other times – sorry to say this but I'm not going to sugarcoat it – it's rampant paranoia. People are looking to be offended as some kind of weird default setting. I've seen threads on Bluemoon where people have actually totted up the number of Sky Sports billboards around Manchester and if there is one more Rooney than Aguero it's all part of the mythical 'agenda.' I can remember one guy on Twitter bitterly complaining to me that I had chosen to cover a United game rather than a City one – never mind the fact that was the season I did all six City games in the Champions League and zero of United's.
Maybe it is also because the coverage is obviously a lot more intense than it used to be. Medium-sized stories at City ten years ago would now be huge stories and that is new to a lot of supporters - and it jars, from what I can make out. But the fact is this: if you offered a football journalist the choice between a big story at City or United it won't be your club they choose. Not even close. A choice between a Mourinho controversy or a Pellegrini one? Mourinho every time. Just look through your squad and I really don't see many players there who are under a burning media spotlight in the way that, say, Rooney is. Ryan Giggs was the front page in one tabloid 11 days running when he had his, er, family issue. Tell me a player at City who would get that kind of media treatment. I see all the complaints and everyone is entitled to their own opinion etc etc. Mine, however, is from someone who has worked in the industry for years and you really don't have it half as bad as a lot of you imagine.
I agree that some of the paranoia is bizarre, to say the least, but I’m not convinced the media are completely even-handed. For instance, contrast the press reaction to City sacking Mark Hughes and United sacking David Moyes. The narrative for the Hughes sacking was that City had acted rashly and hadn’t given a young, British manager a fair chance (Henry Winter, I recall, was apoplectic at Mancini’s press conference!) whereas Moyes’ sacking seemed to be portrayed as United acting swiftly and decisively. There was little outrage about the decision.
DT: But that isn't completely true, is it? Hughes's sacking was not portrayed as 'acting rashly and not giving a young, British manager a fair chance.' It was criticised because a) it was handled terribly, with him taking charge of a game when everyone knew he was a dead man walking b) City had told us categorically (and, naively, we believed them) that there was no way they would even contemplate replacing him and, as it turned out, they had been sounding out people since the previous summer. Don't get me wrong – every football club is economical with the truth sometimes, but when it is exposed you are going to get criticised.
Likewise, Moyes's sacking was portrayed as United 'acting swiftly and decisively'? It really wasn't. Nobody really quibbled with the decision when Moyes was so obviously out of his depth but United, just like City with Hughes, actually got heavily criticised for the shabby way it was handled, ie being leaked to the media before they had even told the guy himself. The difference is Moyes had missed every single target he was set. Hughes was on course for his, whatever you think of him. I actually think it was the right decision to replace him with someone better but it was certainly done in a way that merited criticism.
Some City fans seem to think there was a 'friends of Mark Hughes' operation going on in the Manchester press pack. Not even close to being true. Hughes didn't speak to anyone outside press conferences. Of all the City managers I've covered, Mancini was probably the most popular with the journalists, funnily enough.
To cite another example then, United’s recent spending spree seemed to be admired as a demonstration of their financial might, whereas City’s spending is often deemed as vulgar and inflating the market. Why are essentially similar scenarios reported on so differently, depending on which club is involved?
DT: I take that point more. City have been routinely described – and I include myself in this – as the richest club on the planet etc whereas not so much is made of United's spending. I can imagine that is annoying sometimes. Again, though, is this some sort of sinister media agenda? I'd say it is more likely that City's spending was so extreme and so out of the ordinary it became a huge shock-value story. United have always broken transfer records, far more so than any other club. But Chelsea and City got the 'moneybags' tag because nobody has done it quite so spectacularly and out of keeping with their past.
What is it like as a football journalist on Twitter these days? Is it a good way to engage with fans and get their true feelings, or does the abuse get tiresome? Football is an emotive subject, so presumably almost every article you write ends up offending someone!
DT: Well, that's exactly it. It's like a family, your football club, isn't it? You can criticise it yourself, but if an outsider does the same they may as well have called your daughter ugly or said your wife needs to go on a diet.
First of all, we can't overlook that the vast majority of replies are fine and there are a lot of people who will send you messages thanking you for an article, praising it even, asking relevant questions or just contributing to a proper debate. So sometimes it's awkward the other way, as often there isn't the time to reply to everyone or get involved properly. It can look rude or standoffish and I find that a bit uncomfortable. And retweeting praise... well, it's a no-no, isn't it?
Twitter is a strange place otherwise. It can be a bit of a cesspit and there are plenty of us who have had daft threats, people telling us to stay away from their ground etc. People tweet me sometimes and say 'can you unblock my mate? stop being so sensitive' and it is tempting to reply sometimes 'well, that bloke hiding behind the cartoon avatar and made-up name was tweeting me for three months called me a lying c**t because I said Roberto Mancini was going to be sacked' (OK, that's more than 140 characters).
Or 'it's a pity he/she had a meltdown that time I said Tevez had put in a transfer request.' It's almost always by people who don't put their real name/photo down, hiding behind anonymity, and there's no way they would talk to you like that in real life. I've met people who, it turns out, I have had a ruck with on Twitter. The penny drops and it's embarrassing because you both realise how silly it all was. "Didn't you call me a tosser that time I said it was a disappointing attendance?" etc etc.
On another note, I'm not daft - there are plenty of journalists who make the rest of us look a bit stupid with some of the drivel they post. But it is a weird, angry place and I've lost my old enthusiasm for it.
I'll give you another silly example: a few years ago, someone I followed on Twitter got in touch asking if I would write a chapter on Forest for a book he was writing. I was happy to help, free of charge, and put it all together for him. We'd been chatting online etc, swapped a few DMs, turned out we used to work at the same place. He had a death in his family through cancer. I had the same. More DMs etc. It kicks off with Suarez-Evra and he doesn't like my stance on Suarez. So he unfollows – the Twitter equivalent of a fall-out - and that's our last contact! It's kinda funny because there is no way somebody would be like that in real life. But that's Twitter in a nutshell for me - it's a tragicomedy sometimes.
The perception amongst some Blues is that the majority of the Manchester press pack are "self-confessed United fans" (such as Mark Ogden, Ian Ladyman, Ian Herbert, David McDonnell) - disproportionately so, for a two club city.
DT: I often wonder where all this starts. You're telling me Ian Herbert - he's a Wrexham supporter by the way - is a “self-confessed United fan”? He's kept that from me all these years. David McDonnell, brought up watching West Ham, has owned up to supporting United? Mark Ogden, I'll give you (just as Simon Mullock is a self-confessed City fan and I've never heard any complaints about that via Bluemoon). But Ian Ladyman? He'll be amused by that one.
Seriously, this is all just stuff that's been dreamt up and somehow got legs. I've had it myself. There are people who are convinced I am a United fan because I've written a couple of books on Ferguson. My response is always the same: if I wrote a book about Hitler does that make me a Nazi then? Or look at some of the other people who have written books about him – Ollie Holt, Paddy Barclay, Michael Crick – and you will spot a common theme about their relationships with him.
I used to read Bluemoon when I was the Manchester patch man and it has some great posters. I follow a lot on Twitter and I know a few in - shock, horror - real life. But I've also seen some weird stuff on there. One was a complaint that they saw me in the pressbox after City had scored a late goal and apparently I looked miserable - which was the final piece of evidence, plainly, that I was indeed Fergie's secret love-child. Well, I probably looked flustered, more than anything else, because late goals completely screw up match reports! But I'd also point out the number of occasions I have said Aguero v QPR was singlehandedly the best sporting moment I have ever witnessed (even if it meant my copy arrived 20 minutes late).
It's just difficult sometimes to know where all these stories originate. Clearly, Bluemoon has decided that half the Manchester press pack are self-confessed Reds. It isn't even close to true, unfortunately.
(On a separate note, I don't hide that I support Forest but I also started my career covering Leicester - in their glory Martin O'Neill years - and Derby, and I've never had a complaint from either of them about biased coverage. I've written stories Forest disliked and I've been banned by that little pipsqueak Billy Davies from my own club's pressbox! Far too much is made of all this 'which journalist supports who' bollocks)
City seem to be taking a "softly, softly" approach to journalists despite the negative coverage, in the hope that they'll eventually come around. Some, notably Henry Winter and Martin Samuel have, but others pointedly haven't. Would City benefit from a firmer stance, a la Ferguson, or would that just exacerbate the problem?
DT: First of all, I reckon Henry and Martin would dispute they have 'come round' because that implies their starting position was anti-City. I'd also – with respect – point out there is a lot of supposition in this. You can't say City are taking a 'softly softly' approach unless you know the relationships, the politics and the mechanics of how it works behind the scenes. The truth is City are actually far more pro-active behind the scenes than you seem to imagine. If I wrote a column criticising the club, they would be on first thing in the morning. In fact, they are probably the only club I know who take that stance, without fail, every time.
Ferguson was ridiculous – I say that as someone he banned for seven years – but he had the standing, the trophy count, the history, to get away with that behaviour to a certain extent. Does Pellegrini? And does Pellegrini actually get negative coverage? He doesn't get glowing coverage but he's a difficult guy to analyse because he gives so little away.
Remember too that City are extremely conscious about their PR image and want good publicity. I'm not a PR man but if they did think they were getting unfair coverage (and I really don't think they do) it isn't really worth a football club going to war with the press. Act like Fergie? It's just self-defeating. The idea is you should be trying to get the media onside rather than the other way around.
What do you make of the Frank Lampard situation? It clearly wasn't handled well from a PR point of view, but the reaction from certain commentators was hyperbolic to say the least. Ian Ladyman, for instance, claimed that our "reputation at home and abroad is in tatters" as a result, but I’m not sure if anyone, other than a handful of journalists and NYCFC fans, was really that bothered by it.
DT: Well, this also goes back to the last question. This has been the only controversy at City for ages, hasn't it? And who created it? City themselves by misleading everyone, repeatedly. Unfortunately it's not the only time it has happened either. A small thing, perhaps, but the Manchester journalists were told a couple of weeks ago to ignore any links with Bony, it was 100% untrue and agent-fuelled bollocks. Mangala for £32m? I think they will admit now you can add another £10m on to that. Just like Tevez was £47m. I could list others too and it's causing unnecessary problems for the club. My suspicion is it comes from the people at the top, rather than the media department.
Lampard is the case in point. No, I don't agree City's reputation is “in tatters” but it's a big club, a big player and a big lie – and that makes it a big story. Was the deception for FFP? I don't think so. I do, however, think it was a deception and almost certainly to help promote NY City (via publicity and season-ticket sales). It's their fans (albeit people who have never seen the club play) who should feel cheated. They have bought season tickets with Lampard billed as a star signing and it turns out he has never been their player, so it is a bit of a mess and the US sports journalists have been pretty damning about it. That will really hurt City when they are trying to make their name in MLS.
You use the phrase 'a handful of journalists' though and that is pretty much it back here, isn't it? It hasn't led the agenda in the media, or even close (my office haven't asked me to write a word about it). It was an embarrassing story for City, and they were badly caught out, but there have been bigger stories elsewhere and I can't actually remember the last media 'storm' before this one, if that helps with my argument about the lack of agenda. And – come on - if it was United who had been caught out lying like this, would you think it was a fuss about nothing? My suspicion is there would be City fans lapping up every word, describing it as an outrage and tweeting me that I should be writing more about it.
Do you think City are getting the credit they deserve for their regeneration of East Manchester, some of the most deprived boroughs in the country? In a time of government austerity, their work in the community should be lauded yet the launch of the CFA, unsurprisingly, had a negative spin (namely City's failure to bring through local talent in recent years).
DT: Maybe not, but it's a slightly awkward one. Where does this story fit? Is it football or one for the news pages? The football pages are, after all, primarily there for football stories and therefore most newspapers know their readers want a football angle, more often than not, rather than perhaps a feature on a local school or interviews with the local residents. So I actually think the issue of City and youth-team players is a fair enough angle and certainly not 'negative spin'.
Here's my negative spin about the new site by the way http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2014/feb/01/manchester-city-leave-past-behind
Most of the stuff I've read about the academy has been more along the lines of 'City now have to show they can bring through these kids' rather than 'look at their rubbish record.' Everyone has agreed that it is an incredible place, with great benefits for that part of the city. Maybe the local media could have done more but, from a national perspective, I'm not sure how keen some of the sports editors would be for a largely non-football feature about the make-up of east Manchester when it could be filled with a player interview or a feature about an actual team or player. Space is tight and there is an awful lot that doesn't make it. So maybe that is why. I'd also add, though, that City were delighted with the coverage from the launch. It was always going to be more of a television story because of the pictures but I know they don't think there was negative reporting.
Finally, as a Forest fan, what are your thoughts on Stuart Pearce? You started brightly under him, but are fading fast (despite the derby win at the weekend). Having endured his reign at City we can relate to that!
DT: Well, I was covering City when he was manager. So I've seen both sides close-up. I can remember a stage early on when he was being touted as the next England manager. But I can also recall that run before he was sacked. I know, I know... no league goals at home from New Year's Day onwards. It's an incredible statistic.
I was there as well when this happened - http://www.theguardian.com/football/2005/may/16/match.manchestercity - so I'm well aware how he is remembered! What you have to appreciate though is that, at my club, he is probably behind Brian Clough as the most popular man in our history. As a footballer, he was everything and more you could ever want in a captain and leader. Anyone remember his last-minute equaliser at Maine Road that time? A young me was bouncing around in the away part of the Kippax that day and I've got hundreds of other memories like that. He was phenomenal! So there is an enormous amount of goodwill for it to work out. Whether it will or not, I've no idea and I'm writing this just after Fulham have taken a 3-0 lead against us. But, professional hat off for a second, it was fucking brilliant seeing that winner going in at Pride Park on Saturday – the 92nd minute, a kid from the youth academy, left foot, right in front of the away end, and Pearce doing his Euro 96 impression on the touchline. At least those moments remind you why you put up with the bad times. We'll be back one day and we'll fill your away end, don't worry about that.