Analysis

How do player/media mixed zones work?

You've probably only heard bits about them, but the lawless post-match areas where hacks can collar stars are integral to the way the game's narratives unfold

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The mixed zone is where the quotes come from. The banalities, the platitudes and the 110%s. After a game has finished, accredited journalists have a choice to make: attend the managers’ press conferences, or stand one side of a railing somewhere in the bowels of a stadium, and wait for the players to leave the dressing room and file past.

Players aren’t actually compelled to talk to the media. Sometimes a helpful press officer will honour a specific request, leading one reluctantly towards a flurry of iPhones, but more often it’s a case of leaning over the barrier and begging (while trying not to sound too desperate). Essentially, it's all the worst parts of being a teenager – the awkwardness, the fear of rejection and the suspicion that your tongue might be too big for your mouth.  

So: call out the player’s name and hope that he responds. Then hope he’s in a receptive mood. And then try to ask questions which he isn’t just able to bat limply, lamely back to you.

The first time you do it is really strange. It’s nerve-wracking, actually. Not because of the players, but because of your peers. It’s a working environment and most people are on a deadline and under pressure to deliver something newsworthy. Don’t get in the way. It’s not school. Nobody owes you their patience or understanding, nor do you have any right to be indulged.

Another Do Not: when recording interviews, do not accidentally cover the microphone with your thumb. Somewhere, floating in the ether, there is a great lost interview with Lewis Baker, in which he said very, very little in the aftermath of England u21s’ win over Slovakia in 2017.

There’s an art to it – what that actually is I have no idea, but some people are definitely better than others at extracting information from footballers. Maybe it’s trust and familiarity. Perhaps it’s just the ability to ask sufficiently open-ended questions and do so with an expression which pleads for a proper answer.

Listening back now to some of my early attempts, it’s amazing how often the question posed had no effect on the answer given. It's obviously mortifying in a lot of other ways, but it’s also as if the player had a few stock sentences prepared and, in response to one trigger or another, was just determined to deliver those scripted lines.

But that’s not their fault. They’re trained to stay safe with what they say and to never leave their comfort zone. The journalist’s job is to broaden those parameters and put the player at ease and, while ‘quotes’ do get a hard time and are often treated disparagingly, the process of extraction is really a skill to be admired.

There’s plenty to gain just from being in that environment, though. Just by being up close and personal with the players. Close enough to be able to smell their shower gel and see how they behave in certain situations. Who’s polite, who’s not. Who can look you in the eye when they talk to you, and who just shuffles their feet and looks down.

Who carries themselves most impressively after a defeat – who will talk about it honestly, and who just swaggers through, sneering when they’re asked to stop.

The danger – of course – is that these little interludes become too instructive and are ascribed too much meaning. Is the player who won’t stop after a game also a coward on the pitch - the kind who won't show for passes when it matters or who will pull out of that critical 50-50? Of course not, but because the game is so introverted and real access is so rare, there’s a temptation to cling to these mild insights and read far too much into them.

It’s an easy mistake to make. A few years ago, down in the England age group teams, there was a player who was always shy. He would stammer whenever you spoke to him and trip over his words. On one occasion, he seemed to actually break out in a sweat, responding to questions from a senior reporter as if he was being admonished by his headmaster.  

What’s the logical diagnosis there? That the spotlight might be too bright for him in the future and that the harsh climate of senior football would be too oppressive for his talent to survive. That judgement writes itself.

Except that it was nonsense; that same player now has dozens of England caps and is worth tens of millions of pounds.

It can work the other way around, too. Engaging players are much too easy to like. When they show even the slightest bit of humanity, that – pathetically – can form the basis of a slightly paternal attitude. From that point, the path to becoming an unwitting propagandist is very clear, particularly if you’re younger, less experienced, and ever so slightly dazzled by being there in the first place. That player gets the benefit of the doubt in your articles. He's always the gratuitous tenth inclusion on your flattering lists. He becomes the one you talk up on podcasts.

Mixed zones are a strange and befuddling quirk of the game, but they're more than just a mine of one-paced soundbites. They're that, too, of course, but with more than just that one dimension. They're a source of bias and mild prejudice, the basis of strangely proprietorial habits, and a starting point for so much of the silent judgement in the football.

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