Jaw-dropping press conferences: from punch-ups over Pele to Roy Keane hanging up

Be they teary confessionals, expletive-filled rants or long lists of “facts”, routine press conferences can prove to be a minefield for footballers, managers and owners alike – as FourFourTwo discovered

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Words: Alec Fenn, Jon Spurling

When Manchester City were found guilty of financial irregularities after a 1906 FA enquiry, Manchester’s press gathered en masse inside the city’s Queens Hotel. They were all there to document the sheer bewilderment of the Blues’ slack-jawed directors as they witnessed the fire sale of their best player, Billy Meredith, to arch enemies Manchester United. There might not have been a large club-branded desk, a room crammed full of cameras or a press officer overseeing proceedings but, in a sense, this was one of football’s first ever ‘press conferences’.

Likewise, when Leeds City were chucked out of the Football League in 1919 for making illegal payments to players, gentlemen of the fourth estate assembled at the smoky environs of the Metropole Hotel to watch the entire playing staff being auctioned for a grand total of £9,250.  

Changing times

Fast forward 40-odd years and, thanks to his extensive connections in the media, PFA chairman Jimmy Hill was able to hastily convene London press gatherings in the early 1960s, at which he argued that the maximum wage was unethical. During a Savoy Hotel presser on January 9, 1961, he declared the abolition of the maximum wage – a historic day for the sport.

Thanks to the arrival of the television age, managers and chairmen became more high profile. Liverpool supremo Bill Shankly regularly held court with journos for hours on Friday afternoons before games. And the tyrannical Burnley chief Bob Lord (who was dubbed the ‘Khrushchev of Burnley’), delighted in informing groups of local writers that he was going to ban the BBC’s cameras inside Turf Moor, because he believed that the onset of televised games would destroy the sport.

The attendance – or not – of Brian Clough at press conferences always added a bit of frisson to matters. Following his controversial exits from both Derby and Leeds, Clough directed proceedings with several reporters in corridors outside the boardrooms at the Baseball Ground and Elland Road, while respective chairmen Sam Longson and Manny Cussins – blinded by camera bulbs flashing in their eyes – briefed some other members of the press in a rival gathering a few yards away.

In 1979, when Trevor Francis was confirmed as British football’s first £1 million player, Cloughie turned up late for the televised gathering armed with a squash racquet. “I will whack him with this if he makes a balls of signing it,” Clough promised. Towards the end of his tenure at Nottingham Forest he opted out of press meetings, insisting: “You s**houses never tell the truth,” but even he deemed it appropriate to attend his final gathering in May 1993.

Brian Clough didn't always love an audience

Sporting his trademark green jersey, one member of the media scrum, Brian Glanville, asked Old Big ‘Ead whether he would get bored with life without football. “I’ll ring you if I’m bored, Brian,” responded a pithy Clough.

Prior to the 1970 World Cup, Brazil manager Joao Saldanha invited the press to the training ground where, following pressure from the country’s dictator General Medici to include striker Dario in the squad, the wild-eyed boss announced: “I don’t pick the general’s government ministers, and so he doesn’t pick my forward line.” The combustible Saldanha was fired shortly afterwards, and new coach Mario Zagallo didn’t need much convincing to include Dario (who was benched the whole time) in ‘his’ final 22. Not that it mattered much anyway.

Arguably, the most shocking press conference took place in January 1995, when a tearful Paul Merson confessed to his alcohol, gambling and cocaine addictions. The infamous revelation was the first evidence in the Premier League era that massively-monied football stars were struggling to keep their personal lives in order away from the pitch.

The element of surprise is often essential to a memorable presser. Manchester United forward Eric Cantona later revealed that midway through his famous “seagulls” and “trawlers” speech to an expectant room of reporters at Croydon’s Jury’s Inn Hotel – in the aftermath of his kung-fu kick on Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmonds in February 1995 – he had a brief sip of water not to help lubricate his throat, but to stop himself from laughing.

These days, major signings are announced directly to fans via social media, so by the time new arrivals are introduced to the press there is very little scope for surprise – but that hasn’t always been the case. There were audible gasps of shock from those present when, during a specially convened conference in 1980, two-time Ballon d’Or winner Kevin Keegan was revealed as the new Southampton recruit.

A clutch of London-based journalists were left kicking themselves in June 2001 after deciding that they’d all dodge the (apparently) low-key arrival of Ipswich goalkeeper Richard Wright at Arsenal’s training ground, when none other than Tottenham skipper Sol Campbell emerged from behind a curtain to be unveiled as Arsene Wenger’s latest signing. A bunch of newspaper editors lambasted their men for missing out on one of the decade’s greatest transfer scoops.

Bedlam, before Pele's first game in the old NASL

For pure mayhem though, Pele’s arrival as a New York Cosmos player in June 1975 takes some beating. Outside New York’s famous 21 Club, 51st and 52nd Street, plus Fifth Avenue, were scenes of complete pandemonium. The Samba star himself was two hours late as he could not get through the crowds, and two rival photographers had a fist fight as they battled to get a picture of the Brazilian in the famous Hunt Room – buffalo skulls and all - smashing up a glass table as they scrapped.

“Absolute chaos – more photographers than I’d ever seen in my life,” said Cosmos general manager Clive Toye. “The most bizarre thing ever.”

See the next page for the eight times press conferences go wrong.