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

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.

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.

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.

1. Vitor gets vicious

Things were going swimmingly for Vitor Pereira at Saudi side Al-Ahli, until the former Porto manager decided to criticise one of his players in front of journalists. It prompted a swift on-mic interjection from the club’s press officer, insisting he shouldn’t criticise individuals in public. But Pereira then lost it. “It’s the first time in my life someone has told me what I can say,” he cried, before storming out of the press room.

2. The return of J'F'K'

Subtle may not be a word that features very highly in Joe Kinnear’s vocabulary – but c*** evidently is. The ex-Wimbledon and Luton boss singled out Daily Mirror writer Simon Bird for some very choice words in his opening presser following his surprise appointment at Newcastle United in 2008. “Which one of you is Simon Bird? You’re a c***,” Kinnear said bluntly, before embarking on a 10-minute expletive-riddled tirade at a host of shocked journalists. No prizes for guessing what the ‘F’ stands for…

3. God forgives, Jesus does not

Atletico Madrid’s portly former president Jesus Gil tested his new pacemaker by going to watch the Rojiblancos’ 4-3 loss to Villarreal back in 2003. He wasn’t impressed with what he witnessed. “There are too many bloody passengers,” Atleti’s head honcho later raged about the squad. “Lluis Carreras, Santi and Jorge Otero are not good enough. I feel like not paying them and anyone who does not like it can die!”

4. Trap blows his top

Giovanni Trapattoni blasted his Bayern Munich players over a lack of commitment in a bizarre rant in his own unique version of German in 1998. “In this game, it was two, three or four players who were weak like an empty bottle,” bellowed the Italian following a 1-0 defeat to Schalke. He then stormed out and resigned only three weeks later.

5. “I’ll call you back…”

Roy Keane isn’t a particularly happy man at the best of times. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when he took umbrage to a journalist letting his mobile phone ring not once, but twice during a press conference while he was the manager of Ipswich in 2009. “Why don’t you turn it off?” snarled the happy-go-lucky Irishman. Had it rung once more, we suspect the reporter would’ve needed the hands-free function.

6. From Fergie with love

Angered by reports in the Spanish press that Real Madrid were set to sign Cristiano Ronaldo, Alex Ferguson responded with a firm denial. “Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t sell that mob a virus,” the Scot snarled. He never did agree to the sale of a lethal strain of influenza, although Ronaldo ended up at the Santiago Bernabeu the following summer.

7. Facts of life and death

Liverpool were seven points clear of Manchester United at the top of the Premier League in January 2009 when Rafa Benitez fell victim to Fergie’s mind games. Reacting to the suggestion the Reds’ had a more favourable run of fixtures, the Spanish gaffer pulled out a piece of paper and began to read a list of “facts” about the Scot’s conduct. United went on to secure the title
by four points from the Reds, and years later Fergie claimed his rival’s tirade ‘killed’ the Liverpool boss.

8. Enter head in the sand man

In 2015, Leicester gaffer Nigel Pearson called journalist Ian Baker an “ostrich” for questioning him after he said his team had been unfairly criticised. When pressed on his choice of flightless bird, Pearson explained the reporter had his head in the sand (which, to be fair, makes sense), before calling him “daft” and “stupid”.

This feature originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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