In the excruciating world of the football interview everyone is over the moon, gutted or, to be fair, sick as a parrot. But a new course is helping the stars of the future to add a bit of media savvy to their ball skills, reports Matthew Brown
It's a typical scene from the modern world of professional football. A smart conference room at the back of Tottenham Hotspur's main stand at their White Hart Lane ground in north London. At the front sits a man in a suit on a raised podium. He shifts uncomfortably in the glare of the spotlights, the lens of a video camera trained on his face. Photographers circle him, flash guns popping.
Seated on the rows of chairs in front are half a dozen young men asking awkward questions. "Do you bend the truth to make more interesting stories?" asks one. "Why are you so interested in players' private lives?"
says another. No, this is not a typical Spurs press conference, for the man in the suit is not Glenn Hoddle, the club's manager, nor a club director, but Tony Banks, sports news editor of the Daily Express. And the young men are not journalists, but footballers, third-year trainees from the club's youth academy, 18 and 19-year-olds on the cusp of first-team selection and Premiership glory.
This is part of their education programme, and today is week eight of a specially designed one-year course in press and media studies devised and delivered by the professional development unit of the London College of Printing. Mr Banks is here to give the young players a first-hand encounter with a sports journalist, and an insight into the motivations and pressures that drive the media.
Jonathan Akass, a former TV, radio and newspaper journalist, is the course tutor. "The idea is that, after some training in what makes a story and where it fits into the media, the boys can meet someone from Fleet Street who will ask them some questions. Then they can take the role of journalists and ask him some questions of their own."
The course of three 10-week terms is being piloted at Spurs, but will probably be offered to other London clubs next year if it proves successful. With football and footballers subject to ever-more intense media scrutiny, the need for such training is increasingly important.
Gwyn Walters is Tottenham's education and welfare officer, responsible for the off-the-field development of the club's youth academy trainees. "We've all seen it," he says. "The first time a young player gets interviewed he can be awful if he's not prepared. Imagine, he's just finished his first game and gets a microphone stuck in his face. He's got to perform with millions watching. But it's an important part of the job."
As well as teaching young players how to perform in front of the camera the course is also designed to give an understanding of how journalists work, which will not only help them respond to the media's demands should they become stars, but could stand them in good stead if they fail to make the grade and need to seek an alternative career.
"We have tried to make it dual purpose," says Mr Akass. "On the one hand, we are trying to get them to understand their role in the story so they are not frightened when someone asks them a question. But the main idea was to give them training in media production, to get them using cameras, taking photographs, editing copy, and so on, so they have some experience if they want to go in that direction."
Most top professional clubs have established youth academies over the past five years, selecting and training young hopefuls from the age of nine upwards. The lucky ones become full-time trainees when they leave school at 16, but only an exceptionally talented handful of these are kept on in the third year. This season, Tottenham took the unusual step of retaining 11.
But even those who "make it" beyond the academy and get a full-time professional contract may last no more than a few years. According to Mr Walters, 70 per cent of trainees drop out of the professional game by the age of 21 - whether through injury or rejection - so there's an increasing emphasis within football on developing their education as well as their ball skills.
All Tottenham's trainees do 10 hours a week of formal education programmes which are approved, partially paid for and closely monitored by the Professional Footballers' Association, the players' union. Classes are held at White Hart Lane, with teachers supplied by the nearby College of North East London. Exams are usually taken at the end of the second year, but the PFA insists clubs continue educating third years as well. Tottenham's media course fits the bill: it leads to an accredited qualification that can count towards university entrance, and provides invaluable practical skills for those who aim to go down the Gary Lineker route of moving from player to TV sports presenter.
With their gelled hair, identical training tops and expensive trainers, Tottenham's youngsters already look the celebrity part, exhibiting the casual confidence of the gifted. Far from filling the stereotype image of footballers as educationally challenged, these are articulate and qualified young men. Five passed A-levels last summer in subjects including maths, physics, English, biology, business studies, languages and IT, while the rest have GNVQs.
Two out of three trainees in Britain now take A-levels, and more and more young players head to university when football rejects them, often to take tailor-made courses at sports-oriented colleges such as Bath and Loughborough universities. It's all part of the changing nature and image of the professional game.
"Everyone sees the top stars earning thousands a week, but they don't see how many of the boys go out of the game," says Mr Walters. "Years ago, few footballers ever did degrees, not because they weren't bright, but because there wasn't the opportunity. Now they can get back into education if they want to."
For further information, contact Gwyn Walters on 020 8365 5044 or gwynwalters.spurs@ cwcom.net. Professional Footballers' Association: 0161 236 0575