Opinion: England under the media spotlight

World Cup games attract intense media coverage. Ian Hall goes behind the scenes at the FA in the build-up to England's recent match.

Football Association director of communications Adrian Bevington is encamped in the lounge of Manchester's Lowry Hotel, 53 hours before England play Northern Ireland at Old Trafford. It is 10am but already he has long since digested this morning's England coverage. Today - Thursday 24 March - has been a good press day.

'Sven-Goran Eriksson was on the front-foot at his last press conference, his demeanour was very upbeat. If you could describe him as giving a "performance", (the one that has generated these headlines), it was as good as it could get,' he says.

These final hours in the build-up to the World Cup qualifier are the culmination of a media co-ordination process six months in the making.

While the accreditations and logistics have long been planned - primarily co-ordinated by FA media operations manager Joanne Budd - last-minute adjustments to the press conferences will be made depending on which players are likely to play and which dominate the headlines. Players in the news for the wrong reasons are unlikely to be put forward.

Build-up to the game

It is rare for an England get-together to pass without non-football journalists uncovering an apparent 'story', and the build-up to this game is no exception. Wayne Rooney has been accused of punching a student in a bar; the FA responded with 'no comment'. Charges are later dropped.

Friday's Daily Star, though, tries to keep the story alive, stating Eriksson has 'banned Rooney from leaving his hotel room'.

'This is the unfair side of working with the national team - the magnitude of what we're faced with,' Bevington reflects.

The story appears to confirm hotel staff and the FA's suspicions that undercover reporters are lingering in the public bar. Football journalists always respect the FA's requests not to stay in the team hotel. After this type of story, Bevington says the 'spirit of co-operation' between the FA and the football writers often comes close to fracture.

Bevington and Budd's mobiles ring frequently with requests for non-scripted access to players or staff. BBC Radio 5 wants Trevor Brooking; Sky's Soccer AM wants five minutes with any player; BBC commentator John Motson needs a chat with Eriksson; Bury FC want one of the Neville brothers to appeal for fans to attend an upcoming game.

But aside from last-minute interviews, most England-related quotes that appear in the days before a game are fruits of the FA pre-match PR planning process, with embargoes very much to the fore.

A Steven Gerrard interview by FA website editor Dan Freedman on Wednesday is first aired online, with certain quotes held back for the press to use on Friday. Similarly, quotes from today's Frank Lampard press conference are also embargoed for later use.

Bevington also counsels the players and coaches, Eriksson included, on what the media are likely to discuss, as well as advising on 'key words' and the 'FA line'. Eriksson doesn't cultivate relationships with particular journalists and certainly appreciates Bevington's advice, telling PRWeek on the way to Old Trafford: 'Adrian is always feeding me the news, what is going on.'

Eriksson says he does not pay 'very much attention' to coverage - although he accepts it 'sometimes goes over the top'. He cites coverage following a 2-2 draw in Austria last year, which saw The Sun comparing then-keeper David James to a donkey. The players refused media duties after the next game, a story which itself generated news.

Likewise, Eriksson says criticism of a 0-0 draw against Holland in February was 'too negative'. But he adds: 'You have to accept it, it's their opinion.'

In a truly-felt echo of Bevington's own sentiments, when asked whether he enjoys media work Eriksson replies: 'As long as it's football, it's very good; when it is news, it is not so good... my role is to turn press interest to a positive.'

Bevington also advises England coach Steve McLaren, who is interviewed by eight writers from the Sunday papers on Friday. The interview creates a minor headache when Bevington suspects that a comment about winning taking priority over entertaining fans may dominate resultant headlines.

The Sunday journalists are later called to sound out the angle they are planning; Bevington stresses that McLaren's comments should be taken in context (which they largely are).

In contrast to the round-the-table informality of the McLaren session, the Eriksson and player interviews (Lampard and Rio Ferdinand) are held in separate rooms - for TV, radio and print - at Old Trafford on Thursday and Friday, and create a feisty media circus.

Inevitably one TV crew has arrived without accreditation - FA comms administrator Che Conteh (on door control) politely refuses them entry. The crew (one of whom admittedly hampers attempts to get in by declaring: 'We're from 2DF... no we're not, we're from ZDF'), clearly got their house in order later as they are spotted in the TV briefing room the following day.

For Eriksson the TV-room session lasts 13 minutes - broadcast live on Sky - with the Swede then whisked into the radio journalists' room: their questions, nine minutes overall, are similar, aside from one, when he is amusingly asked whether he will allow the players to eat Easter eggs over the weekend.

Easter eggs had actually been raised as a potential photo prop earlier in week, with a snapper wanting Lampard to pose with one.

'We killed it with props about two years ago,' says Bevington, remembering when, for example, players posed by a milestone on the way to Belgium/Holland for Euro 2000: 'It looked more like a tombstone.'

'We do try and help with pictures, though,' he adds. 'Taking players to high points with good vantage points often works.'

The third and final press conference, for around 40 hacks and around 15 snappers, is more relaxed and Eriksson's answers are notably less staccato.

Press are most testing media

With the cameras absent, Bevington can even engage in some joshing before reminding journalists of quote embargoes and allowing questions to begin.

The press, Bevington later says, are usually the most 'testing' media, setting the news agenda.

The 20-minute session ends with a cute PR move: a young competition winner is allowed to ask Eriksson a couple of questions. The Swede arguably gives his most effusive answers all morning.

When kick-off arrives the England headlines have, for this game at least, been largely upbeat. Bevington and Budd are pleased.

At half-time Northern Ireland have held England at 0:0 - worrying, considering the hammering most hacks expect. Bevington is in the journalist hospitality room, hoping for goals in the next 45 minutes.

Four England goals duly arrive in the second half and the FA PROs breathe easily - Sunday's headlines will be positive.

'The PR is certainly easier if we win,' Bevington tells PRWeek with a degree of understatement.

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