THE BBC’s Sonja McLaughlan is a fine journalist with a talent for asking good post-match questions and not being intimidated by sullen answers.
Her style is polite and respectful and it is also the antithesis of the braying sycophancy that has invaded some modern broadcasting as rights holders grow more and more nervous about offending sport’s protagonists.
It is a measure of quite how accustomed we have grown to this sycophancy that McLaughlan was deluged with abuse last week after England’s defeat by Wales in the Six Nations because, when confronted with the monosyllabic grunts that are the lingua franca of England captain Owen Farrell, she repeated a question after Wales’ 40-24 victory in an attempt to elicit more information from him.
The BBC’s Sonja McLaughlan was unfairly criticised for her interview with Owen Farrell
England captain Farrell is a brilliant player but is reluctant to comment on some topics
Many England fans seemed to be terribly offended by this as if it were the height of impertinence. Perhaps they felt threatened by the skipper’s limitations being exposed by a woman, I have no idea.
But their outraged reaction felt awfully precious and fragile. McLaughlan was taken aback, understandably, by the outpouring of bile and said it had reduced her to tears.
Farrell is a brilliant player and may well be a decent man but he is terrible with the media and when he is asked a question that remotely challenges him, he behaves like a robot whose machinery has just suffered a short circuit.
That is not McLaughlan’s fault and if you think how a player behaves in front of the media is irrelevant, you are missing a wider point.
Before the 2018 football World Cup in Russia, England manager Gareth Southgate decided that he needed finally to grasp the nettle of the hostile relationship between the media and England’s players.
He knew that, over the course of recent tournaments, hostility had created a situation where England players were worried about headlines that would greet them if they failed.
Before the 2018 World Cup Gareth Southgate recoginised the importance of letting his players talk to the media
Many former England players spoke openly about that fear and how it inhibited them on the pitch.
They would play a simple pass instead of an adventurous one that might be intercepted because they were afraid of the criticism that being bold might bring. Southgate determined that he needed to break that cycle of hostility. And so he made all 23 members of his squad available for interview at St George’s Park before the tournament.
He trusted the players to speak. He wanted them to connect with the public again. He wanted the public to be able to relate to them. And it worked.
The hostility broke down. It may only have made a small difference but, in an era when marginal gains are considered vital, it was worth it. It was a masterstroke in the importance of public relations.
Things seem to have moved in the opposite direction with the England rugby team. Where once players were open and approachable, there has been an increasing tendency, when players are on England duty, to put up barriers and retreat.
Farrell has become the personification of that attitude, a man manifestly ill at ease with offering an opinion. It is tempting sometimes to think that being so nervous about taking responsibility off the pitch can translate into breakdowns in decision-making on the pitch.
Farrell’s unwillingness to offer an opinion is unlikely to be of benefit to his team’s performance
In the bigger picture, England sometimes look like a side who do not know how to think for themselves. They crack in the moments of greatest strain.
Perhaps it is the way Farrell has been managed by Eddie Jones with England that has led to his reticence. Jones’ attempts at mind control have even got to the stage where he has tried to persuade players and public that if someone is not in the starting XV, that does not mean they have been left out.
They are not a ‘substitute’. They are a ‘finisher’.
It is emperor’s new clothes stuff. If he says it often enough, Jones thinks people will stop challenging it. But if it were being imposed by someone in another walk of life, they might be called a snowflake for a trick like that. If you’re dropped, you’re dropped. Deal with it. Don’t try and disguise it.
So perhaps Farrell has been encouraged to be a drone. But instead of lambasting McLaughlan, maybe we should be asking ourselves, and Jones, whether it might be an advantage to have an England captain who did not appear to be scared rigid of thinking and speaking independently just once in a while.
Liverpool can still enjoy more success under Jurgen Klopp
By the time Liverpool lost to Chelsea at Anfield last week, set a new record for consecutive home defeats and slipped to seventh, the looming question about their season had already switched from whether they could recover in time to challenge for the Premier League title to quite how far they are going to fall.
To attempt to reappraise their achievements of the previous three seasons — Champions League finalists, Champions League winners, Premier League winners — because they have been so disappointing so far this season is absurd and pointless, although it has not dissuaded many rival supporters from making a decent fist of it.
We already knew that the presence of a club of the quality and wealth of Manchester City meant it unlikely that Liverpool’s title win last season would usher in a period of dominance similar to the ones the Liverpool teams of the 1970s/80s and the Manchester United sides of 1990s/2000s enjoyed.
Liverpool can still enjoy more success under Jurgen Klopp despite their struggles this season
The Liverpool of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish finished first or second in 18 of 19 seasons between 1972 and 1991. The United of Sir Alex Ferguson finished first or second in 19 of 22 seasons between 1991 and 2013.
It is hard to see any side establishing that kind of superiority again but, if you had to pick one to do it, City are better placed than Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
The question for Liverpool now is how long it will take them to arrest the slide. Their goal now is getting into the top four and progressing in the Champions League. Their season has got to the point, ahead of Sunday’s home game against Fulham, where they are thinking less about silverware and more about stopping the bleeding.
There is no sense — not yet anyway — that this is a Liverpool team at the end of a cycle. There is no sense, if you look at Liverpool’s progression rationally, that their title last year was a starburst and that, after that explosion of brilliance, there is nothing left. The foundations are too strong for that.
Yes, working under Klopp is known to be physically and emotionally intense but this is not a team mentally and systemically exhausted at the end of a prolonged period of achievement.
There is no reason why Liverpool cannot respond next season and be a great side again
This is not Liverpool post-Hillsborough and nor is it United after the end of Ferguson’s reign where both clubs were dealing with seismic moments in their history. The situation facing Liverpool now is different. This is a team looking at an interruption to success, not a full stop. This is a team that has not fared well — partly through bad luck, partly through bad planning — in a season that has placed unusual demands on clubs.
But that does not mean they are finished. Or that Klopp is burnt out. Or that it will be another 30 years before they win the title again. This is what happens when you are up against a manager as good as Pep Guardiola and a side as rich in talent and resource as City. This is what happens when your squad is not deep and you suffer injuries.
Last season, they were great champions. This season, they have been forlorn. They are not a dynasty but they were once a great side and there is no reason why, next season, they will not be a great side again.