I HAVE long since wondered who is journalist James Shield’s employer. Is it Sheffield Newspapers or Sheffield United?
Should it be the former, one would hope The Star’s Head of Sport, Bob Westerdale, is very unhappy about Shield’s output. If it’s the latter, however, then Shield is doing a fantastic job.
As regular Blades fans know, watching United is not always the easiest or joy-filled activity. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion. Precious few highs, plenty of lows and far too many disappointments. A labour of love coupled with an unerring belief that one day the sun is going to shine on Bramall Lane.
Reading about United in The Star presents its own challenge. Shield’s brief is transparent. Break news, report the facts, offer an honest personal opinion where appropriate, be objective, challenge the club and hold it to public account. That is what proper journalism is all about.
Public relations is a very different discipline. It serves to promote a narrative, highlighting the positive, trying to ignore the negative and if that’s not possible, to employ a positive spin. It’s about managing the message.
Any journalist who is allowed to adopt the philosophy of PR has secured themselves an easy life. So which is it for The Star’s man Shield?
United manager Nigel Clough’s view on match performances bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Shield. Take last Saturday’s home defeat by Crewe. Clough: “We were good in parts but not enough to win the game.” Shield: Sheffield United were below par but, if they had shown better quality from crossing positions, could well have won this match ugly. But they didn’t.
No mention that relegation-threatened Crewe arrived at the Lane without a win in seven matches and had taken only four points from their last possible 24. No questioning why United started with a lone striker who has yet to score a goal in what is now seven appearances, whilst 12-goal top scorer Marc McNulty and Matt Done (six goals in eight appearances) began on the bench. McNulty wasn’t used. No quiz as to why defensive midfielder Michael Doyle was brought on in a swap for Jose Baxter when United were level and searching for a winner with their leading goalscorer sitting on the bench. As was Che Adams, another attacking option
Defender Neill Collins was last week loaned to Port Vale and has inexplicably been left out of the team since early October. Amid rumours of a row, the player has declared a desire to win his place back and not “walk away.” Clough, meanwhile, says he has been unavailable because of injury. What does Shield do? Trot out the party line with no reference to rumour or row.
On the morning of the Crewe defeat Shield quoted Clough as saying he was “not bothered’ that Davies had yet to get off the mark because he’d already proved that he was one of the club’s most valuable assets. An extraordinary statement. It was a press release if ever I’ve read one and, you’ve guessed it, went unchallenged. Of the six matches Davies has played a part in to date, United have dropped ten points but at least he has collected two bookings. He may come good but that is not the issue.
Reporting on the home defeat to Fleetwood, Clough put the reason down to carelessness. He wasn’t wrong about that. “Having completed 11 fixtures in five weeks,” sympathised Shield, “that carelessness is possibly a symptom of mental fatigue.”
In a recent column Shield said he was baffled while some United fans were becoming ‘mutinous” after a run of five matches without a win (including two home defeats). “Doubtless I’ll be labelled an apologist.” He adds that since he began following the club United have made some inspired decisions and some horrendous ones. But, covering his back, continues “usually, it has to be said, when they’ve tried to be populist.” So it’s loyal, paying fans who are to blame.
For the record, I haven’t heard one “mutinous’ chant regarding Clough home or away. Maybe some of the frustration vented on chat rooms and Radio Sheffield’s football phone-in has something to do with a club which has spent four seasons in the third tier of English football and has yet to produce a side that looks confident of not making it five. Avoiding, to date, six home defeats and dropping 28 points at the Lane might go some way to alleviating that.
In keeping with Shield’s verbose and sometimes irrelevant writing style which is badly in need of a good sub editor, he manages in the very same column to tell United’s unhappy supporters that nobody deserves anything “other than a decent home, food, water and respect for human rights.” Football really is a game two halves!
Breaking exclusive stories – those things that used to sell newspapers – well, I might be wrong but I can’t recall one with Shield's byline on it. I can remember many references to the ‘embryonic table’ which usually surface between August and October. There are endless mentions of the club’s ‘hierarchy’ and, writing in a newspaper that sells almost entirely in South Yorkshire, the fact that Sheffield United are ‘the South Yorkshire club’.
Don’t get me started on the lazy sports journalists’s guide to unimaginative intros. That consists of inserting the word ‘warned’, ‘admitted, ‘insists’, ‘believes’ or ‘vowed’ into a sentence. Often a blindingly obvious sentence.
To be fair, the lot of a local football reporter is not as easy as most fans may think. There are relationships to be courted and developed with key members of the club, not least the manager. Valuable access to players and staff can only be won by establishing trust.
That access, if treated responsibly, opens doors closed to others. A reporter may be privy to information on the proviso it is not published. Information that enables him or her to have a better understanding of events in order to do the job.
This prized relationship could be severed at a moments notice if club or manager doesn’t like what is being reported legitimately and breaks no confidence. It’s a fine line and the source holds the whip hand. Unlike the national Press which has many more fish to fry and many more ways to do it, local media is totally reliant on maintaining a personal working arrangement.
That doesn’t mean their reporters have to become lapdogs with laptops.