In the final part of our Swindon Town ‘Confessions’ series, Jason Ludditch reflects on his time as the Press Officer at the County Ground, being gatekeeper to information; seeing waving man bits; and putting banana skins on the cover of the matchday programme…
Any current or former employee of a football club could confess to a multitude of sins they’ve seen or experienced. There really is nothing quite like it. Football and all those who play a part in it, from the players to coaching and behind-scenes staff, board members and all those on the periphery… it’s all utterly compelling.
Club parties, team nights out, away days, events in the players’ tunnel, training ground and boardroom – club employees have a front-row pass to the lot. However, this pass comes with a certain degree of trust. So, if you’re expecting tales of debauchery, misdemeanor and more you might be slightly disappointed!
First and foremost, it is a privilege to see the inner machinations of a football club. No two days were ever the same. One day you could be helping another department, perhaps printing names on the back of shirts in the club shop, on another you’d be driving members of coaching staff to the bookies to place a bet on the nags, you never really knew what you’d be doing.
Some of us would often be asked to drive new signings to their hotel or digs. This was awesome, of course, but a real eye opener. In many case, these guys were younger than my 21-24-year-old self at the time – and moving away from home for the first time. Not surprisingly, some would be nervous about moving to a new area and living on their own. It’s not always as glamorous as you might expect.
Arguably the best memory I have is sharing desk space with Fraser Digby, while the most famous person I encountered was John Motson. Motty wanted a lift from Swindon station when he came to cast his expert eye over a training session in the build up to the FA Cup defeat against Oxford in 2002. We were poor, we lost, and they drew Arsenal in the next round. However, shooting the shit with Motson was epic, even more so listening back to some of the nuggets of info we’d discussed beforehand.
I would often attend training sessions, which would be incredibly revealing. They provided a fascinating insight into group dynamics; not all players get on well, y’know, far from it in some cases. You’d find out which players were loners, for example, or those who were troublemakers. You’d see what went into the planning of sessions, how players interacted with the coaching staff and catch a glimpse of those on trial before anyone else knew about them.
There are worse ways to make a living, but it wasn’t without its pitfalls.
For example, you wouldn’t believe the lengths some players would go to avoid doing an interview or community appearance. Some would purposely sneak from a different exit, others would take so long getting changed you would have to give up waiting. Some players were better at this than others. I remember once having to chase a lad around a golf course on print deadline day in an effort to get an interview and makeshift photo shoot [the photographer didn’t have time to hang around].
It was certainly easier developing relationships with some players than others. Some are complex characters. A training ground is like any office… you get all sorts.
Then there’s the precarious nature of the interview subject. One year, we produced an A4 programme for a pre-season triple-header. Sadly, on print deadline day, the cover star was sold, giving us hours to find a replacement. Whether he knew he was off or not, who knows, but things in football can change quickly… quite often with players unsure of their own futures.
On another occasion, one interview had to be cut short thanks to the repeated high jinx of a teammate [who will remain nameless] but who repeatedly ran out of the dressing room and around us waving his man bits.
Talking of programme covers, who remembers Ilkeston Town in the FA Cup in November 2000? Swindon’s form was sketchy to say the least (one win in nine) and there was an overriding sense of negativity. This game was a potential ‘banana skin’… but quite why we decided to put an actual picture of a banana skin underneath Danny Invincibile’s foot on the front page is still beyond my comprehension. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn’t. I was almost sacked, and was given a good canning by the gaffer live on air.
It’s probably safe to say the press department had a love/hate relationship with players and management staff. They loved us when we won, hated speaking to us when we lost. I can still recall the sense of dread when greeted by one manager’s customary aggressive ‘what do you want’ on a Monday morning following defeat. There was never a right time to call, no correct questions to ask.
Winning and losing is everything when you work in football. The highs are high but the lows can be brutal. As a fan, if your team loses you’re probably annoyed for one night, maybe a weekend. Defeat lingers long in the air in any football club office. A win sells programmes, items in the club shop, hospitality packages, sponsorship and tickets. For a press officer, it means players are more willing to do interviews and community projects. It means press enquiries are largely for the right reasons. The pressure to win, and for everyone to succeed in their particular role, is immense and constant.
The office itself was intriguing. When board members popped in and out mischievously on their mobile you always knew things were afoot, whether it was a new signing or something more sinister. And rumours would always spread like wildfire, from the kitchen to the maintenance staff and back to the office. Simply seeing who popped in to see the manager on a weekday, or the boardroom on matchdays, would be enlightening.
Funnily enough, the media team – gatekeepers of information to the supporters – was often the last to find out anything. New signings usually had to be signed and sealed before we were allowed to a) find out and b) unleash the news. The club secretary or secretary to the chief exec often knew more. In my case, they’d never spill a bean.
The most precarious part of working in a football club office was answering the phones. Our system at the time was antiquated and I once saw the manager pass through and pick up a call from another manager enquiring about the availability of his job, which he had not yet vacated!
On another occasion, someone from accounts answered a call from Sir Alex Ferguson. With our manager in the office the accountant, not knowing who was on the other end of the line merely said: ‘Got Alex on the phone for you,” The accountant never lived it down.
Arguably the worst part of being a press officer at a football club has to be dealing with negative events. Christmas parties and team nights out gone wrong, everyday mischief or worse, dealing with local/national press when the club is embroiled in financial/takeover/political chaos. Everyone wants to know what’s going on. Everyone wants to speak to the key protagonists, who often don’t want to be contacted. Quite often, you’re in the dark and if it involves a takeover or financial difficulty your own future can be in doubt.
Sometimes you can know too much. Other times, when you’re put in a position where you have to promote, publicise or defend something you might disagree with… it’s often you that has to contend with any collateral damage.
You only have to look at the club’s official social media to see what sort of comments current staff has to deal with, and that’s with the team chasing promotion! I can only thank my lucky stars Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist ‘on my watch’.
So, spare a thought for the humble press officer. Better still – buy them a pint. Then you’ll get some real confessions…