For about the past five years I've been telling people, including myself, that for the best football coverage you should read the broadsheets not the tabloids. There's been a social upheaval, thanks to the middle classes coming into footer, which is reflected in the newspapers. Usually, for about the past hundred years, it was the downmarket papers that were most obsessed by football. Now it's the posh papers. But have I made up this wisdom, based on superficial glimpses of one or two papers? Yeah, actually. Been too lazy to do any proper research, repeating it to myself 'til I've been convinced it's true.
I happened to be having lunch with a friend who is a TV executive and he was saying he had someone on work experience coming in the following week. He never liked to give them things like tea-making and photocopying, but on the other hand it was hard to give them proper work, so they ended up, at least for the first few days, just sitting around.
"I know," I said, "I've got a project. On Monday morning" - a big day for football coverage - "give him every national newspaper and tell him to analyse their sports pages." The day in question was 6 December, a fairly typical Monday, as there was no England match or big European game to skew the coverage.
I told Peter Halewood, the work-experience person in question, aged 23, graduate in media communications from the University of Gloucester, that I wanted to know which papers devoted the most space to football. As with all raw statistics, it takes time to make sense of Peter's figures (see table). For a start, what do you mean by space? Tabloid pages have fewer words, bigger pictures, bigger headlines than broadsheet pages. (And, of course, by "broadsheets" we now refer to a species, not size any more). Pages also contain adverts, and sometimes a mixture of sports. So we had to count column inches. But here are the main conclusions.
Coverage: the basic facts
Most sports pages. Sun 41, Times 40, Mirror 36.
Highest percentages devoted to sport of paper's total pages. Sun 47 per cent, Mirror 45 per cent, Star 38 per cent, Times 33 per cent.
Most pages devoted to football. Sun 28, Mirror and Times 24. All three have pull-out football sections.
Highest percentages of sports pages devoted to football. Sun and Mirror 85 per cent each, Star 70 per cent, Times and Indie 60 per cent.
Next-highest sports coverage after football. Horse racing was next in five papers, rugby union in four. All other sports were a long way behind football, except in the Telegraph.
Number of words devoted to football. I didn't get Peter to count actual words, or he would have been on work experience for the rest of his life. Instead, we estimated that an average sports page in the Sun contained 1,000 words, the Mirror 1,200 words and the Times 1,400. The Telegraph, being a true broadsheet, averages many more, roughly 3,000, but that Monday it had only five pages devoted to football. So the results were: Times 33,600 words, Mirror 28,800, Sun 28,000, Mail 26,000, Express 26,000, Indie 26,000, Guardian 20,000, Telegraph 15,000, Star 15,000.
Total words devoted to football. On that particular Monday, in our nine national dailies, it came to 218,400. That's equal to three lovely novels or two lengthy biographies.
Nature of coverage
The tabloids are dominated by the Premiership and devote little space to the other leagues, apart from a few glamour teams. The Times covered every league and cup game, plus the Scottish Premier League. On the other hand, the Sun had the most comprehensive Premiership coverage, devoting two pages to each game and giving ratings for each player, masses of stats and a groovy graph that charts their previous 20 games.
First-person columns by star players seem to have disappeared. When I was a lad, every popular paper had at least one big name with his own column, even though you knew he never wrote it, probably rarely read it. That Monday, only the Times, out of all nine dailies, had a current player writing: Aki Riihilahti of Crystal Palace, not exactly a star, but his column is excellent. He writes it himself, in English - and he's Finnish. The reason, presumably, is that star players, and their agents, now earn such fortunes that they can't be arsed even to answer the phone to sweaty hacks.
The Star, Mirror and Sun are the most opinionated in their match reports, and the most abusive, rubbishing players for being useless, fat, missing sitters - and yet they're ever so coy when it comes to rude quotations such as "I don't give a f****" or "the ref was full of bull****". The Times also never uses swear words, but in the Indie and Guardian, fucking hell, anything goes.
The wittiest, most amusing coverage was in the Mirror. Many articles, plus headlines, appeared to have been created purely for their comic value. For example, having mocked Harry Kewell in its Liverpool match report for being overweight, a side column in the paper revealed he was doing advertising for a well-known Australian biscuit called Tim Tams. It then listed other players who might do biscuit advertising: Arsenal's goalie Manuel Almunia could do Cadbury's Fingers, Everton could do Wagon Wheels - as their wheels are about to fall off - and Gary McAllister could do Garibaldi biscuits. Gerrit? The Times has some good funny stuff in its Hairdryer column, which is all fictional, while the Guardian has Clogger, which is full of jokey comments.
Best paper for football
Is a value judgement, of course, depending on which you are used to, which writers you happen to like, what amuses you.
I asked Peter for his favourite. "I can see that the Times and Guardian are the most informative and best written, but if I had to pick just one paper for football on a Monday, it would be the Sun. I think its coverage is excellent. Next would be the Mirror." My own choice is the Times - but only on a Monday for The Game section, which is first-class: so much info, coverage and good ideas. On a Saturday, I prefer the Guardian. Other days, I read the Indie, but that's partly habit and loyalty.
We looked at only one day, but I was right on my general assumption. Factually, the Times came out best for football coverage. But aren't we lucky these days, we footer fans? So much space, attention, intelligence, research and wit gets devoted in all the dailies to our special interests.