The press had sharpened their knives long before England lost on penalties, according to former Sunday Mirror star sports reporter

AS ENGLAND RETREATED in a futile attempt to defend an early 1-0 lead against an Italian side unbeaten in 33 international games, the inevitability of the country’s fate was obvious to the trained observer.

The outcome was predictable long before Leonardo Bonucci’s second-half equaliser – and even as the dreaded penalty shoot-out followed the usual script.

The ‘feel good factor’, that had swept the country leading up to the Euro 2020 final, was dead and some quarters of the media – who had lauded the managerial skills and tactics of manager Gareth Southgate – were now sharpening their knives to brutally condemn him.

This is an all too familiar story for sports reporters covering England, and so predictable you could bet your house on the it.

Gareth Southgate (PA)

I should know, as I was one of those trained observers.

The inevitable media negativity, that always follows failure, comes at a price. Somehow it justifies the outpouring of anger and outrage.

The positivity in the lead up to the final was diminished.

This is what the media do best, focusing on doom and gloom, and driving the country into a negative frenzy.

Sunday Mirror Sport, announcing Paul Smith as Britain’s Sports Reporter of the Year in March 2002

As a marquee national journalist, I followed England for over 20 years and spent far more time condemning players and managers than I ever did praising them.

The brief was simple: during an international tournament you avoided any criticism of the team and manager until they inevitably crashed out. Then you hold anyone and everyone to account, brutally dissecting every single mistake.

Over the years, I became so accomplished at destroying teams and managers it was embarrassing.

Nonetheless, like a country starved of success, I prayed my skills wouldn’t be required and that England would finally taste victory.

It never happened, so I carried on putting the boot in, under instructions from my editor.

The hypocrisy covering England couldn’t be overstated.

I was a sports reporter who filed copy for the back pages.

I destroyed the lives of England’s finest with my pen. But the news reporters, who worked for the ‘front of the book’, were much worse – because they used an array of lethal weapons, including private investigators and illegal techniques.

The news reporters had one agenda and one agenda only: get as much dirt on the team and their bosses, as you can regardless – and by any means necessary.

Criminal info gathering activity was rife, and news reporters stopped at nothing to derail the team. This was to the detriment of sports reporters. Because the players and mangers had even more reasons to distrust us, because they thought we were all the same.

Paul Smith announced as sports reporter of the year in Harrods Magazine

In 1990, I travelled to Italy for the World Cup finals as the senior writer for a well-known football magazine.

To say it was an eye opener was an understatement. Italia ’90 will inevitably be remembered for Gazza’s tears, a semi-final defeat on penalties against Germany, and the BBC’s use of Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’. I remember it for entirely different reasons.

Lurid tabloid tales of players sleeping with a tournament hostess, players refusing to speak to the media and national journalists starved of stories stealing mine as they were short on copy.

I won’t mention that I was arrested twice in Sardinia. Once for getting hot and steamy with an Italian beauty, and another time for sneaking into a hotel and not paying.

Oh and a butcher threatening to cut my head off after I slept with his daughter without his permission.

I was quickly learning that following the England press pack was like going on tour with Oasis.

There you have it, the total hypocrisy of reporting on England. But then nobody had any interest in what I was doing.

As a magazine writer, I wasn’t blamed for the tabloids’ coverage of England, the usual hooligans running riot and some early substandard performances.

My relationship with the players was extremely good so I benefited from a much closer relationship with them, as opposed to the tabloids.

On of Paul Smith’s Total Sport front pages, interviewing Liverpool forward Robbie Fowler

I actually had access to the England players, most notably my columnist David Platt, who went onto captain his country and suddenly became an overnight hero after scoring against Belgium to put England into the quarter finals.

Mind you, that all went out of the window like a telly from rock star’s hotel room, when Platt’s head became so big he couldn’t fit it through the door, and no longer wanted to talk to me.

I did try to board the team bus after the win against Belgium, and subsequently got knocked out by the Italian police.

I never lacked courage when it came to getting a story.

Although England lost to Germany in the semi-final, it was the only time everyone was united and behind the team.

They returned home heroes and there was a feel good factor about the England team which wasn’t replicated until 2018 when England lost to Croatia in the semi-final of the World Cup in Russia.

What deeply distressed me about that tournament was seeing arguably one of the greatest players to pull on an England shirt, Bobby Moore, writing for the Daily Sport. Bobby was a lovely man – but to see him working for a paper like that was heartbreaking, and quite frankly disgusting.

But there were quite a few England players who won the World Cup in 1966 who were forced to sell their medals due to financial hardship.

My other memory was reporting with the then BBC reporter David Davies, who later went onto become a major player at the FA.

He was quite humble back then but the next time England qualified for the World Cup in 1988, had turned into a full-on football executive.

He stitched me up by giving me inaccurate information, in a bid to cover-up a monumental bust-up between manager Glenn Hoddle and Gazza, after he was axed from the final squad.

Former England Player and Manager Glenn Hoddle (PA)
Former england manager Glenn Hoddle (PA)

Later, I was mysteriously blocked from writing Hoddle’s book even though I had reached an agreement with his agent Dennis Roache.

Davies wrote it himself. It was sanitised so it could be sold to a tabloid paper, The Sun.

England’s absence from the 1994 World Cup in the USA was rather unfortunate but I still got to cover it for a magazine and the Sunday Mirror newspaper, which by then was paying me a weekly retainer. And trust me, that tournament wasn’t without incident, even in England’s absence.

The first week in LA, a senior reporter for an English tabloid got mugged and shot. I along with some Dutch journalists got banned from a mud-wrestling bar after inappropriately misbehaving with some strippers.

Amongst my crimes, I covered the threatened suicide of Diego Maradona after he was banned for taking drugs. I conned my way into a celebrity party after claiming I worked for Hello! magazine and did some landmark reporting on some of the teams involved.

One of my friends was John Harkes, the USA captain who was involved in a freak own goal by the Colombian Andres Escobar.

Escobar was executed by a drug cartel on his return to Colombia after they lost millions betting on the team.

Four years later, England qualified for France 98 and I just happened to be very close friends with a certain David Beckham.

Aside from the Gazza incident, and the sale of a story prior to the squad being announced by his wife Sheryl to The Sun, Beckham became the main talking point after being sent off against Argentina for kicking out at Diego Simeone.

Beckham became public enemy number one and effigy’s were hung up and burnt back home as the Man United star became the most hated figure in English football.

To his credit, he rode out the storm and I was the first person to interview him and get his version of events.

Two years later I was following England for the Sunday Mirror at the European championship.

Victoria and David Beckham (PA)

England failed to perform, hooligans ran riot and the team returned after being hammered along with manager Kevin Keegan.

News reporters were hacking players phones and dark art practise was rife, as the tabloids dished the dirt on anyone they could illegally infiltrate.

I hated news reporters, didn’t trust them and avoided any contact with them whatsoever.

They didn’t give a damn about the damage they caused and the subsequent repercussions, which were severe for a sports reporter who had to maintain relationships with these players.

When the World Cup came around in 2002 in South Korea and Japan, I’d already got into trouble prior to the tournament. I had travelled for the draw and sat next to the popstar Anastasia and really tried it on with her without much luck.

I recall going to the hotel bar and a couple of locals were eating the local delicacy: dogs. It was a memorable introduction to local culture.

But I couldn’t envisage the trouble that would follow when I went to the actual finals.

It was shortly after 9/11 and the American team were located in South Korea.

When I went to get my accreditation someone had hacked into the FIFA system and stole my identity.

I thought it was very suspicious, especially as there was a heightened Al-Qaeda threat and the identity thief was believed to be from a country with links to extremists. But FIFA completely overlooked the incident.

I wasn’t wrong.

When I boarded a plane from South Korea to Japan, armed police boarded the aircraft and arrested me for being a suspected terrorist.

I was interrogated and accused of trying to plot an attack on the Americans. It made the news across the world while the real suspect had disappeared.

On my release, I arrived in Japan to face further interrogation from the Japanese secret service who bugged my hotel room and tracked my movement.

My wife at the time wasn’t talking to me for daring to go away for six weeks, so it was a great start to the tournament.

I think I lost a stone and a half because the food was rubbish and our base was some hell hole in the middle of nowhere.

England performed reasonably well in the opening stages but I recall having a massive bust-up with the manager Sven Goran Eriksson who completely lost it with me for questioning his tactics.

He went mental and stormed out the press conference accusing me of negativity and having an agenda which was bit harsh. England’s inevitable failure against Brazil in the quarter finals led to outrage and condemnation.

As usual I was told to dig up as much dirt as I could.

The truth is players were quick to condemn the manager and lay the blame on him.

Former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson (PA)
Former England manager and tabloid target Sven-Goran Eriksson (PA)

It wasn’t hard for me to get to players, through their agents, to dish the dirt on the coach.

Of course, the players were adamant they shouldn’t be named, but they were happy to sacrifice the manager to save themselves.

I missed the European Championships in 2004 after rupturing my Achilles during a training camp in Portugal.

Nonetheless I was called upon to report on the team back home and lead the inquest into the teams failings as usual.

My last appearance at the World Cup came in Germany in 2006.

This was the so called Golden Generation of players like Beckham, Lampard, Rooney and Gerrard etc who were lauded and tipped for success.

England’s “Golden Generation” of players at the 2006 World Cup in Germany

And the sauerkraut really hit the fan at that tournament.

The players, wives and girlfriends were allowed to stay at a local hotel, so the media descended on it.

I chose to stay away from it and booked into a separate hotel.

News reporters swarmed into the spa town of Baden Baden where we were all based and it was bedlam.

Journalists were falling out with players’ families and rows were frequent between drunken journalists and family members.

I went to the hotel and had lunch with David Beckham’s mother Sandra and his sister Joanne, while David sat with his wife unimpressed.

Sandra introduced me to Victoria Beckham, who thought I was the clothes designer Paul Smith. Because my name is Paul Smith.

The players’ wives were out partying most nights, pursued by news reporters and photographers.

At one point, I got a call from Peter Crouch’s agent Jonathan Barnett, trying to locate his partner Abbey Clancy who was about to be turned over by the News of the World for doing cocaine. I located her and left it to Jonathan to sort it out.

I think it was the only time when football and inevitable failure took a complete backseat to the wives and families misbehaving.

Not that many of them gave two hoots really. On several occasions, I had told them not to drink too much as they were being followed by news reporters and photographers but they carried on regardless and were in the tabloids the following morning for misbehaving.

I was also told to bury stories relating to fall outs between a number of England players prior to them crashing out against Portugal in the quarter-finals.

Then, predictably, it was: ‘get as much dirt as you can, hammer them and get the inside story on failure’.

The tabloids revelled in disaster: success was a minor inconvenience to them.

The biggest issue with England was the FA and the control they had. I tired of the way its executives behaved.

Other countries would allow their players to talk but not the FA. Everything was controlled.

England went into tournaments like they were the star attraction and the most important team in the tournament when their failings gave them no right to elevate themselves to such a ridiculous level.

England’s participation in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa descended into a complete farce. My paper, the Sunday Mirror, didn’t send me because I hadn’t done my expenses for two years so that was my punishment.

My replacement was completely substandard and way out of his depth so I was expected to cover the tournament sat at home watching the telly.

Many of the journalists assigned to England were lazy and did the bare minimum, whereas I would cover opposing teams in the tournament. In my absence I was still expected to get all the scoops and when England failed to perform and crashed out in the group stage I was tasked with leading the inquiry back home.

The manager, Fabio Capello, was slaughtered and key England players were being held to account.

Well, they were until I got to two of the players to plot their revenge which they did by sacrificing the manager to save their own skins.

Capello was blamed for everything and the architect of his downfall was his own players who failed to perform and then blamed him for their failings.

Ten years on and nothing has really changed.

Former England manager Fabio Capello (PA)

Gareth Southgate has made changes and tried to endear himself to the media. It’s worked to a certain extent.

England’s semi-final defeat in the World Cup in 2018 was surprising when they were expected to beat Croatia but progress had been made and Southgate’s short-comings went largely unpunished by the media.

But you should never become complacent as Southgate has discovered to his cost following the penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy on Sunday night. The brutal assessment of England’s failings and Southgate’s tactical incompetence will be ongoing.

When the knives are out there’s no hiding place, no matter who you are.

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