Category Archives: sporting evasion

The curious timing of Ranieri’s removal

What do Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the owner of Leicester City Football Club, and Jo Moore, once a special adviser to Tony Blair’s government, have in common?

They both know that a busy news day is a good time to bury embarrassing stories.

Moore will forever be associated with the phrase that “this is a good day to bury bad news” which she uttered after the attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11.

Her only fault was to state baldly what every corporate and political organisation does: ensure there is a clear run for good news and plenty of distractions when an uncomfortable announcement has to be made.

This approach explains the strange timing of Vichai’s announcement that he was sacking the Leicester City’s manager Claudio Ranieri.

The team had just performed well in the Uefa’s Champions League and has a good chance of winning the second leg. Nor was there a high-profile replacement to slot in later that day. And Ranieri was not sacked after a humiliating FA Cup exit the previous weekend, which might have made sense.

The only explanation is that the manager’s sacking was carefully orchestrated by the owner, the ceo Susan Whelan and the director of football Jon Rudkin to take place when there was strong competition for lead story in the media.

So, it is a fair assumption that when Ranieri received the dreaded vote of confidence a couple of weeks ago (all too often a forerunner to the sack), the question was not if, but when he would be fired.

And you can be certain that, from that moment, Vichai, his management team and PR advisers would have been looking for the best timing to minimise the wider impact of a decision that was always going to cause anger and distress that would extend beyond the football world.

February 23rd would have been pencilled in as an early target date. Media and public attention would have been diverted by the two of the most important parliamentary by-elections in many years – and the fallout from the results was certain to last for the rest of the week.

The date began to look even more attractive last Monday with forecasts (later fulfilled) that Britain would be ravaged by Storm Doris a few days later.

Add in the bonuses of the Iraqi government attack on Mosul (with lots of headline grabbing film coverage of the fighting) as well as the decision to sentence the murderer of a popular children’s author and the case for a Thursday announcement becomes irresistible.

If further proof of the strategic plan were needed, it came with the meeting between owner and players after Wednesday’s Uefa Champions League match.

The timing appears nonsensical as it is ridiculous to expect a coherent response from players who were physically and mentally drained after one of the toughest games of the season.

Unless of course you have decided to sack the manager the next day, need to spin a story about player discontent and have to act before any challenges can be made to that version.

There is of course a limit to damage limitation – social media went into meltdown (though the timing of the announcement ensured the impact was minimised) and it was the lead sports story on radio, TV, on line news sites and the written press.

But the sacking had to fight hard to get near the top of the main news agenda – let alone to lead it. On a quieter day, it would undoubtedly have been the top story.

That does matter. Remember that the owners have a global commercial brand to protect as well their image as football owners.

Ulimtately, the removal of Ranieri was a reminder of the way owners and their chief executives like to spin failure as the fault of the manager, while being all too ready to bask in the fruits of success.

At the end of last season, VIchai’s media managers were careful to ensure a careful branding of the owner and his senior managers as the publicity shy unsung heroes without whom Ranieri could not succeed.

No newspaper was more complimentary in lauding this faux modesty than the Telegraph

And even the Guardian, usually a reluctant fan of global business tycoons, was grudgingly generous

Failure of course is a different matter. Ranieri alone is paying the price with his departure is presented as “painful but necessary”.

But that will always be the case in the modern Premier League.

Owners and chief executives will always bask in the glory of success, but, even though they hold the purse strings and ultimately set the club’s culture, they will always blame the manager when things go wrong on the pitch.




Is McEnroe really helping Sharapova’s drug defence


Were John McEnroe’s comments on Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test as supportive of her as much of the media appears to believe? A close reading of what he actually said suggests that, far from being helpful, he was – intentionally or otherwise – undermining her case.

The article in today’s Times of London was characteristic of those who decided he was backing Sharapova. The headline stated: ‘McEnroe defends Sharapova and says he would have taken drug’

In the first paragraph of the story, tennis correspondent Barry Flatman writes: ‘John McEnroe is not renowned for his compassion towards other competitors but the outspoken former player has defended Maria Sharapova after she admitted to taking a banned drug and said he would have used it.’

But, a careful look at what McEnroe says provides evidence that his ‘defence’ of her actions has done much more damage to her case than the comments of most of her critics.

Her case depends on a rigid adherence to a simple narrative; that she took meldonium occasionally under medical supervision to address heart problems and because of a family history of diabetes; and that she made a “huge mistake” in failing to realise that the drug had gone on to the banned list.

McEnroe’s words cast doubt on both elements of this narrative.

By saying it was acceptable to use a prescription drug as a performance enhancer even if it was developed for other medical uses, he is, at the very least, raising the possibility that she could have used the drug for this purpose.

Look at his words as he insisted he would have used the drug if it had been available in his playing days. “If a drug is legal? That is like a no-brainer. I mean, are you kidding?…. People have been looking since the beginning of time for an edge, and you’re constantly looking for these things in any shape or form.”

He is stating that it is acceptable to do things that her lawyers and public relations people are insisting she has not done.

Nor is McEnroe helpful when he comments on her argument that she was unaware of the change in rules. “It would be hard to believe that no-one in her camp, the 25 or 30 people that work for her, or Maria herself had no idea that this happened,” he said.

So far from supporting her narrative he has, intentionally or not, done an extremely good job in undermining it. And he has added credibility to those who don’t accept her version – as opposed to the legality – of her version of events.

Of course, it may be that, as her supporters hope, there is incontrovertible evidence that she only took these drugs for medical purposes.

But, even if that is the case, she still has to answer why she embarked on a public relations and legal strategy that only makes sense if she has something to hide.

Sharapova’s latest tricks to avoid drug charge

The battle to establish blame for Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test has intensified as the latest elements of her strategy become clear.

See my earlier blogs to understand the way she launched her counter-attack.

As her legal and public relations campaign gains momentum, the aim now is to define the precise question that will be asked by the public, her fellow tennis professionals, the tennis authorities and, most importantly, her sponsors.

The questions her public relations managers want to avoid are these: why was she using a drug for a decade that many others were clearly taking to enhance their performances? This of course was the reason it was banned. Should she not have been more careful when deciding to take such a controversial drug? Is the drug so important to her health that she will have to continue taking it?

She may be one of the few people not taking the drug for performance enhancing purposes – but it still raises the question why so many athletes at the peak of their fitness seemed to be suffering from illnesses that could only be treated with this drug.

In other words, while using the drug meldonoium until the start of this year was technically legal, did her motives stink?

She may have perfectly legitimate answers but it is clear that her minders want to divert attention away from this question.

Instead they want to drag the issue back to her initial defence which was that she was responsible for making a “huge mistake” which is much easier for them to argue with the tennis authorities.

The problem with sustaining this defence is that it is hugely implausible. As many commentators have noted, Sharapova has a strong team of advisers with expertise in public relations, every other aspect of her public image and of course her physical health.

It seems almost inconceivable that she and her team could allow such an error to occur.

And the strategy used in recent days shows that her team realised how weak this position was and that it needed to be backed up by a robust additional tactics.

Some of the elements of this strategy are in place. At its heart is the attempt to discredit everyone who might try to hold her to account.

Her latest Facebook statement is another masterpiece of public relations spin. She reiterates that her comments are all part of her open and honest strategy and she says she has no excuses.

However she also spends several paragraphs providing excuses for failing to be aware the drug was banned from the start of the year. “The communications? They were buried in newsletters, websites, or handouts,” she wrote.

“In order to be aware of this ‘warning’, you had to open an email with a subject line having nothing to do with anti-doping, click on a webpage, enter a password, enter a username, hunt, click, hunt, click, hunt, click, scroll and read.

“I guess some in the media can call that a warning. I think most people would call it too hard to find.”

As others examine the communications, we will discover how legitimate her complaint is – but for now it serves as a clever attempt to explain the “big mistake.”

A second element is to make a generalised attack on her critics – a well-known diversionary tactic used by any organisation under pressure.

She condemned “distorted and exaggerated” reporting; most interestingly she denied taking meldonium every day.

I have looked at a lot of the coverage and I don’t recall anyone saying she was taking the drug every day – but just in case someone did, one can say for certain that this was hardly one of the major allegations.

In fact the only person I remember citing the allegation was her lawyer John J Haggerty. He said he wanted to “disabuse the fact that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that’s simply not the case.”

It is very clever; deny an allegation that, if it was made at all, is totally absurd; create the impression that is a widely-made allegation by denying it several times. And then argue that this probably non-existent allegation is evidence of “distorted and exaggerated” reporting.

This passive aggressive defence (using an image of injured innocence and human eroor to soften a hard-nosed legal strategy) has been as effective as it possibly could be.

And I don’t know whether Sharapova used the drug in all innocence or was aware that it could give her a performance advantage if used in certain quantities.

But the way she is conducting her campaign – particularly the mix of PR spin and legal aggression – mean that I wouldn’t find her case convincing if I was in a jury hearing their evidence.

Why Maria Sharapova used such deceitful tactics

There is now more evidence of the ruthless skill with which Maria Sharapova’s press advisers staged her announcement that she had failed a drugs test.

Their aim was clear from the start; deliver a stage-managed performance of contrition and apology that would gain sympathy from the public and make it easy for her fellow professionals to support her – as many did, using words such as “courage,” “integrity” and “class.”

As an added bonus, a video of her performance could be put on her website which would help reinforce her message.

They reasoned that a sympathetic narrative would help their negotiations with the tennis authorities

So there were considerable gains to be made from staging this event.

But there was one real danger. The carefully constructed edifice might come tumbling down if well-informed journalists started asking her searching questions about mildronate/meldonium at the press conference.

The tactics to ensure this did not happen were very clever. First there were rumours that she was announcing her retirement – so media outlets would send a tennis specialist rather than an expert on drugs in sport.

Secondly the announcement had to be made as quickly as possible to ensure that no rumours dribbled out about failed drug tests and particularly her use of meldonium. Had this happened, well-briefed specialist journalists would have challenged her more effectively and aggressively than those at the event, whose questions were so banal they could remain on the video used on her website.

The importance of protecting Sharapova from cross-examination became clear within hours. By then questions were being asked about a range of issues including the number of times she had been warned; whether she was justified in using the drug for 10 years; who else had been using the drug; whether she was still using the drug for medical purposes; and why she was using a drug that had not been approved for use in the USA.

By then of course there was no Sharapova to provide answers. She might have been able to do so but it was a risk her handlers simply could not afford to take.

And I suspect the commitment to “openness and honesty” she made in her statement will not extend to another press conference with a better-prepared media.

Indeed it looks as if her strategy will now revert to a hard-nosed lawyer-driven approach where she will use every trick to minimise the consequences of her actions.

Her lawyer, John J Haggerty, has already refused to say where she acquired the meldonium, describing it as “an over-the-counter drug” which could be bought in many countries.

“I do want to disabuse the fact that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that’s simply not the case,” he said. “The dosage Maria was taking was substantially less than any dosage that has been linked with the performance-enhancing attributes of mildronate.” Haggerty said Sharapova’s medical records would be shared with the International Tennis Federation and would “make it clear that the medical treatment was necessary and recommended by her doctor”.

He insisted there was “no evidence whatsoever” she intended to cheat, which would rule out a four-year ban; and he argue there were “substantial mitigating factors” justified a ban of “significantly below” the next entry point of two years.

I have no idea how strong her case is: but I am now more certain that we should watch very carefully to see how she tries to balance a soft image and tough negotiation.

The cleverness of Maria Sharapova’s deception

You can say what you like about Maria Sharapova – but she does employ a very classy public relations team.

They ensured that she put over her pretty fragile defence against drug taking allegations as effectively as possible; and they did as much as possible to protect the Sharapova brand, which she no doubt hope will be a major money earner long after she has ceased to be a star tennis player.

Let’s take a careful look at team Sharapova’s tactics.

Make no mistake; everything she did at the press conference on March 7th was aimed at taking control of the agenda. Every image, word and gesture was carefully calculated – interesting too that a video of the press conference is on her website –

And it is worth contrasting her approach and that of others facing similar accusations.

First, Sharapova made the announcement herself in the full glare of a press conference, ensuring her chosen words were the ones that lead the reporting; on most occasions these types of story leak out, leaving the accused always on the defensive.

It was clever too because it appeared to have the openness of a press conference; but reporters did not have a chance to research the drug in question, so the few questions asked were banal in the extreme. For example, no-one asked if she was still taking the drug.

Secondly, note the amount of time and effort spent on getting her look correct. She wore a sober black top with long sleeves and black trousers.

What a contrast with her usual image. I cannot remember any similar outfit worn by her before. On formal occasions, she sometimes wears black but usually with a relatively short skirt, and most of the images of her include short skirts, crop tops and bare arms.

These photos of Sharapova went round the world, defining a new sober image that was reflected in her words.

Then we come to her statement which was a masterpiece of its own kind – brilliantly structured and worded to bring together a series of often conflicting messages.

This was a clear attempt to present herself as open, honest and contrite and ready to take responsibility. This is again new ground – many athletes in a similar position try to give the impression that anything that happened was not their fault.

Don’t though be distracted by the language she uses. Sharapova is also trying to say it is not her fault, but is doing so in a much cleverer way.

Look at her statement.

She starts by saying she has failed a drug test and takes “full responsibility.” To which one is meant to respond: ‘How refreshing that someone is taking responsibility rather than denying everything or passing the buck.’

However her initial remarks are followed by a series of mitigating circumstances designed to make us feel how noble she is to take responsibility when she is not responsible at all. She does this by mentioning rule changes (that the drug has only just been put on the banned list) and that she used the drug for serious health issues.

She then says how important it is to be open and honest, as she always has been in the past about many things. Yet, this begs the point that this statement was carefully structured and everything she has done in the past has helped to protect and promote her brand.

She then talks about responsibility and professionalism and admits that she made a “huge mistake.”

There are all kinds of different images floating round here. There is the need to take responsibility, which shows her in a good light but also this mention of a “huge mistake.” She is subtly denying that she is a drug cheat and also getting our sympathy by talking of a mistake – after all which one has not made a huge mistake in our lives.

Then she says she has let her fans down. But the subtext is that she has let them down by making a huge mistake, which is not really an admission of anything. This is a classic case of the non-apology apology.

And she concludes by saying she knows she faces consequences, adding a plea for another chance.

So, what do we have here? We have the image of a woman taking responsibility for what happened, apologising to her sport and her fans and accepting that there is a price to pay – and there is no doubt that these provided the best media sound-bites.

But there is a clear subtext; that she is human and made mistake due to a whole series of mitigating circumstances and therefore should receive another chance. In other words, she has done nothing really culpable.

In summary it is a very clever mix of the rhetoric of contrite guilt and the hard-nosed substance of innocence.

It is not for me to comment on her case – plenty of reporters will be asking more substantive question than they did at the press conference and sponsors will be deciding whether to follow the example of Nike and suspend her contract.

But don’t be fooled by the images and words Sharapova had used. They are but the first blows in a long campaign to preserve the commercial viability of brand Sharapova.

Can Lord Coe regain our trust


Later today Lord Coe appears before British MPs who will question him about the athletics’ doping scandals. It is possibly his last chance to restore his reputation.

I urge everyone to read Matthew Syed’s superb article in today’s issue of the The Times.

He traces how he built his professional reputation when he took the reins of the London 2012 Olympic bid;  explains what scintillating company he is; and argues that his political machinations were forgiven because he was trusted as much as he was admired and was “motivated by the right things.”

Yet, as Syed documents, he has in the space of a few short months lost s reputation once described as bulletproof and has appeared less than short-footed. As Syed says, “he is sleepwalking towards calamity.”

Syed’s analaysis is correct. But I would go one stage further. For me it is the public relations strategy orginally designed to protect him and his campaign that has directly lead to the collapse of his repuation.

Coe made a terrible decision in August when he decided or was persuaded (we will never know) to adopt an aggressive stance and attack the Sunday Times and ARD for suggesting that athletics was riddled with drug taking.

It was a key element of a public relations driven strategy which I have tracked since August in my blogs

This sort of approach – that aggressive assertive public relations is the best way to deal with the media – used to work well, particularly in a crisis.

But the fact that it has failed so disastrously – and has indeed done profound damage to the man it is meant to protect – shows how out of date it is today.

Hopefully, Lord Coe will return to the approach that made him so trusted and respected – and jettison anyone who designed the third rate PR campaign that has brought him so low.

As Syed concludes: “Athletics and perhaps sport itself needs a Damascene moment. It is not just Coe’s fragile reputation nut the credibility of the sport that is on the line.”

Let us hope that Lord Coe listens to Syed.






Lord Coe – media manipulator or leader?


Lord Coe is approaching a defining moment in his leadership of the IAAF, international athletics’ ruling body, as accusations pour out about corruption in the sport.

On the 9th November the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) publishes a report into claims of doping cover-ups, extortion and money-laundering in athletics which is said to show “a whole different scale of corruption,” even compared to Fifa.

This follows allegations that Lamine Diack, Lord Coe’s predecessor as the organisation’s president, is facing allegations that he took bribes to cover up positive doping tests; and reports in August that the IAAF did not follow up on suspicious blood tests.

He can either – as he did in August – rely on the strategy of accusing those who criticise the IAAF’s approach to drug cheats of making “a declaration of war on my sport,” and rely on a carefully constructed media campaign.

Or Lord Coe can announce that he is prepared to take on those who have done so much damage to his sport in clear unequivocal terms.

I claim no expertise in athletics – but I can smell attempts at media manipulation a mile off. And that was precisely what Lord Coe did in August as I highlighted in a couple of blogs.

So here are a few signs to look out when Lord Coe speaks next week. You can find the detail in my earlier blogs – and

But here is a summary of Lord Coe’s approach in August when he reacted furiously to reports in the Sunday Times and on the German television channel ARD that the IAAF did not follow up suspicious blood test results in major athletics’ championships and the London marathon.

In words that sound rather hollow today he insisted that “the idea that my sport just sat there either covering up wrongdoing or just being incompetent could not be wider of the mark.”

And he argued that “there is nothing in our history of competence and integrity in drug testing that warrants this kind of attack.”

As The Times athletics correspondent Matt Dickinson noted on the 5th November, thes comments were a major error. “It was reckless talk that has already damaged Coe’s credibility. He should have declared the need for athletics to get to the bottom of such damaging allegations while protecting clean athletes.”

To me, these words also reveal much about Lord Coe’s approach. His instinct is to use classic PR defence tactics rather than address the questions raised by his critics.

As I wrote in more detail in the blogs mentioned above, these tactics include;

  1. Try and change the terms of the debate.
  2. Challenge the credentials of your critics.
  3. Switch discussion on to the way the information has been acquired, hinting this has been done illegally.
  4. Get your PR team and lawyers to write something long and convoluted.

So, when Lord Coe speaks in the coming days, check to see if he is using any of these tricks.

My guess is that his tactics may be somewhat more subtle than those he used in August against the Sunday Times and ARD.

So, always remember that, even if he does admit that athletics is in crisis, Lord Coe is a PR man at heart and so is almost certain to see presentation as part of the solution.

This means we have to ask whether the cancellation of the sport’s annual awards ceremony is a PR gesture or an indication of a new approach to corruption.

That shows just how far he has to go  before he can appear credible again.

So I urge you: Don’t just listen to the words he says: listen to how he says them.

How Stuart Lancaster coached England


This is not my usual style or content but I think I can justify including this parody of Kipling’s If here because Stuart Lancaster did deceive us into beleiving that England had a good rugby team capable of winning the world cup.

After writing the parody I came across the following video reworking of the poem, which was produced in the happy days before the disappointment of the World Cup. I do recommend watching this before reading my sadly less optimistic ode.


As related by John Lancaster to his son

If you can keep your job when all about you

Are losing faith and blaming failure on you.

If you can be sure that all those who assess you

Will find every excuse to see you through.

If you can wait and hope you will not be sacked,

And ignore those who no longer show admiration.

Or, being damned by the fans, smile inanely back,

And mouth the platitude that you let down the nation.


If you can delude yourself that your team is great,

And you cannot tell the difference between triumph and disaster.

If you can pretend the losses were due to a twist of fate,

And that you remain your team’s best master.

If you can believe the words you have spoken

Had all the wisdom the players needed to perform well.

If you can claim the game your team played was open,

And that you had not condemned your fans to a month of hell.


If you can negotiate a new contract for six more years

Even though you lose almost all the games that count.

If you can appoint coaches who are wet behind the ears,

And whose errors mount and mount.

If you can select a team that never looks too good or smart,

And a captain who rarely takes the right decision.

If you can insist that all that really matters is heart,

And ignore everyone’s complete derision.


If you can choose a number seven whose breakdown skills were undone,

And ignore the one with talent, only because he plays in France.

If you can choose as fly half your defence coach’s son,

And reject those whose skill would have given your side a chance.

If you can delude yourself you have chosen the best possible team,

And that your players are as good as those from New Zealand.

Then, however ridiculous it may seem,

You, my son, will be the head rugby coach of England.


Nigel Dudley (with due respect to Rudyard Kipling

Blowing the whistle on referees

Sometimes relatively unimportant issues provide examples of apparent evasion or deceit. This example, for which I am grateful to Charles Sale’s Sports Agenda column in the Daily Mail, is carried out so crudely and ineptly that I wonder why the person involved thought her statement would be convincing.

Mark Halsey, a controversial former football referee, had been due to address the Sheffield Referee Assocation. But the invitation was withdrawn following an intervention from an unnamed football official to the national Referee Association (RA)..

According to Sale, Laura Ritchie, chairwoman of the RA, sent an email saying: “A senior member of the footballing world has brought it to our attention that you have invited Mark Halsey to be a guest speaker. It is a worry that a figure who is being very negative about top-flight referees won’t send the right message to members. It may be perceived Sheffield RA agree with his viewpoint.”

Sheffield referees’ management, clearly unhappy, then informed its members: “There was an agreement that we cancel Mark after pressure from the national RA and wider football world.”

I am not here to judge the merits of the case, but the way Ritchie has drafted her comment is staggeringly inept and actually damages any case that she is trying to make.

At least her first sentence has a subject, though ‘a senior member of the footballing world’ does not exactly narrow the field and creates the impression that the individual wants to hide their identity which seems pretty evasive.

Then she continues with sentences which say ‘it is a worry’ and ‘it may be perceived’, which of course means that she is deliberately failing to say who is worrying and who is doing the perceiving.

The response from Sheffield is not much better, assuming of course that the RA shared the names of the individuals concerned – or perhaps the Sheffield RA was making a point. In any event, the statement that ‘there was an agreement’ does not state who the agreement was between, nor is it clear which individuals in the national RA and football world applied the pressure.

These exchanges illustrate yet again how important it is to read carefully what administrators say. A statement that appears straightforward actually contains, on the basis of what Sale has reported, a lot of evasion.

If Ritchie wrote that herself, she should get help in drafting; if she was taking advice from lawyers or her PR department, she should think twice before listening to them again.