By Simon Evans
BURNLEY, England (Reuters) - Alastair Campbell, the former press chief of ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, says criticism of footballers has been unfair during the coronavirus pandemic, but the game's leaders needed to chart a better way of handling the crisis.
As well as being a recognised leader in communication strategy, Campbell is a huge football fan and a life-long follower of Premier League club Burnley.
Premier League players have been involved in a public row with their clubs over their apparent refusal to accept wage cuts during the health crisis, which has brought the game to a standstill and threatened the existence of some smaller teams.
This has led to calls from some politicians for the players to do more and prompted some sharp criticism of players as well as those clubs, such as Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United, who have furloughed non-playing staff.
"I think footballers as a breed have been very harshly treated on this. I know a lot of footballers and managers and Ok some of them are their own worst enemy, some of them aren’t very nice people and some of them are very greedy, but most of them in my experience are not," he told Reuters.
Campbell said that comments last week by Britain's health minister Matt Hancock, urging the players to take a pay cut and "play their part", had generated much of the heat.
“I know that at that point, the different players and clubs were already talking about (doing) stuff and you could argue that institutionally football didn’t get out of the traps but I think inevitably and it gets thrown at the named players," he said.
The players have pointed out that many of them do extensive charity and community work and donate large sums to good causes. Campbell says they should not be expected, as young sportsmen, to be diplomats.
"I feel sorry for footballers, they are young men who are very good at football... Why do we expect them to be able to handle difficult, complicated political situations? It’s ridiculous," he said.
"I think what happened, is some of the clubs thought, 'let’s make this about the players'."
LACK OF UNITY
Campbell said that English football, unlike its German counterpart, had long suffered from a lack of unity between leagues and the national federation.
He said, however, that in the current emergency, the Premier League, Football League (EFL), Football Association (FA) and the players' union (PFA) had to work together.
"What you need to do when you are in a real crisis mode, is you need to come together and try to work something out together and that is what didn’t happen," he said.
A conference call last week, between the players, clubs, union and league officials, failed to bring a resolution over pay and other issues and Campbell said such a blanket approach was ill-suited to finding common ground.
"This conference call with all the managers, all the captains and all the CEOs... I heard people said that (Manchester City's) Kevin De Bruyne spoke well, (Watford's) Troy Deeney spoke well and (West Ham's) Mark Noble, but other people also told me it was really a bit of a bunfight.
"You have to have those discussions but now there ought to be a possibility of all of them, not with 100 people on the call, but a smaller number of people, saying 'we have got a bit of a problem here, how do we iron it out? What is the best thing to do?'"
Yet the former Downing Street Director of Communications, who has plenty of experience of crisis management, believes it is not too late for a change of approach.
"It is starting to happen, the Jordan Henderson (charity) thing is happening, some of the clubs are doing good stuff, I think Liverpool stopping the furlough was good, these things are happening," he said.
"It is difficult at the moment because you can’t have proper meetings but the Premier League, the FA, the EFL, the PFA just need to get on a call and say this is where we are, here is where we want to get to, and here is how we are going to do it."
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis)