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Welcome to another edition of 31/7. This one is sort of about Manchester United battering Tottenham Hotspur to win the FA Cup on Sunday, but it's more about:
  • how to write the perfect headline
  • the priorities of wealthy men
  • boiling the piss of gammons
  • ...and turtle-necked frauds!
I hope that you like it! If you do, please think about forwarding it onto a friend, a lover, or even a gammon. Everyone is welcome. And if you're reading me for the first time, you can find more of the things I've written and sign up to be pestered on the reg by clicking right here.



Under-Fire Manager Is Actually OK

I read a headline straight from the 'digital-first' textbook this week. It said: “Under-fire manager finally delivers on promise as he attempts to save his Man United job”.

They’re a fine art, these. It’s all about creating intrigue by giving away the right amount of detail. Too much detail and there’s no need to click on the link — don’t give it away for free! — but too little and the reader scrolls onto the next one either because they don’t think it concerns them or because they don’t understand what it means (often the latter).

I never really got the hang of it during my time as a 'trending writer' in a 'digital-first environment' because I’m no good with secrets. I once tried writing a murder mystery story but I couldn't make it work. Teasing the truth requires you run two brains at once — the one which knows whodunnit and the one which you fake to construct a narrative with characters who haven’t a clue.

Headlines are the same. Look at this one, for fuck's sake. A striker's not making the 'hardest decision' to leave a puppy at the pound, are they? Far too transparent.
Anyway, this ‘under-fire’ headline was written by someone who is still in that burning building, an overworked (probably) employee of Reach PLC, one of the UK’s largest media groups. These are the guys tied up with the phone hacking scandal who produce such esteemed rags as the Daily Mirror. It’s no wonder the headline’s so good; they’ve a knack for doing things backward.

The headline succeeds as a total click magnet because it capitalises on the common themes of two narratives that have everything and nothing to do with each other. As soon as the article lands on the world wide web, it’ll get pulled through to news aggregators such as NewsNow, which essentially hosts a dedicated web page with a list of headlines — no context, no pictures — around popular topics such as Manchester United.

Hundreds of Steves and Maliks were scratching their arses when the headline dropped on Monday morning, hungry for a hair of the dog after a high-octane weekend of football football football on which Erik ten Hag’s men failed to prevent Arsenal from advancing toward the Premier League title. Within 20 minutes at Old Trafford on Sunday, Leo Trossard had scored the sweaty goal which would seal the win and send the Gunners back top and that, largely, was that. A tepid United performance to close out a tepid United season of wondering when things will get better.
Ten Hag’s Reds could end the season with 63 points, their lowest ever Premier League score — and that's assuming they win their final two games. It’s this form which makes ten Hag’s chances of escaping unscathed from a performance review look slim, which is unfortunate given that an inspection of every nook and cranny is a priority for new minority stakeholder Sir Jim Ratcliffe.

The ‘meh-ness’ of ten Hag failed to grab the headlines — mediocrity rarely does. Ratcliffe was at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon as United said ‘HA!’ to their sky-blue neighbours by letting City’s main rivals for the Premier League trophy leave with all three points. Ten Hag was given a let-off from the scrutiny of his new big boss as, shortly after the ref blew on United’s 14th league defeat of the season, a drainage system in the roof of the stadium became overwhelmed by rain and began to dump water onto the front rows of the Stretford End.

Erik ten Hag will benefit from such distractions. It’s been more than a decade since the departure of legendary boss Sir Alex Ferguson heralded the beginning of wilderness for Manchester United, so Ratcliffe’s aim of transforming the club’s fortunes is big. Everyone who would be good enough to manage United doesn’t want to, so while ten Hag is functional, he might just get left alone.
But none of this would have sounded between the ears of Steves or Maliks between reading that an “under-fire manager … something something … to save his MAN UNITED JOB”.

‘Speculation about ten Hag’s future has rumbled for weeks, and you’re telling me that with one click I’ll be handed the latest tedious chapter in this repetitive age-old tale? Sign me up! Wait… who’s this Marc Skinner fella? Aaaach *spits out coffee*’

And just like that, Steve and Malik McMuggins get got by some clickbait and accidentally learn something about United’s women’s side.

When I worked as a Leeds United writer for a news website, I used to do this all the time. Refer to “Leeds United” in the headline for an article about the women’s side then watch the number of hits go up, wondering how many pints of gammon-piss I’d boiled by smuggling WoSo content before unwilling eyes.

Lovely stuff. And aside from the sanctioned glee of misleading innocents in a totally legitimate way, there was also the hope that for every 15 people who clicked on what they thought was news about the men’s side, one might stay and take an interest in a story about the women’s largely unbroadcast adventures in Division One North.
The problem was, there was and is seldom much going on at Leeds United women’s side which is worth putting the kettle on for. I recently wrote in issue 7 of The Square Ball that investment in the women’s side, if nothing else (!!!!!!!), is a smart PR move for moments when clubs need a cutesy distraction.

The Whites women won the FAWNL Plate last March, giving then club chairman Andrea Radrizzani something heroic to share on his Twitter account, which was otherwise being pelted with criticism as the then Premier League side’s threat of relegation intensified with each game.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe don’t know how good he got it. The roof is falling down and the blokes are on course for an historically bad season yet the man preferred to spend his Sunday afternoon watching his team lose an inconsequential game in a clapped-out stadium than watching an Ella Toone screamer secure the FA Cup, the women’s side’s first silverware. OK, then.
There is, of course, one man who stands to gain from all the distraction. With respect both to Marc Skinner and to clickbait journalists, he has delivered on the fumbling promise he made when United lost out to Chelsea in last year’s final: “We’re hungry. They might be winning it now but they’re not going to be there in the future, that’s what we want to take.”

Very prophetic! Chelsea, nowhere to be seen, United, taking… now, what was it you wanted to take? Like a clunky clickbait headline, Skinner is wont to take liberties when it comes to the basic components of a sentence.

After the FA Cup final, this was his response to a journalist’s valid suggestion that winning something after four years managing one of the league’s richest clubs might prompt a ‘phew’ or two: “Never relief, never. We don’t live in that moment. I’m happy with the job I’m doing at Manchester United."

"I’m pretty good at times. I know people tell me I’m not, but I’m actually OK.”

Will ‘actually ok’ be enough to stop the mouths of fans shouting for Skinner to be on his way as the Reds stumble to the end of a disappointing Women’s Super League season? Twelve months after qualifying for the Champions League in second place, United sit fifth and, well off the pace of the league leaders, Europe is a distant dream. For now, the glint of silverware is a fine distraction from the reality that it's all going backward.

More at The Square Ball

Sarah Danby on the ball for Leeds United Women in front of the big stand at Garforth

The Keys To The Pitch

by Flora Snelson

Who is at home? In women's football, writes Flora Snelson, home advantage often comes second to just having anywhere to play at all.
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