ONE way or another, I’ve worked with Peter Spencer for seven years. I can confirm he’s very enthusiastic about sport. So enthusiastic, in fact, that he once texted me at 6.57am with some story ideas for the next day’s Manchester Evening News. Let’s just say that I didn’t respond straight away.
I can also confirm that he’s a pretty strong-willed character. One of his experiences as an amateur league football referee proves that. Five years ago, he was officiating at a Lancashire and Cheshire League game at Hough End, in south Manchester, when a player punched him in the face. A lot of referees would have given up the whistle after that. Not Peter.
The M.E.N’s sports editor has a skin as thick as a rhino’s. He needs it at the moment. Peter’s nominations for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award have whipped up a Twitstorm of the like not seen since someone else did something a bit controversial last week.
It’s a shortlist that has even attracted the Twitter wrath of a four-time Olympic gold medallist (Matthew Pinsent called it “insulting”), while one BBC reporter, Five Live tennis correspondent Jonathan Overend, described it as a “spoilt ballot paper”.
You’ll probably know who Peter went for by now. If not, let me tell you that the four names on his 10-strong shortlist that really raised people’s hackles were: Dimitar Berbatov, Paul Scholes, Yaya Toure and Patrick Vieira. They wouldn’t have been on my shortlist, but as Peter put it himself on Twitter: “It’s all about opinions.”
Now say what you like about Peter (many have over the years, including me), but he’s not one to go hiding when controversy pulls into the office car park blaring its horn. And so, as the Manchester Evening News found itself trending on Twitter, the sports editor put himself in front of a camera to explain his choices for the paper’s website.
“Right, well I’ve started work as normal today, and I expected it to be a pretty straightforward day getting tomorrow’s paper going,” he began. “But apparently, I’m at the centre of some controversy.”
He certainly is. But let us start with the straightforward choices. Three of Peter’s nominations – Open golf champion Darren Clarke, US Open winner Rory McIlroy and England Test cricket captain Andrew Strauss – have made the BBC’s final 10 shortlist, and those decisions are hard to dispute. He also voted for Heywood-based 10km open water swimming world champion Keri-Anne Payne, who was very unfortunate not to make the national list.
The selections of Lancashire cricket captain Glen Chapple and bowler James Anderson invited some accusations of parochialism. Yes, Chapple captained Lancs to their first County Championship since the Neolithic era, which was a big deal up here in the North West. But nationally? Probably not. No one suggested Chris Read should get the award for skippering Nottinghamshire to an equally-dramatic last-day title in 2010, and they haven’t won it that often either.
Anderson, meanwhile, has had a good year, but the ICC will tell you that his England team-mate Jonathan Trott had a better one. And it was Alastair Cook, not the Burnley Express, who was man of the series as England retained the Ashes in Australia so emphatically.
It was the inclusion of the four footballers – two from Manchester United, two from Manchester City – that caused the real grumbling, though. Vieira and Scholes both retired in the summer; Berbatov didn’t even make the bench for the Champions League final; Toure has come good after a slow start at City, but was well behind Vincent Kompany in the running for the club’s player of the season award.
So why pick them? Well, Peter’s reasoning was that Berbatov was United’s top scorer as they won a record 19th league title last season, while Toure scored the goals that won the FA Cup semi-final and final for City.
Scholes and Vieira, meanwhile, were picked for their overall career achievements. However, the Sports Personality of the Year isn’t intended to be a lifetime achievement award, even if Ryan Giggs won it in 2009 for no logical reason whatsoever when it should have gone to Jessica Ennis.
Twitter does instant sarcasm very well. It was not slow to respond. “Manchester Evening News nominations for BBC Sports Personality of the Year included Dimitar Berbatov,” tweeted Oliver Kay of The Times. “Clincher must have been goal v Aldershot.”
Phil Agius, sports editor of the Racing Post, tweeted: “Manchester Evening News kicking themselves for forgetting to nominate Kevin Webster, Karl Pilkington and the drummer out of Northside.”
Some of the responses were rather angrier. Here’s the BBC’s Overend: “Loads of chat today about SPOTY main story; the shameful, disrespectful nominations of the Manchester Evening News. #spoiltballotpaper”
(Twitter also does misinformed sarcasm well. A lot of people who slated Peter for nominating Vieira, Berbatov and Toure claimed that foreigners – for want of a better word – are ineligible. They’re not, as long as they live in the UK, and play most of their sport over here.)
I suspect Peter won’t get an invite to be a nominating judge next year, which will at least mean he can sit back and watch someone else take all the flak.
And there will be flak. This happens, one way or another, every November. The BBC announces its shortlist, based on the nominations of sports editors across the country, and people scratch their heads as they bemoan the choices and the absentees.
This year’s they’re scratching their heads, quite rightly, at the lack of women on the list.
“Keri-Anne Payne: now I’m one of the few sports editors who recognised that she is a top sportswoman,” said Peter on his website video.
“There’s hardly any women been nominated this year. That isn’t my fault, it’s just how things have panned out.
“But I, in fact, voted for Keri-Anne Payne, an open water swimmer from Stockport, a grand lass, who’s done extremely well, and is a likely gold medal winner at the Olympics next year.”
Payne should certainly have been on the list, as should fellow swimmer Rebecca Adlington, who won her first World Championship title in Shanghai in July. Triathlete Chrissie Wellington won the Ironman World Championships for the fourth time, and was a contender too. Most touchingly of all, Sarah Stevenson somehow managed to win a gold medal at the World Taekwondo Championships as both of her parents were dying of cancer.
Against those stories of achievement, it becomes impossible to justify the nomination of Berbatov, or Zoo magazine’s decision to put forward snooker player Judd Trump, who isn’t even the world champion in his own sport, or anyone’s inclusion of Scott Parker, seemingly suggested as a token footballer on the basis that he performed well in a dreadful West Ham side last season.
Then again, I don’t really understand why Andy Murray has made the BBC final 10. I know he got to the final of one Grand Slam tournament and the semis of the other three, but surely it would be better to wait until he wins something a bit grander than the AEGON Championships at Queen’s Club before putting him forward?
Anyway, the Manchester Evening News has stopped trending on Twitter now. It’s some guy called Paul McMullan instead. Now there’s a journalist who really can get Twitter’s pants in a twist.
My BBC Sports Personality Top 10