Vox in the Box: Andy Brassell

Andy Brassell is a European football journalist who definitely knows more about the game than you. You can find him on Talksport, BBC, BT Sport, the Guardian, WhoScored, Bleacher Report and plenty of other outlets too. 

Andy, how did you get started in the European football journalism game?

By accident, is the answer to that. I thought and hoped I’d have a career in music, actually. I used to put on DJ nights and stuff at university, but then I thought I’d have to get a proper job. I know – it’s unbelievable, this is my sensible, back-up job. I saw a newspaper advert in about 2003 saying ‘We’re looking for people to write for a new European football magazine.’ And I thought – ‘You know what, I could do that. I’ve got no experience or qualifications, but I could do that.’ So I replied to that, and they said ‘You haven’t got any experience or qualifications, but why don’t you contribute some freelance stuff.’ I was doing a bit of light travelling around Europe at the time, learning French and Spanish, so I started to contribute stuff, then I started doing the World Football Phone-in [on BBC 5Live] in around 2005. I wrote a book on the year in the life of the Champions League and I said to 5Live ‘You haven’t really got anyone doing European stuff, could you get me on?’ I went in that Friday, then they invited me back every fortnight for the next seven years. So the short answer is ‘totally by accident.’

‘European football is quite a broad subject matter – was it conscious decision not to specialise in a single country?

Not really. I just got quite restless, and I want to know everything about everything, while at the same time recognising that’s not possible. I want to know as much as I can about different things, and I totally understand people’s point of view when they say it’s hard enough to have a good knowledge of one league, because there’s so much to absorb. What I would say is because you can’t know everything about everything, why not know a lot about a lot of things, and continue to find stuff out? Whereas I could just write about French football or Portuguese football or whatever, I’m going out and finding out about new stuff, so I’ve got to know more and more about Turkish football over the last four or five years, for example. I’ve gone out and done a film about Ukraine for the Guardian. I knew a bit about those things in the first place – like I did another film about Greek football and the economic crisis, but I found out stuff while I was doing it. I think that’s something that’s easy to forget nowadays, that to be a journalist or broadcaster or whatever, you don’t have to know everything about everything already. The idea you have to know it all is ridiculous, so it’s a joint thing – knowing something, but at the same time knowing that you have to know more.

You’ve got to balance it, to stretch yourself in different directions. When I started writing a column for WhoScored, probably about three years ago, I took it specifically because I thought I don’t really do stats that much, so it’s an interesting way to pull myself in a different direction. I had to learn to write in a slightly different way, and I figured out down the line I could still be myself and write in my voice – your writing should sound like you talking really, maybe in a slightly more formal way – but I think I can still sound like me and drop the appropriate numbers in the appropriate places.

That’s a great, interesting way of looking at it, because some people might take a more conservative route – ‘I know about this, so I’m going to write about it.’

That tends to be the way it’s worked out at school – you figure out what your strengths are, then choose those subjects. Whereas I tend to think about things the other way around – what don’t I know, what am I not so good at, and do that. It’s not a case of thinking ‘Right, I know everything about this, let’s move on’, but more as well as maintaining your knowledge of something that’s a specialist subject, you find out more. European football is basically like the internet – it’s a massive great Pandora’s box. You go in for a quick little look, and seven hours later you’re still there. Nothing exists in insolation.

Britain and England are famously parochial, but even the Premier League, even for people who say it’s the greatest league in the world, they recognise it can’t live in a vacuum – players come from all over the world, then they go elsewhere and people are still interested in them. It has just such an extraordinary spread.

I don’t have to write about PSG or Barcelona or whoever every week, so if I want to write about Guingamp conceding a lot of goals away from home, I can. That’s just a name plucked out of the air by the way – I’m not criticising their defence. Sorry Jocelyn Gourvennec if you’re reading this. That’s just my own interest, and I’m lucky as that’s what I’m allowed to do. I get to try different stuff out still.

I went to the Dortmund-Schalke derby in November, and it’s always an extraordinary experience, but I remember having one of these moments of clarity when Aubamayang scored what eventually turned out to the the winner. He whipped off his top to reveal a homemade Batman t-shirt, and I thought ‘This is a Gabonese fella, Spanish mum, born in France, sending 80,000 Germans, on one of the coldest days of the year, absolutely bonkers while he’s running about with the Batman logo on his chest, in what’s a very local scuffle. Even though Dortmund have fans all over the world now, especially after they’ve been working on their image over the last few years, that game, while massive over there, still isn’t that big everywhere else. To most people I think you’d have to explain that Dortmund-Schalke is intense.

How do you manage to keep on top of everything in all these different leagues? Because it’s not just the football, but all the stories attached to them as well.

You can do it. You’ve got to be organised. I read the papers first thing every morning, and being able to download them all from all over the continent is a massive advantage now, rather than before you were scouring newsagents on the off chance they had a dog-eared copy of Marca or whatever. And then Twitter is useful in keeping you up to. And I’ll watch a lot of games, obviously. I’ll try and watch a couple from every league in their entirety every week, then a few other selected ones. Obviously it’s quite busy in a Champions League week.

Do you get a lot of questions along the lines of ‘This player is coming to/linked with a Premier League club – is he any good?’

Yeah, but I don’t mind that at all. After all, it’s part of the reason people might be interested in what I have to say. That’s the way people connect [with European football]. Although if it’s not a player I’ve watched a lot or seen live at least a couple of times, I’ll qualify it with something like ‘Well, based on what I’ve seen…’. I’d never say that a player I’ve seen twice on telly is amazing, or be really disrespectful to them. Anyone who plays in front of a paying audience deserves respect – you can say ‘Maybe they’re not good enough for the Premier League’ or something like that. It’s something that’s happened more since Twitter exploded – it’s not just the BBC gossip column or something in the Sun or whatever, but people will name search their club and find they’re interested in, say, the left-back from Braga, and three or four people will ask me ‘What do you reckon?’

The difference is now that there are very few occasions on which you can say to a Premier League fan ‘Your club can’t afford this player.’ Last summer Marseille and Lyon were interested in N’Golo Kante, and Leicester absolutely blew them out of the water. Lyon wanted Jordan Amavi, he wanted to go there, and Aston Villa – who I don’t know if you’ve noticed, are bottom of the Premier League – eventually paid more than double what Lyon offered. You’re talking about a team that are in the Champions League this season and recently won seven leagues in a row and aren’t short of a few quid. It puts everything in perspective.

Is the Premier League seen as just a financial bully boy in countries like France then?

Yes and no. When something like the Kante deal happens a few presidents of medium-big sized clubs came out and said ‘What can you do? They’re competing in a different sport to us’. But then, a few months down the line, particularly clubs like Lorient and Nice, they’ve trousered so much cash [from selling players to the Premier League] they just think ‘Yeah! Let’s do it! Let’s sell them all!’ It’s like the last days of Rome! I think the sense has moved from ‘We can’t compete’ to ‘We’re going to feather our nest.’

Are you more comfortable writing or broadcasting?

Well, trying to avoid the Nathan Barley expression ‘a self-facilitating media node’, I think they co-exist very happily, and one helps the other. I think while you’re writing about something and talking about something, you think about it in a different way. Say I was writing a column on Zidane and Real Madrid, and I end up talking about him on Talksport – maybe with Nat Coombs on our drivetime show, 5-7 on Thursday – I have to find different ways to discuss it. You can’t say the same thing three times, so maybe you have to think ‘Right, what else is wrong with the team?’, properly go through the whole subject and think of different ways to frame it.

Do you find it easy to predict which players will succeed and adapt if they move to another league?

I think I’ve got a reasonable success rate, but some of it is chance – luck of the player, did they join the right club etc, a good example being Dimitri Payet at West Ham. I think the thing it tells you is that scouting and recruitment processes still have a way to go in this country. Take Florian Thauvin at Newcastle – I would never pat myself on the back for predicting he was going to be a ridiculous flop, because it was so obvious. That was so stupid, and anyone who watched him on a regular basis last season could have told you that. They bought him, I think, off the back of Graham Carr seeing him at Bastia a few years back, and Lille beat them to the punch back then, and now they thought ‘We’ve got the money, let’s get him’, not realising that he hadn’t developed as much as he should have done, and he’d shown a bit of a poor attitude to coaches before.

I can admit when I’m wrong as well. Kevin de Bruyne – I thought he was going to be a disaster. He got so frustrated at Chelsea because he had to wait, but at Wolfsburg they built the team around him, and very consciously said everything was going to go through him. Klaus Allofs and Dieter Hecking told me just before the start of the season that they made that conscious decision, and he responded to that. I thought he wouldn’t get that at City, and he probably wasn’t going to play as a No.10 either. I thought he’d have moments of success because of the flexibility of those three players behind the striker, but what I didn’t foresee was how much his pace would come into it, which has put him in goal-scoring positions more often. I think you can be surprised [by these players], and it’s good to be surprised. 

You can follow Andy Brassell on Twitter (@AndyBrassell)

You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79)

Vox in the Box: Andy Brassell
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