Miguel Delaney is a football writer for ESPN, the Irish Independent and others. He is also the author of Stuttgart to Saipan: The Players’ Stories, which covers Ireland’s qualification for international tournaments in 1988, 1990, 1994 and 2002.
How did you get started in the journalism game?
I did a journalism degree in Dublin, and then did a master’s in politics, although I sort of regret not doing it the other way around – most things you learn on a journalism degree you can learn in a year.
At the end of the course we were brought on an open day to an Irish broadsheet, the Sunday Tribune – sort of the equivalent of the Observer – and there were only two of us who went up to the sports department. I got talking to the sports editor and he called me about three months later, which was literally the week I finished my exams, and said: “We’ve got two subbing shifts a week, do you want to come in?” While I was doing my master’s I was working there as well, so it just developed from there.
Around 2006/2007 I was doing sport for them, then I sort of half paid my own way to Euro 2008. The paper sadly went bust in 2011, and it was always on my mind to come to England. While they used to send me over quite regularly I was always telling them we need to do this properly.
Once the paper went I came over here and I was lucky in that, for all the down sides of Twitter, it helped me make the move more easily. More people over here knew me, and I got a gig with ESPN through that – I think John Brewin (former editor of, now writer for ESPNFC) commissioned me for a piece, then that became more regular, and by the summer of 2012 they had a London correspondent role coming up.
Then I started doing stuff for the Independent, did that for a while, then when they went to website-only I was lucky in that Dion Fanning was moving from the Irish Sunday Independent to Joe.ie, so they needed a replacement. So now I’m doing ESPN, the Irish Independent and other bits and pieces here and there.
In some respects, with how the industry is at the moment, it’s almost more secure to be a freelancer. What are the main benefits and drawbacks of the freelance life for you?
To an extent you’re always ‘on’, but at the same time I can pretty much decide what I want to go to. For example I’ve been to every Champions League final since 2009, and been able to write for a fair few people at them. It’s that time versus security thing, but it’s interesting you mention the security aspect because having been through two papers that have either gone or had significant cutbacks, as a freelancer you insulate yourself to a certain degree.
If I was to go full-time somewhere, then if wherever it was went bust, to rebuild yourself after that would take time. As a freelancer if one strand goes, you’ve got others to prop you up, if you like. I was talking to an old colleague who works for the Irish Times, and he was saying he thinks that the future model for journalism – particularly sports journalism – will be based on freelance contracts, rather than staff jobs.
You mentioned Twitter earlier. You are…’active’ on social media, and in lots of arguments you do seem to go in with two feet…
To me, sometimes it’s not as serious as it comes across. For all the downsides of Twitter it does encourage transparency. You can further discuss things if people ask you a question, or if people have criticism you can address that. I had a policy that if people had criticism and went about it in a constructive way, it’s good to engage with it – this is your ‘audience’. I still try to do that, but you also lose patience, and you’re unintentionally…a little harsher than you intended.
The danger of Twitter is that there’s no interlocutor – it’s directly from your mind to screen. Sometimes you’ll type something and you won’t think anything of it, but if you stepped away for a second, a) you wouldn’t care what people said, and b) you just wouldn’t react like that.
People do take it seriously. I had an exchange with Michael Cox about Ireland over the summer, but people don’t know that he plays football with us every week. There’s sometimes a public performance to it. People will say ‘Oh, beef between @MiguelDelaney and @Whoever’, but it’s not ‘beef’ – people take it much more seriously than it’s meant. There are very, very few times I’m sitting there absolutely stewing about someone.
One thing that you don’t make obvious on Twitter is who you support. Is that deliberate?
Maybe to a certain extent. I’m Irish-Spanish; growing up in Ireland, obviously most people have an English team, and so did I. To be honest, I think the job changed my mindset in that regard: when you cover the big teams, you see them in a different perspective. When you write something and some fans respond, you think ‘Did I used to think like this?’
I’m not outing myself as a Chelsea fan here, nor am I singling out Chelsea fans specifically, but for example I was covering them a lot and going to Mourinho’s press conferences every week, so I got to know – as well as you can – a club and the vibe around it. When Chelsea were winning I developed quite a good relationship with some of their fans, who seemed to like my coverage.
But the next season [when it all went wrong] there were ten or 12 notable Chelsea Twitter users who suddenly turned against me. Because of the job and because it does condition you to look at it analytically, maybe you can be harsh on people who are looking at it emotionally. To a degree it’s possible journalists can forget how invested people can get. But any lingering support that I did have has been eroded by the nature of what we do.
It’s quite interesting how fans discuss things. Fans will often criticise things among themselves as a journalist would, but if an outsider does it a little bit of a siege mentality develops. I thought about it quite a lot when covering Spain in 2012, when there was that debate about whether they were boring. Being half-Spanish I was trying to force myself to look at it as rationally as possible.
Being half-Spanish, has that given you an advantage?
The fact there are now so many Spanish-speaking players in England, definitely. If you’re pitching for an interview with a club, and they ask ‘do you need a translator?’, if you can say ‘No, I’ll do it in Spanish’ that’s handier. Obviously players are much more comfortable talking in their own language. It’s handy in mixed zones, for example.
One of the things Jack Pitt-Brooke talked about was defending the concept of the press conference, which can be seen as quite a sterile environment. He was saying you can get to know a manager, look at his thought processes etc.
That’s completely true. Ultimately, for all the talk about the state of journalism today, still the best way to get to know a situation is to go to it and talk to people. For a few months before I came over here, I was doing Premier League features [from Ireland], but you feel a bit of a fraud really. You have to go to things and be around them to know them properly.
I find one of the biggest values of going to a press conference is that if you go regularly, you’re building up a knowledge of what makes this manager tick. You notice how he reacts to certain subjects. Ultimately you get a bigger, more rounded picture of one of the key men in the game.
For all I appreciate that half-headlines from quotes at press conferences seem a bit futile, in the long term you’re developing an insight and knowledge of one of the key men you cover. So when Mourinho went from Chelsea last year, to be able to write about that from the vantage point of going to all of these press conferences, to know how he ticked and what he was interested in, to be able to draw on examples of what he said, did make a difference.
You do seem to be more interested in looking at and talking about the big personalities in the game than perhaps the intricacies of tactics and so on. Is that true?
Maybe to a certain extent. I’m still interested in all of that, but I suppose the differentiating point between all the clubs now, other than money, is the ideas of the men in charge. To an extent we overplay it, which is a natural consequence of the way these personalities are built up, but it’s certainly something that’s hard to deny when you already see the clear difference between Pellegrini’s Manchester City and Guardiola’s.
Managers still have a huge affect, and even if teams still perform to their financial resources, ultimately what’s happening on the pitch still depends on the strength of the manager. The charisma of the manager is still important, every team is still a reflection of that manager’s style and approach.
It’s possible that the money is actually making managers more important than ever. This theme – correctly – developed that said because there’s so much money in the game managers outsourced more and controlled less, and were less important, but I think that’s turning now. Because there’s even more money in the game, it’s not as big a differentiating point between clubs as it was. You can see it in the transfer window this summer: other than City and United, we didn’t see the sort of splurge that properly makes teams better in the way it should have done.
Another subject you talk about quite a lot is doping in football. That seems to be the most difficult subject in the game to write about…
Absolutely. Anytime there’s anything concrete, they don’t quite so much have to be ‘amplified’ but they have to be made clear. As a journalist you’re supposed to be asking questions, but those questions have to be asked properly [with a subject like this], and not be thrown around on the basis of hunches and superficial info.
People will say ‘Why aren’t you discussing this team in relation to doping?’ but you can’t do it that frivolously. If you discuss something like that, you have to have enough research to get to the point where these are fair questions. A team being able to run a bit more is not the same red flag as it is in cycling or swimming or athletics. Those other sports, the translation between body output and performance is almost 100%, whereas that’s just not the case in football. So a non-doped team can beat a doped team much more often than a non-doped athlete can beat a doped one. I am obsessed with it, because I think it’s impossible for football to be as clean as the relatively few examples we have make out.
I get a lot of abuse from Juventus fans every time I bring the 1994-98 case up, but I only bring it up because it’s still the most recent big case. Even despite that being football’s biggest, most recent doping scandal, it ended in a legal fudge for various reasons, but that team are still talked about as one of the greats, when really there should be at least significant asterisk next to their name. I was thinking about this during the Lance Armstrong thing: imagine if your club, it emerged tomorrow that their greatest achievement were down to doping – how would you react to that? If something happened when you were 10-15 years old, it forms part of your consciousness and you would react defensively.
What’s interesting is that people immediately shoot down anything you say, when there’s so much grey area in these things. One of the problems we have is that we immediately place doping in a very binary context: it’s either moral or immoral, when in reality it’s much more complicated than that. It’s very apparent, not that clubs are doping, but they’re pushing the boundaries of what’s clean. Caffeine tablets are used in the Premier League, and there’s a debate to be had about whether that’s acceptable. Bayern and Ajax, both won the European Cup three times in a row in the seventies, both have had players admitting they took amphetamines. Back then UEFA didn’t have a sophisticated doping programme, whereas players wouldn’t take them at the World Cup because there was a proper testing programme.
You’ve written a book about Ireland…
It was partially inspired with the way Andy Mitten has excellently done some of his United books, taking a decade and interviewing ten United players from that decade, and Simon Hughes has done it excellently with Liverpool.
I covered Ireland’s ‘qualification era’ – this was before 2012, so then they’d only qualified for tournaments in 1988, 1990, 1994 and 2002 – and I interviewed ten players from that time. I spoke to Liam Brady, Packie Bonner, Mark Lawrenson, then to mix it up spoke to some who’d won maybe one cap, so I interviewed Richie Sadlier, who turned out to be one of the most interesting interviews in the book. He talked about his career, which ended early through injury, and spoke about how the game had changed through money. Another interesting player I spoke to was Alan Kernaghan, who was from a ‘Unionist’ background in the north of Ireland, and because of the politics of that time couldn’t play for Northern Ireland because he was born in England.
Do you think about the audience when writing, or do you try not to second-guess what people might read?
I pitch things that I’m interested in. You can’t escape the fact that things on United, Liverpool, maybe Arsenal will get more hits, but ultimately I think ‘I’m a football fan, what would I want to read?’ A few weeks ago, for the Sunday Independent, it was a fairly quiet weekend, and I’d noticed that when Paddy McNair and Donald Love left United it was the first time in 80 years they’d had no players from the island of Ireland.
It was initially just going to be a 600-word piece, but when I got into it and started talking to people it just sort of developed. That was a bit of an off-hand idea, but it remains one of the most read things I’ve done on their website. It’s interesting what takes off, something you maybe aren’t initially as invested in.
Is there anything you’d like to see more or less of in journalism now?
Not to blow smoke up his arse, but one of the best recent pieces I’ve seen was Ollie Kay’s on Abramovich. It wasn’t like a big news line, but it was a good, long read with loads of pieces of new information dotted through it.
While breaking news still absolutely matters, that relies on those little sliver of information that can spread anywhere in seconds, no matter if you’ve got a paywall or not. But a piece like that, I think that’s where newspaper journalism should be going – it’s analysis, it’s sourced information, and from a purely economic point of view that’s what gets people behind paywalls.