Vox in the Box: Rob Smyth

Picture: Johnson & Alcock

Rob Smyth is a freelance writer and author, best known for his iconoclastic columns and his inventive minute-by-minute coverage of football and cricket for the Guardian. He has written four books, including ‘Jumpers For Goalposts: How Football Sold Its Soul‘ (with Georgina Turner) and ‘The Spirit of Cricket: What Makes Cricket The Greatest Game on Earth

Rob, you write about cricket and football, but you seem to have more affection for cricket these days. Is that right, and is it because of the abuse in the comments sections?

Probably. That wasn’t always the case, certainly. I got in writing about cricket with Wisden and I didn’t write about football until I started at the Guardian in 2004. I would say I prefer it now primarily because I’m losing interest in football, but also because of the audience. It’s pretty hard to know what your readership is in a digital age, but if there 99 neutral or nice comments on a piece and one person calling you a twat, it’s the one person [you pay attention to].

And it’s not just the one person you take to heart, but you then take it out on the other 99. I’ve got no sense of what the audience is anymore, but the instinctive sense is that the cricket audience is just nicer. It’s not that you don’t get abuse or negative comments, but there aren’t as many and they are generally far more constructive. It’s a misconception that writers can’t take criticism, that they dish it out but can’t take it. They can. If anything you don’t get enough useful feedback anymore. But being abused in your job every single day would piss almost anyone off.

Do you find that if you pay too much attention to the ‘feedback’, you either consciously or sub-consciously start adapting your writing?

I think that’s one of the biggest problems with open journalism in general. People talk about the whole idea of abuse, and that’s obviously important because unless you’re particularly hard-wired, even if you think it’s washing over you on some level, if you’re called a twat every day in your job it’s going to get to you. But it causes people to adapt what they write and they second-guess themselves. I don’t think it’s all a bad thing because you could get a bit less chippy and strident sometimes, but I think it generally makes people less confident. Not necessarily less confident in asserting their opinions, but worrying about covering every angle. And the point is you can’t; with word counts you have to leave certain things unsaid or implied, but you find yourself trying to cover everything, and that can’t be a good thing. I think it compromises editorial integrity.

There are pieces that I wrote ten years ago that I would never dream of writing now, simply because I would just think ‘Ah, I can’t be bothered with this.’ For example, I remember when everyone was saying Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ were the greatest team ever in England, and I wrote a piece – and it was probably a bit too strong – basically saying they’re a team of bottlers, they’re obviously an unbelievable team but they’re not the best team in history and they won’t win the European Cup. It was completely against the grain at the time, which I think has to be a good thing. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got millions wrong, like I wrote about Ferguson in 2006 saying he was washed up…

The ‘shredding his legacy at every turn‘ piece?

Yeah, the bane of my existence. But in general I think those pieces have to be a good thing, because it’s good to challenge received wisdom. But I wouldn’t bother now, and I don’t know if that’s just because I’m getting older, and that the 28 or 29-year-old me would just say ‘I don’t care what people think’ – it’s hard to know how much of it is age and how much of it is just being worn down by the whole thing.

Paul Doyle wrote a piece in 2010 saying ‘Birmingham will be relegated and here’s why‘, and he got all kinds of abuse. I have no love or hate for Birmingham, but I’ve never wanted a team to go down more than I did that year. He was right, they did go down, but even if they didn’t that’s kind of not the point, because it has to be more interesting than another piece on, I dunno, who might they sign, or ‘Alex McLeish says we’ll battle to stay in the league.’ So yeah, I do think it’s a huge problem. I don’t know how you get round it…but I think we’ll only realise in ten, 20 years time how much it’s compromised us.

I wish a few years ago that someone had said, ‘Fuck off, you’ve had your chance, we’re not doing comments’…If I go to my local Co-Op or something there will be a sign there that says ‘abuse of our staff will not be tolerated’, but in the media it’s the opposite – ‘abuse of our staff is encouraged’. I don’t get it. I should stress that I am not against open journalism per se. I met Mike Gibbons, with whom I co-wrote Danish Dynamite, through the Guardian comments section. And the work I’ve enjoyed the most has been liveblogging football and cricket, precisely because it was a shared experience. But in its current, effectively unmoderated form, open journalism shames the industry.

Your writing seems to be split into two parts – there are the historical articles, then there are the very forceful opinion pieces, which maybe aren’t quite ‘polemics’ but are very forceful in tone. Are there pieces in the latter category that you regret writing, or maybe regret writing in a certain way?

Definitely. The Ferguson piece obviously…even the Arsenal piece – the central point was right, I think, and I was sort of vindicated, but I do regret the sort of arrogant conviction in a lot of the stuff I wrote back then, more so in the past. And obviously you always regret when you get something completely wrong.

Sometimes I think you put pressure on yourself to make a ‘big call’ about something, and go slightly too extreme, when sometimes it’s almost more interesting to make the observation in quite a light, detached way, and I wish I’d done that with some things. I remember writing a piece about why I thought Sven Goran Eriksson should’ve gone after Euro 2004 – I still think he did bottle it with some of his substitutions, but you look back on it ten years on and you maybe think it wasn’t that bad.

Do you find yourself thinking about those pieces with things that you write now, and maybe back off a bit because you might be wrong, or you don’t want to have that arrogant conviction?

Yeah, I think you get more two-eyed as you get older. Every now and then you get something you feel really strongly about and you almost just shut out every other opinion, but mostly I think you get a bit more sympathetic or open-minded, or less strident. When you’re younger you think you’re right about everything; when you’re older you know you are right about a few things.

One thing that did seem to come from quite a strident place was the piece you wrote for Eurosport about football coverage (after Sam Allardyce suggested Manchester United were a ‘long-ball’ team, prompting many in the media to earnestly discuss, at length, how true this was)…

I know some journalists got quite shirty about it…but it wasn’t really meant to be a criticism of the journalists, but of the whole culture – in which we’re all complicit – that produces a situation where, say if someone did stand up and ask a question about tactics or whatever, they would either be made to feel uncomfortable or it just wouldn’t get published.

I’d been getting a bit irritated with all the ‘look at the silly foreign man’ stuff about Van Gaal. It was a non-story, and it was brilliant for Allardyce because he played the media perfectly, he knew exactly what buttons to push, and he knew it wasn’t a story, but was just being mischievous and was just trying to divert attention.

I find some of [the coverage] quite difficult to reconcile. On the one hand you have more tactical and more thoughtful coverage than ever, but on the other you still have, more prevalent than ever in the broadsheets, some real tabloid values. That story 20 years ago wouldn’t have got in the the broadsheets. I might be wrong, but I look at the archives a lot for research and I don’t think it would’ve got a single mention.

There seems to be a sense with some places that they think ‘Well, these guys have this story, so we need it too’, rather than necessarily marking themselves out as different.

Exactly. That’s the funny thing – there are more voices than ever, and yet there are probably fewer independent voices, and everything’s more homogenised. The other problem is that we can quantify things now, so we know things like that will get hits, but whether a broadsheet should really be doing that…I don’t know. I mean, you can’t just chase hits, because you’ll just shatter the identity of a newspaper, and we’ve seen places that have done that. Obviously you have to strike a balance, but I would love someone to just to say ‘that’s not a story, we don’t care, it’s a nonsense and it’s not true.’ If it was true and United were a long-ball team then it would be a really interesting story, but it was a nonsense. People were clicking on it knowing it’s not true, but they were clicking on it anyway. We all do it.

Some people said, in response to that piece, that because you don’t go to press conferences, you don’t know what’s being asked…

Yes, that’s true, but I wrote that piece more as a reader than a writer. I’m not going to press conferences, but I am reading and watching Sky Sports News and it doesn’t ever come up on there, so really that’s what you have to judge it on – what’s available to the reader, not what’s actually asked. And that’s what I mean – it wasn’t a criticism of the journalists so much because I don’t know what’s being asked. All that really matters is what is ultimately accessible [to everyone].

And the thing is I’m sure Van Gaal would love to sit and chat about tactics, he’s obviously quite open about it. He’s quite an interesting guy in terms of his constant honesty about things, saying stuff like ‘I don’t know where Di Maria is’ or ‘De Gea might leave’ – a lot of managers wouldn’t even be that open. Tactics are now quite a big thing, but I don’t think the coverage is that good, although there are obviously exceptions. When you’ve got somebody like Van Gaal who is obsessed with tactics and you’ve got him there for three years, it just feels like a missed opportunity. Ferguson was a really keen tactician, but he would never tell anyone about it really – he took pride in the fact that you could never guess his next team etc, whereas Van Gaal would probably quite openly tell you, because he just doesn’t care. So why not ask him?

There seems to be a bit of a ‘Them v Us’ attitude in the ‘web’ v ‘traditional journalists’ argument, doesn’t there? 

I do think that on both sides there’s a chip on the shoulder and we’ve definitely been guilty of that as well. I feel like it’s ‘getting there’ very, very slowly, but given that newspaper sites have been around for, what, 15 years, it feels quite slow moving so. It’s difficult, because it’s such a fundamental change, but I feel it maybe could’ve been handled a bit better at some point. It still feels like there is a lot of ignorance around what constitutes good web writing, and that the freedom afforded by the internet – freedom of space, tone, subject matter – has been wasted.

The paper certainly still seems to have more cachet. I don’t really care now, but I remember when I was younger I was completely seduced by the idea of the paper. My first ever match report was Ipswich v Gillingham, I think, and I thought ‘This is brilliant’, even though a week earlier I could’ve been doing a Man United European game on a minute-by-minute, but Ipswich somehow felt bigger. But now I don’t think like that at all. It’s interesting that even people in their 20s, who have grown up in the digital age, still seem to be seduced by the perceived glamour of papers…

There will be a lot of people who feel everything is intrinsically devalued by just being on the web, that it’s somehow disposable and somehow matters less…If you have that attitude of ‘web words are cheap’ – although obviously you do get paid less – where do you go in 20 years time when that’s the only medium? You’re fucked, then. I worry about how the whole thing has been handed over, because the relationship between speed and quality is completely out of whack, and as a result a generation is growing up thinking that shoddy standards are acceptable: whether it’s fact-checking, sub-editing or even the quality of writing. You might just about be able to get away with that when you have the considered alternative of the paper, but what about when that’s gone? Of course there are exceptions to this – like the Set Pieces, obviously – but there aren’t so many any more.

It is about cricket, but tell us about your new book…

It’s called ‘Gentlemen and Sledgers: A History of the Ashes in 100 Quotes.‘ It’s written for both English and Australian perspectives, and it’s pretty much a standard history but each essay begins with a quote. So for example the 2005 series has six quotes – one for each Test, and one for the piss-up at the end, and others you only needed one quote to cover two or three series, but generally the idea was to begin on the ‘moment’, and work from there.

They’re all fairly short essays, which was quite tricky because I found so many lovely things, but I knew at the time that I wouldn’t be able to use this. Some quotes are more general – there’s one from Dennis Lillee about Geoffrey Boycott, where he said he’s the only man to fall in love with his reflection and remain faithful ever since. The idea is for it to be quite bright and breezy, so it works in that way too. And after that I’m working on a book about the Arsenal v Man United rivalry, on Vieira v Keane, Ferguson v Wenger, that sort of thing.

Rob Smyth’s new book ‘Gentlemen And Sledgers: A History Of The Ashes In 100 Quotations‘ is out now and available to buy here.

You can follow Rob Smyth on Twitter (@100ashesquotes)



Vox in the Box: Rob Smyth
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