Tony Evans is the former football editor of the Times, and a Liverpool fan who has written several books about the club, including ‘Far Foreign Land‘. He’s currently a freelance writer, contributing to ESPNFC and the Evening Standard…
Tony, you certainly give the impression that you’re a fan first and a journalist second: how do you think having a whole different ‘life’ before starting has influenced your job?
It’s given me a very different perspective to many people in the business. I tend not to agree with the accepted norms of modern football. Every generation thinks they’ve discovered it for the first time – and I was like that too – but the reality is that you’ve seen it all before, and you’re a bit cynical at times, but also you say ‘nah, that’s not new.’ The thing that’s different from when I was young, was the only way you could see football – aside from a few highlights – was by actually going. When you’d go to away games you’d get to recognise people, and I’d always talk to the older fellas because I was interested in their experiences. I’d see Dalglish and Souness every week, and that was great, but I wanted to know about Best, Law, Jimmy Greaves – compare them to Ian Rush, that sort of thing, and I’d always want to pick their brains. Today, nobody ever asks me about players I’ve seen – they’re always telling me who I should like, and they [think they] know more than me. That seems to be the biggest change of all.
Young journalists and bloggers – bloggers especially – say ‘Have you seen such and such?’, I’d say ‘No, haven’t seen him’ and they’d go ‘How can you be football editor of the Times and not know who this is?’ But if they’ve just seen clips on the internet, they haven’t seen him, have they? Television and the internet has given people much more knowledge, but sometimes it needs more than that. Even now, when I meet Brian Glanville, I ask him about the Preston Plumber, or I ask Gabriele Marcotti about an Italian player he’s actually seen. Every generation’s different, and you sound pompous when you say it, but the fact that we didn’t have access to so much information means we had a different kind of inquisitiveness, which helped in terms of journalism later on.
Has it ever been a problem being so closely associated with Liverpool?
No…I’m always disturbed when people don’t support a club. I would say that the longer you’re in the business the easier it becomes. I saw Rory Smith talking about it, but you do develop relationships with people and you want to see them do well, even if they’re with clubs that you wouldn’t usually want to see do well – you do get a little bit conflicted. It’s never really been a problem though – even when I started going to Liverpool in the 1970s, I was never one of those people who started shouting at the linesman if one of our players was two yards offside. I’d just say “He’s offside – youse all stupid! Is everyone on crazy pills?” So I could always see with very clear eyes – like with Souness, I’d always say that if I was a ref, I’d give him a yellow card right at the beginning of the game, just to get it out of the way, save the red for later.
I always wanted us to win and I didn’t care how we won: I didn’t go to the match to be entertained, I went because I was with my mates, because of its cultural significance to me, because of the emotions, because the team was a flag-bearer for Liverpool when we were under so much pressure, economically, politically, socially. I don’t get this ‘my club: right or wrong’. If you check in your brain at the turnstile, or worse if you check in your moral code at the turnstile, as we’ve seen in the last few years, I think there’s something wrong with you. I think you’ve got a vacuum in your life and you need to get it sorted.
Do you think that’s got worse recently? Or do you think we can just see it more with Twitter, below-the-line comments and so on?
It feels like it. So many people are…let’s use the buzzword ‘consuming’ their football through television. One of the things about going to games is, if you get beat, you’re pig sick, you go for a pint then 20 minutes later you’re all laughing about something. You’re not happy, but you’ve moved on. So I wonder if it’s that – too many people sitting in the house on their own, watching the telly and boiling over. Also with the heightened analysis on TV inflames the sense of grievance, you slow things down to 1/2000th of a second to show things definitively. There’s an urge in the modern world for perfection, the idea that bringing in replays means you’ll get everything right: the lesson in American football is that you don’t, they still get things wrong. But one of the great joys in this game is getting things wrong. Would we still be talking about 1986 if it wasn’t for the Hand of God? Just when you say the words you can see the Azteca, Maradona and Shilton going up for the ball – isn’t that better than a video ref saying ‘free-kick, he handled it’?
Did you ever have a problem working for a Murdoch paper, from a moral standpoint?
People need to get this into their heads. If you have a moral or a philosophical objection to Murdoch, I can understand that. But don’t conflate it with the boycott: the boycott’s on the Sun, it’s only ever been on the Sun, and to extend the boycott to other Murdoch papers would 1) be wrong, 2) dilute it, and 3) misunderstand what happened in 1989. I felt that in the Times I had a voice to put forward a different viewpoint, one that completely undermined what the Sun stood for, and it gave me and Tony Barrett the chance to talk to a readership that weren’t naturally sympathetic to us, and to get our message across to them, and to tell them what happened. I never once felt I was committing the act of a class traitor.
It’s like what Derek Hatton said – why shouldn’t a working class man drink champagne? Or wear a nice suit? Or work for the Times? Why shouldn’t a working class man have a voice? Why shouldn’t a working class man get his political view across? That is more important. I could never work for the Sun – I don’t buy it, I don’t look at it, it’s under boycott and quite rightly so. Because of that position at the Times I was able to talk to politicians, and talk to people who normally wouldn’t listen to people like me, and point them in the right direction. I don’t want to oversell it, like I’m a hero in the fight for justice, but I was given a chance to play a small part in trying to change the perceptions of people. And if you didn’t take that on, you’d be stupid, and that would be the act of a class traitor.
Margaret Aspinall did a first-person piece in the Times, in which she criticised the Sun and it went right up to the editor. He made a note in the copy that said ‘Do not change this under any circumstances.’ People misunderstand – you would see Murdoch in the offices occasionally, but no-one ever told me what to write. I wrote what I wanted to. They let me do what I wanted to do, and for that the paper and the organisation deserve some credit.
What did you think of as your job when you were at the Times? To just keep things ticking over and put the paper out every day, to improve writers, to put over a particular message…?
I had a clear idea of what I wanted the paper to be. My belief was that most newspapers have traditionally patronised football fans. They think they’re stupid. Football fans are far from stupid. So wanted was clear, intelligent writing about football, I wanted proper analysis, I didn’t want flanneled up transfer stories, I didn’t want a turnip projected onto someone’s head. What I wanted to do was to treat the game – a game which is fun and entertaining and shouldn’t be too serious – with just the right amount of seriousness. I wanted to make sure the reader didn’t feel patronised. I wanted to get the balance right between good writing and good reporting, because there are some brilliant reporters who can’t spell their names – seriously, I’ve seen reporters file with their names misspelt. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, and when other people at the tried to do something different I’d resist them because it would be patronising to football fans. I’m a football fan, and I didn’t want to be patronised. We should write about football as if it’s the people’s game.
One quite famous occasion when it didn’t entirely go to plan was the story about the Qatar Dream League (Oliver Kay wrote a story in the Times that said a group connected with the Qatar World Cup bid were trying to set up a new super league for the leading clubs in the world with large amounts of prize money – the story turned out to be a hoax) – what happened there?
It was my fault. I knew something was wrong about it. The picture we had…it was from the World Cup [bid], but we thought it was just from the same people. My alarm bells had gone off, and I said to Ollie “Are you sure? Because in my experience they don’t use the same stuff,” and he said it was right. Ollie is so fastidious – that the number of times we knew about a story, we’d have it for two weeks and then it would appear somewhere else while we were checking it, so he’d come and apologise to me, but I’d say “No, we did the right thing.” So because he was so fastidious I didn’t react to the alarm bells.
There is a post-script to this, though. I went for lunch with a Premier League club owner, and he said “It was very brave of you to take the bullet for Ollie.” And I said “My view is, that’s what you do if you’re in a leadership role.” But he said that he’d been approached by serious people and the figures [the story said clubs would be given £175m in prize money] were bang on. He said all that was wrong was the source, and that it was something that [the source] had talked to clubs about.
How much is there you can do, as an editor, without undermining your journalist, in a situation like that?
Like I said, my alarm bells went off. I could go back and ask “Why have we been supplied with these pictures?” Maybe we need to go to other people, maybe people connected with the World Cup bid, and say “Do you know they’re using your pictures? Do you know about the Dream League?” We should’ve done better with it.
You wrote very honestly about being at Heysel: did you almost feel it was your duty to explain what happened that day?
It had been bugging me for years, the lack of empathy or contrition among certain sections of the Liverpool support. You can never get this right, and anything you say people will twist, especially in a world where football fans will use anything against each other. A mate said after Heysel “You know we’re never going to see a European Cup final again”, and I thought we wouldn’t, but the run to Istanbul in 2005 brought all that up again. Especially as we played Juventus, and going to Turin was one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever done.
There were two sides to it. You had these Everton fans – thankfully it seems to have died down recently – who would hold banners saying ’39 Italians can’t be wrong’, and then you’d have Liverpool fans who’d say “It’s nothing to do with us.” Of courseit was to do with us. I always said if I was going to write about those days, I’d have to be as honest as possible. I was a prick that day: I wasn’t a murderer, but I was a prick. I was 24-years-old, a young working class man with no future: I was angry. Angry about loads of things: a government that had hung us out to dry, at myself for screwing up university, at everything.
It was a day that, what in other circumstances would have been minor cultural differences spiralled out of control too quickly, because we were on a hair-trigger. You can’t imagine how violent a year 1985 was: a month before the final we played Man United in the FA Cup semi-final at Goodison, and that was far more violent. No walls collapsed, but it was horrible – no civilians, all bets were off. The city was throbbing with this malign violent energy. A mate said to me “It went too far today, people lost their humanity.” The whole country felt out of control. Then you add to this combustible mix was what happened to us a year before in Rome [at the 1984 European Cup final, when Liverpool coaches were attacked and some fans slashed with knives]…that day there were a load of links in a chain, and if one of them wasn’t there then people probably wouldn’t have died. But we were a bloody big link.
You can follow Tony Evans on Twitter (@TonyEvans92a)
You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79)