Vox in the Box: Brian Glanville

Picture courtesy of World Soccer

Throughout 2015, ‘The Set Pieces’ will be speaking to some of the most influential people in football journalism, listening to their experiences, their advice and their hopes for the future. There was never any question as to where we would start our journey.

Brian Glanville began his career in football journalism at the age of 17, had his first book published at the age of 20, worked for Corriere dello Sport in Rome, covered 13 World Cups and still writes match reports for The Sunday Times now, attending matches regularly at the age of 83. So what does he think of the industry now? 

Brian, you once said that the standard of British football writing has never been higher. Do you still stand by that?

Oh yes, I do. I’m a great student of football journalism, so when people start writing about me as the ‘father of football journalism’, I just know that it’s absolute rubbish. I look back to the late 19th century and Jimmy Catton, the true father of football journalism. He had everything absolutely right from the very beginning. There have been many interesting football writers, but there was a very bad period, particularly when you had an absolute cheat like Desmond Hackett, the main columnist at the Daily Express. At the ‘Battle of Berne’ in the 1954 World Cup, he covered the whole thing from the back of the press box and wrote that his shirt was ripped, his suit was torn, that he’d been thrown over a barrier by the Swiss police, that he’d escorted the referee’s wife to safety…not a word of it was true.

He got a £50 bonus, a new watch and a new suit. He was a rogue. He used to write the most terrible shit.

There’s been an enormous improvement since then and there a lot of very good writers on football now. Sometimes it’s a bit jargon-y, but broadly speaking, the best of them are very good indeed. The level of discourse is far superior to what it was.

Who do you look forward to reading?

Well, I don’t like naming names because you upset people, but I think Martin Samuel does an outstanding job in The Daily Mail. He’s very clever and he does his research, he works very hard. But there are so many other people, I just don’t like to mention names because if you mention one, the others get upset.

You covered England for many years, did you get on with the managers?

It was interesting. Sometimes covering England was enjoyable, sometimes it was very depressing because of their form. Alf Ramsey could be very spiky, but in the final analysis I didn’t get on badly with him and he gave people access. Everybody had difficulties at some point with Alf. When everyone turned against him, he told people that he didn’t blame me because I had been consistent all along, but that he didn’t like the way other people turned on him in the meantime. I have all sorts of amusing memories of him, but he was a very strange man. He should have gone two years before he did. He’d blown it. He’d gone. He’d shot his bolt. I got on very well with Walter Winterbottom, but he was a rotten manager.

There were clashes with other England managers, weren’t there? Bobby Robson in the 1980s?

Oh, Bobby Robson I think was a grotesquely overrated manager. In the end, a meeting was brokered Robson and myself, he agreed to be interviewed by me. I went along to a darkened room in Lancaster Gate and we both had tape recorders on the desk. I was there for about two hours talking to him. After that, our relationship improved. But I thought he was a very inadequate manager and he failed so badly in Europe, if you remember. He made a shocking job of it. He had a lot of luck. We nearly reached the World Cup final, but that was luck more than judgement, I think.

When young people ask for your advice on becoming a football writer, what can you tell them?

Very, very little. I’m 83 years old and I started off at the age of 17 and things have changed so absolutely radically, not least in the last few years. My experiences are simply irrelevant. It’s very difficult now to get in. Everything is changing, papers are shutting down. There are simply fewer papers there to work on. The internet is becoming more powerful. My advice is irrelevant, futile and useless. 

Do you think there are any character traits consistent in football writers through the ages?

Independence. Hugh Mcllvanney is obviously somebody one would choose for high praise. The best of them have integrity: Patrick Barclay; Patrick Collins; Reg Drury.

Twitter has revolutionised the industry. Have you ever been tempted to sign up?

No. I don’t want that sort of exposure.

In your autobiography, you spoke of the disconnect between football writing for broadsheets and the standards in the tabloids…

Yes, there’s an abyss between posh and supposedly ‘proletarian’ writing which exists here, but doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Journalism should be a totality. It’s moved towards that, but it hasn’t got there yet. The level of writing in the popular papers is much higher than it ever was. I moved from the The Sunday Times to The People and I had four very happy years there, and the funny experience of being treated like a human being. Finally, there was a feeling that I was reaching the supporters. A feeling that footballers were reading me. I had always wanted that.

I had 33 years at The Sunday Times and some terrible experiences even though ultimately it was the making of me as a journalist. Chris Nawrat had been a horrific sports editor and turned viciously against me and Rob Hughes who had got him the bloody job, for Christ’s sake. And so I left. But I never saw ‘posh’ and ‘popular’ papers. I always thought they were ultimately a unity in as much as they wrote about the same thing: Football.

You’re 83 and you’re still a presence in the press boxes in London. Do you still enjoy writing match reports?

Oh, very much so, yes. Very much indeed. But I’m technologically illiterate, so I always have to have someone to send my copy. More often than not it’s my grandson, Joshy, who’s 18 and incredibly well informed on football. He sits next to me with the computer and I dictate to him.

And you still do the manager press conferences afterwards?

Well, it’s useful to me because they’re the only bloody people who talk to me. I don’t know any players now. In the old days, I’d have coffee with them, lunch with them, travel with them on the coach. It’s unthinkable now. People like me used to have an infinity of friends among professional footballers. Nowadays, the crazy explosion of wages has meant there’s a barrier between players and journalists. You don’t have the same access. When we went abroad with England and Sir Alf Ramsey, the players and the journalists mixed in the same cabin.

Is that one of the saddest developments, that lack of access?

People like me had the best of it. It’s very difficult today, more difficult than it has ever been. Players are all on millions every year and you can’t reach them. And the irony is that I led the journalistic crusade for the abolition of the maximum wage. It’s changed, it’s gone.

But that’s not the saddest development. The sad thing is that so many people are drifting away from football because they just can’t afford it. The clubs get more and more money for more and more reasons, but they spend it all on players’ wages and the working class punter, the absolute salvation and backbone of the game for generations, can’t afford to go. I think that’s shocking. I think it’s a wretched situation.

Brian Glanville is a columnist for World Soccer and you can read his work here

The Story of the World Cup - Brian Glanville

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Vox in the Box: Brian Glanville
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