Vox in the Box: Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning is the chief sports writer for SportsJOE.ie and JOE.co.uk. He was previously chief football writer at the Irish Sunday Independent and has covered every World Cup and European Championship since 1998.

Dion, tell us how you got started in the journalism game.
I come from a journalism family. My father was a journalist and his uncle was at a paper in Ireland. I was interested in that way, and then I went in to newspapers to see how they worked when I was a kid, and I always enjoyed that. I’d done some work and various articles as a teenager and, after I flunked school, I started working for a newspaper – the Star in Dublin. I worked there for a while, then packed that in, and I was kind of wondering what to do.

I had a conversation with a guy, PJ Cunningham, in around 1996 and he said, ‘You should go to England, because there are no Irish sports journalists working in England at the moment.’ I was seeing a girl who was from London at the time, so that suited me as well. I was like ‘Great, I’ll go and live in London’. As a reminder of how things were, and how they’ve changed, PJ then, to help me on my way, gave me an old computer print-out page with about 300 phone numbers of footballers and managers. Not just Irish footballers – every contact anybody could gather to send me on my way. Not all of them worked – I think Roy Keane’s number was on it, Alex Ferguson’s number – but this is what you were given to get you on your way.

I worked my way through those phone numbers when I got to England, calling people to see if they’d do interviews. I think Keane’s had changed along with a couple of others, but a lot of them were live, so you’d just call people up and say, ‘Will you do an interview?’ and they’d answer yes or no. When I went to England I started working for the Sunday Independent, and I was doing other things as well, I wasn’t just doing sport. I started doing more and more football and went to the World Cup in ’98 and then, in around 2002, I became the football correspondent.

I was on my way to Japan when Saipan happened and it came down to me to put the aftermath together for the paper the week before Ireland’s first game. It was such a saga: Keane gave an interview and he might have been coming back, Mick McCarthy was giving press conferences, and some players had tried to get Keane back without telling him. It was an incredible psychodrama and the talking point in Ireland for about ten years. So that tournament became a big stepping stone for me. It’s almost a defining moment in Irish football really.

How have you found working in close proximity to Roy Keane?
It’s great. I’m critical of his management career to a large extent, although he was incredible at Sunderland for a year. I did an awful lot of their games the year Sunderland got promoted and that was one of the best years I’ve had working in football. It was astonishing the connection between the players, the fans and the manager. I remember being at Barnsley when they won and there were ten thousand Sunderland fans singing ‘Hey Keano’ to the tune of ‘Hey Jude’. You felt anything was possible there. There are images I can never forget about Keane’s presence. I remember being there when they played QPR quite late in the season. The QPR defender was taking a free-kick – he did what defenders do and stole a few yards – and Keane jumped out of his dugout and told him to put it back. Normally the referee does that, but Keane’s jumped up and the defender picked it up and put it back. I just love that, it signified the presence he had at that time.

The funny thing about Keane is even now, when I think he can sound a bit monotonous and his views are slightly two-dimensional, you get a week like last week in Cork when he comes in to do a routine press conference and 20 minutes later he’s attacked the character of half the Ireland squad. And you’re sitting there thinking ‘This is astonishing, nobody saw this coming’. Talking to the TV guys who were there they were saying ‘Normally we struggle to get three minutes out of a press conference. We’ve got 20 minutes here and we don’t know what to drop’. And that’s what happens with Keane. He is always fascinating from that point of view.

Way back, I interviewed him, and that was fascinating. I asked would he do an interview coming back from an Ireland game when we used to sit on the same flight, and he said he’d do it in Barcelona. United were playing a Champions League game in Barcelona in the group stage, when they drew 3-3 (in 1998), and he said ‘Just see me out there at the hotel in Barcelona’. I booked my trip through Manchester United because obviously I wanted some kind of confirmation. I didn’t get anything so mentioned it to someone at United who said ‘We haven’t heard anything about this’. At this point I was getting slightly worried because the paper were sending me out there to interview Keane – I said I’d got an interview.

I went to training and was told Roy doesn’t know anything about this. It wasn’t going to plan. So I went to the team hotel the evening before the game and all the players were coming down for their evening meal. Keane was one of the last to come in with Denis Irwin, so I went up to him and asked. He said, ‘What are you talking about? I can’t do an interview at this time, you’ve left it too late’. And then he walked off to have his meal. I sat there for 45 minutes in the lobby thinking ‘What am I going to do now?’ I looked up and Keane was walking over to me, and he was walking in that way with his face set, and I thought ‘Right, I shouldn’t be here now. He wants me out of here.’ Instead he walked over and said ‘Sorry about that, it’s not your fault. Go on, we’ll sit down and talk now.’ And we talked for about an hour. So that was Keane. I got everything – the irritation, but also he can be accommodating. He’s unpredictable.

You’ve covered a number of international tournaments – which have been the most enjoyable?
The ones you cover when Ireland qualify and when they don’t qualify are very different. I’ve been lucky enough to go to every tournament since 1998. I think Germany and France ‘98 were the most enjoyable from the point of view of the hosts taking off during the tournament and what it meant to the country.

But then going to South Africa and Brazil were extraordinary. I had an incredible experience out there, being in countries where you’re very unlikely to go back and get to spend that much time again. That was brilliant.

And then when you come to covering Ireland, it has to be 2002 with Saipan and the drama. It was gruelling and not an enjoyable competition from an Irish point of view in terms of football, but from a journalist’s point of view it was incredible.

That’s the thing with tournaments, what you’re looking for is different depending on what you’re covering. I was reading someone today who covered Italia ’90 with the Ireland team saying the thing they missed the most was what was happening back in Ireland. There’s a famous line by the journalist Con Houlihan who said ‘I missed the World Cup, I was in Italy at the time.’

Can it be difficult to get a wider perspective on a tournament when you’re in the thick of it?
If you want to really see a tournament these days the best way to do it is to watch every game on television. When you’re covering a tournament you’re kind of doing something else, you’re covering a team or you’re covering a story, and so you’re dependent on what you’re getting or what’s happening around the team.

You try to see as much of the other games as you can, but often you don’t get to see them. It’s a magnificent experience, but I remember I was sitting in a taxi in Manaus (at the 2014 World Cup) trying to get to my hotel while Holland were playing Spain. And you’re getting texts about this incredible game, but you never get to see it. I actually got to see it when I got back (to Ireland). That builds up over the course of a tournament, you see snatches of games, so you don’t get that full perspective of a tournament. But obviously you get something much more intense and, when you’re at a game, much more rewarding. But the hardest thing to keep on top of is the overall perspective.

You’ve recently moved from print to digital, how will that change the way you cover Euro 2016?
More than the difference between digital and print, I think it’s that I was working for a Sunday paper for most of those tournaments. The last World Cup I was doing digital stuff as well, but now we can publish stuff whenever we’re ready to publish. That’s the biggest change and it’s one I’m enjoying. You can get to things while they’re happening.

There’s something to be said for the reflective piece at the weekend as well, but one of the frustrations I used to have was that if something happened on a Monday, by the time Sunday comes around no one wants to read about it anymore. So that’s the great advantage. It’s a big tournament for us, we’re sending six people so it will be interesting. It’s an exciting team and a tournament I’m really looking forward to covering. We’ll be doing a mixture of reaction, analysis and in-depth stuff along with Facebook Live video and, if the last week with Ireland is anything to go by, there will be things happening.

Is the role of match reporting changing?
I’ve been arguing for the abolition of match reports since I started in journalism. I thought they were old-fashioned in the time when most people watched Match of the Day on a Saturday night and had seen everything before they read the paper on a Sunday, so they’re clearly out of date now. I know people give things like ‘5 Things We Learned’ a hard time – and even that’s evolving now – but people read it. If people want to read match reports, they’ve been there and people haven’t been reading them.

This is the thing about analytics, people complain about what they’re given and what appears, but a lot of time it’s because nobody wants to read straight match reports. And I don’t understand why people would read straight match reports now because they’ve seen what’s happened. At the same time I still think there’s a central role, not just for the bite-sized stuff, but pieces from a game that give you an insight into something, an analysis or a focus that tells you a story that’s readable and isn’t just a synopsis of what happened. Barney Ronay does it brilliantly.

Are there any other changes you’d like to see?
The things you’d like to see happen aren’t going to happen. That’s reality. I came over with 300 phone numbers and that wouldn’t happen today. It’s not just football. Football is now part of entertainment, and every branch of the entertainment industry believes they control the access to the subjects. So the traditional way journalists got stories and the way they got access isn’t going to happen anymore.

To a certain degree it provides writers with freedom because they’re not dependent on that access for what they need to do in their work. It’s interesting for journalists to talk about, but I don’t know if the average reader, or consumer if you like, really cares because the manner in which they get information is so multi-faceted now. Do they feel they know footballers less because they’re not getting a 3,000 word interview with them or do they feel they know them more because they’re following them on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter and they’re seeing everything they want to see now?

It’s very controlled and very regimented and designed to promote a certain image. But maybe there was always the intention to promote a certain image, so I don’t know if it makes a difference to the public. But as a journalist you’d love to think you could go back to the days where you could just ring up a player and ask for an interview.

It can’t happen now and one of the reasons is there’s so much interest. I heard a story about a player the other day and one journalist was telling me he had this player’s number for a while – quite a successful player at a big club – and he used to call him once every six months just to see if he could talk about something. He was sitting with a group of journalists, and the next one said ‘Oh, I had his number. I used to call him every three months’, and the next one said ‘I had his number. We used to call him maybe every week’, and the final journalist said ‘I had his number too. We used to call him whenever there was a story about that club and we wanted his reaction to it.’

You realised this one player, who has given his number in good faith to people, has been bombarded with calls. So clearly the instinct is to think ‘Why would I give out my number?’ If you take that as an example and you spread it across an entire industry, and relationships with players and media, the idea that you would be able to call up a player as you would when there were five or six journalists who would know when to do it and when not to do it is unrealistic. I think it’s going to get more and more restricted, clubs will do more through their own media channels and journalists will have to adapt.

I think one thing that’s changed in that regard too is that the voice of the neutral football supporter, if there is such a thing, has been silenced. Twenty or thirty years ago when you bought one newspaper, you read the entire sports section, and people would read everything about every club. Now, when people don’t buy papers as much, they’re more likely just to read everything about their club wherever it appears. So you feel that you’re always dealing with the partisans rather than the more neutral fan. Whenever you write about a particular player or a club, most of the reaction comes from the supporters of that club and some of it comes from people who hate that club.

Vox in the Box: Dion Fanning
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