George Caulkin has been the north-east correspondent for the Times since 1998, reporting on Newcastle, Sunderland and the assorted shitshows that both of those clubs have served up ever since…
George, tell us how you got started in the journalism game.
I did a degree in politics, then I came back to Newcastle in 1992, which was when Kevin Keegan arrived. It was a very exciting time to be back home. I did a year-long NCTJ course, then eventually started working on a local newspaper. I had no expectation I’d be working in sport, but in the week I’d be going down to Newcastle’s training ground when it was open house under Keegan, which was pretty extraordinary really. Then at the weekend I’d be spending time at Sunderland as well – that was a less electrifying period there, when Mick Buxton was the manager and before Peter Reid came in. I didn’t enjoy working in an office very much, although I enjoyed what I was doing and liked my colleagues. I went freelance and did most of my work for the Guardian and Observer, then was asked to do one match for the Times, a paper I’d never read or bought, and that became a job offer. That was in 1998 and I’ve been there ever since.
You were a Newcastle fan growing up…
I was. There’s no point disguising that. I was watching Keegan, Beardsley, Waddle and I suppose particularly Gazza, players that made me realise there could be a form of poetry and beauty in football. When Newcastle were promoted in 92/93, that will probably always be my favourite season, looking back. Equally I’m from Durham, which if anything is more Sunderland territory, traditionally. I’ve never had the hatred gene – I can always relate to those people from an older generation who used to go see both teams on alternate weekends. People look at you as if you’re mad if you talk like that now.
I’ve been doing the job for 22 years now, and that’s far longer than when I was a supporter. I can’t tell stories about my youth which feature Sunderland, but I first reported on Sunderland when they were at Roker Park with Niall Quinn, who is one of the best and most important people I’ve known in football. Equally I’ve known Steve Gibson for over 20 years, and I will fawn over him in a way that even some Middlesbrough fans would blush at. You make friendships and build relationships, and these things become blurred – I can’t change my past, and wouldn’t want to, but when I retire I’m not going to rip my shirt off and have black and white stripes underneath, and stick my fingers up at Sunderland fans and say I was mocking you all along. This season I was desperate for Sunderland to stay up and desperate for Newcastle to stay up. Feelings don’t ever go away, but they become blurred and they change.
It feels like you’re more of a supporter of north-east football than a particular club, and to an extent a representative of the region too, in football terms…
My job is to write about the football teams and how they’re doing, but this is my part of the world and where I live. I’ve had chances to move away, to go to other parts of the country, and while I think I’ve got the skill set to do that, I think if I have talent as a journalist it’s that I care about what I’m writing about. And actually that sometimes makes it more difficult, because a lot of the time I’m dealing with fuckwit football clubs, and I’m continually writing about negativity, and I do eventually become concerned that corrodes me on the inside. I’m very conscious of that, but equally I’m very conscious of what a privileged position I’m in. I long to write things about achievement and cup finals and things like that. I’m very proud of the job I’ve got as well. It’s that funny mix of emotions – I yearn for better things, but I certainly don’t yearn to do it anywhere else.
It feels like the other reporters in the north-east ‘represent’ the region in a way that you don’t really get in many other parts of the country…
I’m very reluctant to say anything on behalf of anyone else, but if you’re reporting on north-east football, what do you say it has going for it? Certainly over the last couple of decades you’re not going to say anything about the ownership of Sunderland and Newcastle – it’s a different story at Middlesbrough, who I think have got the best owner around – but you’re going to talk about the people that go to the stadiums. It’s my part of the world, but it still sometimes baffles me that Newcastle can have crowds of 50,000 and Sunderland can have crowds in the high 40,000s, particularly given the shite they have to watch, season after season.
Part of the duty [of reporting in the north-east] is to reflect that feeling, and sometimes that means being angry, sometimes that means being sad, or world weary. You can go off into the realms of cliché here, but it’s very difficult to do this job and not have a feel for it, because the football clubs, for better or worse, are a fundamental part of the lifeblood of their towns and cities. If you look at Middlesbrough, with the time they’ve had this year with the steelworks closing – you don’t want to put pressure on the team, but coming back into the Premier League, with the prestige and the name recognition, and the money too, it’s a big deal. It’s a big, big deal. The same applies, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, to Sunderland and Newcastle. The prestige of being there is meaningful, and there will be a meaningful effect with those teams not being in the Premier League. The shame for me is Sunderland have been in the Premier League for more than a decade now, and they haven’t really given a sense of their identity, which should be fairly straightforward. I hope they do that now they’ve stayed up.
Other than access, what difficulties are there about reporting on a club so nakedly hostile to the media as Newcastle are?
I suppose that’s the biggest thing. There has been a softening this season, but that’s balanced by the Daily Mirror being ‘preferred media partners’, and that does cause problems. None of us get interviews with players, or sit down with people at the club. That’s my favourite part of the job, and I’ve felt very angry about their attitude, and it’s at the very, very top – people at the club understand it’s self-defeating. Really a club like Newcastle should be telling its story to the people that go to games, and we’re a vehicle for doing that. It’s impossible to feel much love for their club, because it’s become such a cold and isolating place.
There is a chance to talk to players after games, and that’s an improvement, but I can’t help but think back to Keegan in those days when the club was an open book, and fans could go to training, journalists could go to training, and it was there for all to see. There was that extraordinary feeling of power and momentum and identity. It’s become a cold place, certainly until Benitez came in, where the idea of straining for sporting glory has been lost, and it’s become difficult to write nice things about them. It’s become so easy to write negative things, but it’s not what I want to do with my life really.
This might sound like an incredibly stupid question, but does that coldness all stem from Mike Ashley, or are there other factors too?
Well…yes it does. I was no great fan of the regime before then – there was an institutionalised arrogance, there was interference with managers and stuff like that, but if you put the argument in this way: when they made decisions and changed managers, while they made mistakes, the idea was ‘This will be the fella that wins us something.’ Even the notion of that big idea at Newcastle has been lost. That’s why the idea of Rafa coming in was so startling, it felt like such a break with what had gone before.
This was a club that had said cups weren’t a priority – how dare they say that? How dare they say that. When I was a kid, Newcastle were a cup team – that’s how they were thought of. They had a fantastic record in the 1950s – I was born in 1970, and they’d won the Fairs Cup the year before, so there was still that tradition there. Obviously things change, and football changes, and the Premier League has become all-important, and Newcastle under Keegan the first time played a huge part in that – the narrow failure to win the title was a huge part of Premier League folklore. But that idea of straining for something has been lost – you know Keegan was desperate to win something. I remember asking him a question, as a young reporter ‘If you finish second, that would still be a huge achievement, surely?’ He said ‘It would mean nothing to me.’ Well, if you look back it doesn’t mean nothing, it means a great deal, but that was the attitude he had.
That’s not to say there’s a divine right to win something…there’s a great banner that was held up during Alan Pardew’s last days which read ‘We don’t demand a club that wins, we demand a club that tries.’ The feeling that’s gone – or at least had before Rafa arrived – was what’s difficult to take.
If this wasn’t your job, if you were ‘just’ a fan, would you still be going?
No, I don’t think I would. I’ve thought about that a lot. It’s difficult to say because my life has changed so much over the last 20 years – if I didn’t do this job, what would I be doing, where would I be and so on, so it’s easier said than done. I think I feel the same that a lot of people feel – that there’s a coldness to Premier League football, and there’s a separation between clubs and supporters, and a flatness to the atmosphere and things like that.
I think you want a football club to be an extension of you, your principles and believes, or family, or region – however you phrase it. It’s not easy to go to Newcastle and still think that. Sometimes it is – sometimes the noise is there, and it’s the same stretch of turf that Jackie Milburn played on, and Keegan played on, but it becomes increasingly difficult to feel that. However, I’ve spent a fair bit of time at Middlesbrough towards the back end of this season, and you do feel that’s a club and a fan base all pulling in the same direction, whether that’s through adversity or whatever, but I do think there has been a reconnection. That power can still happen and still exist, but you’re just longing for the two big clubs in the north-east to find that again – it’s not gone forever, but it’s just more difficult.
So many people of my generation have walked away from Newcastle. I think that sort of thing might always happen, because you’ve got a family or other priorities, or your job takes you away or whatever. But it’s that hardcore of support that a club needs – clubs need to be freshened up, they need daft kids to follow them and sing stupid songs and take their shoes off or whatever. There are too many people of my generation that have drifted away, and I’m not sure that once they’ve decided to do something else with their lives, whether they will come back.
You’ve been doing other things in the last couple of years – interviews elsewhere in the country and so forth: was that a conscious choice, or a practical necessity given the lack of access at Newcastle?
It was both really. I’ll be forever grateful to Tony Evans, who was the football editor at the Times, and who’s a great friend and a great advocate. I got to a point a couple of years ago where football in the north-east wasn’t enough to sustain me, which doesn’t mean I wanted to go anywhere else, but there wasn’t enough. I’d reached a point where it was the opposite of life-affirming – to be reporting on football and to have that feeling, feels wrong. There was no access at Newcastle, and while I’ve always had a good relationship with Sunderland you can’t do interviews with them every week.
I’ve been going off and doing interviews around the country, often in lower league and non-league, and I get a huge thrill from doing that, because it reminds me you can still get close to clubs and directors and fans, and that people still want to tell their stories. And there are some great stories. In the past I’ve thought I don’t need anything else to sustain me, but in the last couple of years I’ve felt I have. From a personal point of view, I get most pleasure from football now, not from watching stuff on the telly or watching the Premier League, but from going to the odd non-league games, getting there at five to three and getting a cup of tea or a pint, and being able to forget about Twitter or all that other stuff, and just stand there and watch.
It was a way of getting in the paper a bit more, and challenging myself, and although it sounds very self-indulgent, and in a way it was, I think I had to remember that football can be a good, interesting, exciting thing and it doesn’t have to be all about the Premier League. And to have that reminder that there are fascinating stories outside the Premier League, and that people want to tell them, was and has been really, really important. And that’s allowed me to look back at my clubs and my day-to-day existence, and try to find different ways of doing it. It’s been incredibly valuable.
The stuff that really turns me on or gets me interested is people. Football is a collection of people – in north-east terms it’s usually the wrong people [running the clubs], and if you want to sum it up that’s it: the wrong people in the wrong positions. But without people in the stadium, a football club doesn’t exist, and I’m very lucky to write about football in a part of the world where there is still meaning to it. I think whether you call it a yearning – I hate the word expectation – but there is this incredible yearning for better, and that can be very powerful. Part of the privilege of my job is to reflect that.