Mark Langdon is the digital football editor of the Racing Post, where he has worked for the past 18 years. He also appears regularly on TalkSport to discuss European football and the best weekly betting tips…
Hi Mark. How did you get into the journalism game?
It was a complete fluke. I started off as the Racing Post office junior back in 1998, straight out of secondary school. I must have made good cups of tea and delivered the post well because from there I did data entry for the sports desk and, around 2000 when there was a big betting boom, the desk was expanded. That’s when I was given the opportunity to do some writing. The first couple of times I wrote stories, just about the only words of mine that went in were the byline – everything else was subbed out and changed. But thanks to the hard work of the subs around me I quickly picked it up.
From there it was a case of learning, talking to people, picking up how to form stories. I would always read Henry Winter, Paul Hayward, as much of their stuff as possible to get an idea of how they form their articles and try to learn from people like that. I had the football knowledge, it was just a case of writing it down. Once that happened it moved pretty quickly for me.
You also appear regularly on TalkSport…
In terms of starting to do radio stuff, that was again pretty lucky. It was when Richard Keys and Andy Gray first started their show on TalkSport. They were obviously quite controversial figures at the time and they asked me to go on and I said yes. I worked with them for about 18 months, they helped me a lot in terms of broadcasting.
It was writing stuff for the Racing Post on European football that got me noticed at TalkSport. I just love football really. This week I went to Southend v Peterborough because I had nothing else to do on Saturday afternoon and then I raced back to watch Leverkusen v Dortmund on TV. It’s a dream job and I was very lucky to have been given the opportunity.
Tell us about the Racing Post’s football coverage…
The name of the Racing Post leads people to assume it’s all racing but on a Saturday we can have 30 pages of sport which is mainly football now. What I like is that we don’t concentrate on the war of words between managers and who said what in the press conference. Our main aim is to tell people who’s going to win the game.
To do that we take a very stats-based approach, looking at the number of shots on target, expected goals ratings and stuff like that. I think stats are becoming more and more popular, thanks to Twitter. There’s quite a few analysts on there who are forever talking about football in that kind of way, and that’s what we’ve been doing for some time on the Racing Post because it’s the best way of predicting a football result.
Speaking of stats, not many people know that the Racing Post also run the Soccerbase website…
No, I don’t think too many people know that we own it. If you speak to journalists, particularly on local newspapers, most of them use Soccerbase all the time for player stats, head-to-heads and so on. They often don’t realise that it’s us who produce all that. It goes back to what I was saying about us being very interested in stats; there are useful tools on Soccerbase like player filters where, for example, you can check how Arsenal get on when Aaron Ramsey’s playing and when he isn’t.
It’s quite important for us. It’s something we’re always looking to update – you’ve now got websites like WhoScored who have taken it in a very different direction. But our core audience for Soccerbase are mainly interested in English football and so we make sure we’ve got all the team and player stats right down to the Conference. It’s a very small team; I think there are three people working on it, which is quite incredible really given how much goes into it.
Usually if it’s down – particularly on a Thursday or a Friday – the first people to complain are journalists trying to do their research for the Saturday games. It’s primarily for football fans but there are a lot of journalists that use it because over the years it’s gained a reputation for being very reliable.
The Racing Post has won awards for digital innovation. Has there been a big focus on modernising your approach?
Moving into the digital-first age has probably been the biggest challenge and the biggest change in all the years I’ve been here. You have to move with the times; you’re not aiming for newspaper deadlines now, you’ve just got to get it out there as quickly as possible. It’s definitely been the biggest challenge for journalists and subs to move away from thinking the newspaper is the biggest priority. Now, if anything, the website comes first and the newspaper, while not an afterthought, is not the be-all and end-all anymore.
From a football betting point of view, it’s definitely a younger person’s game. Horse racing is more an acquired taste anyway. If you surveyed under thirties going into betting shops, you’d find they’re betting on football – usually a ‘both teams to score’ accumulator or doing a load of home or away wins. I think that is the target audience.
The challenge is that those sort of people feel they know enough about football already without being told what the best bets are on a Saturday. But people do still listen to us because I do a column on a Saturday and if I’ve got it badly wrong, Twitter’s not a good place to be that evening. Similarly if you do well you’ll get people saying ‘you’ve won me a holiday this weekend’ and stuff like that, so you take the good with the bad.
You also run a football podcast…
It’s mainly us chatting about the Premier League and best bets at the weekend. I saw a stat recently that in the US podcast listenership is up about 33% year on year. It’s going to become a big part of journalism; you already see a lot of local papers doing video chats and so on. As technology moves on and you can listen in your car or out and about, it really can be a help.
One of the things football fans enjoy most about the Racing Post is the enormous tournament previews. How long do they take to put together?
They’ve become my baby really, the bigger projects that we work on such as ‘The Big Kick-Off’ at the start of the season, the Champions League, Euros and World Cup previews. We start working on them about six months before, deciding what we want to put in it, how we can make it better than last time. Football betting is always evolving in terms of what stats people are interested in so we always look at that.
For a Big Kick-Off, in which we preview the whole domestic campaign, that probably takes about two weeks of hardcore writing. I’ll do 12-hour days, six days a week, researching and writing thousands upon thousands of words. It’s all worth it in the end because that’s probably where we get a big jump in readership. In circulation terms we gain a lot of numbers when we put the supplements out and we get so much positive feedback that in the end it’s worth the hard work. We all enjoy doing it; we always say it’s not a real job and we’re very lucky to be doing it, so we’re more than happy.
What are the best and worst tips you’ve given?
I know I’m not the only one, but I tipped Leicester to be relegated last season. I’ve never tipped a team to go down that have ended up champions before. It was one that, certainly any Leicester fans who read the Racing Post, were going on about for some time – even when they weren’t certain to become champions and they had just made a good start. By the end of the campaign, of course, we got plenty of emails and tweets with a screengrab of the headline about Leicester going down. I’ve never been so wrong on a tip as that.
My best one was probably the year Barcelona won their first Champions League under Pep Guardiola (in 2009). I thought he could be something special as a manager and I think they were 8/1 to win it that year with Messi 20/1 to Golden Boot, when he was still coming through.
This isn’t a tip, but when I was the office junior back in 2000, for some reason the FA rang us up and asked for the Racing Post to be faxed out to the England hotel at Euro 2000 because the players wanted all the previews and prices. The story has become infamous, reports of how much they were betting during that tournament. But instead of faxing them to Kevin Keegan, I accidentally sent them to a colleague, Kevin Payne, who was apoplectic that his fax machine was clogged up. I don’t think we helped England during Euro 2000, maybe we’re partly to blame for their performances that summer.