Vox in the Box: Michael Cox

As the man behind the celebrated tactics website Zonal Marking, there are few better examples of the opportunities available in modern media than Michael Cox. A young blogger who found an untapped niche, he was quickly snapped up by the Guardian and he now covers Premier League matches for ESPNFC. So how did he get started?

I left university and I was sure that I wanted to get into journalism. There were a few approaches I could have taken, like work experience, but I quickly realised that I wouldn’t impress that much on work experience. Partly because I don’t drink tea and if you can’t make a good cup of tea, you’re never going to get anywhere in that position. I thought, I’ll give it six months, I’ll set up my own blog and see if it gains any traction.

With the exception of the occasional tiny David Pleat piece, there was barely any tactical analysis in the newspapers at the time. Did you worry that no-one would read you?

I didn’t expect it to be popular at all. It seemed a bonus when lots of people liked it. I expected it to be a very personal thing, which is why some of the early entries might seem so odd. I did a thing where I named the best 20 teams of the last decade, but it was really just teams that I liked. It’s really amateur! Three months later people started saying, ‘Why have you put Bologna’s 2004 team in there and not Italy’s World Cup wining team of 2006!’

When did you first realise it was getting very, very popular?

I was quite lucky with the games in 2010. Arsenal against Barcelona in the Champions League, that was a very interesting tactical match. There was the Champions League game between Barcelona and Inter Milan where Barca had been the best team in Europe by distance, dominating possession, and Mourinho just let them have it and still beat them anyway. I remember waking up the day after that to find 200 comments on the blog overnight.

Was it the 2010 World Cup that made you?

Yeah, I think so. That World Cup, for me, that was as bad as television coverage has ever been. I think it’s actually got quite good now, but there was such a gap in the market in 2010 for someone who did their research. The website picked so much attention during that World Cup because it was easy to be a good alternative to the mainstream.

When did the Guardian first approach?

Sean Ingle was the first person to ask me to write professionally. It was just before the World Cup and Steven Gerrard was playing on the left, so I did a short piece for them on that. That led to me doing the Chalkboards column for a few years after that. So it’s Sean that I have to thank for getting me in to it. Had it not all taken off as quickly as it did, I would have been forced to go and get a normal job.

Were you nervous the first time?

I was a little bit nervous, especially when I was in the actual newspaper. But when it was up on the website, it was different. It’s funny these days. I’m from a blogging background and I’m used to snarky comments. Older journalists, print journalists, sometimes they seemed very nervous about the internet because they weren’t used to people writing, ‘this is a load of shit,’ beneath everything they wrote. But that never made me nervous. That’s just the pressure that you’re under as a journalist. If you do make a mistake, and I frequently do, people are always quick to tell you. I guess that was good training in a way

And then you did Football Weekly. You must have been nervous about that?

Yeah, I was. When I was a kid at school, everyone liked Football Italia and everyone loved James Richardson. None of my friends had Sky, so the only place we could watch games was on Channel Four. It was great to work with James, that was really cool.

Your profile rose so quickly that former Bolton Wanderers manager Owen Coyle took a swipe at you in an interview

That was funny. It was built up as me thinking that Owen Coyle was a terrible manager. I didn’t in particular, I just thought that the stylistic praise they were getting was really weird. I don’t dislike Bolton. I really liked them when they had Sam Allardyce there and he was lumping it long to Kevin Davies, but they had players there like Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff coming in behind, it was brilliant. But the Owen Coyle stuff didn’t add up.

Were you offended when he called you Zonal Whatever?

No, I thought it was funny! You could clearly tell that he was a little bit annoyed. You wouldn’t say ‘zonal whatever,’ because ‘zonal marking’ is quite an obvious football phrase. If the first word is zonal, it’s pretty obvious what the next one will be.

Was he trying to undermine you by deliberately getting your name wrong, like Joey in Friends?

Exactly. It’s like a high school teenage girl thing to forget someone’s name on purpose! But it was funny and it was good profile for the site.

How do you actually go about noting down the formations?

I started doing it in Euro 2004. That was my GCSE summer so I had a lot of time off between school and college. I watched all the games and just made notes about everything that happened on an A5 notepad with a sketch of the teams and stuff. And then when I was doing it for the site, I progressed to an A4 magnetic clipboard, the kind of thing you see Van Gaal with, and put the players in their positions, mark the runs they were making. It’s all quite geeky, I suppose.

Do you notice a difference now that you’re at live games. Do you get a better view from the press box?

Oh no, I think it’s a much worse view at the game. The press boxes can be really low. If you go to Tottenham, it’s right down on the touchline. It’s really difficult to work out what’s going on at the far side. I really can’t understand why managers sit in the dug out. You get a much better view of things from up high. It’s a different challenge, you see different things, you can see the big picture, but you can’t necessarily see what you want. I think you’re better with a high camera angle.

You’ve been on the scene for five years now. Do you fear a Zonal Marking backlash now that you’re part of the establishment?

Not massively. There was a bit of a backlash against tactics about 18 months after I started, but that seemed to die down and, I don’t know, maybe everyone’s friends now. But now I’m working for ESPN, if I’m the only reporter at a game I have to report in a more general way. I can’t just give a tactical overview. Some people prefer the straight tactical analysis, but I’ve kept doing the website and it’s nice to have a balance sometimes.

If you start a blog on a really specific thing, it can limit you. When the Guardian came to me first of all, I offered to do something a little different, while obviously they were thinking, ‘No! We want you to do exactly what you’ve be doing.’ Now I’ve got to the stage where there’s a little bit of a mixture. It’s quite nice to have a bit of freedom.

What’s next? A TV show? A book deal?

No, I don’t think I’d be very good on TV sadly. I really like what I’m doing now. I had to take six months off from the website after the World Cup, but I’m doing a piece a week now and I’m enjoying what I’m doing. I don’t mind doing radio, but I have no real ambitions in that direction. I prefer just to write stuff. I quite like just doing my own blog, doing the games i want, the graphics I want. It’s quite time consuming mixing it with the other work, but I still like doing it.

Could anyone replicate your rise now or has Twitter changed?

I think so. I think that 2010  was a very good time to come into it. You don’t see that many big football blogs now because a lot of people have been swallowed up by newspapers and traditional media, which is no bad thing. But I still think it’s possible. People can become very popular overnight on the internet. It’s like the Arctic Monkeys thing, isn’t it? When they got really big by giving away their songs for free and then got picked up by radio stations. I still think it’s possible, not just in journalism, but in any kind of thing. If you can put your work out there and get noticed, you can make a living from it.

Is there a next big thing in football?

I’m sure there is. I don’t know what it is though. I still think there’s an avenue for people doing really good match photography. I found a couple of Flickr accounts from people who take shots of non- league football and there’s some incredible stuff, incredible scenery. I don’t know if that will become big, but I don’t think photographers get enough credit or exposure. We have all these multimedia tools and most people still want to read text!

You can follow Michael Cox on Twitter (@Zonal_Marking)

Vox in the Box: Michael Cox
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