Vox in the Box: Scott Murray

Scott Murray is one of the finest football writers of his generation, primarily for the Guardian. He was one of the forerunners of minute-by-minute liveblogs, started in one way or another on the Guardian and now done by absolutely everyone.

Scott, was it you who initially came up with the idea of minute-by-minutes?

The thing is, I think they were already being done, maybe by the BBC in some shape or form – I could be wrong about that, but there does seem to be about a hundred different people claiming that they came up with this idea. My memory of it was that it was kind of an organic thing, there was sort of a rough idea to start with…but if you look at the early ones it was really basic, Ceefax style ‘minute one, Leighton saves…Leighton lets it in…Scotland are 5-0 down.’ There’s not really much of a picture of the match build-up.

What the Guardian did, and I think it was just an organic team effort, was to attempt to be quite lyrical (and fail), attempt to be quite funny (and fail). We’d certainly get over the information, but it was just sort of this mix of other stuff too. And then we added the emails from readers, which gave it more of a voice and a bit more of a flavour. Sometimes you’d work in a riff or an over-arching theme – maybe someone would suggest something early on, and if in the first ten minutes it was…the Beatles, by the end there would be various convoluted puns about Wings b-sides and things like that.

Doing a minute-by-minute these days…it seems like people don’t quite run with that sort of thing as much now, they don’t send in emails like they used to…

One reason is that people do take it all seriously. It’s really obvious now that there are two audiences, certainly for football coverage: one takes it completely seriously, and there’s a smaller audience who are happy to be a bit more light-hearted, take criticism of their own team, and will run with things a bit more. And I think the other reason it’s harder to get those sort of riffs going is because of Twitter, because people can just self-publish now.

I think it used to be that the Guardian could say ‘we’re the only people like this and that do it in with this style, and it’s all about the form and the format and this is why we’re great’…but now that’s everywhere. So you stand out by being a good writer, or at least trying to be a good writer.

You were editor of Guardian Unlimited (the predecessor of what is now just the Guardian website, but initially separate from the paper) sport for a while…

Yeah, for maybe a year or so.

And that was when it was still a sort of outpost to the Guardian that they sort of left alone…

Kind of. They hadn’t really got the news operation for online sorted, but there were enough people reading the sport stuff and the minute-by-minutes for them to notice…

So the sport section was the forerunner for what the Guardian site is now?

Yeah. We would constantly be getting huge audiences for the minute-by-minutes, and then when the cricket over-by-overs started, but for news it was still sort of ‘Something happens, we’ll get a story up and it will be properly written and subbed’…and not to say that’s wrong, but now for every big story there’s a rolling blog, which is really popular and that all came from sport. They would use that format, and it would obviously fit very well.

You mention the ‘outpost’, and it was very much a sort of frontier thing; we could make mistakes, we could fuck up, we could try things out, and I think one of the beauties of it was that it was never over-thought, and it wasn’t over-engineered…nobody ever sat down and said ‘how shall we get more reader interaction in this?’

I think Sean Ingle had a cold one day when he was doing a minute-by-minute during the 2002 World Cup, and he asked ‘By the way, I’ve got a cold, has anybody got a good herbal remedy?’, and he got a good response. And we thought ‘that’s a bit weird’, but I was doing the next one, and – I’m pretty sure it was this lame – but I asked something like ‘Well, this is my sandwich for lunch – what’s yours?’ But no-one ever sat down and thought ‘Right, how do we get more emails? How do we do this?’

But you were still quite separate from the rest of the Guardian…

Yeah. For example, during the 2006 World Cup we’d try our best to have, within 15 minutes of the final whistle, some sort of blog on a talking point from each game. And I’m sure some of it was awful, but I’m sure some of it was just brilliant. I remember Rob Smyth writing a thing after England v Portugal, the one where Ronaldo did the old winking thing, and it was even before the tabloids had come out, but Smyth called it – he was going to get pelters for this, and that it was going to be bullshit and everyone needed to have a look at themselves. You had this brilliant player and everyone thought he was going to leave, he’ll go abroad. Obviously it transpired he didn’t, but he said ‘Well done everyone, we can’t watch this brilliant player week in, week out now.’

It was the sort of stuff that the paper wouldn’t really do in those days. The paper opinion pieces were a bit grander, standing by the fireplace with fingers in lapels, speaking unto the nation, whereas we were a bit different. And that’s not to slag off that sort of writing, because I think you need both of those things.

Do you get an element of snobbery from the ‘proper journalists?

I think there’s an idea with some journalists that if you don’t go to press conferences and you don’t go to the games every week, you have no legitimacy. But having a distance can be a benefit. If you went to the press conferences as, say, the Manchester United correspondent every week, you couldn’t say ‘Ferguson’s fucked up here’, or if you were on the Liverpool beat you couldn’t say ‘Time to get rid of Benitez’, if you had to get a quote from him the week after. And I think there is a benefit in the separation.

One thing they tried to introduce to the minute-by-minutes was a stats man, who became ‘Special Man‘ 

Special Man! There was an actual man who’d come in and he’d take about 15 minutes to work out that Arsenal had not given up a two-goal lead for 70 matches or whatever. And there’s a place for all that stuff…people love stats and I’m not knocking that, but there are places you can go for that. You don’t need to pile it all in. We do this, and they do this. I’m not saying we should never change, and if there’s a new way of doing things then great, but some things just obviously don’t fit.

I do care about the minute-by-minutes, because I think they’re a good format. I’m not saying they’re perfect…but they do something that other match reports don’t do, and to just treat them as this sort of ephemeral, 90-minute thing and it doesn’t have to be good and it can just be full of tweets that can just be whacked out by anyone. You wouldn’t send just anyone to go and do Daniel Taylor’s job – he’s become really great at writing match reports because he’s done a lot of them, and because there was this format that grew organically from the 1890s, and grew organically through people like Donny Davies and Geoffrey Green, and then David Lacey and Hugh McIlvanney.

They serve two functions; one as a live report and another as an account of the progression of the game. If you think about Brazil 1-7 Germany, the normal match report will start about how this is unprecedented for Brazil etc, but the minute-by-minute…nobody knows what’s going to happen, so it tells the story of the game, and there’s a different mood there. You don’t get this retrospective analysis that match reports have, but it’s a way of looking at a game as it happened, and you never had that before. Unless you sat down and watched the game on video again yourself.

You don’t write a great deal about ‘current’ football now – is that a deliberate choice?

The opportunities just aren’t there so much. I’ve probably written one or two pieces about actual stuff that’s happened this season, certainly for the Guardian, because that’s all sort of happening elsewhere. But I can’t say I really push for it too hard, because there’s so many people doing it.

There aren’t as many – or aren’t enough – places that do retrospective stuff, on football history. Stuff like the Joy of Six, where you write about some game in the 1940s that nobody knows about?

Yeah. Whenever I write about stuff like that I never know about it before. I go and research it, then think ‘This is a great story.’ I did a Joy of Six about FA Cup semi-finals, and I was told in no uncertain terms that ‘You’ve got to get the Ryan Giggs goal against Arsenal in there’, but I sort of think that everyone knows about that, and who cares? Then rather petulantly in the piece I filed the first one was a 0-0 draw from the 1870s. There were a few people below the line saying ‘Well how do you know about this? It’s not on video, or on YouTube’, and you think ‘Well, how do you know about the Battle of Hastings then?’ I’m not interested in reading about Ryan Giggs’s goal again.

I’m not sure where the appetite is for this sort of thing. I could be wrong: there’s obviously a constituency that just wants what’s happening in the Premier League right now and nothing else, but I think there are people who would rather follow Rangers v Motherwell, which was hilarious the other night, than Barcelona v Real Madrid. They’d certainly rather read a Real Madrid piece about 1960 than another piece about Cristiano Ronaldo, although they would get hits worldwide.

But what are these hits worth anyway? You can get a million hits on Google for that sort of thing, but surely they’re worth fuck all. If you can get a thousand hits from people who really, really are interested in whatever the subject is, and if it’s a brilliant piece that’s been done expertly, or wittily, or if it’s just a good read, surely if you’re an advertiser or a marketer worth their salt, those people are much more valuable than just a million randoms who like playing as Messi on Fifa and refer to Ronaldo as CR7. We should be chasing those people away – ‘fuck off, we don’t want you to read this, go away.’

The tragedy of the situation is that this audience is out there, and for some reason the entire media are pandering to idiots. So you get Robbie Savage cropping up on everything, and occasionally you get people who you think should know better saying ‘Oh, well, actually he’s alright’, but no – it’s not good enough, we deserve really good stuff, and we don’t get enough of it.

You are – perhaps very shrewdly – not on Twitter…

The reason I’m not on Twitter is it seems like it’s fighting a raging fire that will never be put out. If you’ve won an argument and told someone why they shouldn’t be abusing you here, someone else will come in from there with another thing. And I don’t trust myself with that – I’d start telling people to fuck off, and I don’t really want to become that sort of person. And I don’t think I’d trust myself after a few boozes either, and I’ve seen so many journalists in particular, and you’re thinking ‘Yeah, you’re in your cups tonight aren’t you, and you should maybe step away from the computer.’ And it never ends well. It’s just not for me – it’s not worth the risk, and for me the few benefits of Twitter are completely outweighed by the negatives.

You can’t follow Scott Murray on Twitter, but he has co-written a number of books, including ‘The Anatomy of Liverpool’ with Jonathan Wilson, and ‘And Gazza Misses The Final’ with Rob Smyth.


Vox in the Box: Scott Murray
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