Vox in the Box: Will Watt

Will Watt was the Blackpool correspondent for the Blackpool Gazzette for six years, charting the club’s rise to the Premier League and subsequent fall, taking in the various troubles of the Oyston regime. He recently became head of communications at Fleetwood Town…

Will, how did you get started in the journalism game?
I did a masters degree in journalism, and by 21 I’d already done time working in the press department at Blackpool, to get experience. I worked under a man called Matt Williams who went on to run the club, and be chief executive at another couple of clubs. Then I got a job at the Lancashire Evening Post as a sports reporter, where I shadowed a guy called Brian Ellis who had been the Preston North End correspondent for about 25 years, and it was just brilliant to be hanging around football with such an experienced campaigner. It’s becoming less and less now, but ten, 15 years ago most of the journalists who covered clubs had been long-term and there for 20, 30 years, and Brian was no different. Then I got the chance to move to the sports desk of the Blackpool Gazette, and about six years ago I was made chief Blackpool correspondent.

You’re a Blackpool fan – when you’re reporting on a single club, is that a help or a hindrance?
I think it’s a help with the readers, because they know you can relate to them. There was no settling in period for me – I knew the club inside out, I knew the fans. There’s politics around most football clubs, but around Blackpool it’s particularly so – all the problems they’ve had with the Oystons and the fans. It was really important [that I knew how it worked], and also in terms of respect – fans like one of their own, don’t they? Whether it’s playing up front and scoring goals, or writing. The readers appreciate that when you’re reporting and writing opinion pieces about their club, you understand, you get it. I think in local journalism that’s key, because you’re the voice of the fans and locally we are so important to them.

Local journalists with football clubs are about as close to a public service as you can get without actually being a public service broadcaster…
I agree with that. Last year we had certain problems with the club, and at one point the chairman told the fans ‘Don’t bother with the local paper, just stick with our website.’ But quickly people saw through that, luckily. The local paper is the most influential source of news on a club – it might be different if you’re Manchester United or Liverpool or Chelsea, but with Blackpool there’s literally nobody else in the whole world who covers them full-time. It’s a big responsibility really, to get things right and to do your job properly and inform the local people. But it’s also important that the club realises the relevance of local newspapers, and the power really. For example, when Blackpool played away at Plymouth last season, there might have been a handful of away supporters, and other than maybe a radio station nobody else will be covering the game. People are going to make opinions on games, on players, on the manager, on tactics, based on what’s said in the local paper. I think it’s completely underestimated by clubs these days, that they think their website or social media can replace the local paper – they can’t, and never will.

There was a good example of that last season – a pre-season friendly at Lancaster was abandoned due to a pitch invasion, which followed the last game of the (previous) season against Huddersfield (that game was also abandoned because of a sit-in protest/pitch invasion). We were there covering it, the official website was as well – the official website did a full match report on the game and didn’t mention the game had been abandoned. If you had logged on from abroad, or anywhere and hadn’t been to the game, you’d think Blackpool had won 1-0 and it had all been very routine. Obviously the local paper ran quite a big story with pictures on how people had invaded the pitch and the game was abandoned, the relevance of that and the pressure that puts on the manager, etc. That’s a prime example of how it’s vital that local, independent media cover football clubs.

How did access to the club, players, managers etc change in the six years you were Blackpool correspondent?
I started while Ian Holloway was manager, and as you can probably tell he loved the media – he was a dream. Last season there was no real access at all – I wasn’t allowed in pre-match press conferences, I wasn’t allowed to speak to players. The club seemed to think it was harming the paper to do this, but really it was harming the club. When the going got tough, they realised they didn’t have the support and backing of the local paper, and that back-fired. Now, the new manager (Gary Bowyer) has come in, and instantly said he was happy to speak. Hopefully it’s going to change, and hopefully the club have seen it’s better to embrace the local paper and use it to speak to their fans, rather than trying to fight it. When they lost the first ten games of last season, they probably needed that bit of support and patience from the local media and the fans, but because they’d locked us out and literally made us stand outside in the rain after games to wait for interviews, there was very little goodwill.

How do you get round challenges like that?
It was very difficult, but what it did was allow us to take the shackles off, and we could do ‘proper journalism’, if you like. Sometimes in local press you can fall into the trap of just getting quotes from the club, although that is important. I used every bit of contact to find out as much as I could – I broke as much news as I could, and luckily because the story of the off-field drama at the club was that mad, I didn’t really need access. Protests, pitch invasions, fans being sued, players being unhappy, Nile Ranger was a story in himself – luckily there was plenty going on. There’s no doubt that having a good relationship benefits both sides, and hopefully Bowyer has come in and seen that.

Presumably before you were concerned about striking a balance between reporting what a shambles the club was, and not pissing them off too much…
Obviously if you get banned from the ground, it’s hard to do your job, so you do have to strike a balance, and we always did try to. But there’s a point where back-to-back relegations, thousands of people protesting outside the stadium – the gloves came off from our point of view. I think we made the decision, if we had to sacrifice the relationship with the club, that was the right thing to do.

We never took sides – either with the fans or the Oystons, and I think that’s really important, because the minute we do that we lose the ability to be fair and objective. It’s a real tightrope, because if you jump in with the fans you might be really popular, but you might be banned from the club, and if you jump in with the fans you alienate the club. You’ve got to strike a balance and I think we did that quite well.

Did you get a lot of pressure from fans and readers when they thought you weren’t going far enough?
Yeah, of course, but I think the fans realise that we were very strong, and we weren’t scared of reporting whatever happened. And that’s the key – we would report things as factually as possible, as fairly as possible, and we’ve always said that. If the fans make a statement against the Oystons we’d print that, but we reserved the right to print a statement from the Oystons against the fans. The fans realise the position we’re in. I think they recognise that if you give one side of the argument you’ve got to give the other.

A couple of years ago we got a bit of stick because Karl Oyston used to have a column in the paper. From a journalistic point of view that was great, because you had the most controversial man in the town in our paper – that wasn’t popular with the fans, but it was difficult because it was the most read thing on the paper. In the end the situation got so bad, Oyston was involved in a text row with a supporter, and he got banned by the FA for six weeks – at that point we decided to pull the column. That gained us a lot of respect, but personally I don’t regret giving him the column, because at the time it was really giving us newsworthy content, and that’s what we were there for.

Karl Oyston has taken legal action against some supporters – has that ever been an issue with the paper?
No, we’ve been very careful. We should be anyway, we would never print defamatory content, but it’s just kept us on our toes a little bit more. The key is we can sit with almost every copy of the Gazette that we’ve written in the last few years and justify it. Whenever we’ve been pressing send on copy, we’ve had to sit back and make sure we’ve ticked all the boxes. So far we haven’t been the victim of any legal problems, and I think it’s because we’ve been ultra-cautious. I think the fans are getting that way too – they’re quite clued up on things like that now.

We haven’t got the time or space to really go through what’s gone wrong at the club, but is there a specific incident or moment that you can pinpoint where you thought ‘they’re in real trouble’?
Yeah – it was when Ian Holloway left, basically, in November 2012. Blackpool had been relegated from the Premier League by a point, then the following season got to the playoff final (which they lost), but they started the next season like a house on fire. I remember Neil Warnock saying to us, at the side of the pitch, whoever finishes above them will win the league. Blackpool were absolutely flying, but just before the transfer deadline Holloway realised he was just short of one striker, and tried to sign DJ Campbell – a deal was half-done, but for whatever reason didn’t materialise, and I think from that moment Holloway lost heart, his eyes started to wander, he started talking to other clubs and then he left for Crystal Palace. From then onwards there have been, I think seven managers, a host of pretty poor selection decisions, and it’s been downhill from that moment.

The one question that sticks out from an outsider’s perspective is: why are the Oystons doing this? Why do they continue with a club at which they’re so widely hated?
The big question is why they haven’t taken big steps to improve the situation – they’ve got bags of money, and at some point in the last few years we all expected them to say ‘that’s enough’. That’s the biggest question for me – why they never really said ‘enough’s enough, let’s stop legal action against the fans, stop arguing with the local media’. They actually seem to have done that a little bit this summer – they’ve appointed a chief executive, they’ve started talking to a fan group, even if it’s not one that many fans are particularly fond of, and they’ve tried to build bridges…but the big question is why they didn’t do this 18 months/two years ago. The question of why they’ve carried on – who knows? But I think the key is that I can’t see them going anywhere. I think they’ve just made a host of really, really bad decisions.

As a ‘one club, one issue’ reporter, did you ever yearn for a bit more variety?
No, I think – especially with a club like Blackpool – that it’s important to stay on top of it all completely. There’s so many angles to this story – we could literally speak for the whole day about it. It’s that complex you couldn’t do anything else. People say to me it must be a nightmare covering Blackpool – but in terms of a storyline, there’s nowhere better than Blackpool. It’s a bit like Dream Team, the old Sky series – you think that was completely unrealistic, but they wouldn’t have written half the things that have happened to Blackpool. Linda Block wouldn’t have done some of these things. It’s madness, but you can’t help but like the challenge of it.

Vox in the Box: Will Watt
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