Vox in the Box: Amy Lawrence

Amy Lawrence has been writing for the Guardian and the Observer since 1996 and is also a regular studio guest on BBC Five Live. Her new book, “Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season,” was rated as one of the sports books of 2014 by the Sunday Times. You really should give it a read, it’s ace.

Amy, your account of Italia ’90 in the Guardian was brilliant. Travelling to Italy at the age of 18 on a whim, sleeping in train stations, partying with random football fans from around the world, it all sounded brilliant. But what happened next to take you from being a football fan to being a journalist?

Well, the first thing I’d say is that I’m still a football fan. I think there’s a general presumption that a lot of football journalists aren’t really football fans, which is nonsense. Italia ’90 was just a golden experience. I think a lot of things happen by quirk and I just happened to be the right age at the right time. I was an absolute football fanatic. The idea of going to a World Cup was such a dream and it wasn’t actually too difficult to turn that dream into a reality in 1990, which is one of the problems I think we now have with football.

I have always been a big enthusiast. When I’m interested in something I always dive in, feet first and with frills on. When I was studying, I was heavily involved in various supporter associations, I wrote for the Arsenal fanzine, the Gooner and I started ticking off the 92. I wanted to immerse myself in football as much as I possibly could. The university newspaper had a sports section but there was nobody with any willingness to do it. Word had somehow reached the editor that there was this girl who was a bit crazy about football.  We met and he asked me to edit the sports section. I gave it a bash. That was my first experience of football journalism. It was great fun and it went really well, but I must stress at this point that I never thought ‘Oh, when I grow up I want to be a football journalist’, it just wasn’t in my thinking. Partly because I didn’t think it was an option. If you picked up a paper in 1989 and turned to the sports pages, there weren’t a huge number of female role models. 

Then like most people, I was turfed out of college and into the real world. I did some mundane jobs like database inputting and working in a pub and then I replied to an advert, a very small classified ad in the Guardian one day, searching for young new football writers. It turned out to be FourFourTwo. They were looking for a launch team and for some reason they offered me a job. The downside is that it came with a caveat. They needed to get this magazine up and running on quite a tight deadline…

What year was this?

It was 1994. So it was basically, take the job or go to USA ’94, which I had planned to do already. But I couldn’t go the US, come back, and then take the job because the first issue was due out in September.

How long did it take you to weigh this one up?

Not that long really. It was a phenomenal opportunity because really, I didn’t have that much experience. I remember one of the first editorial meetings, there were six of us on the team and the editor, Paul Simpson sat there and made a hit list of targets for the cover stories of the first few issues. So he went round the room and he said, “Ok, you chase Kenny Dalglish, you chase Terry Venables,’ and then he looked at me and said, ‘you chase Kevin Keegan.’ I distinctly remember the feeling of my stomach virtually falling out in terror of having the responsibility of somehow tracking down Kevin Keegan and not knowing where or how to start!

Did you find him?

No, I never quite got Kevin Keegan, but bizarrely I did get blessed by him. I went up to Newcastle when there was a sponsors event he was due to be at. I got close enough to actually introduce myself, explain what the magazine was about and to request this interview, and then he gave me a beatific smile, put a hand on my shoulder and said ‘Bless you.’ Then that was that.

Wow. Did you feel a sense of warmth and empowerment at that moment? A sudden adventurous spirit that was lacking?

I could say that life has never been the same since.

Where did you go after that, fuelled by Keegan’s blessing?

In 1996, Paddy Barclay, to whom I pretty much owe my career, was leaving his post at the Observer for the Telegraph and had been asked if there were any young and cheap football writers that they might consider. I owe him for life because he put my name forward ahead of the others, and the Observer gave me a chance from there.

Were you doing matches straight away?

Yes, my first match was hell. Wimbledon against Nottingham Forest. It was a seven-goal thriller with red cards, penalties and last minute goals, just about everything you could imagine and I remember sitting there with a pencil, a telephone plugged into the wall, staring at this blank notebook hyperventilating. I went and sat in the salubrious Selhurst Park toilet with my head in my hands thinking, ‘Oh God, what am I going to do?’ But once I’d composed myself, I went back to this piece of paper, somehow scribbled down 450 words and then dictated it down the phone line.

Do you like doing match reports?

I love them. It’s one of my favourite parts of the job. I think the key is somehow grasping, while you’re watching something live and when you don’t know what’s going to happen next, how important each bit is. You develop a smell for whether or not something is going to make your final 800 words. Sometimes, if you’re at a really boring game, your antennae tells you to include all sorts of nonsense and then of course it all gets exciting and you can cut it all and chuck it in the bin. That’s where you get your adrenalin. You don’t get your adrenalin in the press conference or doing an interview, it’s a different kind of energy. Sometimes you feel like you’re plugged into an electric socket for those 90 minutes, because as a football fan, you have that energy anyway, just by being at a live game. Then you multiply that by the pressure and responsibility of meeting absurd deadlines and trying to make sense.

There weren’t many female reporters at this time, were there? Did you have any issues?

I can honestly count on one hand the moments when I have felt uncomfortable for one reason or another. But I suspect that if you speak to a male football journalist, who’s also operated over the last 20 years, they might have a similar number too. Or maybe even more. Obviously not in the same way, but situations where they may have been bullied or disrespected or whatever it might be. So it’s quite difficult to assess really.

Did you ever face the ‘Do you actually like football?’ question. Or questions about Gary Lineker’s legs?

No, I genuinely didn’t feel like people didn’t think I should be there. I have no idea what people said behind my back, and some of that might not have been too complimentary, especially in the earlier days. But if they didn’t say it to my face then, so what? For most of the time, people were pretty welcoming. I definitely sensed after a couple of years or so that the old guard accepted me more, that they would talk to me about football more, or even ask me something which felt like an acknowledgement that I was worthy of my place in the press pack. I remember when Brian Glanville came and asked me about my opinion on something and I thought, ‘I’ve cracked it!’

I always felt that if you know what you’re talking about, if you have the enthusiasm and the love for it, if it’s there and it’s real and it’s genuine, most people can’t be bothered to think ‘Ugh, what does she know?’ because it’s quite tiresome really. So I didn’t feel as if it was much of an issue.

Was it easier in the ‘90s when there was more access and less competition?

It was extraordinarily different. Now you go into a separate building from the players, then somebody is escorted into the room and then you speak to them while a press officer monitors it all. It’s not an environment that’s conducive to great journalism, let’s be honest. When I began, I was lucky enough to catch the end of the period where you could just rock up to a training ground, you’d be invited in for tea and toast and you’d sit in the canteen with the players. Everyone would say hello to each other, it was a much more normalised environment. You could generate, if not a friendship, certainly a very amicable co-existence, and everybody understood the rules more or less. When things were on the record, when things weren’t. So you could have a chat with someone, they might give you a bit of gossip about something, but if it was a friendly chat then it stayed there. When you were doing a proper interview, we all knew when to start and stop. It was quite healthy.

What do you think changed?

The explosion of media. The back pages were quite thin when I started out, and they were just experimenting with pull-outs, more in depth pieces, more human interest stories. Slowly more examples of players’ lives reaching the front of the pages as well as the back. That celebrity culture changed the relationship between the press and the clubs. Clearly, the amount of access became impossible to maintain. There were so many more organisations. You had written broadcasts, radio, TV, internet, podcasts, bloggers. You couldn’t let everybody have relaxed access.

I can see why clubs had to step in and erect some barriers. It’s interesting to see now that some clubs have taken it one step further and they like to be the news breakers, which wasn’t really needed in the past. But I suppose they want as much ownership as possible concerning their club.

Another thing that has changed is the arrival of the comment boxes.

Yeah, that took a bit of getting used to. Before below the line commenting, you’d probably get three or four letters a year  based on what you wrote over the season, so to suddenly have these instant responses to something you’ve just written, especially when some of it was quite vitriolic and personal, was a shock actually. Some journalists simply refuse to look below the line, but some can’t resist. I tend to pick and choose. I really like interacting with readers because essentially I’m still a fan. I think a lot of the comments, when they’re not silly or personal, are really thought-provoking. Often, people know more than you do if it’s not your specialist subject or remind you of something you’ve forgotten, or give you another point of view that you didn’t consider before, which is actually really invigorating.

And now you’re on Five Live. How’s that been?

It’s been really enjoyable. One of the things that I absolutely adored was being at the World Cup in Brazil. If it wasn’t for the BBC, I don’t think I would have made it. They decided to give me a bit of work and helped me with a place to stay, which enabled me to get out there. And I’ll never forget Germany beating Brazil 7-1.

You did a show with Tim Vickery and Rafa Honigstein, didn’t you?

I did and it was really special. Just before kick off, the studio was overlooking the Copacabana, and all of a sudden there was this biblical storm. It was just sheets of rain, one of those enormous storms that you don’t really see even in a rainy city like London. We stood at the window looking at it. It was a very dramatic setting and there was suddenly nobody on the beach. There was this sort of ominous feeling, something in the air, and then we sat and watched the game…

I felt thrilled to be next to Rafa and Tim, watching their reactions and the things that came to their mind. You watch Match of the Day and Sky, and the way we cover our football with the analysts being predominantly ex-players and managers, but this proved that there is space too for expert journalists who can add something different. Ex-players are great, they have an expertise than none of us can replicate, but it’s not everything. Danny Mills was in the stadium that night commentating, but what he had to say was nowhere near as interesting, in terms of context and depth, as what Tim and Rafa had to say.

Final question, you painted such a beautiful picture of Italia ’90, of the openness and the friendliness, and this kind of lost innocence of football. We’re 25 years on from that now. Some things have improved, some things haven’t. Which era do you prefer?

There was something raw about football in 1990. There’s so much context that’s needed when we reflect on that period because it really was the end of old football. Old football, for those of us who loved it, is tinged with a lot of sadness and regret. Having Bradford and Heysel and Hillsborough so close in time to that period, it underscored everything. And it was partly what partly prompted all the changes that have given us the game we have today.

It’s easy to romanticise how much you can miss football terraces and standing up and that feeling of being taken off your feet and chucked 20 yards in a different direction by the sway of the crowd after the goal. But there was an edge around that, there was still a bit of aggro around football at the time, an ambience that you can partly romanticise and you can partly remember how repulsive it was. It’s a weird mish mash of emotions when you look back at the time, and that’s why Italia 90’ struck a chord with so many people because it was as if all that stuff hit a barrier and something very different was on the other side. We’ve gone so far beyond that now. I resent that it’s so expensive to go to football. There are people who love it just as much as I did when I was 18 who can’t afford to go and they have to watch it on television.

But then the quality of football is so high. You can see Sergio Aguero, Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez here in England, which seems absurd when you think back to 1990. If a top division English team had just one of these overseas players it would have been unusual. People were resentful at the time of all these foreign influences, but I thought it was fabulous. So, I don’t know. The two eras both have their virtues, but they both have their scars too.

Is football now a better product, but a worse experience?

It’s definitely a worse experience. I think it is also a much more serious experience. I think before you could watch your team lose, you could be cheesed off, but you could have a laugh about it. Now people watch their team lose and there’s so much anger. I think we’ve lost quite a lot of the humanity in our football, which is a real pity.

You can follow Amy Lawrence on Twitter (@AmyLawrence71)

You can also pick up Amy’s fantastic new book, “Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season,” on paperback.

Vox in the Box: Amy Lawrence
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