Daniel Taylor has been the Guardian and Observer’s chief football writer since 2012, having previously covered the Manchester patch. He has written four books, including ‘This Is The One‘ about Sir Alex Ferguson and ‘I Believe In Miracles‘ about Nottingham Forest’s European Cup winning team of the late 1970s…
How did you get started in journalism?
I didn’t have any journalism training or qualifications at all, basically because you didn’t really need any back then. I finished my A levels and was basically going nowhere, a classic 18-year-old. One afternoon my mum came into my room and just flung the Newark Advertiser at me, which was my local paper, and there was a little advert in there for a cub reporter, for £5,000-a-year. I’m convinced the only reason I got the job was that the editor was a massive Forest fan – he’s actually the club historian now – and I remember his eyes lighting up in the interview when I mentioned Forest. I didn’t have any qualifications or shorthand, but I did have – and I hope this doesn’t sound conceited – a ‘natural’ journalistic sense, knowing where a good story is, something a lot of good journalists have.
I went for an interview at the Nottingham Evening Post, which was my dream job, but the bloke doing the interview fancied himself as a classic ‘newspaper bastard’ I think. I went in wearing a sixth form suit, a bit nervous, and his first words to me were ‘Have you got a pen on you?’ I didn’t, and he said ‘What sort of journalist are you without a pen?’ I realised within about 20 seconds that my dream job, covering Forest on the Evening Post had gone down the pan.
I then ended up at Raymonds which was a press agency in Derby, spending my week working for all the national papers, then at the weekend I was covering Leicester City. My first week there was Martin O’Neill’s first week, so I timed that really well too, because Leicester really became a brilliant story to cover.
I then started working for an agency in Manchester called Teamwork, which would later become Wardles. I did a game as a trial – Sheffield United v Port Vale – which was a bit of a nothing game, but afterwards I went outside, the Port Vale bus was standing directly outside the ground, and this bloke came steaming down the hill shouting “Where’s Gareth Ainsworth? Where’s fucking Gareth Ainsworth?” He then jumped on the Port Vale bus, John Rudge (the then Vale manager) tried to pacify him but he nuts Rudge, and Ainsworth is at the back of the bus looking terrified. It turned out this guy was someone close to Dane Whitehouse, and Ainsworth had ‘tackled’ him and did his knee ligaments, wrecked his career. I went down to the pay phone, rang in this story about John Rudge being headbutted on the bus, and left thinking “Well, I’ve got this job.” I guess you could say I’ve had a few strokes of good luck – that could’ve been the most boring game ever, but when I picked up the Sunday papers the next morning it was all over them.
You were on the Manchester patch until about four years ago before you got the chief football writer job…
It was interesting because it included a lot of the Ferguson years, and I saw the whole rise of Manchester City – when I was with the agency nobody would go to press conferences, it would just be me, Radio Manchester and the Manchester Evening News with Joe Royle. I didn’t mind that though, because in those days you could go to the training ground and actually speak to people – players like Jamie Pollock, Paul Dickov. That was in the days when you’d have a contact book full of phone numbers, but the whole culture of football journalism has changed now. Very few footballers would dream of giving out their numbers like that. You can’t just wander into the training ground and talk to Sergio Aguero now.
Hugh McIlvanney was talking about this in his farewell piece in the Sunday Times recently…
I found it quite interesting that he said he envied the younger generation because of their age, but not their working conditions, but I completely envy the older generation. What he was saying about how you can pop up at a World Cup and if you got a translator you could wander up to a hotel and end up having a cup of coffee with Pele – that was standard practice at the time. I always loved talking to people like Jim Lawton about the old days in Manchester, going out with players, David Meek used to sit on the United bus with the players until Denis Law got pissed off with him, and the old Midlands journalists about the Clough days and the Merseyside guys about Shankly – they’ve all got so many anecdotes and old stories. I wish in a way I’d lived through that.
It’s a world away from the conditions a modern day journalist works in. The PR teams now – clubs didn’t used to have a press officer, then it became one, now every club has a team of press officers, and if you do an interview it takes weeks to arrange, then you might get asked what questions you were going to ask. Then the agent might ask for copy approval. Press officers will sit in on an interview as a matter of routine now – there used to be a time when you could just talk. I did an interview at Fulham a few years ago with Andy Johnson, and he actually asked the press officer if she’d leave the room, because he’d prefer to do it one-on-one. Players keep at arms distance now, and I’m not sure it works in their favour.
Do press officers ever actually step in and say ‘No, sorry, we’re not talking about that’ when you ask a particular question?
Not often in fairness, but it’s not ideal. Sometimes, if [you’re talking to] a young kid then it might make them feel a bit more at ease if there’s someone they know in there, but it’s a bit hard to relax [when the press officer is there]. It’s not the biggest complaint in the world, but it’s [worth saying] just to show the difference between how it used to be and how it is now.
Do you think that lack of openness might have made people like Billy Davies a little less paranoid? (EDITORS NOTE: former Nottingham Forest manager Davies had Taylor and indeed the Guardian banned from their press box a few years ago)
I actually don’t think he’s a particularly good example, because I’ve worked with paranoid managers before, and people who are manipulative and unpleasant, but he takes it to another level, and he has zero self-awareness. He’s clearly desperate for another job but doesn’t know why it’s been two years [since he was sacked by Forest] and nobody wants to touch him. He then does an interview where if you were a potential employer you’d read it and think ‘Oh my god – scratch him off the list.’ He kept going on about the problems with the local journalists, but they are all nice lads – they’re not exactly Jeremy Paxman types, camping out on his front lawn. But anyway – that’s yesterday’s story, I doubt we’ll be seeing Billy Davies anytime soon. Although Leeds might be a nice shout for him…
Being in Manchester – do you find that makes a difference at all, being away from the London press?
Well, what is the London press these days? Not many of the chief football writers of the big papers actually live in London – Sam Wallace and John Cross do, but I don’t, Ollie Kay lives in Yorkshire, Henry Winter lives in the Midlands, Mark Ogden lives in Rochdale. Manchester United and City, and Liverpool are the three big clubs and stories in the north-west, then in London there’s Arsenal, Chelsea and now Tottenham, so if I lived in London I’d just be getting the train up north rather than down south more often than not. Ultimately I do think Manchester and Liverpool are still the big stories, and if next season it is Mourinho v Guardiola it’s just going to be an incredible football city. I think once upon a time people would think you need to work in London, but I think that era passed a while ago.
This might be an incorrect perception, but you do seem to get more of the ‘you’re biased against *insert Club A*’ on Twitter and so forth than other journalists…
I don’t think I get it any worse or better than anyone else. I suppose when you’re associated with covering Manchester teams and there’s an issue like Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra [it can come up]. Another was the John Terry case, and of course it involved Anton Ferdinand so people were saying ‘Oh, you’re Rio’s mate.’ Which was utter bollocks. I wish I was Rio’s mate – I could’ve got some good stories out of him. Unfortunately I [only] know Rio in a work capacity, and I once bumped into him in John Lewis and had a little chat then, but that’s about as far as it goes. When you come out of Manchester you’re seen as the ‘Manchester guy’, but I was just taking issue with the bad guys, which [in that case] was Terry – everyone knows what happened that day – and then Suarez. You know what Twitter’s like – there are good people and bad people.
Sir Alex Ferguson banned you from his press conferences for writing a book about him despite him never having actually read the book – is that right?
The book was basically a two-year diary of covering his press conferences, in which there’s loads of colour that people don’t usually see. I wrote to the club to say ‘I’m writing this book, and I felt I should let you know and I hope that’s OK.’ I sent that to the press office, marked to show to Ferguson but they never did, I assume because they were scared of him. I did get a reply from them saying ‘good luck, you’ve got loads of great stuff to go at’. This was 2005 so incorporated the first round of Fergie v Mourinho, the fall-out from Roy Keane, the fall-out from Van Nistelrooy, so I couldn’t have timed the book any better in terms of juicy content. I got that letter and thought ‘that’s squared that.’
I was always very conscious that if there was one word that was inaccurate in this book, Fergie would pounce on it. I’m sure there were stories in there he wouldn’t have liked – stories of bollockings, stuff he said he shouldn’t have said, and lots of anecdotal stuff that wouldn’t make a news story but just makes interesting reading. But equally it was perfectly fair. He called one of his staff in when the book came out, and I think the quote was ‘One of us is reading this shite, and it ain’t me.’ But this is the thing – the person who wrote the book sent a report back to him saying ‘there’s no problem, carry on’. I was later told that his reaction (banning me) might have been because I didn’t offer him any money from the book, which from a multi-millionaire seems like an odd stance, or maybe it was the power of him saying ‘I don’t want people writing books about me, maybe this will dissuade other journalists from doing the same.’ Which is quite feasible with Fergie, because it’s all about his power and control. He just said ‘Whatever your report says, I’m still banning him.’
Then a few years later I wrote to him saying ‘Can I come back in? This is a bit ridiculous, and if you actually read the book it’s not a bad thing for you. But if there is one part of it you felt wounded by or you feel is inaccurate, let me know because it’s being reprinted, and if you feel that strongly about something I’ll change it.’ Apparently he was reading this all the way down, nodding and his body language was reasonably positive, then he got to the last paragraph when I said the book was being reprinted and he went berserk, and started shouting ‘He’s got a fucking brass neck’.
It was a privilege. I hope I’m not blowing my own trumpet too much, but the one thing I’m really proud about is that I only had about six weeks to write it, which was a proper hard six weeks, literally 17-hour days, and I needed to be on form every day. You’re looking at about 2,000 words every day, and there were some days when you have absolute stinkers and you’re sitting there with your head in your hands thinking ‘I’m never going to get this done.’
There are times when I pick it up and think ‘I might have done that differently’ but it’s had really nice feedback, so when you see things like that it’s all worth it. If I hadn’t done it I would’ve kicked myself, because the film is so brilliant. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gone to a press box and people tell me they loved it. I think there was a point when the DVD was outselling the Ronaldo film, and at one stage the book and the film were both at No.1 in the bestsellers lists.
But credit to Johnny Owen more than anything because the film came first, and the film is exceptional, not just for Forest fans. And I will give a refund to anyone that has read that book who thinks that if Leicester win the league this season, that’s a bigger miracle. There – end it on that fucking line.
You can follow Danny Taylor on Twitter (@DTGuardian)
You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79)