Graham Hunter is one of the most recognisable voices in football media, having reported on Spanish football for Sky Sports since 2002. He has written for newspapers and websites around the world, including the Daily Mail and ESPNFC. He wrote the award-winning ‘Barca’ with Backpage Press and has now released a series of podcast interviews with some of the biggest names in British football.
Graham, these podcasts have been extremely well received. Why do you think that is?
There’s no way whatsoever that I could say it was a strategy of mine to show the real David Moyes or show the real Gordon Strachan, because it wasn’t. If I’d set out to do that, either for the whole series or just for a few interviews, then I definitely have failed. The football world and the journalism world have become so short on interactions and understanding and common goals that, for some bizarre reason, a lot of people in the football world, if they see you on television and you don’t make a total arse of it, it kind of helps. It’s not as if they think, ‘you’re one of us,’ but you go into a sort of nether world between journalism and them. They talk to you differently.
I know from Gordon and David that people said to them, “We know you’re like that, but you never speak like that in public.” Genuinely, all I did was just assume that they would relax and talk to me normally, and if I spoke to them about things that interested me, things that would be within their sphere and talked about those things in the way that I wanted to, then by and large, we’d have an interesting conversation. But what I didn’t know was how people would react to it.
There’s a lot of trust in something like this, isn’t there?
I think there has to be an element of that. Maybe some of that trust also stems from me wanting to know different things. I’m not interested in what fills back pages. Certainly, when I was more of a print journalist, I thought the back page was a really hallowed place to break news. I think that, for various different reasons that we don’t need to get into today, back pages are too often aimed at getting somebody to slag another person off. That can be entertaining in small doses, sometimes it can be useful and sometimes the person being criticised on the back page deserves it. But that’s not what these podcasts are about,
I was expecting a lot of, ‘ugh, you didn’t ask about this’ or ‘ugh, you didn’t ask about that’ with Harry Redknapp and his tax case, but I’ve got no fucking interest in that. Number one, that’s a news reporting job and it’s already been reported. Number two, I think we do quite well to get so much time with these people and if you charge in with a really controversial topic it won’t work. We won’t have time for the things that we set out to talk about and we’ll put people into areas where the atmosphere will change and they will give me very few things that interest me.
They remind me a little of the old Michael Parkinson shows in the 70s and 80s, where he used to have a guest on, and it wasn’t even like the guest was promoting a movie or anything. He’d just have someone on who was interesting and they’d just sit there and talk.
When I used to listen to those shows when I was young, I felt like you. I was deeply interested in finding out what people were actually like, whether they were actors or actresses. Parky had quite a wide range of people on there. I’m a great fan of eccentricity, I’m a great fan of people saying things they firmly believe, whether they suit everybody’s personal taste or not. I admire people who have lived a rich life. I say that with no envy, or jealousy. Not necessarily rich people, either. Just people who seem to have got more from life than the majority. And if those people can talk well about it and give great anecdotes, and make you laugh, or challenge you, that’s great.
But I listen back to these and I think, ‘What the fuck was I doing there? Why the fuck did I not shut up sooner? Stop talking!’ I bet you Parky didn’t do that. I want to get better at that. I’d really like to get better at it. However, one thing that I do think I do is encouraging people to relax and talk openly. If something controversial comes out, I want it to be because somebody has something to say. I don’t want it to be because I’ve winkled it out of them. What I do want to come out consistently, is somebody being reflective, and colourful, and funny, and honest, or nostalgic about a life well spent.
The majority of interviews carried out today, in football anyway, are asking somebody who’s famous a question about somebody else. Getting somebody with a high profile in the game to talk about the big issue of the day. “Quick, there’s somebody famous! Let’s ask them something about Ronaldo.”
When people see you on Sky discussing Spanish football, you know that what they’re thinking, don’t you? How did he get that job and how can I get that job?
I think that if anybody has followed my career they’ll know that it was a total fluke. I did some hospital radio when I was young and I enjoyed it very much. The thing about hospital radio in those days was that it had direct lines from Parkhead and Hampden straight into the hospitals, so you could commentate straight to the patients. So as inexperienced as you were, you would be commentating on some of the biggest matches, the cup finals at Hampden, for fuck’s sake! It was unbelievable. It was joyous. I began being able to put my thoughts about football into words like that, and out of the blue, a guy that you probably know, Tom English, just picked me up from there. He was the editor of the Sunday Times in Scotland and he said to me, “Some of the things you say are quite funny, write a column for me please.”
Later on I got a job working at the Daily Mail. I was there when it just started out in Glasgow and it was all cables and wires. They hadn’t really opened for business, so I went there and said, “Here’s my CV, I want you to take a look at it.” Then about a week and a half later, I went storming in saying, “It’s been over a week, why the fuck haven’t you replied?” My CV was probably in a drawer somewhere and they were looking at me thinking, “Who the fuck are you? Beat it!” But a fax came through saying that there was a press conference at Parkhead and they didn’t have a reporter. So they said, “Look you lout, can you go to Parkhead on our behalf and not fuck it up?” And I was like, “Of course I can.”
So I went there and Pierre van Hooijdonk had just been signed. But he wasn’t there. The club said that fog had delayed his flight. But I spoke to the Dutch journalists there and they told me that he’d been up all night playing cards with his NAC Breda team-mates and he’d missed his plane. When he did eventually turn up, no-one else in the Scottish press thought to question why he was late. I had a back page exclusive from a press conference, something all the experienced guys had missed, and so I ended up with a contract – simple as that. I did ok, got some stories in Scotland, went down to England and within about two or three years of being a full time journalist, I was the chief football writer of the Daily Mail.
I did all right, but then… (ED’S NOTE: It is at this point that Graham details his exit from the Daily Mail in characteristically colourful language. He insisted that I print every word, but the Set Pieces definitely doesn’t have enough in the kitty for legal fees, so we’re just going to say that there was a fall out with former colleague Colin Gibson and leave it at that)…and so of course I got the sack. We flipped a coin and went to Spain, I went there because I’d been there for the World Cup in 1982 as a fan and I just loved everything about the way they consumed football, the passion, the noise, the daily newspapers, the funny and strange stadiums, just everything about it. My wife and I came over here with no contacts, no offers of work, I didn’t really have any intelligible Spanish, and we just pitched up. I managed to worm my way in and here we are.
How long did it take you to learn the language?
Ha! Well that depends on what level you mean. I’m still fucking trying to learn English. I probably did my first interview three months after I arrived, but I definitely wouldn’t like to listen to it back, but if I was asked to conduct a proper interview in Spanish, I told them that I wouldn’t be able to do that until a year after I got there, maybe 18 months after that.
And then Sky Sports’ La Liga coverage kicks in and suddenly you become a household name.
Well, again that came about as a total fluke. I was at one of these Fleet Street black tie dinners when I was leaving London and Vic Wakeling, who was head of Sports at Sky, came and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Are you off to Spain?’ I said that I was and he said, “Well, keep in touch.” Of course I never really thought anything of it. But one day, I got a call from Sky and they said to me, “Do you fancy doing five minutes on the phone every week?’ and I was like, “Yeah, sure why not!” They would phone me up every week while I was wandering round the neighbourhood, or picking my daughter up from swimming and I would just have a nice little chat with them about Spanish football. But little did I know that this would go on to become Revista.
We had top class guests, top class presenters, we had Guillem Balague’s knowledge and contacts in Spanish football, we were allowed to be punchy and we were allowed two journalists on set talking about sport. I had such a hugely enjoyable time doing that. I mean, obviously Revista is in a different place online now. Pages turn, lives change. It doesn’t surprise me, and it shouldn’t surprise anybody – but boy was it fun. Such clever people, and the footballers that we had on the show, without exception, were interesting, charming, they would share anecdotes that would have us transfixed, they were brilliant co-analysts as well and it was just a pleasure.
If you were 18 and starting out all over again, what would you do to make yourself stand out?
One of the things I would most certainly do is teach yourself first. Pay attention to what’s said by your favourite football commentators. Try to listen for when silence is good, try to listen to when it’s the right time to use certain words. That advice travels across all media, I think. Not just commentary but written, too. When people are at home thinking, I want to break out of my day job and do this for a living, switch on Soccer Saturday and look at the interviews they do. Learn how to transcribe really quickly. Or tape the interviews, and then write them down off the tape. Then look at those words, and type them into a story that you would find read. That you would find interesting and in the style of the writer that you admire. At first, it will take time. It might take a couple of hours, might take a couple of days. But you have to be able to get that process down, to taping it, to transcribing it in about 20 minutes, and writing it in an hour. Then it’s a matter of putting those 800-1000 words into a mixture of your writing and quotes, and understanding where they go. You can do that. You can practice that. So if you’re not going down the route of doing a journalism course, if you come to a local paper or somebody, you can say to them, I’m self taught and I have a bit of experience.
Some people who blog, whether they’re professionally trained or not, are so knowledgeable, it keeps me on my toes. I hate having people out there doing something better than me. I admire it, but that’s when it’s time to fucking sharpen up. If somebody wants a career, you need to learn the rudiments by looking up to and learning off the people you admire. Then, while you’re doing that, find your own voice, find your own manner, find your own colour and then learn grammar. Learn how to fucking spell properly. It’s all there. You can find a niche in the professional world if you are driven enough, good enough, and strong enough not to take no for an answer. You might have to work for free for a bit, but doing so will give you a platform, and if you’re any good, somebody will notice. Somebody will definitely notice.
If you like Graham Hunter’s podcasts, there’s a Kickstarter here for the production of even more next year, and he’s offering some great rewards in return.
You can follow Graham Hunter on Twitter (@BumperGraham)
You can find podcasts, articles, books and all sorts of lovely stuff on Graham’s site