Vox in the Box: Rory Smith

Rory Smith is a football writer for The Times, but he’s also written for the Daily Telegraph and the Independent. He ghostwrote the marvellous Champions League Dreams with Rafa Benitez and his new book, Mister: The Men Who Gave The World The Game is out in April.  

Rory, how did you get started?

The story of how I became a journalist isn’t very interesting. I went to Bolivia when I was 18 to work for a paper and learned Spanish (ED’S  NOTE: That sounds pretty interesting, to be fair) and then came back, went to uni, was sports editor of the student paper in third year and then there was no kind of plan to it. I applied for the Mirror graduate scheme. I got rejected by the Guardian, the Telegraph, Sky, the Mail, the Times – but I was a trainee at the Mirror for three years, doing lots of different things, then I was freelance for a bit, then the Telegraph on Merseyside, the Indy for a bit and now the Times.

I think I’m quite an interesting age group because those older than me all went through that local paper, agency route, and I think their minds work in a ‘print’ way. And then after me, two or three years younger it’s different, it’s much more digital savvy and technologically innovative

People who have got jobs through blogs, that sort of thing…

Yeah, basically. Like Jack Pitt-Brooke, who I think is amazing, Jack’s a genuinely brilliant journalist, and someone noticed his blog and that was Jack’s way in. It’s becoming increasingly true that people are able to get into the industry through blogs, but when I was 22, 23 that wasn’t an option.

You seem to be able to do interviews with people you that…well, you’d instinctively say ‘that’s a tough sell to an editor’.

Yeah, doing big interviews doesn’t really interest me – and that’s not to say that I wouldn’t do them or that if someone came to me and said ‘Do you want to speak to Wayne Rooney?’ I’d go ‘nah, I’m not arsed.’ But they’re not the good stories. Most of those stories are: “I was really good at football from a young age, and I continue to be really good at football and I have really no interests beyond being really good at football.” There is no depth to them. I like ones such as Michael Appleton at Oxford. He is a brilliant story, because he was the future of English football, he was the superstar coach, he made three terrible decisions and it all went wrong, and now he’s rebuilding his career and the stuff that they’re doing is really interesting. That is a story that has an arc, rather than ‘such and such is brilliant at football, what’s it like being brilliant at football?’

How much do you think about who you are writing for? The thing people say is it’s almost impossible to second-guess the audience, so to an extent you have to disregard them. Do you think that is true?

I think you’ve got to. I don’t know how much is a conscious process, but I think if something is interesting to you it will probably be interesting to other people, and I think the only time that you have to be conscious of when that is maybe not true, is with a subject that you are particularly involved with. When you can disappear down a rabbit hole thinking ‘this is fascinating’ when actually it is kind of mind-numbingly boring in the detail.

Wenger recently talked about the Nantes team in 1995 – it sounds like the kind of thing that people will think is really pretentious, but just because I was 12 or 13, and I remember that Nantes team had Japhet N’Doram and Reynald Pedros, a local, and it had Makelele and Karembeu in midfield and I thought it was fascinating that he said Leicester had the equivalent. I think that’s a really interesting subject, and I’d love that if somebody said to me ‘Right you’ve got 900 words, just fill it, we’ve got a massive gap’ I’d have happily done a ‘Who were this Nantes team?’ piece, because I’d think that was amazing – that’s a story that means a lot to me. But even I know that that’s not interesting to other people.

Do you ever have any problems because of who you support?

No, it’s not that important. I support Liverpool, and I always have, and I’m not ashamed of that. But what I should say is that I’m a Liverpool fan from my childhood, I consider myself probably slightly lapsed as a fan. It’s really hard as a journalist – you try and explain this on Twitter and people don’t react well, but you meet people and you work with teams and you develop friendships and relationships with people at those teams. Not necessarily players and managers but it can be people behind the scenes, and you tend to want them to do well.

So I really like Leicester’s press office because they’re really helpful, so I’m delighted that they’re top. My Dad’s a Leicester fan as well so that helps. I like Roberto Martinez so I’m really happy when Everton do well. There’s other clubs I like less, and I like them losing. So you are biased but it’s a more complicated thing than people think. I get on really well with City and I have done for years, but you quite regularly get people saying ‘You hate City like everyone in the media’ – I love Man City, their food is amazing, their press people seem really nice, their press lounge is comfortable, I’ve got two or three good friends there. So it’s more complicated than just saying ‘I am a Liverpool fan and that is it.’

I don’t want to get too bogged down in the Twitter stuff but you seem to be on there a lot less these days…

It’s not conscious – it’s not like I’ve thought ‘right, I don’t want to be on Twitter any more’ but it’s just not really a constructive forum now. Iain Macintosh once said that midnight Twitter is the best Twitter because the angry people have gone to bed and it’s just fairly sensible adults talking. And there’s some people who are drunk, and that’s fine, but generally the whole standard of the debate is higher. It might be my memory playing tricks on me, but it did used to be like that all the time. Initially it was quite a sensible, intelligent forum and it isn’t any more really. And it’s too easy to cause offence. There’s too much you can’t say. The number of times I write a tweet and think ‘ugh, no there’s no point, it’ll just be misunderstood – can’t be arsed’. Maybe I’ll buy some followers. I think they’d be nicer to me. If you pay for them are they nicer to you?

I suppose if you pay for them you can just imagine they are sitting back in silent agreement.

Just nodding? Yeah, great idea. The other thing that I like about Twitter is the one person in British football that you can insult and no one will have a go at you is Sam Allardyce. You make a joke about Sam Allardyce on Twitter, everyone agrees with you. It’s amazing. He’s like Jesus, the Jesus of social media. He unites people.

Going back to when you were talking about bloggers, do you think people who got jobs through that will be among the last group who can do that because there will be a ‘backlash’ – maybe that’s not the right word, but a ‘rebalancing’ towards people who come through more traditional routes, or people with sources…

Yes, that’s really important. To be honest, bloggers almost has a pejorative sense to it and I don’t like that. There are some brilliant online writers out there who have really insightful views and who are really perceptive, but there is only a certain amount of opinion in the newspaper or on websites where you can earn a regular wage. And because there is so much opinion everywhere, opinion has a low value because the market is flooded with it. What it is not flooded with is…not even ‘news stories’ – you don’t even have to be able to break ‘Man City have been bought by Mars’ or whatever, but it’s about the ability to say ‘I know this person and this person’ or ‘I have paid attention enough to notice this interesting thing and to go out and get something that contains information rather than opinion,’ because information has a premium on it and that is one thing that newspapers need.

The newspaper’s not going to pay you to be Paul Hayward. Because Paul Hayward exists. And Paul Hayward is better at it than you and Paul Hayward has been doing it for 25 years, and he’s got the wealth of knowledge that has built up from that. So don’t try and be Paul Hayward first. That’s what the backlash will be against, or the rebalancing, that you do need people who will provide you with information, whatever that information might be.

Everyone is really negative about the future of print journalism but as long as you don’t think of it as actually being in paper form, it’s relatively bright. I don’t really like the Premier League and all the shit around it, all the shouting ‘Ha! We’re so great’ but it’s an amazing thing to be involved with because it’s so incredibly popular.

When you’re talking to these shadowy sources, it must be hard to strike a balance between a healthy scepticism of what people are telling you and why they are telling you and reporting things, because it can have a negative knock-on effect – like with the whole thing a while back about certain Chelsea players being ‘rats’…

Of all the journalists out there, the majority will have a little bit but not the whole picture, and people have a tendency to fill in the gaps with what they think they know, and what people think they know isn’t particularly useful. So you do have to pick your way through the information you get and that’s a really painstaking process and there is an element to which you have to basically pick, to an extent, what you believe, there will be bits that clash and you have to pick and choose which bits you believe.

And that comes from putting certain value on the information you get from different types of people and different people who’ve got different interests. For example, I always think with agents, they are at their best when they are talking about other people’s players. I don’t talk to that many agents, but an agent will always say to you about his player ‘Oh yeah, he’s going to get a new contract and such and such are after him’ and that might be true, but often it’s a version of the truth, it’s an understandably positive spin on the truth. But on somebody else’s player they might say ‘Well have you heard that Swindon are looking at him?’ and you might think ‘No, but I have now, so thanks.’ Agents are much more plugged into that world that journalists aren’t really allowed to be part of a lot of the time. So you just have to learn by error to judge which bits of information are better than others really.

Is there anything you would like to see more of or see less of in the wide world of football writing?

I’d like to see fewer people saying things presented as news rather than weirdly biased opinions. I think as journalists we allow ourselves to be too dragged along by what managers say, particularly in match reports. This is really old fashioned but I kind of think that journalists go to matches so that fans don’t have to believe the crap that the manager comes out with. Because the manager will always say ‘Oh yeah we were great, we should have won’. Their view means basically nothing because they obviously think that. Whereas the journalist can go, ‘this is what the manager said, and this is what this manager said, but this is actually what happened.’

And I’d like to see more, I dunno, more sophistication, I guess. I think the way we present foreign football across the media has got a lot better, and I genuinely, firmly believe that has held England back for decades – the inability to pay attention to what is going on in the rest of the world. It affects the football; it affects the footballers as well. It feeds into our football culture. And our football culture has become really isolationist, and that is a massive competitive disadvantage. 

You can follow Rory Smith on Twitter (@RorySmithTimes)

You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79)

Vox in the Box: Rory Smith
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