Vox in the Box: Sarah Winterburn

Sarah Winterburn has been the editor of the Football365.com website for about 15 or 16 years. She can’t exactly remember which. (ED’S NOTE: In the interests of full disclosure, the interviewer worked for her for seven years, and continues to contribute to the site.)

How did you get started?

I worked at Hayters Sports Agency, which was proper old school – people smoking cigars in the office, very male, very Fleet Street. It was kind of the very end of that era. I did that for three years, and part of that was going to two or three football matches every week, at some doing – no exaggeration – eight or nine match reports from one game, and bearing in mind this was pre-email, that means ringing in seven or eight match reports for every game. I sound like an old giffer, but that teaches you very early to work very quickly and think on your feet, because you can’t write seven or eight match reports, you can write a couple and then you have to basically make it up off the top of your head.

You used to turn up to games, and I would say more than nine times out of ten, be the only woman there in press boxes. I had various conversations with people on the phone who would say ‘Can you put me on to someone who knows about things, can you put me on to someone to talk about football?’ Thankfully things have changed a little bit since then – not a massive amount, but a little bit.

So then from that I used to do shifts at the Daily Mirror, doing all sorts – I wrote articles about catering in Formula One, golf fashion, David Hasselhoff memorably, impressionism, student crisis – anything. Anything at all.

How did you come to work at Football365?

I used to do shifts there once a week, and eventually they offered me a job. I remember walking in to the Mirror to do one of my last shifts there and they said ‘What a stupid decision you’ve made, the internet – this is not going to catch on’. They were just old school newspapermen who were saying ‘Why have you done this? If you’d have waited around you’d have got a job with us. It’s never going to last, you’re basically going to be redundant in six months.’

Presumably you shared the fears of those people warning you?

It did look a little bit like that. At the time I was massively underpaid, so that’s what it came down to. I think it was maybe that Football365 made me the first concrete offer. I’d like to say that I had this vision that this was going to be the future, but I don’t think I did – well, I know I didn’t, I absolutely didn’t.

At that time I worked with John Cross, who obviously is the Daily Mirror’s chief football writer now, Rob Draper who is the Mail on Sunday’s chief football writer, John Stern who edited Wisden Cricket. At that time my relationships were with the Mirror and Football365, and if the Mirror had jumped first I probably would have gone there. If somebody had said to me that I was still going to be doing this in 15 years time or whatever, I would have laughed because that would have seemed ludicrous. But it wasn’t that I saw this as being ‘the vision’, because I didn’t think that at the time. I don’t think the internet was seen, right then, as the future as it sort of became, and certainly the idea that it would usurp print media was ridiculous.

Other people who were working in a similar industry at the same time have said that they had this constant feeling that it could all collapse at any minute. Was there a similar atmosphere at F365 in the early days?

Back in the days when we were working off Baker Street, there were massive amounts of money around, ridiculous amounts. Christmas parties at the National History Museum, that sort of thing. I don’t know, in the beginning, especially when you’ve got people like Danny Kelly (F365 co-founder) who’ve got that sort of confidence and exuberance, you kind of feel untouchable for a while, and when it started going a bit wrong, or when the money started running out, it did come as a bit of a shock.

I don’t think I even thought about it, and then when things started to go wrong and the redundancies started it was like ‘Oh yeah, actually – where was the money going to come from?’ Like, where – how was this going to pay for itself? We were going to start Music365, Gardening365 and Future365 – Future365 was my favourite.

What was Future365?

It was horoscopes and runes and things. Russell Grant was involved. We used to try to cross promote, so we’d end up with someone casting runes ahead of football matches. There was one where we did some sort of radio programme where we had Joe Kinnear stood in the office in this little room with egg boxes round it and then we had somebody coming in and telling us what his horoscope was or something. It was absolutely fucking mental days, I mean, just mental.

It all famously went wrong when they launched Gardening365 and they’d taken hundreds of orders for Christmas trees. I think the site was closed down just before Christmas or something, so all these people kept ringing for these Christmas trees. If it was me now I’d be sitting there going ‘this is fucking mental, there is no way we can make money out of this’ but back then it was just ‘oh right, I’m still a bit pissed from last night, this is fine’.

Speaking of which, one of your columnists in the early days was David Icke, wasn’t he?

That was an interesting one. This was post-Terry Wogan, turquoise tracksuit era, but it was pre him becoming a bit of a guru to the world’s crazies, because obviously it was before the internet had taken over in such a way that people like him could gain some traction. Bizarrely, every third column or so would be basically be about goalkeeping, so there’d be these incredibly straight columns about so-and-so’s technique – David Seaman needs to leave the ground more, or somebody needs to come out more. Then there’d be another column that would be generally about football but a little bit mental, and then there’d be one, say every one in three, that was…the stuff he then became known for. The lizards and the Queen and all that nonsense.

And it actually ended because just after 9/11 he tried to write a column where he said that the Americans had done it themselves. We had to go ‘I don’t think we can use that really’. So he then threw his arms up in the air and was muttering about freedom of speech, and saying that the Americans had got to us. So that was the end of that beautiful relationship. It’s funny, not a lot of people remember that.

And another former 365 member of staff was Iain Moody I believe…

Yes, there’s some good stories about Iain Moody actually. I can’t remember where he was before he came to us but he sort of worked for us for a couple of years and then he developed a relationship with Athole Still (Sven Goran Eriksson’s agent) in that time and that’s where he ended up going. Because he could speak fluent French and Italian I think, he’d worked as a translator for various football events, I think that’s how he’d ended up getting into football. Memorably, he interviewed Didier Domi who was playing for Newcastle at the time, and Domi had basically said that Newcastle’s training ground was backwards, it was a shithole, they didn’t have advanced training, it wasn’t modern enough, etc.

So we published it, it gets picked up by one of the newspapers, then wonderfully Sir Bobby Robson holds a press conference – it was the best bit of advertising we’d ever had – in which he says “These quotes from www.football365.com are basically made up, Didier did not say this, yadda yadda yadda.” The next time Iain Moody goes out and has a drink with some of his friends, his friend takes his phone, rings Didier Domi, and leaves a message on his phone saying “Is that Didier Domi? I think you’re an absolute…” and then he used a nasty c-word. So in hindsight there were signs of what was to come.

And, one last question about a former colleague. Will you just quickly tell the story about how Piers Morgan (sort of) saved your life?

Yeah, he did. This was during one of my shifts at the Daily Mirror. One day I had pains in my chest and sort of fell to the floor quite dramatically. Morgan, who was editor at the time, ran from his office – I don’t know how, he must have just happened to be looking towards me or something, because I’d never spoken to him before that day and never did again. I like to think that his intervention would have saved my life, had I actually been having a heart attack.  

Do you think he remembers it fondly?

I was really disappointed that it wasn’t mentioned in one of his books actually. To show his human side.

The tone of the site has changed a fair bit over the years. Is that a consequence of having a number of different owners who might not appreciate how it was at the beginning?

I think certainly being owned by Sky did make us far more aware of what we were doing. Obviously we had a few legal cases along the way as we found our feet, finding out what we could and couldn’t say. I suppose we’d existed in a bit of a vacuum before then and nobody touched us because we were small and we didn’t have any money anyway for a lot of that time, so we weren’t the target for libel damages. I think it was that, and us maturing – probably me maturing as well. It’s very different being the editor of a site in your 20s, to being late-30s and now 40s.

I also think we’ve found our niche. Everybody is doing funny now – or everybody is trying to do funny or quirky or whatever, and there’s no mileage in it. Unless you can do it very, very, very well, trying to be funny all the time just doesn’t work. There is no longevity in that. When people would rather watch a video of someone falling over than a carefully constructed satirical piece, unless you’re going to be absolutely brilliant at it you’ve got to kind of play it safe more of the time. Not safer maybe, but straighter.

One of the things that’s survived from the beginning has been Mediawatch…

Though again, what nobody remembers now is that right at the beginning it was ‘Oh look at this funny thing in the paper’. It hadn’t developed its snarkiness which is what it’s become, and I do wonder if it has become a bit too snarky; a sort of judgment on things rather than presenting things as being quite funny.

Obviously some people would ring up and offer some ‘feedback’ about things that have been in Mediawatch. You still did match reports for the Mirror for quite a long time, did you ever have people approach you personally about it?

Most people outside of the Mirror didn’t know what I did. But then I’ve had people who’ve then emailed me or messaged me and said ‘Well you might want to know this’. The most memorable was when one person I’d worked with who was in Mediawatch rang me and had a 17 minute conversation in which we were called parasites, amongst other things. Now they do it in a far more passive aggressive way, where they just ‘like’ tweets on Twitter rather than criticise us.

There is still, even now, amongst newspaper journalists a real sense that they cannot understand that you do not want to be in their world. They still go ‘Well if you want a career in newspapers then you need to not piss people off.’ They are incredulous that you could not want a career in newspapers. To them that is still the pinnacle, and why would anyone not want that? I’ve got no interest in being there. I can’t think of much worse than having an editor ringing me at 9 o’clock in the morning and saying ‘Well what have you got for me today?’ But the divide is massively still there and they do assume that that is still where you want to be.

You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79)

And obviously, you should be a regular visitor to Football365, because it remains one of the best football sites in the business. 

Vox in the Box: Sarah Winterburn
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