The Set Pieces Live in Manchester

On September 5, 2015, as part of the Manchester Football Writing Festival in association with Waterstones and the National Football Museum, we put on a live event called ‘How To Get Ahead In Football Journalism.’ We were honoured to be joined by Paul McCarthy, Vikki Orvice and Philippe Auclair, three of football journalism’s biggest hitters. What follows here is an abridged version of our discussions.

IAIN MACINTOSH: How did you get started in journalism?

PAUL MCCARTHY: I used to play football, I was an apprentice for Southampton. I was there for two years, I studied for my A-Levels and then when my career came to an end through injury, I decided that I wanted to write. I started writing to hundreds and hundreds of local papers, and I was quite fortunate that where I lived, they covered my very fledgling career and one paper invited me along to do some work experience. It was the Basingstoke Gazette. Funnily enough, the editor hated football, but he loved cricket. I even remember the interview. I was sat there, the TV was on behind me, England in a one day international against the West Indies, at either Headingley and Viv Richards was taking people apart. I think he scored 189, and my interview consisted of watching about 186 of those runs pretending I knew something about cricket. And I got taken on. To become a football writer without saying a word about football in my interview was something quite unique.

After the Basingstoke Gazette, I went to the South London Press, joining them in 1988 which was a fortuitous time because I was covering Wimbledon home and away. It was the season that the Crazy Gang won the FA Cup final and I think I kept out more stories than I put in for fear of being killed, quite frankly! While I was there, I worked casual shifts at the Evening Standard and The Sun, I didn’t have a day off for a year because I wanted to get my face known and it paid dividends. I went to the News of the World. Then it was off to the Sunday Express, the Daily Express, the Sunday People and then I crossed over to the dark side and went back to the News of the World as the sports editor, which completed the circle, I guess.

IM: Was there a big difference between being an editor and being a writer?

PM: It was a different challenge. There’s nothing better than travelling all around the world, using other people’s money and watching football matches. I mean, weird places like Albania, through to Rio… I’ve stayed in some amazing places, I’ve stayed in some dodgy hotels, but I don’t think there’s a bigger thrill than writing about football at a live match. But there are different skills needed to be a desk man. You don’t see daylight very often, but when you put together a good edition on a Sunday paper for the News of the World, which was the most read English language newspaper in the world, that’s a comparable thrill I guess. It was a long journey. I miss journalism, I can’t lie, but I enjoy what I’m doing now and I’m still involved in football. 

IM: Was it a similar kind of entrance into the industry for you, Vikki?

VIKKI ORVICE: It was. I went in via news reporting. I was one of those annoying people who wanted to be a journalist from when they were quite young. I do remember when I was about 10, I entered a Daily Express competition saying that I wanted to be a sports writer,

IM: What did you write about?

VO: I wrote about Sheffield United. That’s how I got into football. My dad used to take me. I went into news reporting. It used to be much more structured. I did a university degree, then I did an NCTJ course back in Sheffield and papers would then recruit you from there.You’d have to do shorthand, law, they’d send you off on work experience at local papers, and then I went to the Wakefield Express. Like Paul, I would drive over and do shifts on national newspapers. I’d do shifts on The Observer, sometimes the Daily Mail, and you’d generally do a five o’clock to a one in the morning shift once the papers were more or less to bed and then I’d drive back. I did this for about a year or so and then eventually, on the premise of six weeks work at the Daily Mail, and Saturdays at The Observer, I gave up a pretty good job and stayed in someone’s back bedroom down in Peckham. I did two six month contracts reporting on the news, but I kept pestering the sports department, but they didn’t take me very seriously.

IM: (raises eyebrow) Hmmm…Why do you think that was?

VO: Ha! I started hanging around the pub with them and they began to take me seriously when they realised I could hold my own when talking about football. People might not remember, but football matches used to be editionalised. So, if you were in Manchester, the chances of you reading about a Chelsea match unless they were playing a team in the north were very limited. Then suddenly, the papers decided that they wanted every single Premier League game staffing. So they said, ‘Ok, you can go and do this game’. I was sent to Arsenal vs Norwich, and I did that in my spare time for about three years, working about six or seven days a week.

IM: Did you ever meet any resistance in the press box?

VO: Oh, yes. I met resistance.  The main stand at Arsenal had a mural on it and I was basically sent along to write about the mural, because you know, it was a bit girly and stuff. It actually turned into quite a good story because Norwich beat Arsenal on the opening day and I remember somebody coming over on the Monday, saying ‘Why have you given this to her? I should have been there instead of her’ I did that for two or three seasons, and then I had lunch with the sports editor and he told me that a woman could never do the job full time. Never. But back in the day, you could get away with saying things like that. In those days you didn’t question it. Then in the summer of 1995, The Sun approached me and asked me to go and work there full time as a sports reporter, initially as a full time football writer. And it’s going to be 20 years next Wednesday.

IM: Now, Philippe, your story is a little different… isn’t it? And we’re going to have to try and keep this brief…

PHILIPPE AUCLAIR: Well, I’ll try. I’ll try.

IM: Not that’s it’s a bad story, it’s just that while these stories involve one industry, yours involves about five – one of which is pop music.

PA: Well, at the beginning, I was training to become a philosophy teacher. Then I started teaching philosophy at a university and I freaked out. I decided to leave that career because I wanted to be a musician. I’m not going to go into detail, because that really would be very long and very boring, but I was offered a recording contract in Brussels, by what was quite a hip label at the time. I went there, I was working as a chef to keep on going, and then I happened to be offered another contract but in London. Living in London is almost like a job in itself when you’re a Frenchman, but that was the city where I wanted to be. London was the cool city, the hip city. So I went there, and one day, I was doing an interview for the world service about a new record that I’d released in 1987, and the guy doing the interview asked me ‘Would you like to do a bit of work for us?’ I thought, ‘Yeah, I need the cash!’ So I was doing some work as a translator to start with, then I did some music programmes, classical music programmes, and then they heard that I was interested in football. It just so happened that I started covering football when Eric Cantona arrived in England. Just incredible. From that, I started reporting on the Premier League for an African audience, but I never thought I could do it as a career. Until one day, I’m walking on the Strand, near Bush House where the World Service was based, and a friend of mine, a Belgian journalist had just been offered a job as a chief sports correspondent based in London for a magazine called France Football, a magazine that I’d been reading since I was six years old. He told me that he wasn’t sure about it, and that he wanted to go back to Belgium, and I said cheekily ‘Could you possibly put in a word for me?’ and he did. They got in touch with me, they told me to try one piece, and I did it about Chelsea. I have to say, my knowledge of English football at the time wasn’t fantastic, but I could write. I sent the piece, it was published and they started giving me more pieces to do and then I became a football journalist. I didn’t go to journalism school or anything and I had to learn as I went along really. Looking at the way people were working in the press box. David Lacey, who I absolutely adored and admired, I would look over his shoulder and ask for his advice, Brian Glanville as well – people like that.

IM: Did you find that people were willing to help you?

PA: Absolutely. People were incredibly open, generous. I’m now a proud member of the FWA, but I didn’t ask to be. It was actually John Cross who told me that I should join. But I did feel welcome, and there was a general sense of community which I truly enjoyed.

IM: You’ve seen this industry as it’s developed…

PA: Oh yeah, and it bears absolutely no resemblance to the industry that I started in.

IM: When people talk about football journalism nowadays, they tend to fall in one of two camps. Those who think it’s a mess of clickbait and nonsense and those, like Brian Glanville, who think it’s the best it’s ever been. Philippe, you know Brian very well. Do you think he’s right?

PA: I think when Brian said that it was absolutely true. We are now at another crossroads. It’s changed a bit over the last two or three years, there’s a slight imbalance now I think. In terms of the quality of the writing, the standard and the demand being put on journalists today is so incredibly high. You can’t get away with not following football abroad, for example. You have to be an all rounder, as well. You’ve got to be able to address any questions, from football governance, to what is Louis van Gaal playing at when he was starting three at the back when he first came to Manchester United. And in terms of the quality of the writing, some of it is truly exceptional. It’s also, what is new to me, is the quality of the book writing. That is astonishing. The quality of the books that have been published over the last 20 years have been stunning. But there is also a dilution of talent. There is a problem with people doing too many niche things, too many people looking at football with extreme precision, which I think to be honest, is not really interesting. It’s not really football.

PM: What I think we’re in danger of doing, in the newspaper industry and in the digital side of things, is exhausting the talent that they’ve got. I hate to be Mr ‘the good old days’, because believe me, they weren’t all good. But 10 years ago, you’d go abroad to a game if you were fortunate enough, you’d go, you’d travel, you’d do the press conference when you got there as part of the match preview, then you’d have the rest of the matchday to sort yourself out. And then you’d do your work. But now, even before the game has started, you have to do an online piece. You have to do a piece as soon as the teams come out, another online piece, and already that’s 1,000 words before the match has even started. And then you’ve got to tweet and then you’re under pressure all through the game. I honestly don’t know how some of these journalists even watch the game these days, because I see more of them on Twitter than I do the next day in the papers. Listen, I think it’s great. But you’re not telling anybody anything that they can’t see. It’s just the demand of the digital side of the business, that you must tweet, you must build up a following and it’s to the detriment of the reporter because he could easily miss something, and then stupidly have to find out what he missed… on Twitter!. It’s ludicrous.

VO:  I’m absolutely astonished in the quality that is still achieved when you consider the demands that are being placed on people. People like Henry Winter who still have to file stuff online…

PA:  This is a very British thing. In no other country, is as much asked of so few. For example, I look on with envy at my friends who are with the French press when they come for a game, and there are only about four of them. They’re there, they’re talking, they’re chatting, they’re watching the game. They file one piece about 45 minutes after the final whistle.

IM: How do you do it? How do you keep your mind clear?

VO: I suppose you just go into a mode. Even at the athletics last week I would be doing 2,000 words a night. You’ve got Mo Farah, you’ve got Usain Bolt, and that’s the same with football. I’ve never looked at a screen thinking ‘I can’t do this’. You just go into a zone, because that’s what you’ve done over the years. My news reporting helped me, because I had to do stuff like court reporting. You’re not allowed a tape recorder in court, so you had to come out with your pen and paper, noting down everything in shorthand and you’d go to a phone box and do the copy off the top of your head. I’m not sure about Philippe, I’m not sure what era you came in, but it’s changed since 2000 with laptops. I caught the end of it, where you would have to ring your copy over. There was a lady who sat there and typed it…

PA: Brian Glanville still does that.

IM: Just to clarify, Brian Glanville is about… 83, 84?

PM: He’s about four years older than God.

VO: He sometimes brings his grandson along who’ll type it up for him on a laptop.

PM: He’s got this wonderful technique. He knows how many words that they want. You’re asked for 600 words, 750 words, 1,000 words – however many they want. And he takes out a piece of paper and he marks it off in squares. The squares equate to how many words he needs. Then as he talks he ticks off the boxes. He always, somehow, finishes exactly in that final box. He’s brilliant. He was the doyen of the Sunday Times. Then he made this strange move in the mid 90s to the Sunday People. His first game was Wimbledon vs Sheffield Wednesday at Plough Lane, it was a desperate game. I was the Wimbledon reporter at the time. He sat down and the demands on him from a tabloid were so different to those of a broadsheet. Wimbedon,and I will never forget this, Wimbledon lost and his intro was, ‘Wither Wimbledon’. And I was like ‘Wither Wimbledon?! You may be Brian Glanville but you can’t write that!’

IM: Paul, You’ve been sat at the desk with match reporters dotted all over the country. What do you demand from a match report?

PM: The last thing I want from a match report is what I would call ‘headers and volleys.’ Back in the day, you could write about headers and volleys because nobody saw the game. But now, you can get the goals on your phone, you can literally see the goals seconds after they’ve happened, so there’s no point writing ‘in the 60th minute.’ I’ve screamed at reporters for them to tell me something that I don’t know. I want insight, that’s essential. I want you to look at that game and tell me something that people may not have seen, that they may not have recognised. Andy Dunn is probably one of the top three or four match reporters in any sport, particularly football. And what he does, is he takes one tiny fraction from a game and he can turn that into 1,000 words. It wouldn’t be a goal, it would be a tackle, or something that he thought set the scene for the game. He’s a much better match reporter than he is at doing an overview, which is the job that the Chief Sports Writer tends to do. I marvel at some of his stuff. I marvel at Martin Samuel, Henry Winter, who write such brilliant things. They tell you something that you haven’t seen, even when you’re there and experiencing it. Something else I appreciate, is wit. I think that’s so important. There’s so much dry comment out there. If you’re following a game on your mobile phone and you’re reading running copy, it’s as dull as you like. There’s no humanity in it. I don’t get it. It’s got to have something that can make you smile, or think, or stimulate you. A newspaper report has to give you something that you can’t just get from watching the goals on Match of the Day.

IM: Vikki, how do you do that? When you’re sat in front of game, you have no idea what’s about to happen, it’s all unfolding in front of you, you’re sat on your laptop, you might not have the best view of a TV screen. You want wit, you want insight, you want stuff that you wouldn’t know if you weren’t already there. How do you actually clear your mind in all the chaos?

VO: God, you’ve made it sound really difficult there! I don’t know. You do it because it’s your job. If you threw me into doing heart surgery or something, I wouldn’t know what the hell I was doing. But because you’re trained to do it, you just… do it. I suppose it is getting harder because you have to do so many different things.

IM: Does fear maybe drive you as well? The fear that someone like Macca will be shouting at you down the phone if it doesn’t go according to plan?

VO: Well actually, that’s probably what I’ve always been driven by. Fear of failure. Always. I’m a real perfectionist and I had to doubly do it because I always thought I was going to be pulled up because there weren’t many women. People would question what you were doing much more.

PM: I think you owe it to your audience as well. It’s a privilege to be there. Football reporters are in an incredibly privileged position.

VO: I keep thinking that I’m going to get found out, because I’m being paid to go around the world and watch sport. I’ve watched every single one of Usain Bolt’s world records,  I’ve been to World Cup finals. Things that people, things that are priceless.

PM: Things that money can’t buy; experiences. To just, excuse my language, to just toss it off would cheapen your job. And you shouldn’t do anything that cheapens your job.

VO: It is getting hard. Particularly when you’ve got stuff to write for a Monday paper and you’re at a match that might have kicked off at 12:45 on a Saturday. So you imagine by midnight on Saturday, most people have seen that match. So to then throw it forward to a Sunday morning or a Monday morning, it’s getting harder and harder. But now even the accessibility in the Premier League, being able to get to speak to people is getting harder as well.


IM: Match reports are just one component of football journalism. Another is interviews. This can be one of the more difficult, but one of the more rewarding things to do. What tips do you have?

PA: First of all, prep. It’s one of the most important things. You need the know the facts on your fingertips. Don’t put a notebook on the table, because you have to be able to act in a natural sort of way. 

PM: Absolutely. If you have a notebook on the table, it doesn’t become a conversation, it becomes an interrogation. Then the person who sees those will be wondering ‘How many more of these do I have to answer?’ because you’re just ticking them off one by one.

PA: One tip I’ve been given from a journalist I know is to use your phone. This journalist will always have a picture of his three children on the lock/home screen of his phone. Absolutely adorable children. Then he’d just put it briefly on the table so that he could record the interview, but making sure that the person he is interviewing has seen the picture of his children. If the interviewee makes a comment about the picture, then the interview is going to be a doddle. The communication has been established. The connection has been made, and then you will just be having a laid back conversation with another human being which is one of the most difficult things to do. Especially now, because players go through media training so, that makes our job much harder!

PM: I honestly think that sometimes you can over-prep. If you know the ins and outs of their lives, you’re sometimes drawn to ask them about that. Sometimes it’s better just to chat. I mean, obviously you need a leading line in mind, you’ve got to have something that you want to take out, but to be so prepared that all you’re just wanting is for them to fill in the gaps, I don’t think that works. I think you have to be a bit more relaxed, a bit more conversational.

PA: Another really important thing is to try and have the interview outside of the club environment. If you interview somebody at the workplace, it’s just a completely different atmosphere. Even if you’re at their hotel, where they might be able to have a cup of coffee or something, it makes a huge difference. Some of the best interviews I’ve done, probably all of them actually, have been in circumstances like that.

IM: Have you ever had an interview go bad? Have you ever felt the sweat dripping down the back of your neck when you realise it’s not going according to plan?

VO: There was one that was pretty challenging one last season with Azpilicueta, who I had to interview in a nightclub in Shoreditch. It was one of these trendy, hipster Shoreditch places and it was to launch some new Call of Duty game, I didn’t even know what that was. I turned up, and the Chelsea press officer was there and even he was laughing because I asked the owners if they would turn the music down because I wouldn’t be able to hear anything on the tape recorder. It was really annoying because his background was incredibly interesting. He’d never done an interview before, he was born in Pamplona, his brother plays still in the third division of the Spanish league. I had eight minutes with him… Eight. I had to write about 1,000 words on these eight minutes.

IM: Eight minutes underneath a speaker while he’s playing Call of Duty…

VO: Yeah, and I had to preview the Liverpool game. Thankfully I got some good lines out of it, because I asked him what it was like when Chelsea played Liverpool last season (the Demba Ba/Gerrard episode), and they were driving through Liverpool with all their fans celebrating and singing that they were going to win the title. That’s the sort of thing you’re up against now. But I do agree that if you take someone out to somewhere different, and try and find a bit more about their life and themselves, and what drives them, I’d just be curious about them and not the football really.

PM: I always tell the reporters doing the interviews, bring back something I didn’t know. Because you know so much these days about Google, Wikipedia, whatever. You know so much. Just tell me something that I don’t know.

PA: Another top tip, is always have a backup recording device with you. Always. It’s happened to all of us, when you go to play it back and you’ve got nothing to listen to.

IM: This is an excellent tip. I interviewed Sean Dyche at the end of last season up in Burnley, and the Burnley press officer, a wonderful man, when I suddenly realised that I had recorded absolutely nothing, he sent over his own recording of the interview for me. He’s probably the only press officer on the planet who would do something like that.

PM: I once had to interview Vinnie Jones but my tape recorder packed up and I didn’t get anything. So I phoned him up, apologised and everything, and he told me, ‘You remember what I said, just write it, it’ll be fine.’ And so I did. It was brilliant. I made most of it up, but I read it to him afterwards, and he said ‘Yeah that’s alright, son’ and there was loads of stuff in it that he never actually said – but it made the interview a hell of a lot better than it would’ve been.

PA: Which leads to be a very interesting scenario, which is when you have the raw material, what do you do with it? In France, we do everything as a Q & A so it’s very clear. In England, you will have a narrative, you will set the decor and so forth and there will be quotes, rather than questions and answers. But the question is, how would you transcribe those? We once did, for a laugh, Claude Makelele, an interview in French. The interview itself was appalling, but we decided that we would publish it without making a single edit or correction. It was one of the funniest pieces you could have ever read, it made absolutely no sense whatsoever. So it’s that decision, how much do you have to correct, how much of the grammar do you change, how many of the hesitations to you include or exclude? It’s so crucial having to clarify what is important.

PM: I think if you put in every umm and ahh, it would be the dullest thing in the world. So I think you’ve got a duty to make it read well, and you’re actually doing your interview subject a favour by making it readable and interesting.

IM: How awkward is it when you spend time getting to know someone and then you end up writing something negative?

PM: I think it’s awkward, but if he’s come over as a complete and utter divvy then you owe it to them not to make them look like a divvy. If they’ve come over as an arsehole, and they’ve treated you badly then you’re well within your rights to write a negative piece.

IM: Do you ever get any complaints?

PM: Of course you do.

IM: And what’s that like?

PM: In 1996 I went out to Rome for the European Cup final, and it was a Reebok gig. Andy Cole was Manchester United at the time, Ryan Giggs was Manchester United at the time, and the guy that looks after Wayne Rooney now, Paul Stretford, was there looking after Andy Cole. I wrote a really nice piece about Andy Cole, my sports editor loved it and he was giving it a double page spread in the Sunday Express. We had to give the copy to Paul because it was a Reebok thing. And he went, ‘No, there’s not enough mentions of Reebok in there, you haven’t mentioned the boots enough.’ So my editor told me to go away and put a couple more mentions of the boots in there. The boots at the time, in 1996, were called the ‘Pathfinders’ but the Sunday Express published the interview with four or five mentions of the ‘Reebok Crowdfinders.’

IM: Given Cole’s form when he first arrived at United, that’s probably more accurate.

PM: My sports editor at the time Alex Butler said that we’re not going to bow down to commercial pressure. You’ve gone out there to do a job, we’ve put a mention of the boots down at the bottom and that’s that. Andy Cole thought it was funny, and Paul Stretford didn’t speak to me for five years, which was no great loss.

IM: Let’s move onto a third key component of journalism which is contacts, Paul, you spoke to a website not too far from here, and you said “Anybody can sit down and have an opinion. But if you’ve not spoken to anyone, if you’ve not made contact with anyone, if you’ve not found someone closer to the story than you, then really it’s just top of the head bollocks.”

PM: Yep, and I stand by every word of that. When we’re talking about disappearing into the gloop of modern journalism, I think that’s the danger. People, and not just young people, people who are old enough and smart enough to know better, basically sit there and pontificate and think that makes them a journalist. It doesn’t make you a journalist. I’m sick and tired of people writing, tweeting me ‘I’ve written about the Club Brugge right back, please retweet’. Why? Why should I retweet? It’s top of your head bollocks. You’ve never been out to see Club Brugge or the player, all you’ve done is probably seen him on Football Manager or Youtube or something like that and written about him. That’s not journalism, that’s pontificating. That doesn’t make you a writer, that makes you somebody who can troll out x amount of words, and think because it goes on the internet and a few people are stupid enough to retweet it, that makes you a journalist. That doesn’t make you a journalist. You have to work, they say that if you’re professional athlete, that you can only consider yourself completely proficient when you’ve completed 10,000 hours of practice. Now I’m not suggesting that somebody should sit down and write for 10,000 hours, but the philosophy is exactly the same. You have to graft, you have to work at it, you have to speak to somebody. If you can’t speak to somebody, you have to speak to someone who can put you in touch with that somebody. It takes a lot of hard work.

IM: How do you find contacts, Vikki. How do you go about doing it?

VO: It takes a long time. A long, long time. You can’t blag it, and also – trust. The fact that sometimes, somebody might tell you something that you can’t write about at that point, because if you do, you’ll lose all trust. For the sake of 200 words you let that go because you know that six months down the line they trust you, and they’ll give you a bigger story. But it’s very hard to do that. For example, something happened to me recently where I was asked to sit on something, and it broke in between, but if I was the one that had gone out and written the story myself, this bloke would never have spoken to me again. He’d gone to me, and met me off the record, trusting me that I wouldn’t release the story. But now I know that I can go to him, because he was aware that the story was broken elsewhere. 

IM: Do you ever  get a kind of compound interest on this trust, that once one person trusts you, that word gets around that others can?

VO: Absolutely. I interviewed Mark Robins a few years ago. He took me into his office and got somebody to make me a cup of tea. He sat there and said ‘I remember a match report that you wrote from the first day of the Premier League, and you said something really nice about me.’ It just goes to show that people do confide in you if they trust you. I do think it’s a lot harder to build trust when you write for a tabloid though, because people instantly assume that you’re going to run off 10 minutes later and cover the front and back pages.

PM: I think the best stories you get, you don’t write. The best stories tend to be fairly incriminating stories about somebody you like, or somebody that you know, or has trusted you, and you don’t write about it. Covering Wimbledon, in the crazy gang days, with Vinnie Jones, Dennis Wise, John Fashanu, Lawrie Sanchez, Dave Beasant – imagine the stories! I used to travel home and away on the team bus, imagine the stories you could have written. But none of them ever saw the light of day. Dennis Wise is still a friend of mine, Lawrie Sanchez is godfather to my son. We’ve built up a level of friendship and trust, that you just don’t write the  stories and you actually go out of your way, and it’s easier on a local paper, but you go out of your way to keep them out of the paper.

PA: The way you build your network now has drastically changed. When I started, it was possible to go to the training ground, hang around, talk to the players, sometimes you would walk in and be into the complex itself. Sometimes you’d even bump into the players, for example Patrick Vieira who is a charming man. You’d have a joke and a chat, and because you had far more access. This was the way, little by little you would build your bridges of trust, which is at the heart of anything. Nowadays, all training grounds in the Premier League are basically fortresses with security guards and everything. Soon it will be like the FIFA house where you need to scan your fingerprint or whatever. You’re whisked in at a time that is convenient for them, you’re whisked out and you’re doing the press conference where they know the players won’t be able to be seen or talked to. It’s become extraordinarily difficult.

PM: They used to joke that the training for a football reporter used to be shorthand, law and hanging around in car parks. Because that’s where you got all of your stories. You used to hang around in car parks, be it after training or matches, you’d get all your best stories by just talking to them then. When I used to cover Wimbledon, their training ground used to be a transport cafe on the A3. Listen, I think it’s great that football is as professional as it is now. The leap has been fantastic in terms of the facilities, and how you’re treated on a matchday, but you’ve lost that personal touch. But now there is an absolute inability to form, I think, personal relationships unless you’re travelling with the team in Europe. The players don’t even collect their own luggage anymore. The luggage carousel has allowed me to write some brilliant stories, just hanging around their whilst the players wait for their stuff.



IM: It’s so hard to get into football journalism now, but what are some of the qualities you need if you’re going to stand a chance?

PA: Football writing is so diverse, but I would say you have to have an astounding work ethic. Be prepared to work seven days a week. I’ve never met a lazy journalist. I mean, there is a very popular phrase ‘Lazy Journalism’ on Twitter which is a hashtag I often see and receive, but certainly people’s opinions would change when you see the number of hours you have to put into it. If you talk to any journalist, a day when you don’t work, feels odd. It’s like you almost feel guilty for having a day off. I would imagine that most of us, especially now because of the demands of the online stuff, will probably work in excess of 80 hours a week.

IM: Vikki, What’s one thing that all journalists need?

VO: Natural curiosity. Curiosity about other people, having an interest in other people. I also think as well you need to be able to write. Increasingly, I get requests from people to come on work experience and some of them are quite young, which is fair enough. But you get the impression that because football is so big now, people think you just get into the grounds for free and watch football. Because of the demands put on us, you have to be able to write, you have to be able to write very quickly, and you have to be able to absorb the information and knowledge. 

PA: That reminds me of one person, I won’t say his name because it wouldn’t be fair, but it was an ex-player of some repute trying to make his way into the industry. He asked to team up with me and a friend, to see what we were working on and how we worked on a day to day basis. He really freaked out. He said ‘I’m never going to be able to do this’ and he was genuinely surprised at how much we have to do.

PM: I think you’ve got to love your subject.

VO:  Yeah. People are constantly asking me if I like football. I wish I got a pound every time somebody did. You couldn’t not like football, because of the hours and, you’re never really ‘off’. I even cut short a holiday back in June because I was asked to work on something. Despite everything, once you get into the ground, and it’s those 22 guys on a pitch the thrill doesn’t change.

IM: Do you ever get sick of football at any point?

PM: No. Sometimes got sick of the travelling. Not really the travelling, but being away from home for a long time. But football? No chance. Everybody in this room has grown up loving football, watching football. You’ve got a team that you adore, a player that you love, a favourite game that you remember you’re always looking forward to the next game. If you fall out of love with the subject that you’re writing about, you’re not doing yourself a service, and you’re not doing journalism, the newspaper, the magazine, or whoever you’re writing for justice. I’ve met journalists who have fallen out of love with football, and it shows in every single paragraph that they write. You can see it. That’s why I like it now, there’s a new breed of journalists coming through, and they’ve got that passion. They’ve been brought up, and educated more about football. You can listen to Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville on Monday Night Football – it’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. The banter between them is great, and if you can transfer that into writing as well, if you have that kind of ability, you don’t have to have played 82 times for England. If you can transmit that kind of passion, that love, then you’re halfway there.

One of my first sports editors at The News of the World back in 1992, was a guy called Bill Bateson. Sadly, he’s passed away now but he was a great man and he always said that people don’t care about politics, or transfers, they care about 90 minutes and mud on boots. I’ve never forgotten that piece of advice. That goes back to being in a privileged position, to be able to give your views on football. When you’re a fan, it’s what you live for. I don’t think there’s anything better than walking into a football ground and feeling passionate about what you’re going to see.

IM: In your experience, what are the worst things that people can do to seriously knacker their chances?

PM: What time are we finishing? We would take work experience people quite a lot of the time at the News of the World. The thing that irritated me the most, is that they would think that they could just stroll in and do Arsenal vs Manchester United. Where are the hard yards? They would just sit there, not come up with any ideas, not ask any questions… Where was the enthusiasm? If you’re in that environment, fortunate enough to get your foot in the door, care! Just look as if you care. Even if you’re not, make it look as if you care. Don’t just come in and expect to do the glory things. Put the hard yards in. I even kicked one out after three days. He just sat there and moaned when I asked him to do a bit of research. We were doing a graphic, and he said ‘That’s not what I came here for’ so I told him he could go. And I kicked him out. A couple days after his university called me, you know, he wasn’t a young kid, he was early 20s maybe? They called me to ask me why, and I told them and they understood perfectly. You know, you’ve got a great opportunity at the News of the World, and whatever you think of the News of the World, their Sunday pages were the best in the market. We had the most pages, we had the best pages. And to throw that opportunity away because he thought he was doing something demeaning, or something that was beneath him was crazy. Mind you, he couldn’t even write his own name.

PA: That’s a subject we’ve talked about a lot, with the guys from The Blizzard. At one point, we said ‘Have we created a monster?’ because there is this new generation of writers who do read The Blizzard and they take some of the writers as examples – particularly Jonathan Wilson. But some of these young writers come out with their stuff on the net, which I find lacks a lot of heart. I’m thinking about this very, very strange drift towards an extra-analytical understanding of the game, which is not an understanding of the game at all. When I come across that, I always tell them to talk to Jonathan Wilson. The passion that this man has for the game, shows that yes, he can write about all this tactical stuff, and he’s probably the leading specialist in the world at doing just that. But, what is more important to him than anything else, is the fact that he discovered Sunderland with his dad. He wrote one of the most beautiful pieces after his father passed away, about going to the games with him, finding a means to communicate with him. That’s what you want from a football writer. If you don’t have that sense of love and empathy, then you’re going nowhere. I find that far too many of the young football writers, I’m not saying all of them, but a lot of them have a tendency to over intellectualise what they’re  doing. There’s nothing wrong with analysing, there’s nothing wrong with giving insight, but there’s something very wrong about forgetting that it’s all about chaos in the end. It’s about passion. It’s about an emotional relationship with the game and those who play it.

IM: Vikki, when you read stuff from young writers, what stuff stands out to you in a negative way?

VO: Enthusiasm is brilliant, but sometimes some of the stuff I read is really long. Like, really, really long. Like 5,000 words or something. It doesn’t look like there’s been any structure to a piece? I guess that’s the advantage and the disadvantage of the internet, because you’ve got this wonderful space to put all your stuff out there, but so many pieces lack a lot of structure and argument.

PM: What I’ve always said to young writers, is just get somebody else to read your stuff. You know, everything that I’ve ever written, I think has been brilliant. Every single word has been a polished gem. But then somebody else can read it and say, ‘You’ve missed the intro, that should be the second par, that’s the third par’ and you think to yourself, bloody hell he’s right, the bastard! If you’re just putting it up, you won’t ever correct your own stuff. You always need somebody to look at it. 

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