Today we speak to Dominic Fifield who is the London football correspondent for the Guardian where he has been for 13 years. Dominic covers Chelsea and since 2007 England too. He is an ardent Crystal Palace fan but try not to hold that against him
1. Why journalist and why Crystal Palace?
The Crystal Palace part is easier to answer. I grew up a stone’s throw from Selhurst Park and, although my parents were not football fans, I developed a bizarre personal pride for all things South Norwood. Weird, I know, but I tended to obsess rather over the history of the place and quickly latched on to Palace as one of the few hubs to offer the area an identity. That led me on to the Holmesdale to watch Steve Coppell’s side of the mid to late 1980s, taking my younger brother down and depositing him behind the advertising hoardings at the front of the terrace while I went further up behind the goal, and saddled me with the team from then on in. They were my local club and something to mark out the area in which I lived and grew up.
As for journalism, I rather stumbled into it. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do when I left university, but I fired off some hopeful applications for placements to Palace and various local radio stations and newspapers while I was working for a roadside assistance company based in Croydon. Palace responded, my letter having coincided with the programme editor taking a brief period of leave to visit Australia, and I went on to spend almost a season there in their media department – a Premier League campaign, no less, which is pretty rare for Palace – and, over that time, it dawned on me what I wanted to do.
I was offered a position as a news reporter on the Croydon Advertiser but ended up doing a postgraduate course in newspaper journalism as a route into the industry and was lucky enough to be granted a traineeship on the Guardian’s sportsdesk after various stints on work experience at papers up and down the country. At the time I just thought that was how things were done. It feels frightening now how naïve I was, though I can appreciate better how lucky I’ve been, particularly when you see how the industry is shrinking these days and how difficult it is to break in
2. You were the press officer at Palace for a while – how was that being on the other side of the fence as it were? Were you frustrated by what some of the journalists wrote?
My time at Palace was very brief and in no particular position of authority, my principal task being initially to edit the match day programme, and subsequently supply much of the copy for the publication. I don’t think I really registered at the time if the club was granted a harsh press or not. I was more concerned with making sense of Attilio Lombardo’s programme notes, or attempting, usually forlornly, to enliven player interview pieces with the likes of Patrizio Billio or Valerien Ismael.
It was for others, higher up the food chain, to fret over whether the team’s appalling form was generating the scathing coverage it deserved. But I made some good friends at the club, and it opened my eyes to how things worked in football (and at Palace, who effectively went through three managers that season, including one who hardly spoke any English, and didn’t win a home game until April) and allowed me to experience first-hand the atmosphere of a press box and a media conference, albeit as an interested observer.
3. Why do you think Chelsea are given such a hard time by the press?
I’m going to be clichéd and insist they’re not given any worse a time of it than any of England’s other elite clubs, even if their status as nouveaux riches might instinctively grate with some on the outside looking in. Supporters of any club tend to react when detrimental things are written about their own – it’s perfectly natural – but I don’t think there’s any agenda out there. I think the colleagues I work alongside generally enjoy covering Chelsea, a club that tends to generate its own news whether that is measured in trophies won or managers sacked (or, indeed, work experience students shot). Of course, the press generated recently by the John Terry and Mark Clattenburg sagas has been less appealing, though I suspect Liverpool fans would readily suggest the same about the coverage of the Luis Suarez affair last season.
4. You don’t generally seem to have joined in the vilification of John Terry – was that a personal decision, editorial decision? What are your feelings in terms of how that whole issue was reported?
I’m not sure there was a personal or an editorial decision to make: perhaps my position as a beat reporter rather than a columnist simply left me to concentrate more on reporting the news elements of the story over the course of the year. I should add that I didn’t attend the court case last summer, with numbers restricted at the time to one per paper, though the issue has clearly driven plenty of my copy over the last 12 months, particularly given its implications for the England team which also falls under my remit at the Guardian.
In terms of the coverage across all media outlets, I found the various arguments and interpretations put on aspects of what was clearly a horribly complicated case fascinating to read, including the debates that raged on Twitter, if also occasionally infuriating. But the reality was there were holes to pick in plenty of the arguments thrown out there, covering everything from what Terry admitted to saying at Loftus Road, to the context in which he said it, to what Rio Ferdinand subsequently retweeted or the implications of the court and regulatory commission cases. I was uncomfortable with some aspects of the coverage – and with one front page headline in a national newspaper, upon the announcement of the commission’s verdict – but, in truth, the whole story itself was uncomfortable.
The issue divided the whole football community. It cost England a manager and a captain, damaged Terry’s reputation (albeit perhaps only outside Stamford Bridge), saw Anton Ferdinand suffer abuse that extended to receiving a spent cartridge in the post, had Rio Ferdinand charged for his “choc ice” retweet and Ashley Cole for his outburst against the Football Association… There was damage sustained all round. But I don’t think the amount of column inches dedicated to the story were excessive. This was a high-profile case involving the captain of England and, by the time it went to court, the reigning European champions. But, given the emotions the whole issue stirred, with its quirk over the burden of evidence required for charges to be imposed by police and disciplinary commission, the newspaper coverage was always likely to be viewed as similarly emotive.
5. Sadly football journalism has changed in the last 20 years and is now largely sensationalist and centred around personalities – is there no place for “proper” football journalism anymore?
If “proper” football journalism means run of play reports of games that are widely televised, or even relayed on social media, then probably not. The industry has had to change given the growth of the internet, and our job has changed with it. At the Guardian we can be asked to file a basic on the whistle web report on Saturday games, then a longer more in-depth match report throwing it forward for the Observer, and another more theme-based analysis for the Monday edition of the Guardian. This is happening more and more, with the old-style run of play reports effectively being supplied by minute-by-minute copy online.
I know there are fans out there who would wish to read a tactical breakdown or blow by blow analysis of a game in the newspaper – I’ve spoken to plenty on Twitter – but I suspect they are probably in the minority. In a bid to throw things forward, or to offer a different kind of slant, things tend to be focused more upon personalities as a result. I know foreign players, managers and even journalists are sometimes baffled by the line of questioning we pursue in the build-up to games or in their immediate aftermath, but the desire is always there to provide something ‘different’ to the run of the mill “Chelsea began in a 4-2-3-1 formation and opened the scoring in the eighth minute with a well executed goal from Oriol Romeu” report.
6. You are fairly active on Twitter as are many of your colleagues – what impact has Twitter had on your profession?
I guess it’s had positive and negative aspects. It can be interpreted almost like a wire service these days, a constant source of updates on running stories or games. We are encouraged to link our copy on Twitter to direct readers to our website. I’m not really one for updating the world on what I’m doing away from work (or, indeed, sometimes in work) but I’ve found it useful as a means of communicating with readers, whether they are content or not with anything I’ve written. It certainly acts as a decent way of being alerted to any errors that might have crept through the subs’ desk as followers are always eager to ‘point out’ if I’ve gone wrong. I guess it has demanded the development of an even thicker skin.
7. What has been your worst experience when covering football?
Aside from watching Palace relegated at Charlton? No, actually, stick with watching Palace relegated at Charlton.
8. Papers seem very keen on acting as the moral guardians of the footballing community. Isn’t this all a little hypocritical given the wide extent of phone hacking (& other questionable practices) within your industry? How do you think journalists are now perceived by the general public?
We are probably perceived with a certain cynicism, even if it took journalists to reveal the extent of phone hacking within our own industry. I’m not sure I’ve ever acted as a moral guardian myself. Not consciously, anyway. Regardless, as tribal as football is, I’d like to think the majority of readers can gauge what is rational and what is outrageous for themselves.
9. At which club do you get the best treatment?
Treatment sounds ominous. Generally speaking, while the levels of access are drastically limited compared to those of the past, we still get to enjoy an insight into life at the clubs we cover: for example, I’ve flown back with the Liverpool squad, and the European Cup, from Istanbul in 2005; I’ve been on board Chelsea’s flight from Barcelona after last season’s Champions League semi-final. On everyday matters, you can’t beat the pre-match food at Stamford Bridge, and Fulham are very accommodating. When I worked up on Merseyside, Everton and, more latterly, Wigan were very welcoming. Mind you, I’d like to hope I’m relatively easy to please.
10. Who has been the most interesting person you have interviewed?
I enjoyed the background stories told by Sandro Raniere at Spurs (life as a youngster back in Brazil, hoping to forge the career for his himself that was denied his older brother due to a heart complaint), and Carlos Salcido at Fulham (growing up in impoverished Mexico, attempting to escape across the border to Texas as a kid etc), when I interviewed them over recent years. Danny Murphy’s opinions were always interesting, at Liverpool and Fulham, and the hour or so spent with Didier Drogba at the end of last season looking back on his time at Chelsea was memorable.
11. As a football fan as well as a sports journalists, how do you remain impartial when writing about a club you have strong personal feelings about?
On the few occasions I have been able to write about or report on Palace, I’ve often found myself being hypercritical of the state of the club or the team. I guess that could be interpreted as being far from impartial, though not in the way most might expect. I actually think it’s really important to have an allegiance and support a club when writing about the game, if only to be able to empathise better with fans of the teams I am covering. It puzzles me to discover a colleague does not follow a specific club.
12. How do you think Chelsea will fair this season?
Retaining the Champions League might be pushing it, but the next month will tell us if they will be able to challenge for the Premier League title. They’d answered all the challenges flung at them until the Manchester United game, when their momentum was checked by red cards. I still have some concerns over their defensive solidity, but they have been fantastic to watch going forward at times already this season. If this is the start of a new project, based around younger players, then it threatens to be hugely entertaining as it plays out. It would be nice to think that Roberto di Matteo will be allowed to oversee that development, though history – and Pep Guardiola’s availability – suggests that may be wishful thinking.
Posted by Trizia