Pressing Matters With Sam Wallace
First a little about yourself – why football journalism and who did you support before you became “neutral”?
I was a Daily/Sunday Telegraph trainee, a fantastic trainee scheme for young reporters under the guidance of the great Telegraph foreign correspondent, Frank Taylor. Originally, I anticipated that I would be a news reporter because that was the bulk of my training, but I also managed to wangle a stint on the sports pages. I grew up absorbed by football and it quickly became obvious to me that it was in football reporting that my future lay. Like every football fan, I have a club. I am not going to name them because I will be accused of bias forever more – and nothing could be further from the truth. Without wishing to sound too po-faced, as a reporter I am neutral; not “neutral”.
What is the most difficult aspect of your job?
It is very competitive. There is a premium on good stories and good interviews and lots of reporters chasing them. I happen to think that the standard of English newspaper sports pages is excellent – stories, analysis, columnists, live match reports – and I love reading it all. And many of the older generation of reporters agree that it has never been harder than it is now to do the job well. So every day is a challenge. That said, it is a great job. It is a privilege to do it but it is also a privilege that, as in any job, is earned.
Many journalists, yourself included, are fairly active on Twitter – do you find it on the whole a positive experience? Is it helpful in what you do? Do you find the ‘feedback’ fair/useful?
Yes, the vast majority of people are well-informed and interesting. They are never slow to spot an error either! There does seem to be a small minority of troubled teenage boys let loose on their bedroom PCs but that shouldn’t spoil it for the rest of us. I always try to engage with those who have a valid point. I was a bit late to Twitter but it is impossible to ignore now. Certainly, newspaper editors and executives are taking it very seriously.
How do you think your profession is viewed by the general public? Has it changed since the phone hacking/News of the World scandal?
I think people are smart enough to distinguish between the culture of papers where phone-hacking was rife and those, like The Independent, where it was non-existent. As for my own world of football journalism, I think there has been one arrest of a football reporter in relation to phone-hacking. That says a lot for our side of it. I did used to look at some of the stories from that era – largely football stories in the news pages – and think ‘Christ, I wonder how they found that out?’ Now I know how they did. It was illegal and it was cheating.
Do you think Sir Alex Ferguson’s standing in the game and United’s ongoing success has afforded them a much more sympathetic press over the years compared to some of the other less prominent clubs?
No, but I have given up trying to convince fans of rival clubs that is the case. I spent a few years in Manchester covering the Manchester clubs when I was at the Daily Telegraph. I was there in the infamous ‘Youse are all idiots’ press briefing in 2002. In previous years, with different reporters, that would have been brushed under the carpet but this time it was reported. In my case, I thought it was the right thing to do. That was a significant change in the relations between Ferguson and the press although when I got to Manchester in January 2002 the press were serving a temporary ban. So it was not exactly sweetness and light before then. I have less of a handle on day-to-day press relations between the Manchester pack and Fergie now because I’m back in London but I know for sure they aren’t all sitting around sharing a bottle of red wine.
How would you describe journalists’ relationships with football clubs? Has it become more difficult now that players’ agents and clubs “manage” their PR so closely?
It varies. Press officers, agents, PRs are a fact of life now and it is best to get on with it. Some of them are good and understand the press and some of them are dire. But that shouldn’t mean you have to compromise your aims as a journalist to tell the story to the best of your abilities. The more experienced you get, the better you become at speaking to the people you need to speak to rather than their press officers. It is just a different challenge for a different era and there is no point moaning about it.
I think they always have. Newspapers should be a balance of stories and analysis, in my opinion.
Which club would you say is the most media friendly? And the least?
Again, it varies. I have had times when I have been ‘persona non grata’ at Chelsea (I think those were the exact words) and then other times when the ice has thawed and I have been offered a player interview. I have had fall-outs with people at a variety of clubs, as do many reporters, but the important thing is, when all is said and done, to leave it behind and get on with it. Do I sound like a marriage counsellor?
From what I have seen, football journalists seem quite a tight knit group, especially those that travel to Europe together – do you think there is a danger of forming a ‘group’ outlook on current stories because of this?
No, but we spend so much time together it would be daft not to get along. Before he became a really big cheese at the Daily Mail there were periods of the year when I saw more of my then opposite number (and deadly rival) Matt Lawton than I did my wife and children. Terrible times.
I think the basic rule with other newspaper reporters is that you do everything to help when it comes to information that is in the public sphere – passing on post-match press conference quotes etc. If someone’s laptop breaks down on a match night, you send their copy for them. And when it’s all over you go out and have a beer. But the stories, contacts, insight that you have worked for yourself – that is for you and your newspaper only
Why do you think Chelsea get such a bad press?
Do they? I have spent some of the most exhilarating nights of my career covering Chelsea games and praised them to the skies. It is the prerogative of all fans to claim they get the worst press. I can understand why, at times, Chelsea fans feel embattled. But surely they have to admit that some of the decisions at the club have left Chelsea open to criticism. I still think the most bonkers of the lot was appointing Avram Grant. Funnily enough, these days the fans seem even more critical of the club than the press when it comes to those touchy subjects of Rafa Benitez and Frank Lampard’s contract.
Which fellow journalists do you admire and enjoy reading?
The problem with this is that I read so much and admire a lot. But it is a straight question and I have already dodged one. Neil Ashton, the man with the Cobham mole, is a formidable story-getter at the front of a veritable army of good reporters at the Daily Mail. His colleague Martin Samuel writes two columns a week that I always read.
I keep a close interest in a group of reporters of my generation, whose reporting always interests me: Danny Taylor (Guardian), Oli Kay (Times), John Cross (Mirror), Jason Burt (Telegraph), Dave Kidd (People). But this is starting to sound like a love-in. It’s often me and my colleague and friend Ian Herbert against the world at The Independent and that’s the way we like it.
What advice would you give someone interested in a career in football journalism?
If you want to work in newspapers, get a job in newspapers. Doesn’t matter how local, but get used to working for a paper and the demands that brings. I get a lot of journalism students tweeting me links to their blogs on what Jose Mourinho is doing wrong at Real Madrid or the way forward for Brendan Rodgers etc etc. With the best will in the world, you are not going to compete with the likes of Paul Hayward at that stage of your career. Best to stick to something lower down the scale and report. Tell us an interesting story about a local club, or a local player. Interview someone. Deal with people face-to-face. Find out something original. There is enormous respect for local and regional newspaper journalists in our business. It is a great place to start.
Posted by Trizia