“Welcome to the playground,” James Lawton said, his words of introduction booming down the telephone line a little more than two years ago to greet this correspondent's arrival into the football writing fraternity. It was typical Jim.
There’s a big generosity of spirit to go with the mighty way your newspaper’s chief sportswriter does his stuff, week in, week out. It’s just that the jocular tone that day belied the twinkle that was in his eye at the time.
A playground it was not, and it only took four days to discover the fact – in Besiktas, the south central district of Istanbul where Liverpool, a club as close to calamity at that time as at pretty much every time since, arrived badly needing a win in a Champions League group stage game against the Turkish champions.
The local Inonu Stadium is a great place for watching football. They say it’s the only stadium on the planet with a view of two continents and you can see the Bosphorus from the stands, which is why Pele called it the most beautiful place in the world to watch the game. But it’s not a place you’d want to compose your first overseas football script. The rocking, bouncing fans of the “Black Eagles”, as Besiktas are known, boast the record for the noisiest fans on the planet – 132 decibels to be precise, set in a local derby against Fenerbache – and they were aided that night by a lone trumpeter playing in memory of Turkish soldiers killed in a terrorist attack a few days earlier.
All that and no desk. No one promised that every foreign stadium would be kitted out with the TV monitors which, every Saturday afternoon in the Premier League, provide several replays of the momentary blur which can sometimes pass as a goal and there were certainly none in Istanbul. But something more than two wobbly knees to prop up a laptop would have helped.
There probably won’t be too many readers of the Independent’s sports pages whose hearts will be bleeding at this hard-luck tale. Nice number that, they’ll say - travelling where we’d all like to travel, watching our teams for free - and they’ll be right. Well...right on the first count. The travel is straightforward bit. Watching the game is an occasional bonus.
When Liverpool were conquering European football in the 1970s and 1980s, the only man to take you through the events on foreign football fields was the late, great commentator Peter Jones on Sport on [Radio] 2, describing the vast banks of travelling supporters “away to my right”. Miss that in our house and you’d have every significant goal, pass and tackle related in the big, inky, broadsheet Liverpool Daily Post next morning.
Now, every significant kick is viewed from three or four TV camera angles as it happens, and related, for those who don’t tune in, on the running written commentary offered by a half-dozen websites. For the complete anorak, there are also the Uefa Champions League stats, available online within minutes of the final whistle, imparting how many passes and tackles every player has completed and precisely how far they’ve run on the night.
Factual reporting just won’t do, so the course of a major European night runs like this: for the paper’s first editions perhaps 900 words of blow-by-blow reporting, written and filed in segments – some at half time, the rest during breaks in play and at moments when the flow of the game suggests it’s safe to look away from the pitch and down at the keyboard.
Then, half an hour after the final whistle, all that is swept away and replaced by the same quantity of retrospective analysis. How much of the first descriptive “runner” should stay in the retrospective “rewrite”? Far less than used to be, though there’s a balancing act. Keep too much in and you’re writing what is already known. Take too much away and you’re denying those who haven’t been glued to a computer or TV screen the night before. The manager’s comments often run as a separate piece for the back page. Whichever way you look at it, this is certainly no way to “watch” a football match.
This was the general tenor of the explanation I wanted to offer Mr Hopkinson of Merseyside a month ago when, having been granted the indulgence of travelling to the south of France with his favourite football team (Liverpool), under the same threat of Champions League elimination (nothing less than a win would really do against Olympique Lyonnais), I managed to introduce an error. Included in a report on a night during which I had started writing Liverpool’s obituary (82 minutes and they still hadn’t scored), then unwritten it (Dutch striker Ryan Babel’s right-foot shot on 83 minutes seemed to have made the game Liverpool’s after all) and then rewritten it again (Lyons striker Lissandro Lopez equalised in the 90th minute), I suggested Liverpool’s Fernando Torres had stubbed a first-half shot wide “with his right foot”. It was his left foot, Mr Hopkinson was at pains to say. “Not your usual standards,” he suggested in his email.
I thought a 1,000-word precis of the football reporter’s job (such as this) seemed a touch defensive, so I resorted to levity. “I plead pressure of work on the evening for the mistake but I do acknowledge this defence is as shaky as your team’s,” was the general thrust of the reply. He seemed unconvinced. “If you’re ever looking for someone to write your match reports then you know where I am ...” came his reply. Which is exactly what most of my mates tend to say. To which I tell them this: try being five minutes into the re-write, only to be told that the bus is leaving for the airport in another ten, and being bounced around so much on the airport road (we’re with Liverpool again, in Hungary, actually eliminated from Europe this time – serious business) that you end up finishing the piece spreadeagled on the airport floor in front of passport control.
At least my mates and Mr Hopkinson are – with certain memorable exceptions – polite. That’s not what you can expect when asked to launch into one of the blogs which, judging by the website response figures, are considerably better-read than many a match report. “Make them as opinionated as possible,” the initial advice went. “More hits that way.”
No one mentioned the abuse. There was a time when every comment posted on an Independent blog arrived straight to the writer’s inbox. They drop in there with the same subject header as the blog’s headline and the blizzard of angry missives headed “Why Cristiano Ronaldo should leave United” lives with me still. The immediate and general accusation was: “You’re a Manchester City fan.” The same goes for the Liverpool fans who generally believe you’re an Evertonian.
So there’s some sense of Jim’s playground. Except that for him, it involves twice the words, twice the season-defining matches and a level of email traffic he has not got around to quantifying. His prominence on the “most-read” section of this paper’s website offers a clue to the levels. The initial sentiment was right, though. It’s an extraordinary merry-go-round which, once on, is hard to clamber off.
Ian Herbert is The Independent’s Deputy Football Correspondent
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