As an aspiring football writer, it’s not often you get the chance to interview luminaries from the football world, be they managers, players, broadcasters or journalists. This is probably fair enough, after all without press accreditation, I am, at least as far as football is concerned, just another wannabe writer. Thankfully, there are individuals out there who are willing to give some time over to aspiring writers such as myself, and one such name in the world of football journalism is the Times’ Patrick Barclay.
Following a rather speculative letter I sent requesting an interview, Patrick very kindly agreed to meet up to discuss both his career as a football writer and the world of association football in general. So it was that I turned up on a rainy London evening to pick the brains of the Times’ Chief Football Correspondent. We spoke for around an hour and having harvested such bountiful material, I’ll be splitting my write-up over two articles, the first will consider Patrick’s career path and advice, as well as his experience of the internet; the second will mention Patrick’s opinions on contemporary football, with a focus on Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson.
Without any further ado, here is Part One of the Football Diaries’ Interview: Patrick Barclay.
FD: Patrick, thanks for taking the time to speak to us today, first things first, how did you get into writing?
PB: It was very roundabout and untypical. I made a career as a sub-editor, in the days when sub-editors worked with paper, and I ended up at the age of 29, 30, married with 2 children, living in Manchester as chief sub-editor of the Guardian up there.
The Guardian was the first paper to concentrate on London, my job disappeared as all sub-editing was done in London, this was in 1976. They said, ‘Do you want to come to London and pick up your career?’, I didn’t fancy that, I was terrified of the house prices! And I knew that they were losing a couple of the football writers that they had, who doubled up between production and writing and had decided to take redundancy. I said, ‘Well look, I can do that job’. I had to take a slight pay-cut, but they suspected that I might be able to handle it, I’d done a few Saturday match reports for them. Anyway, it was a neat solution for them, as they didn’t have to find someone else.
So, I became a football writer at the ripe old age of nearly 30, and within a couple of weeks, I was on my first overseas assignment. I immediately went in to doing the top stuff, I had no apprenticeship, I had never reported even on a wedding or a fire before! And here I was, flying out to Turin, to cover Juventus against Manchester City. Obviously, it was difficult, because I couldn’t type… I didn’t tell them that! But anyway, that was sheer luck, to be able to get into it that way.
FD: So, now you’ve ended up here…
PB: Yes, and also, now, you have to have a degree to be a journalist. So, the way I did it could just not be used as a template.
So I was with the Guardian, and after a couple of years, another sports writer told me that, in his opinion, a lot of the Fleet Street top men were coming to the end (of their careers) and that I should take any opportunity to go to London. And again, new technology came to my assistance because in 1985, Today newspaper started and they were looking for a chief football writer and they went for me.
I mean, it was a disaster. But, it got me to London; I’d just covered the World Cup in 1986 and by the time I’d came back I’d found something else, and that was the Independent. At the Independent, I did ok.
FD: Is that really where you started to establish yourself?
PB: I think so, although I suppose I must’ve had some reputation or Today wouldn’t have taken me, but the Independent was certainly the start of better things.
The Observer, which came afterwards, where I won an award, again that was an improvement, and then the Sunday Telegraph, took me on, and, now, the Times
FD: What do you think are the qualities you need to succeed in football writing?
PB: It’s a difficult and narrowing genre, I fear, but definitely, in my opinion, independence of mind and originality of thought, which were both things that I took from my late father and a couple of father figures in journalism.
All the journalists that I met who said, ‘Listen son you’ve got one thing, you think for yourself.’ I remember one, a man named Peter Thomas who was a byline sports writer on the northern edition of the Daily Express, when The Daily Express was about as good as newspapers got, I remember him telling me that.
Also my hero is very independent minded, that’s Brian Glanville. I’ve always said he has many virtues, his lyrical writing ability, the brilliant judgement of players, but the one thing that others can copy is his bravery. He doesn’t mind even boring people, he’ll write the same thing a hundred times because he feels that’s what people need to hear.
FD: You don’t mind going against the grain if you feel that’s necessary?
PB: Yeah, it gets tougher as time goes along and the agenda becomes more and more driven by the herd. It becomes harder but I can’t change that and that came from Glanville and I would still pray that people try to do that.
We’ve all cut corners, what I call the crocodile tears school of journalism, we’ve all resorted to that. You always know you’re behaving like a charlatan when you say, ‘The long suffering fans of fill in club deserve better.’, because they don’t deserve anything! When you get that violin out you know you’re struggling. But by and large I’ve tried to say what I think and it sounds easy but it can be quite difficult making that interesting if what you think is really quite boring.
FD: You’re obviously a user of new technology, you’re famously one of the top journalists who uses twitter. How do you think the advent of the internet and social networking has changed what you do?
PB: I’ve high hopes, I went into twitter with high hopes. I thought, like a lot of people, if it’s good enough for Stephen Fry its good enough for me, and all I have to do is think of a 140 character poem per day and I shall become a cult. Instead the word that I became had the same number of letters and a few of the coincided; I ended up getting more abuse than anything else when I made the terrible mistake of addressing the subject of Liverpool Football Club, so it is mixed.
I also found, and this is personal because most people on The Times use it, I found I was wasting too much time, I sometimes would spend two hours having nice discussions with nice people, but at the end of the day all I had done, and it usually was the end of the day, because I would fall asleep whilst doing it, but at the end of the day all I had done was give people my idea and listened to theirs, of the best Premier League team with players beginning with L or something like that, which is great fun and it’s perfectly all right if you’ve nothing else to do but that was cutting my six hours of sleep down to four, and I wasn’t getting paid for it.
Believe you me if you got paid a fiver a tweet I’d be on it like a rat! But why should anyone give away their thoughts for nothing if all they have is their thoughts? It’s fine for a plumber, who nobody asks for his thoughts and who has intelligent thoughts that he wants to share, that’s fine, but how can a communicator’s hobby be communicating? A plumber doesn’t come round and fix my pipes for free and say I had a great time on plumby twitter or something last night fixing Paddy Barclay’s drains.
So at the moment I’m off it but I do believe in it basically and I’ll tell you what if twitter could invent a form whereby it says at the top this is just this chap’s contributions, he unfortunately can’t read your responses but you’re invited to read his contributions as if it were a newspaper but he won’t listen to you unfortunately or respond to you, then I would go back on it and I would just do two tweets a day saying ‘I think this, I think that’, or if I found something funny, just put it on, but what I don’t want to read is 500 people saying ‘you’re a c**t’ just because I’ve made a joke that they didn’t think was funny.
FD: So as a write,r from time to time, and obviously this happens more with twitter, you have to deal with vitriolic abuse from fans?
PB: And in my personal case the vitriol was quite easy to deal with because you just delete them and that was fine, that was easy. It was pathetic because it lowered your opinion of the human race. There are people out there I can’t believe; why would you follow something you don’t like? It would be like me buying a ticket for a Phil Collins gig for 500 quid! Why? Just so that I could say ‘You’re f**king useless, Collins!’, why would anybody do it? The bit that I found wearying was that I was unable to devote the attention to sensible people who just wanted a bit of fun, without being paid for it. If I were being paid for it? I’d be fighting the twitter hierarchy for space.
There we have it everybody, Patrick’s candid thoughts on his rise to the top of football journalism and the interaction with football fans and football morons. I completely agree with his points about Twitter, but the reason these idiots follow famous individuals is to try and elicit a response from them with their abusive tweets. The current case of Darren Gibson, who signed up to twitter, only to leave after a few hours due to the abuse he received just goes to show the unfortunate impact these morons can have. Yet again we can see the side effect of the amazing power of the internet, the creeping of the abusive keyboard warriors out of the woodwork – set free by the inherent anonymity the medium affords them.
Patrick’s honest and frank assessments will continue in part two, where we move on to discuss Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, both of whom have been the subject of books written by Patrick, and continue on to the performances of Spurs and Arsenal and the shape of the Premier League.
Look out for The Football Diaries’ Interview: Patrick Barclay – Part Two, coming soon.