We are absolutely delighted that the consistently outstanding football writer, and probably most trusted voice there is in the media when it comes to Everton, Andy Hunter of the Guardian, could take a break from hacking phones and bribing coppers to give us a bit of a genuine insight into his profession.
How did you get to be where you are now, the Guardian’s Merseyside football correspondent?
Not through any grand plan. I wanted to become an architect until I saw how much work it took and so I studied English and Politics at university in Belfast instead. When I was over there my uncle encouraged me to give journalism a go. Instead of leaving university and applying for one of those 21 grand a year jobs that they used to tell you graduates were almost guaranteed I started writing to the Daily Post, the Echo, all the weekly papers on Merseyside and some nationals asking could I get some work experience. I actually got knocked back from the lot of them at first and it was only once I’d been back home for a month that the Crosby Herald and Bootle Times rang me and asked me to come in for a week.
That week turned into two, and then three, until eventually they offered me a YTS where I would work for them for four days a week and do a journalism course at Liverpool Community College on the other day, and they paid for that. After that I started working for the weekly sports group that included Crosby Herald and the Southport Visiter and I covered Marine, following them home and away when Roly Howard was there, which was one of the best groundings in football journalism you could have. I remember coming back from a great lads’ holiday in Magaluf and getting straight on a bus at eight o’clock to head up to Bishop Auckland – I’ve never been more depressed in my whole life!
I did that for a couple of years and then moved to the Echo and then to the Daily Post, then the Independent and eventually the Guardian, which is where I am now.
Who were the biggest influences on your career?
To be honest, because I never realised journalism was something I wanted to pursue until pretty late on I can’t say I ever studied any particular football writers or wanted to emulate them.
However, just working for the Echo felt like I’d achieved my ambition and I’ve worked under some outstanding sports editors who have all been a massive help. I always admired Ian Ross when he was at the Guardian – he was the one I would always want to read, and of course Frank McConville in When Skies Are Grey, he was the first person I read who made football writing mean something.
What are biggest differences between working for the local and national papers?
When you work for a local paper you have to be more willing to give the clubs the benefit of the doubt. You rely on them to fill the paper – for instance, every Friday you will ideally want to feature a double-page interview with a player ahead of the weekend game and so you need access to what is a pretty limited pool. On a national there isn’t the same sort of pressure because you have 20 Premier League clubs to choose from every week.
On a local there has to be a bit more give and take, because both sides need each other that little bit more. On a national you can probably get away with being more critical with your opinions.
When I was on the Daily Post, for instance, I ran into trouble with Walter Smith because of something I didn’t even write. After the Tranmere game I obviously caned Everton in my match report but then I had the following Friday off before covering the league game at Manchester United, which Everton lost 1-0. I got on well with Walter, who was a great bloke despite what the public perception might be, and so I got a bit of a shock when he cornered me in the Old Trafford press room and said, ‘Are you trying to get me fucking sacked?’
At that time you may recall that you used to write a column called Blue Watch for the Daily Post that didn’t actually have a by-line on it. He assumed it was an editorial piece written by me and was livid. I got on to Ian Doyle who had sub-edited it and asked him what the score was. He told me that he had been really uncertain about using the piece, although that didn’t really explain why he gave it the headline: SMITH MUST GO!
I had to go into Bellefield on Monday and have a meeting with Walter where he said that, because he understood how difficult my job would be without any cooperation from him, I wasn’t going to be banned from the training ground or press conferences but I was to never ask him a question ever again. Great!
That’s how it was for the rest of that season and so in the summer I went to Everton’s pre-season training camp in Italy in the hope of trying to mend some bridges. Me and the Echo’s Dave Prentice took Walter and his staff out for a meal, we put the cones out for training, anything. Thankfully, Walter called me over near the end of the week and just said; ‘Do you want to do that interview with me now then?’ He gave me over an hour of his time and nothing was ever said about the previous season again. He is a top bloke. Put ‘THAT Walter Smith interview’ into YouTube for a better idea of what he is really like.
Supporters have certain preconceptions about football journalists, and one is that they just make things up. How accurate is that?
I know people will read this and say ‘the lying bastard, he would say that’, but I can honestly say I have never made a story up. I’ve got plenty wrong, and that can come from being fed a line from an agent who wants to get his client a move, or even a club that is trying to move someone on, for instance, but in terms of just inventing stuff, it doesn’t pay for journalists to do that.
I can’t see why any journalist would, because what you want is to be trusted and to have a good reputation, and for your publication to be trusted too. If you start making stuff up you put all that in jeopardy. After a while people would cotton on if you were just inventing stories.
I think a lot of the suspicion surrounds transfers, and you do report deals that don’t come off. However, there will always be some basis of truth there. It could be the club approaching an agent and making an enquiry but then backing off when they find out what sort of wages the player is after. That happens all the time.
Everton might ask about some teenager from PSG reserves or somewhere but not follow it up for whatever reason. For me that’s still a story that supporters will be interested in because it gives an indication of what sort of players they are after in terms of strengthening the squad and maybe where they are financially.
What does an average working week look like for a regional football correspondent?
The good thing about the job is that every week is different, although you have to be prepared to work unsociable hours. You will be making calls and trying to see people at any time but there is a loose structure to the job as well.
If we take this week as an example, on Monday you would be doing follow up stuff on any big issues from the weekend. So this week it was all about Marouane Fellaini – you would be on the phone to the FA to see what the referee’s match report said and what possible consequences there could be. They have a press department and the people there primed with information concerning the major talking points we are going to be onto them about. If it’s too early for them to tell us what we need we would then maybe explore the precedents, like could he be done for three separate incidents or can it only be one?
You would check with the club as well to see if he is going to be punished internally. He might get a fine off the club or one of David Moyes’s preferred punishments is to tell them to stay away from training. They are on a
fortune so the fines don’t really have that much effect – his take on it is that they all really want to play football and so the best sanction is to tell them that they can’t for a while.
In midweek you would usually have matches to cover, press conferences before those matches and sometimes travelling to European games. Then in the build-up to the weekend Liverpool usually have their press conference on Thursday and Everton’s is on Friday. They are my main focus although I also cover Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers. The only time I’ve reported on Blackburn this year though was when Steve Kean was sacked and they appointed Henning Berg. When you are in the Championship it takes something like that to get national coverage.
How does covering the actual games work?
For a midweek or Sunday game you are writing what’s called a live report that’s going straight into the first edition of the next morning’s paper. You have to file your runner, which is literally a run through of the action in the match, five minutes before the final whistle. Then you have about an hour to do the press conferences, get the manager’s quotes and then rewrite for the main edition of the paper.
The problem you have now though is that your runner goes online straight away and you start getting slaughtered instantly in the comments for even the slightest mistake you’ve made. It’s only an hour later that what I would regard as the proper report replaces it.
If you are covering a Saturday game for a Monday paper the club will provide the whole of the press pack with one or two passes to go down to a mixed zone. At Anfield you stand on the corner of the Anfield Road and Main Stand, where the ambulance is, because all the players have to walk past there. It’s a question of shouting out to them and asking them to stop and give their reflections on the game or thoughts on any controversial incidents.
At Everton it’s slightly different. Two journalists go down near the players’ tunnel, but they give the Everton press officers a list of the three preferred players they want to speak to. They in turn will go into the dressing room and ask them for a yes or a no – normally a no – but hopefully they will come and give you a few minutes. On Saturday for instance Fellaini would be the one you want, because he was the story. If the journalists get any quotes they then come back and share them with the rest.
If the story is that someone has fucked up, how do you approach that, do you just come right out with it and ask them about it?
Absolutely, that’s your job, to ask the questions that everyone is asking. They can choose not to answer you, but you have to ask the question.
It can often depend on who it is and even what sort of mood they are in on the day. Sometimes they will just blank you but there are times when they want to try and explain why they’ve made a mistake, or defend themselves, and I always think fair play to them when they do that. Human nature being what it is, perhaps those players who do that might get a fairer hearing from the press at times than others. It’s a similar thing with managers. A manager who speaks to the press after a defeat, say, is able to have a greater influence on the match report than a manager who says nothing, even if it is just a case of getting his argument across in a critical article.
How has the industry changed since you have been involved?
I started 18 years ago and the industry, and in turn the job, have been transformed beyond all recognition by the internet. You hear the accusation of ‘lazy journalism’ all the time, but the demands on the journalists who are still lucky enough to be in a job are far greater than ever. As well as your match reports and daily news stories there are live blogs, and interacting with people who are criticising your blog in the comments section underneath, Twitter, and there are no hard and fast deadlines now. You don’t get to spend all day perfecting a story for the next morning’s paper. You need to keep the website up-to-date.
Another recent development is the staff reporter at a Saturday game having to write match reports for both the Sunday and Monday papers, in my case the Observer and the Guardian. This is a result of the cut-backs that are taking place throughout the industry and the freelance budget being slashed. Not only is it that awkward just in terms of not wanting to repeat yourself, but while you are writing the report for the Observer the Monday journalists are going to the mixed zone to get the quotes and you are cut out of that because you are not in a position to speak to a player yourself.
That seems a bit harsh, seeing as only two go and do the interviewing anyway, why can’t they share them with you as well?
Just say Fellaini had made his apology to one of the reporters on Saturday right after the game. That would have been a hard, fresh news line for Monday’s paper and everyone would have led on that. If those Monday lads shared those quotes with someone who was writing for both days’ papers though, they would risk them being used on the Sunday and undermining their own stories.
We get on, and I spend more time working alongside my ‘rivals’ than I do anyone from the Guardian, but there’s still always an element of competitiveness and a need to protect your story.
What’s it like being so more accessible to readers now?
Some journalists absolutely love it and are obsessed with Twitter – you can’t have a normal conversation with them because they are glued to their phone. Others can do without it because, let’s be honest, it’s football we’re covering and not many people go out of their way to contact you to say they value your opinion. I was called a prick on there the other week because there was a mistake in a Guardian match report. I wasn’t even at the game. If you’ve made a cock-up then people have every right to have a go, that’s fair enough, but I think the importance of Twitter itself has been massively overblown. I think inter-acting with the comments section on your paper’s website is more interesting. The problem I have there is that, by the time my match report or blog goes on-line, I’m probably in the car on the way home from a game, on my way to a press conference or on the phone trying to chase a story up, and in my opinion those things are still more important.
David Moyes doesn’t have a reputation as being particularly accommodating to the good men and women of the fourth estate; how do you find him?
Moyes is absolutely great to deal with. He is not old-fashioned in his methods or as a man, but in terms of how he is with us he has become sort of what you think of as old school, and that’s in a good way. He answers every question no matter how difficult it is, he has time for you and if he trusts you it’s no problem to have his number and put a call in to him if you need to.
You can see him socially too and he will speak to you off the record and be very straight with you. All that comes from being in the job 10 years I think; he feels really comfortable at Everton and with us now. He has always spoken to us, from day one, but he has definitely mellowed and opened up a lot, and I think he would admit that himself. If you speak to older journalists about dealing with managers in previous generations the relationships they had were quite similar to how Moyes is with us now.
He’s not the only one, there are some other managers still like that, but a lot more of them seem a bit wary of saying too much or being too close to journalists. I think that’s because of the demands of the job to a large extent – up until the mid to late 90’s there would only be a handful of radio and newspaper journalists at the press conferences, but now it’s massive with people there from the television, radio, websites, daily papers and the
So now you see someone like Brendan Rodgers, who is a new manager, looking around the room trying to find a familiar face and if he sees one he will probably latch on to them and be more friendly towards them. It will take him time to work out who he can trust, who he can speak to openly off the record at times and be confident that they won’t splash his comments all over the internet.
What’s your opinion on the celebrity football writers you see on The Sunday Supplement?
I’m of the opinion there is no such thing as a celebrity football writer, but a few who imagine they are. In terms of the Sunday Supplement, most of the journalists on there are at the top of the profession and worth listening to because they do have excellent contacts and opinions on the game. That doesn’t make them a celebrity, however, just someone who, like me, is fortunate enough to cover football for living. You can never lose sight of that.