There aren't too many Englishmen who returned home from the World Cup with their reputation enhanced. Oliver Kay was one of them though. The Times football correspondent is one of the finest football journalists there is and, has an army of over 16,000 followers on Twitter.
Newspapers are becoming increasingly obsolete - especially for the younger generation. Why pay when you can have the on-line version for free? News International took the plunge and started charging for The Times meaning to read Oliver's pearls of wisdom - we now have to either buy the paper (remember that?) or pay a £2 a week subscription charge.
So to find out what Oliver makes about the changing times in both his profession and his industry I interviewed him. It wasn't easy. Not because he didn't want to do it - he did. It was tricky because every time we sat down to press record - a manager would resign (bad timing Martin O'Neill) or players would turn their back on England. It was worth the wait though:
You're just back from your holiday, do you find it easy to switch off from football when you're not at work? When you’ve been away at the World Cup for six weeks, you have to switch off when you get back. But there’s a difference between switching off from work, which I can do, and switching off from football. At least once every day my wife would catch me checking the Blackberry for transfer news: “Joe Cole to Liverpool! Dekel Keinan to Blackpool!” I can switch off from work, but it’s very hard to switch off from football.
What were your World Cup highlights and lowlights aside from the actual football? I think the experience was different for those of us covering England and those who saw more of the tournament and more of the country. Covering England day-in, day-out left you isolated from the “real” World Cup and the “real” South Africa. I would see these amazingly joyous scenes from Johannesburg – the stadiums, the townships, the fanzones – and feel incredibly remote from the whole thing. I would speak to non-England-covering colleagues and ask them “So what’s it like?” Breaking free for the Brazil-Holland quarter-final was a real highlight. The lowlights were a few grim nights in Sun City (nothing like as glamorous as the name suggests) when, after writing another tale of woe from the England camp, I would finish too late to get anything to eat. People have this image of football-reporting as one big jolly-up. It is a brilliant job – don’t get me wrong – but it’s not always as enjoyable as you would imagine.
I've spoken with a few football journalists lately and morale seems to be quite low amongst your colleagues. Is it all doom and gloom in the press box these days? There has been a lot of frustration at the distance that has built up between ourselves and the players over the past decade, but that has been overtaken over the last few years by concerns about the industry itself. On an individual level, the biggest difficulty is seeing really good, talented people, who you like and rate, lose their jobs. Every time you hear of another person being laid off, your heart sinks. In that climate, we have to adapt – as individuals, as newspapers and as an industry – to ensure that newspapers remain the most relevant source of newsgathering and reporting. I’m absolutely certain they are, especially where football is concerned.
Somewhat inevitably, there's been an adverse reaction to the paywall on The Times website and, you've supposedly lost 90% of your (online) readers as a result. News International isn't a charity though, is it? How have you coped with the change? I know we’ve lost online readers, even if people do seem to be giving too much credence to what The Guardian admitted was only an estimate, but people talk about it like it’s daylight robbery or an outrage. Given the cost of producing a newspaper, I could never fathom why newspapers the continent was available for free online. Charging for something that was previously free is never going to be popular, but in some ways it’s like when Premier League football went from being free-to-air to being available to the small number of people who paid for a Sky dish. Rather than kill the product, it generated the money to produce better coverage, which, over time, more people became willing to pay for. And contrary to what some would have you believe, there are a lot of people who are very willing to pay for the quality they get in The Times.
Are you able to enjoy a game fully when you're reporting or does having to file a report on or before the final whistle scupper your enjoyment? Oh you enjoy it. In some ways you prefer it. If it’s one of those night matches when it’s mind-blowing drama, up against a tight and rigid deadline, it feels like there’s smoke coming out of your laptop and probably your ears too, but the moment you press “send”, you breathe a sigh of relief and you think to yourself: “That was bloody good.” By which I mean the event, not the report … . And then you have a split-second to draw breath before rushing off to the post-match press conferences and rewriting hastily for the next edition. Night matches – good ones at least – are a real buzz. The one thing that scuppers your enjoyment is technological problems. The San Siro has always been good for those.
Have you ever dropped a journalistic clanger? Of course. No huge ones so far, touch wood, but plenty of small ones and maybe just the odd medium-sized one. But it depends what you call a clanger. I wrote a story on Tuesday about Chelsea making a serious bid to sign Mesut Ozil, when everyone else has been writing that he’s either joining United or Barcelona. If he ends up going elsewhere or staying with Werder Bremen, does that make it a “clanger”? Some might feel it does, but what I wrote was correct. As opposed to, say, writing that Manchester City were about to approach Zico to become their next manager on the morning they got permission to speak to Mark Hughes. That was a good one … .
I've reported from the Wembley press box a couple of times and I have to say that aside from a few custard creams there's not too much to get excited about. Is there anywhere that stands out when it comes to hospitality for the press? Wembley is actually better than most. Arsenal always get a lot of praise for the food in the press lounge – it’s the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that does it, I think – but, for me, the carvery at Manchester City takes some beating. Make sure you don’t have any lunch before going to City. The worst? When I think about it, two of the most media-friendly Premier League clubs – Bolton and Wigan – have terrible food. Maybe they’ve decided post-match access matters more than food. It’s certainly a better situation than at Old Trafford, where the food is average and the closest you get to a press conference with Fergie is when you huddle around the TV to watch his no-holds-barred interview with MUTV … .
Do you have a favourite ground both and home and abroad? The first time I go to a new stadium – the Emirates, the Allianz Arena, Green Point in Cape Town – I often find myself awe-struck, but the grounds I really love are the ones that are atmospheric and have a bit of history and passion about them. I love Anfield, Goodison, Fratton Park, Turf Moor, Craven Cottage. I loved Roker Park, Highbury and Maine Road. I loved Layer Road on the one occasion I went there, even though it was basically a shithole. The Ali Sami Yen had an incredible atmosphere, the old Olympiakos Stadium too. It’s always a privilege to go to Camp Nou or the Bernabeu, but I’ve rarely experienced what I would call a “proper” atmosphere there. The San Siro is eye-catching, historic and loud. I would put it up there with Celtic Park, the Westfalenstadion, Anfield and Goodison in my top five. Old Trafford gets a bad press with the whole “prawn sandwich” thing, but, when it’s loud, it’s a great place to watch football.
Didn't you used to write books full of football reports when you were a child and do you still have those to this day? Not just match reports. I also did team-by-team previews for the World Cup in 1982 and 1986. From an early age, I would often watch matches on TV with an exercise book on my lap. I would even write match reports on my Subbuteo games against, erm, myself. This all sounds pretty sad, doesn’t it? And yes they’re still around somewhere. Even if I wanted to throw them away, my dear mum wouldn’t allow it.
Are you one for football memorabilia and if so what is the most treasured item you possess? My study at home is crammed full of programmes and ticket stubs dating back to my childhood (and before), but I’m not one to go out of my way to collect stuff or get things signed. I’ve got plenty of things I treasure – photos, shirts, old programmes – but no real stand-out item.
Will the football in the 2012 Olympics get the Kay juices flowing? I’m one of those people who pays more attention to the football than the athletics at the Olympics. It tends to be a pretty good tournament, actually. Given that England – I mean Great Britain, of course – will be competing, there will be far more media interest this time. I’ll be in the press box, I’m sure.
What should happen to that Stadium after the Olympics? I’m split on this. I would rather see it occupied by a football club than see it become just another white-elephant stadium, but, as I mentioned before, I love the old, atmospheric grounds and Upton Park is certainly one of them. When you have had Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst etc play on that pitch, with all that history, wouldn’t you want to preserve that? I hate it when clubs leave historic grounds. Absolutely hate it. For me, the thought of Anfield or Goodison or Upton Park or White Hart Lane being bulldozed is terribly sad.
I'm not sure if you're aware but September 4 marks the first ever Non-League Day. As there are no Premiership or Championship games that day, fans of those clubs are being urged to go and actively support their local Non-League side. Will The Times be lending their support to this fine idea? I’m certain we will. It’s a really good idea and I can see a lot of people going for it. The bigger issue is whether you can get non-match-going fans to go and watch their local team. They are the ones the non-league clubs need to tap into and attract on a regular basis.
Who are your local Non-League side and have you been down to see them play? My local non-league side – surprisingly, perhaps, because people seem to assume that every national journalist wants to live in London – is the club that now goes by the name of FC Halifax Town. To my shame, I haven’t been to The Shay. My excuse is that I haven’t been in the area that long and it’s not easy when you go to three or four games a week and watch more on TV. But I’ll get down there soon, I promise.
You're one of the most popular journalists on Twitter with over 15,000 followers (check you out). Is it a valuable tool for your trade or do just do it all for fun? I’d say it started off as a bit of fun, quickly become useful and is now becoming valuable (though not yet essential). I was defiantly anti-Twitter until an American journalist friend persuaded me of its merits. So I signed up in February and, yes, it’s nice to have [checks] 16,784 followers. I try to interact with them and debate on certain issues, but it becomes harder the more followers and replies you get. I was actually quite touched by the number of appreciative messages I got when I signed off at the end of the World Cup and then when I signed on again three weeks later. Quite apart from whether Twitter is good for individual journalists, it has made us more accessible to the fans and, importantly, vice-versa. That can only be a good thing.
- Feel free to comment below -