The Incredible Caulk
For years the North East was described as a football hotbed. Given the recent lack of major success for our football clubs many fans from outside the region would suggest a sickbed would be a more befitting comparison. But football is still thriving on Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside - and at the forefront of that is our football reporting.
One of the top football writers is the North East correspondent for The Times. For fans on both sides of the rivers Tyne and Wear he's the first port of call for their club related questions. It isn't often that Newcastle and Sunderland fans openly agree on local football matters but there's agreement for many on one thing: if you want North East football coverage then you read George Caulkin. And now George is on European Football Weekends speaking to Andy Hudson...
George, thanks for taking the time to speak with EFW. Let's get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first. You've covered Newcastle United through many lows for years. Are they really getting worse off the pitch? Firstly; pleasure, treasure. Secondly, I suppose it depends on your definition of worse - things have been consistently bad since Mike Ashley’s takeover. I don’t subscribe to the notion that Newcastle’s owner is the devil incarnate, but he’s had the opposite effect of King Midas and even when a decision is taken that has some logic behind it, he’ll follow it with another one which is baffling. Chris Hughton’s dismissal is a case in point. Why do it? Chris was universally liked and respected (including by the media, for what it’s worth), results had gone pretty well and by getting rid of him, it invited pressure at a time they should have been focussing all their energies on stability.
The pleasing thing - and probably Chris’s greatest legacy - is that the spirit in the dressing-room has been strong enough to survive some of the hierarchy’s more questionable moments; I’d argue that last season’s promotion and what’s happened since came about largely in spite of the people upstairs rather than because of them.
Having said all that, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Freddy Shepherd was a dismal steward of the club, too.
Niall Quinn is adored at Sunderland. Apart from the obvious (being an ex-player) why would you say he's so well loved and what one thing could Mike Ashley take from him to improve his relationship with Newcastle fans? In terms of PR, I think Ashley has left it a bit late. But there is an interesting comparison with what’s happened at Sunderland. Ellis Short, their owner, is a very rich businessman who shuns publicity, who says very little and who has bought a football club for reasons which are not immediately apparent. Sound familiar? What Short has done is invest his trust in a true football person - Quinn - who has Sunderland in his heart and who is able to articulate the hopes and dreams of supporters. In turn, they can feel secure about their club. From day one, Ashley has rejected the opportunity to tell his story, to explain, to express gratitude or sorrow. It’s a source of constant frustration.
Plenty of your journalist colleagues get it in the neck from fans of different clubs they report on, especially when the rivalry is as antagonistic as Newcastle and Sunderland. You seem to avoid this most of the time. Why do you think fans of both clubs have taken to you so well? Well, very kind of you to say so, although I’m not sure what you say is strictly true. When you praise one club or their players, there will always be an element who interpret that as implied criticism of another (particularly in derby week), and I’ve had my share of that. But at the heart of what I do is a love for the North East, its people, its history and its football and I hope that is evident in what I write. I grew up in Durham, in the middle of Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough and I’ve never had the hate gene. It was a political time; the miners’ strike, the closure of the shipyards, a sense that our region had been abandoned and left to rot. Communities had to fight to remain intact and I think that’s the philosophy I’ve always carried with me. Whether supporters like to admit it not, there’s far more to unite than divide, including a deep passion for football in the face of very little tangible reward.
In the final analysis, this is where I want to live and work. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I don’t think I’d feel the same about my job if I was based anywhere else. Hmm, this is all sounding a bit po-faced, isn’t it?
It's always a source of humour overhearing Newcastle and Sunderland fans arguing about which club you grew up supporting. You regularly get outed on certain forums over which colour stripe you have alongside the white one. How hard is it to remain impartial when reporting on the 'other' North East team? It’s not hard at all. It’s my job - just like it’s the job of Steve Bruce, who was brought up a Newcastle supporter, to manage Sunderland. And I’ve been attending matches as a journalist for far longer than I did as a fan. But my impartiality is also genuine - I’ve made real and lasting friendships with people who have played for and managed all North East clubs, I grew up amongst people with split loyalties and what’s left at the end of all that is love for the region and its footballing tradition ahead of ‘support’ for a particular club. It’s simply not an issue. If I was sacked tomorrow (always a possibility), I would pay to watch them all.
You've covered a number of World Cups and regularly step outside of the North East to cover European football. What's been your favourite part of covering football away from your normal patch? It’s all a privilege, to be honest, and as much as I love the North East it’s healthy and restorative to step outside the comfort zone every now and again. The tournaments are the biggest thrill and the biggest challenge. I was in South Africa last summer and I can’t explain both how peculiar and brilliant the whole thing was; being in an alien country but somehow not being there at all, scratching the surface and seeing all those amazing teams. I stayed to the end in Germany four years earlier and that was amazing. Well, once England went out. Covering the national team is both the pinnacle and utterly depressing.
Following many appearances on the likes of The Game podcast, BBC Five Live and BBC Newcastle, how different is that medium of media compared to print journalism and is it something you enjoy doing? Any excuse to chat about football, really. It’s not something I particularly relish doing - erm, er, y’know, er, erm, y’know, well, feature prominently - but I recognise the importance of it.
Your content is now behind The Times paywall. Do you see this as necessary action to protect the role of the newspaper football journalist? It’s a difficult one. In some ways, it’s an obvious argument - why should papers give away their content for free? You can’t walk into a newsagent and leave with a newspaper without paying. And serious, investigate, informative journalism comes at a price, particularly when the industry is being squeezed like never before. At the same time, people have become used to getting content for free and when The Times website was available to all it offered a path to our content which people might not otherwise walk down.
Is it a source of frustration when your work can't be as easily read as many of your colleagues working for other newspapers due to the paywall? Of course. Particularly the internet-only stuff like blogs and columns etc.
Iain Macintosh said recently that there's a strong chance that the larger blogging communities will become something of a talent pool for traditional media. Is this a view that you share? There’s too much talent out there for it not to be - it’s a constant source of information, amusement and inspiration. But there’s so much competition now, not only in the number of people simply applying for jobs, but trainee journalists on university courses and so on - elements that simply weren’t there when I was trying to get into the industry.
You produced a couple of cracking articles on Birtley Town as part of Non League Day back in September 2010. Have you had a chance to visit any more non-league grounds since then? Not since then, no. But it’s something I try to do a couple of times a season at least. Good for the soul. I’m very fortunate to be covering Premier League football for a living, but it can be a soulless experience. Getting to Birtley at 2.50pm on a Saturday, having a pie and a cuppa and then watching two sets of committed, honest players was a real highlight. Football; you might remember it.
Your bromance with Daniel Taylor during the World Cup last summer, both on Twitter and in your diary, caused much hilarity. In fact he even went so far as to say on this very site that we won't be hearing from you any more. So how did he end up swinging that bromantic trip in Salzburg for you both covering Man City and following in the footsteps of Julie Andrews? I would trust Daniel with my life, albeit in the certain knowledge that he would slit my throat, sell my still-twitching organs and then pick my pocket. In many ways, he’s a completely reprehensible, hateful and vindictive character and the bedrock of our relationship is the fact that we bring the very worst out of each other ... but in a good way. Does that make sense?
You once admitted to swimming across the River Wear after a particularly lethal evening of footballer-style boozing. Ho'way....what happened there? I went out drinking with a (Newcastle) footballer. I’d just separated from my partner and went on a bit of a tear-up that included a boozy meal, drinking, more drinking, some drinking and ended up with me sitting by the river underneath Durham Cathedral with a handful of whiskey miniatures. And then falling in. Apparently. And then apparently swimming across it (all I remember is swallowing water). That night, I had the most vivid dream of my life; I could smell coffee brewing, hear a cat purring, feel sunlight on my face through a gap in the curtains. I woke up lying on the floor in my mate’s hotel room, naked aside from a handtowel across my lap, with one of his trainers for a pillow. Not my finest hour. And yet arguably my finest hour.
You're from County Durham, the home of many a fine real ale. Any pint recommendations for the EFW readers? In the light of my previous answer, I can only recommend water.
How did you get involved in football journalism? Journalism is in my family, so writing was something I was always immersed in. After university, I took a one-year National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) course in Darlington and then looked for some work experience. I found it on the sports desk of the Sunday Sun in Newcastle. After a couple of years there, I left to go freelance - I did matches for the Guardian and Observer, amongst others - and was picked up by The Times in 1998. I was very lucky; I fell into it.
Any advice for aspiring football journalists? Be aware that the fairly vague route I took is unlikely to be available. Get experience, get published. Understand that the job is about more than going to games and talking bollocks on Twitter (that rules Danny out then - Ed); it’s often about churning out words to ridiculously tight deadlines (filing match reports before those matches have actually finished), it’s about making and building contacts, it’s about hanging around, talking on the telephone. And it’s also the best job in the world. Good luck!
What has been your proudest professional moment? Working as a ghost-writer for Sir Bobby Robson, firstly on his column for The Times and then later for a book. I spent a lot of time with him towards the end of his life, in his home and office, and even when he was grievously ill, you’d leave his company feeling better about yourself. It was an amazing quality. Being asked by Lady Elsie to be a patron of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation was very humbling.
You've watched some great footballers over the years. Who's the best one you've seen live? Wow. That’s a toughie. I’ve seen players like Zidane and Messi live, but I’m not sure that would be an answer in keeping with the spirit of the question. I’d probably have to say Paul Gascoigne. Irrepressible, unstoppable, ridiculously gifted, the best performance by plastic tits in a supporting role, wholly flawed. He could have been anything. He was ours.
What has been your favourite European Football Weekend (or European Football Midweek) trip? An obvious one, but Barcelona. I went there on holiday a couple of years ago, paid for tickets, sat in the stands, forgot what I did for a living and loved every second of it. The game they play is something way beyond football, but it’s the best city in Europe.
Can you settle an age-old South Tyneside pub argument? Who was the better player.....Steve Howey or Lee Howey? Steve Howey played for England. He was also my best man. Where’s the argument?
What's your prediction for the Tyne & Wear derby on Sunday? Carnage.
Like this? You might like Daniel Taylor's EFW interview.
Please take a moment to visit the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation website.
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