Saturday, 25 June 2011

Interview: Oliver Holt - Daily Mirror

Holt. Who goes there....

We all know Oliver Holt.  We’ve followed him on twitter, we’ve read his columns and we’ve all got his opinions on him. We might criticise him, we might disagree with him, but you’ve got to give the guy credit for sticking his opinions out there and, like all the best folks on twitter, he’s prepared to engage with those who disagree with him, and often to notable effect.

And so over in EFW headquarters we decided he’d be perfect to face the European Football Weekends treatment. With a recent twitter spat with Rio Ferdinand (In which he published a Direct Message sent to him by Rio calling him ‘a fat prick’) making waves in the twitterverse, the timing was perfect. And so, over an hour in a North-West London pub, this opus occurred. Enjoy.

EFW: I guess the obvious place to kick off is the Rio incident. What was your take on that, is there anything you’d do differently? 

Oliver Holt: I suppose maybe, when I flagged it up on twitter, before the article came out, maybe I wouldn’t have flagged up the ‘you fat prick thing (the DM)’ straight away, maybe I would have flagged up him saying ‘you cock’ in the mixed zone (after England/ Switzerland). They’re effectively the same thing, but by me doing that it allowed the debate to morph into a debate about privacy or confidentiality, which I thought was a bogus debate. And maybe I was slightly culpable in that. I think it allowed people who wanted to shift the debate, the chance to shift the debate. Aside from that, I wouldn’t change anything. In terms of the confidentiality aspect, it took me by surprise to be honest, I didn’t see that there was any confidentiality to be broken. It would have been different if he’d been giving me a sensitive piece of information, a phone number, or said ‘this is between you and me’ then fine, but none of that was the case.

I guess if I, or anyone else on twitter, got a message from Rio calling me a fat prick, we’d tell everyone.....

I talked to a lot of people about it afterwards and, confidentiality is a two-way street, if I send an abusive letter to you, have I got the right to expect you to keep that confidential? For one thing, he didn’t ask me to keep it confidential, but has he got that right to expect him to keep it confidential? If I’d done that I wouldn’t expect it to be kept private, apart from anything else, I just don’t see what confidence there was to break. There was just that piece of abuse, which didn’t really offend me. What annoyed me about his tweets and DMs was the accusation that I’d never fronted him up about the drugs issue and that I’d had many opportunities to do it. Technically I’ve had opportunities in press conferences to do it, but in reality it would be hijacking a pre-match press conference, or an impromptu press conference in a mixed zone when other journalists want to talk about a match, something like that isn’t feasible. The last time I’d seen him in a casual setting was at the 2006 World Cup, I’ve got no problem with him personally, and I still don’t.

I think where I do have some sympathy for him, is that the missed drugs test was some time ago, and he’s served his punishment, and that his name has been dragged back into this (over the Kolo Toure) incident. Ironically it was Man United fans that brought it up because they were annoyed that Kolo only got 6 months, quite rightly, and that Rio got 8. And I understand why he was annoyed, but his name was in that debate, and I entered that debate. Rio was obviously angry that I’d entered that debate, but without getting pretentious about it, that’s what twitter is about, I like getting involved with the debate. I don’t just want to say something and let everyone else talk about it, I like to get involved too. He seemed to think that I had some sort of vendetta, which I don’t. But he’s probably not going to be persuaded of that.

How has twitter changed your relationships with players?

I’m not sure if it’s changed them that much yet, maybe it will. I think the change twitter has brought so far, is that it’s given fans and media alike better understandings of players. I think someone like Wayne Rooney comes across incredibly well on twitter. It feels like you’re seeing the real him, and he comes across as a really likeable and actually quite a bright bloke. I think he’s been one of the biggest beneficiaries of twitter, and OK, he got involved in a bit of scrap with someone, but that’s a bit of an irrelevance to be honest, as that Rio abuse was an irrelevance. 

I’m not sure whether it’s had any effect on the relationships with press and players, but going back to Rooney it allows players to bypass the media. If you think about Rooney and the hair-transplant, it came out in The Sun, and then he talked about it on twitter, and it was him that posted the picture of it. If he hadn’t done that there would have been an absolute feeding frenzy to get the first picture. By doing that he just cut out that avenue. The papers the next day printed the picture he had posted up and suddenly there’s no scramble for the picture anymore. 

You’re not going to get a situation where you see a player and it’s like ‘Hello mate we’ve been talking on twitter’ I don’t think that’s gonna happen. But from my own experience I enjoy having conversations with players such as Michael Owen, whom I know, and like.  It’s nice to have some form of debate, same with people that I know like Phil and Gary Neville, but I don’t think it would open up relationships for people I didn’t know.

Is a twitter ban for players inevitable?

Well I hope not. I think it’s been good for all of us, players too. People talk a lot about the democratisation of the media that blogging and social media has brought, and I think there’s a big element of truth to that, and that part of that is a feeling of greater accessibility that twitter brings. Players are criticised a lot by the media for being untouchable and living their lives behind tinted windows and I think twitter is the opposite of that. It shows something of themselves to fans and media. I think it’s a great thing and it would be a really shame if clubs or the FA tried to hit too heavy on that.

You mention the rise of new media. Has twitter changed the way you do your job?

I think, at a very basic level, it’s a news source. I think a lot of people are on twitter, you look at the amount of stories generated on twitter. It’s a primary source. I’m not talking me and Rio, or Rooney, but just what players say casually. 

I suppose it has changed the job a bit, it’s another form of interaction. I keep going back to the Ferdinand thing, but one of the few interesting about it is that it was an example of how ‘new media’ works in that I started feeding out elements of a column that goes in a paper on a Wednesday morning at about 7pm on a Tuesday evening. Then The Mirror flag it up on their website at 10pm or whatever, and then I get involved in a kind of hectic night of tweeting with people, and obviously mainly enraged Man Utd fans. The sort of upshot of it is that my entire article is dissected and chewed over by midnight, before it’s even appeared in the paper. Hopefully it encourages people to buy the paper as well, but it’s certainly an acceleration of the whole reading process. I think it was a good example of the ways papers can use twitter and interact.

What about the way you interact with ‘new media,’ blogs, podcasts...

I read blogs but I suppose I’m semi-traditional in that I read a lot of established journalists blogs rather than fans blogs. I find it hard to distil what I should read and cut through the mass of what’s out there.  I know there’s a lot of good stuff out there but I guess because I’m not particularly technically adept I don’t necessarily know where to find it. I mean look, I love fanzines, stuff like ‘United We Stand’ and the stuff Andy Mitten does for instance, someone like him is a terrific journalist, and I’m obviously aware of that kind of thing. 

I’ve got a great deal of respect for some of the people on twitter, some of the fans who are prolific tweeters, on behalf effectively of their respective clubs. And at the risk of sounding too pretentious, I find that it’s for me anyway, it’s educational and keeps you honest in a way. If you tweet something about a player, for example, I said something, when England were playing Switzerland, about what a nightmare game Johan Djourou was  having, and how it highlighted the need for Arsenal to strengthen at the back. I had a lot of tweets from Arsenal fans saying ‘don’t be so ignorant, he had a fantastic season for us.’ Or ‘ He’s one of the reasons we had a good defensive record.’ I saw arsenal play as much as anyone I saw last season, but probably a maximum of 10 times. So I thought, ok, obviously I got that wrong. So it keeps you abreast of things, it’s a source of information as well as a tool for communication.

The line comes there I guess between partisan club nature and actual insight? There’s so many voices, for example the Villa/Martin O’Neill thing.  I’d disagree with your view, but the interesting thing is that anyone who’s not a villa fan would agree with a lot of your criticism of the club and support for O’Neill.

I think that’s a good example. You’re right, I’m a fan of O’Neill. I like him personally and I’ve also been a fan of his professionally. But you’re right the volume of tweets from Villa fans that are anti-O’Neill is fairly big, and I have to say that many of them make a persuasive case, and so, from an educational position, a lot of tweeters are incredibly forensic in their kind of knowledge so you go through the buys O’Neill made and the one’s that flopped and I can see there is a point there. My counter argument to that would be that under him Villa still finished 6th 3 season in succession.  I remember saying, one of the few things I get right, on Sunday supplement that I’d guarantee  Villa wouldn’t finish 6th this season, and you can go round in circles, and that’s partly because he left on the eve of the start of the season. He was given a lot of money, and achieved a fair degree of success, they flirted with success. So I think, I’ve got a lot of time for O’Neill but I can see the point that villa fans are making and again it fits into that category of keeping you honest as a journalist.

As someone who divides opinion, do you thrive on it, and ever look to do it on purpose of ‘heighten’ your opinions to get a reaction, on twitter for example?

Well, the first part, do I thrive on it? I suppose when you’re a columnist for a tabloid, you can’t be grey. You can’t do an ‘on one hand this....’ kind of piece, you’ve got to go for it. Whatever your opinion is, it has to be strong and the whole point of a column is that is an opinion. So it’s kind of obvious that some people will agree and some won’t, and it’s part of that.

I don’t set out to be provocative, but if you’ve got strong opinions about stuff, then they necessarily will be provocative. So recently I wrote a piece about Nani, about how I’d never vote for him to be player of the year, and why. Now I didn’t write that to win up United fans, I genuinely felt it , but as it happens, I was aware that it would wind up United fans. But the worse option would be to shy away from something because it’s provocative.

Has that changed from going to The Mirror from The Times and being in a more tabloid setting?

I suppose it has. I loved every moment of my time there (at The Times) but I never really had that outlet there, I never had a column, an opinion piece as such. And I did more reportage, reporting from events, which I still do now, but I didn’t have a sports column which I really enjoy having at the Mirror. So I suppose it’s been a change in as much as it’s something I didn’t do before. 

The thing I enjoyed doing with the Rio piece was that I thought it was a reasonable piece and that sometimes it’s nice to talk about things that the fans don’t see. That’s what I found strange about the whole affair. If he was going to write that DM, what was he concerned about? Why didn’t he just tweet it? And obviously the whole exchange in the mixed zone, obviously there were 100s of journalists there, so everybody was aware of that and others were tweeting about that before I did. I think personally those kind of pieces are worthwhile

How does neutrality as a journalist fit alongside growing up as a football fan? Does being a Stockport fan makes that aspect a bit easier?

When I was growing up I’d watch Stockport on a Friday night and either City or United on a Saturday. When I was in my teens I went through spells of watching City or United more. 83, 84 and 85 I watched a lot of United, both home and away. I think journalists differ, and it’s wrong for me to generalise and some still feel an allegiance to a club as fiercely as they ever did. But maybe it’s because I did have those divided loyalties (between City, Utd and Stockport), but I found fairly quickly when working as a sports journalist that it kind of diluted my allegiances. I started not to care whether City or United won or not and started to see the story really, and think about the match as part of a story, and what the angle to take. I started to look at games professionally rather than personally I guess. And maybe that’s a fault, I don’t know. I feel more dispassionately about watching games now, but I think you have to be dispassionate up to a point. I still believe that most reporters are, but every fan thinks that you are against their club, and I understand that because you don’t feel the same passion for that club that a fan of that club feels. So if we’re sitting in the press box at OT, and someone shouts “Are you going to write something nice about us this week?” (not specifically to me, but to the box in general), and you think, mate we write something nice about you every week because we have to because you’re always winning! And yet fan of individual clubs feel persecuted by everyone. And sometimes rightly so, some of the treatment Man United have had recently has been ugly, the warning to Fergie of praising Howard Webb for example was very harsh. So I can see there are individual instances where clubs are victimised but I don’t think reporters for national newspapers are biased.

But you’re right, it was easier for me, being a Stockport fan has meant I’ve never had to report on them, I’ve written pieces on them when they’ve been in financial difficulty, but never had to report on them. But even journalists I know who are Arsenal or West Ham fans, when they report on them, I don’t think it impacts their match report. You can be bias on twitter, someone like John Cross, who I’ve got the upmost respect for, his match reports on Arsenal would be scrupulously fair, but on twitter he’s got more licence to talk about his allegiances, talking at fans forums. 

You mention being a Stockport fan, what have you made of their recent difficulties?

I’m slightly wary of bigging up my Stockport credentials, I feel slightly fraudulent, I know how incredibly committed a lot of Stockport fans are and I’m keenly aware that I only went to 10 or games last season, mostly away games, due to necessity of work at times. I’ve got a season ticket for me and one of my daughters, mainly as an expression of support for the club. But I’d be nervous to speak on their behalf, as one friend there comes up from Devon for games home and away, so he’s far more qualified by comparison!

I felt more deeply in touch with it the season before when we were threatened with extinction after being in receivership for 18 months. And I felt extremely deeply about that, as every fan would, it’s every fans worst nightmare really. But once the club was saved, I understood the anger going on about mismanagement of the club, but a lot of clubs are mismanaged, so I found it easier to deal with us slipping out of the league on footballing terms rather than because we’d been booted out financially. Again when I was growing up, it was always my worst nightmare that Stockport would lose their league status. But I guess now there’s automatic promotion from the conference it’s happened to other clubs and other clubs have survived it, so it’s just getting used to a new reality I guess and the conference is such an incredibly difficult league to get out of. 

The football match I enjoyed most last season, out of everything I covered both professionally and personally was Port Vale Vs Stockport. That was the one that I got the most enjoyment out of. I took my little boy who’s 3, he didn’t watch the game but he just pottered about the away end. For Stockport if we’d lost we could have gone down that day. But Port Vale were pressing for the playoffs so we expected to lose. We won 2-1, the winner was at our end. It was just brilliant. Nothing you do professionally compares to that feeling of being a fan, it was just brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

If I wasn’t a journalist and I had my weekends free, I wouldn’t go to the Premier League I live in North-West London you know, I think I’d to go Barnet, I’ve been a couple of times recently, and I liked it there. It’s more intimate (at that level), you get intimacy you don’t get at the Premier League level, there’s something that feels real, more real and intimate about it.

As a fan of a lower league club, what do you make of the recent cut in funding for Supporters Direct?

I’m a massive fan of what David Conn does at the Guardian, and I’ve read all the stuff he’s written about it. And again as a fan of a lower league club I’m aware of the stuff that work that Supporters Direct have done. I saw what Dan Johnson from the Premier League said, how they never got any credit for the money they put into them, and he’s right, they do deserve credit for that, but equally I find it a bizarre decision. At worst those tweets that Dave Boyle sent were ill-considered, but I wouldn’t even say they were sacking offenses, let alone a reason to cut off the funding.

I think what Supporters Direct have done is entirely appropriate, told him to watch his future tweets, and I don’t think anything more needed to be done, he’s a guy that’s done an awful lot of good work, and he didn’t deserve to be sacked for a one off incident. To further compound that by withdrawing their funding is bizarre frankly and very sad. I thought it was the saddest story of the week to be honest.

Do you feel you can use your column to write about that side of the game?

To a point I do. To be fair to the Mirror, if I’d wanted to write about that in my column I could have done, but I kind of thought that the Villa story (his column that day) was more interesting and mainstream. I think that Supporters Direct have a lot of very good champions amongst some of the broadsheet papers who have written about it superbly, but I’m pleased I at least have a platform to at least register an opinion on the Supporters Direct thing, and I’m glad they’ve had a lot of support.

What about all the recent shenanigans at FIFA? Do you wish you’d done and said more, earlier?

I think it was difficult to do more earlier, because well, I liked Andy Anson the head of our bid but he made an appalling mistake for labelling BBC unpatriotic for doing that Panorama, and the more time has gone on and the more stuff has come out about FIFA the more you can see that what the BBC was trying to do was right and they were castigated for it by a lot of people, and in fact they were castigated by other media.

The Sun did a back page absolutely slaughtering it. And so, I think it was a very difficult kind of thing, when you’ve got people at the 2018 bid people accusing you of being unpatriotic and saying you’re going to ruin the bid, it was difficult, I mean, we all wanted us to get the World Cup, it would have been brilliant.  I think you’re called jingoistic but I think we deserved the World Cup, we’ve got great stadiums, great supporters, good infrastructure, hotel rooms and I think we deserved it. It’s less easy to complain about our treatment given that  Russia won and I suppose that’s a new territory, but the whole bidding process is just a sick farce. If you want to go to new territories, say you want to go to new territories, don’t let us spend however much it we spent on a doomed bid. But actually, you know, I was really proud of the BBC for doing that thing and it was a really good bit of journalism.

Is there some stuff then that you wouldn’t write about (at risk of causing some kind of harm)?

I find it uncomfortable to be overly critical of an England team going into a major tournament, and I think that’s probably wrong and probably a weakness in me. Someone like Steve Howard in The Sun, I think has called things extremely well recently, and wrote off our chances of succeeding pre-World Cup and got it right. 

I think sometimes I feel, wrongly, wanting to give them the benefit of the doubt, and I end up trying to persuade myself that we have got a chance. I mean, you look at our individual players and you think Ashley Cole, may be the best LB in the world, John Terry and Rio are both fantastic centre halves. You’ve got Gerrard, and Lampard, who then looked like 2 world class central midfielders, you’ve got Rooney etc... and you start to convince yourself. 

And sometimes you have moments of clarity, like the England/Spain under-21s recently and you see us belting balls 40 yards upfield and hoping for a knockdown and you then see the way Spain pass it around and you think that we’re looking at our under 21s and we’re looking at years of this kind of football, and we’re kind of kidding ourselves. It’s the hope that kills you and you need to be totally dispassionate and say we’ve got no chance of winning Euro 2012, but the nearer it gets to the tournament but the more we’ll start to tell ourselves that we do have a chance and we get into this cycle of boom and bust.

Clearly you’ve got a love of other sports, will you fill your summer with those or will you still be on football duty?

When you work for an English tabloid it’s kind of difficult during the season to look at anything else. 70% of what we do is football, I love football so that’s hardly a chore. But you know, I spent 3 weeks in Australia watching the Ashes, in terms of work trips that has been my favourite. I love covering football but I love writing about and covering boxing so I’m going out to David Haye’s fight in Hamburg. For the under 21s we’ve got someone there and most paper’s view is that it’s a one man job and probably we’d send someone else out if England got to the final. (EFW note- Ah the joys of hindsight). But you know Wimbledon starts next week and I’d rather be at Wimbledon than at the under 21s. Football has become something bigger. As soon as the season ends you get this mania with transfers and rumours and the managerial merry-go round.

Yourself and Barry Glendenning were talking recently about the hoop-la that surrounds football, what role you think yourself, the press as a whole plays in perpetuating that?

I think it’s self-perpetuating to be honest. I don’t actively set-out to big up the Premier League, sometimes the opposite, I sometimes feel that I’m sometimes negatively about it as an entity. Sometimes I feel that the Premier League with its money should do more to help the lower league. So I don’t set out to big it up, but I guess as a result of writing so much about it that may go some way to perpetuating it, so it’s not something I actively think about bigging it up. I think I write more about the sport rather than what goes on around it.

But I guess the media as a whole is responsible for this but footballers have become you know the equivalent of pop-stars and movie-stars, they’re a-listers now and we can’t get away from that. And I guess that’s largely to do with Sky and the money that they have pumped into football and the knock on effect on the wealth that has been lavished onto footballers that has turned them into these celebrity beings.

What’s been your favourite moment watching football as a journalist?

I’d have to say 2. The 1999 champions league final- United Vs Bayern, just for that finish. And, it sounds slightly obvious but the 2005 final, Liverpool in Istanbul. Those were both amazing things to cover, amazing emotional nights. Two great nights professionally with just fantastic scenes, and seeing both clubs succeeding in incredibly dramatic circumstances. So yeah, I’d have to go for those two.

As someone who travels to watch football, where are your favourite places in the UK to watch football, and where would you recommend for a European Football Weekend?

Over here, on a personal level I would say Edgeley Park, season ticket there, next to the press box, because when I was a kid I’d look up at the press box (not just at Edgeley Park) like it was some kind of magical place and how incredibly lucky people were to be doing that job, and sometimes I’d try and blag a programme off them if they’d sold out before the game. So I got myself and my daughter season tickets there.

I love watching Arsenal playing football, and as a club but I like the older grounds. I like Villa Park, Goodison, I like Old Trafford. But I suppose the best atmosphere I’ve been at in recent years was at the Liverpool/Chelsea  Champions League semi final second leg in 2005, the ‘ghost-goal’ game. That night was the best atmosphere I’ve ever seen. So I suppose for your question, Anfield on a big night game is pretty hard to beat. 

The Bernabau is my favourite stadium, I love it, you can feel the history of it, I like the steep sides of it and I just think it’s a brilliant stadium. It’s slightly tempered for me by the experience of being there when England played there and there was the racist abuse of SWP and Heskey, it was so widespread. I’ve never seen anything like that, even in the bad-old days of English hooliganism, it was everywhere, and that has tainted it for me. Thought it’s wrong to condemn everyone because of that, I love the stadium, I love the city. I suppose that’s my favourite. The San Siro is fantastic as well.

I’d say that watching football in Brazil is pretty hard to beat. The Maracana is a pretty special place to go. There are 3 stadiums I haven’t been to that I’d love to go. One is Eden Gardens in Calcutta to watch cricket, I’ve not been to the Chicago Cubs’ stadium Wrigley Field and I’d love to go there. The one place in football I’d love to go to would be the Bombonera in Buenos Aries where Boca Juniors place. A few of my friends have been there. Matt Dickenson from the Time said it was the most unbelievable experience.

Thanks a million to both Jamie Cutteridge and Oliver Holt for their valuable time.

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Jack McInroy II said...

It's such a shame you didn't pull him up for this tweet
"Asking this out of ignorance: whose fans are more extreme, Rangers or Celtic? Or is there no difference?"

What a bone head.!/OllieHoltMirror/status/68411417744777217

Jamie said...

Good read, but I find it very hard to believe he's not deliberately provocative.