Sunday 26 October 2014

London Sports Writing Festival: Football journalism, with a brain

Football is a simple game. In fact, it's one of the few games where everywhere you go in the world, it's played with the same few rules and garners almost the same level of popularity. But that doesn't mean it can't be complex, and analysed if that's what you want. 

Last night's The Blizzard panel discussion at the excellent London Sports Writing Festival, took place at the home of cricket, Lords. Chaired by the Football Ramble's always funny everyman host Marcus Speller, it featured France Football magazine's Philippe Auclair, freelancer Miguel Delaney and Blizzard founder Jonathan Wilson. The Blizzard is a magazine/book which features long-form writing on football history and the modern game. Its deliciously printed pages are a hive of long-forgotten detail and emotional responses to football.

The esteemed panel essentially spent an hour answering a variety of rather disparate questions from Speller and the audience whilst consuming red wine. Subjects ranged from their favourite Roy Keane anecdote (Auclair's recollection of the fierce Irishman backstage at the festival switching over from El Clasico raised a laugh) to pontifications on the imminent future of the Africa Cup of Nations amid the ebola crisis. Wilson, who writes for the Guardian, appears on its ever-glorious Football Weekly podcast, and has authored some of the best football books in recent years, was in fine form.

Watching him discuss the evolution of tactics - the subject with which he is most associated - and how different managers adapt and introduce their ethos is impressive. Wilson moulds his off-the-cuff knowledge of a mind-blowing array of facts with a genuine love of the beautiful game. Listening to him, alongside the likes of Barney Ronay, Amy Lawrence, Barry Glendenning and host of others on the podcast, there's a benchmark for football journalism which is, and should be, widely recognised. Special mention should also be given to the BBC's Tim Vickery, one of Auntie Beeb's biggest talents whose status as the UK's foremost South American sports journalist was laid bare during the World Cup this summer. 

Clearly many see beard-scratching pontification over tactics or unknown lower league European players as the domain of the football hipster - those keen to look cool by knowing about different things than the average bloke down the pub. 

But for me, football is as much about the stories behind the game - the people, the politics, the decisions and the history - as what happens on the pitch. So much football journalism is a simply '[INSERT NAME] player said [INSERT BANAL COMMENT] about [INSERT FORTHCOMING WEEKEND FIXTURE]'. 

As a journalist, I understand how pages are filled in this way but I think it's condescending to increasingly well informed football fans to assume they just want to read platitudinous comments, match previews and reports. As with the banal, ex-player pundits who stalk our TV football coverage, there's no reason to assume we can't handle intelligent, genuine analysis. This week I blindly enjoyed a lively 0-0 away draw for Sheffield Wednesday at Brentford which gave me the opportunity to sing, shout and jump up and down, the following night I marvelled at Real Madrid's tactics in putting Liverpool to the sword. 

Wilson, Auclair, Delaney and Speller created an hour-long reminder that journalism is about informing people and football, at its heart, is about taking what you want from a simple game. 

Sunday 5 October 2014

Sheffield Wednesday's Yorkshire derby draw at Leeds highlights the Blades' absence

There was plenty of blood and thunder to be found on the pitch in this Yorkshire derby, it's just a shame it wasn't happening in south, rather than west Yorkshire. 

For all the excitement of a fiery game which could have gone either way, a feeling that this is a secondary sideshow to the main event of yesteryear couldn't help but prevail. 

Perhaps it's because my dad is a Sheffield United fan so it adds extra spice in our house.

A average-sized faithful of 1,300 Owls fans travelled to Elland Road - with many put off by the early kick-off, the fact it was on telly and, crucially, the obscene 45 quid ticket demands - and were in fine voice. Plenty of back-and-forth between the fans, shots of angry managers and crunching challenges definitely gave this the feeling of a derby, particularly in the second half, but the empty seats and consigned nature of the players at the end belied a game which just wasn't against the Blades.

But the game itself was an entertaining affair. A bright start from the Owls was backed up by their usual defensive resolution - playing the offside trap beautifully as the partnership of Loovens and Lees continues to mature, albeit with some frailties. Keiren Westwood behind them - later named Man of the Match - was again in fine form showing great agility and was modest in saying the final result was a “fair reflection” of a game which would have been lost without him. 

Leeds' goal, stroked home from a high ball by defender Giuseppe Bellusci, was a bitter pill, not least watching controversial president Massimo Chillino dance on the sidelines but came after a host of chances early in the second half.

Up front, the second half partnership between Stevie May and Gary Madine for Wednesday looked lively and both could have scored via a cluster of chances but for a lack of composure. The Owls' goal, rifled in by Chris Maguire from the edge of the box after good work by Jacques Maghoma, was a delight. With the ball on the bounce, the first time finish was a fantastic moment, and one which fans will hope he can repeat consistently if the blue and white wizards are to stay in the top 10. Fans will also hope the result heralds a repeat of last season, when a 1-1 draw at Elland Road was followed by a 6-0 thrashing of Leeds at Hillsborough.

Wednesday's squad remains unfeasibly shallow to compete for the play-offs at this point but, after a nightmare start to last season, we're basking in the glow of a team with a rare tight defence and good endeavour.

On this evidence, only enduring the sight of the Blades making a successful promotion push will bring our arch enemies - and a true derby game - back to S6 soon.