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. 

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