Media Week: How to write about the Football League
Anyone who has read Ned Boulting’s superb book How I Won The Yellow Jumper will recognise the creeping dread described in the opening chapter. Boulting, despite possessing little to no knowledge of cycling, has been sent by ITV to cover the Tour de France. That horrible sense of having, essentially, to completely wing it. And the fear of the inevitable ridicule that will swiftly follow the slightest shortfall. But what has this got to do with the national media’s coverage of the Football League, I hear you ask…
Admittedly, that’s slightly mischievous. But while the sport remains the same from the Premier League down to League Two and beyond, knowledge of the game at levels beneath the top flight requires plenty of passion and no little homework. Things change very quickly and a reporter or commentator may have noticed a particular centre-forward in great form two seasons ago, but who is now the villain of the terraces. Expert opinion is the order of the day.
This is the true beauty of club-specific blogs, fanzines, forums and messageboards. While the latter two in particular are often derided as the mouthpieces of the clinically insane, experience of running a Football League blog over the past year or so has taught me one thing above all else – forums and messageboards are a godsend. The trick, however, is not to read them exhaustively. Instead, skim-read. Writing about a club? Find their most popular messageboard. Open the top ten most commented topics from the past week and scroll down, making a mental note of the language used. Congratulations – in a matter of minutes, you have almost automatically improved your forthcoming article or report.
Because the problem for anyone covering the Football League is that coverage elsewhere often leaves a lot to be desired. And don’t mistake this for criticism either. As much as any supporter of a Football League club may love the lower leagues, the prospect of even more televised football is not exactly palatable. We don’t want to create greater numbers of armchair supporters.
The press don’t get it as badly wrong as most fans seem to think either. There are complaints about the paucity of Football League coverage on national newspaper websites, but look at the comments section. Of course the focus will be firmly on the Premier League and Champions League. That’s what most people are interested in and, while a particular media organisation may receive kudos for above-average coverage of the Football League, it is understandable when they don’t bother. These are tough economic times and demand, driven by advertisers and page impressions, dictates that the Premier League is given precedence.
So this is why we need to refer to blogs, fanzines, forums and messageboards. In short, even a biased opinion is better than the ill-informed (or non-existent) view of a neutral journalist (or blogger). Skim-read, filter out the not-rights and you gain a context in which a match can be placed. Writing off a team or player based on one performance contributes nothing positive to the greater good of improving Football League coverage. As fans, we have all read articles like this and it can be infuriating. If I have done it myself, then I can only apologise.
One game – and the relative lack of television coverage means you will probably struggle as a neutral to see one team more than 10 times in any season – can only tell you so much. It is important when watching Football League games to account for inconsistency – this is more prevalent the further down the leagues you go and there is no added security of the knowledge that a particular player can be termed the best at what he does. We can have confidence in lauding the likes of Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero. In contrast, an excellent League Two player could either excel or flop the following season in League One or above. Making a judgment on which it is more likely to be is usually very difficult indeed.
Above all, journalists and bloggers writing about the Football League need to work out what, in doing so, our purpose is. While it may not merit huge swathes of column inches, the Football League does carry a large audience and is packed with plenty of talking points which are overlooked by the mainstream. But is the job of a writer to put their own opinion across or to help reflect the opinion of supporters of the clubs we are writing about? I can’t help thinking it should be a mix of the two, with the emphasis on the latter.
With much of the mainstream media overlooking the Football League, there is opportunity but also responsibility. Surely it is better that the reader goes away with the most accurate understanding of the situation at a particular club as possible. The best way to attempt to offer that is to try to ensure your writing reflects supporter opinion while stripping away all bias.
It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.