Of Bluebirds and Swans: life in two South Wales press boxes
With Cardiff and Swansea both flying high in the Championship, it has been a while since the media glare was fixed so intently on the two clubs. So The Seventy Two caught up with Chris Wathan, the Football Correspondent for Media Wales, to discover his thoughts on life in the press boxes of South Wales.
What team do you support and what are your first memories of football?
Strangely for a South Wales lad, it’s Tottenham.
Football in our area wasn’t exactly doing its bit to attract local kids when the glamour of the First Division and Panini sticker books screamed at you to follow the big boys, especially coming from a family with a background in rugby rather than the right-shaped ball.
My first team was Barca from holidays abroad and trips to the Nou Camp and when Lineker signed for Spurs, together with Gazza, they were the team for me.
I go to see Tottenham when I can, making the most of being a fan for the day and enjoying the drama of last-minute goals and comebacks rather than deadlines and hastily re-writing intros because of some git getting a 92nd minute winner.
Barca are a big love of mine too, not just for the beauty of their football over the years but also for their history and what they stand for.
And when did you first realise you wanted to write about football for a living? Were there any writers you particularly admired?
Very early on. I guess it was a case of wanting to be involved in the game in some way and when that awful realisation dawned that I would be criminally overlooked for a playing role, I’d try a different avenue.
I’d always loved writing so it went hand-in-hand and I was determined to give it a crack, even with plenty of people warning me off because the industry was too tough to get into.
I even recently found some match reports I’d done on an old-school typewriter at the age of 8 or so – and I’m sure some would say I’ve not improved since. I can remember trying to do one report off the telly (an ITV Big Match hosted by Elton Welsby, no doubt) as a kid and getting frustrated as I tried to note down every single pass.
There are probably too many writers to mention but, like any kid fascinated by football, Shoot, Match, 90 Minutes and Roy of the Rovers were always studied before getting onto the serious stuff.
So are there any current football writers whose articles or opinions you always try to catch?
Many and various.
I often enjoy Martin Samuel’s stuff; I started as an agency writer, filing copy of the same story or match for tabloids and broadsheets, from the Telegraph to the Sport, so I appreciated how he would hit one note with his News of the World column and then another with his Times.
I think Ollie Kay at the Times is excellent and I have a lot of respect for Ian Ladyman given his tough patch.
There are plenty of others, many not mainstream, but too many to mention.
Who were your footballing idols growing up? Are there any players that stand out whose games you have regularly covered?
Lineker and Gazza, as well as the Welsh faithful – Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Dean Saunders and Big Nev Southall.
I ghosted Nev’s column for Wales on Sunday which was quite surreal, although quite often when you speak to your heroes you tend to separate the God you watched on the telly or at the Arms Park with the person you’re speaking to. They get humanised, which I suppose is a downside to the job if you’re a football fan.
In terms of players I’ve enjoyed covering regularly, Lee Trundle stands out.
Not only was he a breath of fresh air on the pitch in League Two, he was also golden for me as an agency hack. His name alone would sell stories but he also knew how to give a line and he’d always be up for a chat and something a bit different.
It’s a bit of a shameless plug but I was lucky enough to work with Lee on his autobiography – Lee Trundle: More Than Just Tricks – which was a great experience.
Is South Wales the best area to work for a regional football writer?
I like to think so, especially now given the rising status of Cardiff and Swansea.
I’ve not been restricted to South Wales – the Western Mail and the Wales on Sunday are all-Wales titles – but Wrexham’s drop out of the league has made it harder to justify the trips north and the coverage, which is sad as I loved covering Wrexham.
It’s a strange patch in many ways as you have quite a spotlight on the clubs as there are “national” titles as well as your local papers, all-Wales radio stations as well as local ones, greater exposure on TV and places like the BBC website.
I doubt any other Championship clubs get the same number of column inches as Cardiff or Swansea.
In fact, one of the reasons Paulo Sousa said he came to Swansea was that the press coverage was as close to the Premier League as you could get and he wanted to experience operating under that scrutiny. Strange, then, it got rather bitter when he couldn’t hack it.
The best aspect, though, is getting to cover the national side. I’ve been all over Europe with Wales, something I could only dream of as a kid.
Do you regularly get accused of being biased towards either Cardiff or Swansea and, if so, are fans of either side more vociferous about it?
Yes, from both sides – which I guess shows we’re getting it right. It’s more of a general thing rather than individual writers; Cardiff fans think we’re anti-them and pro-rugby, Swans fans think we’re anti-them and pro-Cardiff but there are no agendas.
Both sides are at the right end of the Championship table at the moment – which do you think is best equipped for promotion?
Probably Cardiff given the strength of their squad. In all honesty, they should go up fairly easily.
Behind the scenes, too, they are ready in terms of their youth setup, training facilities and commercial opportunities. Saying that, they are still walking a financial tightrope.
But I certainly wouldn’t write Swansea off. Their players are perfectly suited to the system they play, they know each others’ roles inside out and Brendan Rodgers has tweaked what has needed to be tweaked to take the next step this season.
Given their budget, play-offs would be a huge achievement and definitely a realistic aim – and without the pressure that Cardiff are arguably under.
That said, Swansea are still at a stage where they have to be at their best to get wins whereas Cardiff have the individual match-winners to pull off results even when they underperform.
If Cardiff go up, it sorts out their financial issues in one swoop and Swansea would really benefit as a club off-the-field from the windfall. Both would easily sell out stadiums in the top flight and the impact on Welsh football in general would be huge, absolutely huge.
Then we’d see what the national game really is.
What’s the best thing about being a football writer? And what is the worst?
I get paid to watch football. End of.
Whenever the long hours, (relatively) poor pay, awful away trips, unhelpful press officers, arrogant players, mixed zone farces and never-ending techy problems get me down, I remind myself that I could be working for a living.
And lastly, do you have any advice for young writers who want to be football journalists?
Go for it. Take on everyone’s advice, but listen to yourself and go for it.
Just don’t blame me when you’re stuck on the M50 services, waiting for an AA van at 2 in the morning desperately trying to get a connection to file copy while wondering if you can claim a third cafe late on expenses.