Do Sport Journalists have to know their Football?

Written by Mark Docherty


“If you don’t know football you shouldn’t have a microphone in your hand” was the response of José Mourinho when asked whether he thought his side should have had a penalty against Hull last night.  He may have simply made the comment out of frustration, or to embarrass the the reporter, or even just to wrap the interview up a couple of minutes early, but what he ended up doing was proving himself right.

Image courtesy of Sky Sports

Gone are the days when sports journalists can rock up to a press conference with a pen, paper, and some fairly simply question and be confident of getting a response from the subject of the interview.  The key figures in football, particularly managers, are showing far less respect to journalists than they did in the past.  They now feel perfectly justified in walking out of interviews when they are asked a probing question or flat out refusing to comment on the key issues, whereas managers of the past would be far more open with the press.  This trend has been started by people such as José Mourinho, while Harry Redknapp and Pep Guardiola and Alex Ferguson have also been known to be somewhat hostile in interviews.

The reason for this, like so many other things, probably lies in the invention of the internet and social media.  In previous eras the only way news of the football world got out was through the press, so managers had motivation to maintain a good relationship with journalists so that they would write about them favourably, thus keeping the fans onside.  However, nowadays, there is far less of an incentive to keep the press happy when managers know they will have thousands of people slagging them off on Twitter anyway.  This leads them to treat the unfortunate interviewers with very little respect, often looking for the first opportunity to end the press conference early and deliberately making it as difficult as possible for the journalist to wean out anything of substance to write about.

Another reason for the hostility often levelled at journalist is just pure dislike and resentment.  Many managers believe that journalists do the best they possibly can to write about them negatively so as to put them out of a job.  While there is almost definitely an element of paranoia in this view most of the time, it would simply be untrue to say that unfavourable headlines have not contributed to some managers losing their jobs.  A great example of this is last season, when there seemed to be an agenda among some sections of the press to force Louis Van Gaal out of a job at Manchester United.  There were constant headlines about the Dutchman’s future for about six months, and these undoubtedly contributed to his departure at the end of the season.  As the Portsmouth manager, Paul Cook, once said at a press conference, “the media cause the problems; it’s my job to solve them.”  This resentment, rightly or wrongly, often results in journalists getting a very hard time and means they really do have to know their football to be able to fill the back pages.

Image courtesy of the Sun

When journalists are getting answers such as “what do you think?” and “watch the replay” in response to simple questions they need to take advantage of all their footballing expertise in order to worm some useful quotes out of their sparring partner and ensure that they have some information to fill the page the next morning.  Not only that, but they need to make their articles evocative enough for people to continue buying whatever paper or magazine they are writing for in an age when print journalism is fast dying out.  That means they have to be able to make their own judgements and opinions on whatever they are writing about, rather than simply displaying the facts and allowing the reader to make up their own mind, as was once the case.  Therefore, they have to display a wide knowledge of the game to produce thought provoking articles and keep their own jobs safe, let alone other people’s!

Having said that, there is a difference between the top level journalists in the sport and the Robbie Savages of this world.  While somebody like Henry Winter of the Telegraph will have to use all of their charisma and possess an armoury of knowledge to keep his readers happy, others will just have to make a few outrageous comments to be engaged with.  This kind of journalist is often found working on radio and TV football discussion shows.  Perfect examples include Robbie Savage on Fletch & Sav and BBC 606 and Adrian Durham, who presents TalkSport Drive, among other shows.  All their job entails is to be able to say things which provoke people to call into the show and take them to task.  Durham recently said “Leicester are a disgrace to English football because they are in the bottom half of the Premier League the year after winning it.”  This is, of course, an outrageous comment to make – and I would be shocked if he even believes it himself – but it led to scores of angry Leicester fans calling him to prove him wrong so resulted in a successful show.  For some, it’s as easy as that and requires absolutely no football knowledge.

In this article so far I may have given a slightly unflattering view of the players and managers in football and their treatment of the press.  That was not my intention.  The majority of people in the game are perfectly happy to make life easy for journalists and, while they are media trained, they do their best to give as much information away as they can within reason.  Some even go out of their way to give as many interviews as possible, examples being Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool, Ian Holloway of QPR and Juan Mata of Manchester United, all of whom are happy to talk football with journalists and will take up media duties even when it is not necessary for them to do so.  They are always friendly to journalists and will try to have a laugh and joke as often as possible in order to give them as much material as they need to write a good story.  In these cases it is not always necessary to have a vast knowledge of the game as it is enough just to report on the latest quirky comment from a player or manager, without expanding on what it may or may not mean.

Image courtesy of Empire of the Kop

Overall, as most people could have predicted, each level of the football journalism ladder requires a little more extensive knowledge of the sport.  If someone is content to pick up a paycheck for simply provoking supporters into venting their frustrations live on air, then a limited level of knowledge is enough.  It is also possible to be successful with a basic level of knowledge if journalists are lucky with the people they can interview and do not write anything too controversial that would turn managers against them.  However, those who wish to rise to the very top of their profession must be able to able to make interesting revelations about matches, as well as worm answers out of some of the most crafty and slippery people in football in order to sell their papers.  In short, José Mourinho proved himself right this week: if you do not know football, you should not have a microphone in your hand at the very top level.  To do that, you must have a thorough understanding of football and be able to pick the brains of the best in the world on the beautiful game.



Do journalists have to know their stuff or are they just talking rubbish?  Let us know in the comments or on social media!