Football journalist of the year on writing columns, deadline panic, and why he didn’t join The Athletic

Barney Ronay discusses the business and practice of sportswriting.
Football journalist of the year on writing columns, deadline panic, and why he didn’t join The Athletic

It’s the great inconvenience of the columnist, sports or otherwise — having something worthwhile to say rarely tallies with the contractual obligation to file a column.

The Guardian’s chief sportswriter Barney Ronay tackled that annoyance and several others in an entertaining discussion on the business and practice of sportswriting on this week’s Guardian Football Weekly podcast.

Ronay was honoured at this year’s SJA British Sports Journalism Awards for a fine body of reporting in 2019, among the highlights his take on Liverpool’s Anfield comeback against Barcelona, and pieces on sportswashing in European football and racist abuse suffered by England players

He also writes a Saturday backpage column for the paper and tackled the often tortuous process of supplying fresh opinions on schedule.

“There’s two ways it happens. If there’s something you really believe in quite strongly, and something you really want to say, that needs to be said, about an issue, it tends to come straight out of the hand. You just write it instantly.

“Whereas when there are aspects of nuance, or quite often you just have to write a column, it can take forever and you end up writing around it and editing down a huge amount of floppy crap.

“But in those moments when the calendar necessitates you to write something flukishly intersects with there actually being something worth writing about, it tends to come out really quickly, and to actually be good as well.”

Alas, the weekly columnist cannot always wait for inspiration to dawn.

“The ability to just do it and keep doing it, even when you don’t have that feeling, is probably what distinguishes being able to do this professionally from being a very good writer, who might do it in your spare time.”

Writing to deadline on those epic, topsy-turvy Champions League is another level of stress. Ronay admits it took him a week to recover from last season’s May madness when Liverpool and Tottenham pulled off second-leg semi-final comebacks on successive nights.

As he kicked off the Liverpool report: “Do not adjust your reality. This really is happening.”

As the Guardian’s top colour man, Ronay’s job is to file a quality read, usually on a pre-planned angle, and file it early for the first edition. But when there are miracles brewing, best-laid plans tend to get blown away in the whirlwind.

“It is quite a weird thing to do. Basically, you’re just told to file 900 words at 9:30pm in a game that finishes at 9:40pm. That’s the only real guidance. It can’t be a match report, it’s got to be on a theme.

“So often you’re filing this piece before the game is finished, having written it while half watching it. By that stage, panic has set in. The only thought is that this has to be in coherent sentences, that can be in the newspaper and look ok.

“That’s basically the skill. You have to be able to send something that looks like a football report. If you’re late and they can’t send the page, it costs thousands of pounds. So that kind of fear kicks in and you just end up forcing yourself to do it in this sort of adrenal rush of Carabao and coffee. Throwing in anything you can.

“After you've sent the madness, you get half an hour to rewrite. People often say, you missed that, or you didn’t analyse something to do with VAR, or you’ve got the wrong guy providing the assist.

“But the fact is you’re in a panic. Often there’s no replay. You just have to file something. That’s the skill. Enjoy it, it’s a feat of people getting things on a page.”

As a business, who knows where the grand old scribbling game is going, but Ronay would still recommend it to anyone.

“The weekly grind of it can get you down, but I love being at the events, and that’s something you never lose. I probably will be one of those really old guys still going and doing this. That’s the bit you get addicted to.

“It’s a fantastic job. Anyone who’s thinking of getting into it, it is difficult, it’s very hard to see a way in, but it’s not impossible and it is rewarding and fun and when you’re in it at that moment, it’s unlike anything else.”

When a host of top UK sportswriters joined The Athletic's new English football website last year, Ronay was among those generating transfer speculation. But he elected to stay put.

“I did go and meet them and I like them. There’s lots of people who write for them that I like. But in the end I wanted to write for a newspaper. I wanted to be in the same thing as something that’s writing about what's happening in the world, not just football.

“I want to be in the same paper as Marina Hyde and Gary Younge and whoever else.”

Ronay sees the merits of the online subscription model employed by The Athletic. But he had reservations about a strategy that asks writers to specialise on a particular club and drive subscriptions from its fanbase.

“I was slightly troubled by the model. Subscription is undoubtedly the future, and some people do this really well. I just slightly struggle with the idea of how you write about clubs, when that club’s fanbase is your audience and subscriptions are everything.

“Most people mightn’t always want to hear everything you’ve got to write about their club. You might write stuff they disagree with or dislike which makes you public enemy number one and then you’re simply not going to survive.

“So you kind of have to preach to a certain kind of line if you want to be successful in that job.

“And I just couldn't quite see how that would fit the way I like to write about things. My Man City piece, for example, might not be one the subscribers really go for. And I’d still like to write it.”

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