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An interview with football correspondent Jonathan Northcroft

Monday 26th September 2016
We recently interviewed The Sunday Times football correspondent Jonathan Northcroft, where we asked about life in football journalism, his newly released book, and his opinions on this season's Premier League.

Jonathan Northcroft is an established writer in the footballing world. The Sunday Times Correspondent regularly appears on Sky Sports' Sunday Supplement, BBC Radio 5 Live, and he's also recently had a book published: Fearless, The amazing underdog story of Leicester City, The greatest miracle in sports history. Here is the full interview.

On football journalism

Football journalism is becoming increasingly popular, which has made it a competitive field, and one that is difficult to make a breakthrough in. So I started by asking Jonathan about his own career in journalism and what advice he would give to people who want to follow in his footsteps.

When did you realise you wanted a career in football journalism?

I like to think I'm more varied and selective in my life choices – but my mum would tell you the die was cast when I was about seven. She's probably right. I loved football and my dad loved newspapers – there were always three or four different newspapers in our house. I guess the two things came together at an early age. When I was seven I wrote a 36-page story about a caterpillar going to the 1978 World Cup. I think the teacher had only asked us something like ‘write what you did in your holidays.' The story probably needed a bit of subbing!

What was your first big breakthrough as a writer?

 I did all the standard stuff – school magazine, student newspaper, work experience, football magazines, but early on twigged that the real challenge is getting your stuff out there and selling it. The big breakthrough came when I was in the middle of my postgraduate journalism course in Glasgow. Stuart Baxter, a Scottish coach, had just won the J-League with Sanfrecce Hiroshima. I got in touch with my favourite paper, Scotland on Sunday, and offered an interview with him. At the same time, I faxed Baxter at Sanfrecce Hiroshima to say I'd been commissioned to interview him. It was all a bit of a bluff, but it worked – I ended up getting a great piece with Baxter which Scotland on Sunday published, and on the back of it I developed a freelance relationship with the paper, which led to a job.

What attributes make a good football writer?

A good writer is a good writer, no matter what the subject. I think the key things are a love of stories, a love of finding out new things and telling them to the world, empathy for who or what you're writing about, and a love of writing itself, as writing can be solitary and exhausting. I think you have to be fresh and open-minded – you have to want to ask ‘why?' or ‘how?' And I think you have to read. It amazes me how many wannabe journalists don't actually read other people's journalism!

My worry is that the internet is as limiting as it is empowering. It has taken away the idea that research, information-finding, contacts, context is important. Applying this to football – it's not just about having opinions about players and matches, but it's about getting to know players and gaining their trust. It's about learning and knowing things so your analysis has weight. It's also about throwing club loyalties aside and being objective. Another thing the internet is breeding is tribalism – fans only reading writing by other fans of their club. Finally, and this is obvious, you do have to love the game.

What advice would you give to aspiring football journalists?

The most simple advice would be: get yourself out there. Hustle a bit. Find ways to sell your work and bring it to an audience. Find ways to get original information, whether it's news or interviews. Football writing's a crowded market so at the start work out where your unique selling points are – what or who do you know that others don't? There might be a great story at your small local club that deserves greater attention. You may have a route to get to a player/coach/scout/whoever that others don't. You might have the brain and patience to create your own material by doing some original analysis that will throw up new stats. Also, read stuff. If you're going to try to sell something to the Sunday Times, then please know what the Sunday Times tend to publish – then work out the gaps in their coverage and how you can fill them.

On the new book

I have to admit, I expected Leicester to struggle last season. As did Jonathan, who told me: ‘'I wondered if Ranieri was past his best. Leicester weren't my favourites for relegation – but I wouldn't have been greatly surprised if they went down.'' I then asked Jonathan about Leicester and his book, Fearless.

Can you give a description of your new book: Fearless?

‘Fearless', as those clever marketing people at the publishers have put on the cover, is Leicester “amazing underdog story.” First of all, it retells the miraculous journey to the Premier League title – I hope with a sense of excitement, freshness, humour and wonder. Leicester's title win was enjoyed all over the world and I wanted the book to be pacy and enjoyable to read. It most importantly draws on interviews with five of the key players. They take you behind the scenes, tell you what was going on in the dressing room, on the pitch, and at the training ground that hopefully you didn't know.

Fearless gives you the back stories of the remarkable range of characters in that dressing room. Some with more depth than others: Vardy, Kante and Mahrez get individual chapters where the book goes back to their roots. I live in Leicester but my Sunday Times job takes me all around the country and I've reported on the Premier League's biggest clubs for the last 15 years. I attempt to draw on the knowledge and contacts built up from doing that to explain aspects – e.g. there's a chapter called ‘Playing Against Leicester' where I speak to a Premier League player and coach/analyst about facing Leicester on the pitch.

Did you face any challenges while writing the book?

Time! I have a young family, I moved to Leicester in March and I'm The Sunday Times' only staff football writer – and there was the end of the season and European Championships to report on. I was pretty stretched for time. The idea for the book was only put to me in February and I only decided to go ahead with it in April. The deadline was August 1. I was flat-out juggling the day job, family life and the book until the end of the Euros and then I went away to a cottage and spent three and a half weeks writing to get things finished. But of course, all journalists are secretly addicted to deadlines so in a warped way I enjoyed all this.

What was the most enjoyable part of writing Fearless?

Definitely sitting down with the players and hearing their stories. That felt a real privilege. What was it like at Vardy's party? What was it like in the dressing room after the Arsenal defeat? What was it like on the pitch against West Ham? What's Ranieri like? What is the group like? What was the pressure like? So many wanted to know these things and I was lucky to get to ask. There were two other things I really enjoyed: a day at Stocksbridge Steels, finding out how on earth Vardy emerged from playing seventh tier football on a windy Yorkshire hillside; and visiting where Riyad Mahrez is from in Sarcelles. Both the place and its club are remarkable.

What were the key reasons for Leicester winning the league title?

Three world-class talents on the pitch: Kante, Schmeichel, Mahrez. A world-class manager. A weapon that, used properly, would threaten any opposition in the world: Vardy. An unbelievably well set-up club. From owners, right down to the canteen chefs, people are pulling in the same direction. Great scouting. Great fitness and conditioning. Unique atmosphere at the stadium. That powerful team spirit. A club that got so many of the basics right – and then had enough stardust to take advantage. And you can't ignore the fact that the big clubs underperformed. As Ranieri said, maybe only once every 50 years do all the major contenders in the English top flight mess up all at the same time. It happened last season and Leicester took full advantage.

On the Premier League

This campaign in the English top division is potentially the most exciting we will ever witness, so I finished by asking Jonathan about this season's Premier League.

Who's your favourite player to watch in the Premier League?

I love watching intelligence in action, so it's probably David Silva. He just sees all these little angles and spaces others don't. To think that I reported on his first game for Manchester City (at Spurs) and suggested he'd be a flop.

What was the most exciting Premier League summer transfer?

Paul Pogba. It might be better for hipster credentials if I picked someone less obvious, but I've got to be honest: I've been reporting on the Premier League since 2001 and it's probably the first time one of the world's established best players, in their prime, has come to the league. I thought that was really exciting for English football – coupled with the fact that maybe the world's best manager, Pep Guardiola, was arriving too. Although Pogba hasn't lived up to his billing yet, it doesn't change the fact his signing was exciting.

Who's going to win the Premier League title this season?

Manchester City. Their football has been on an entirely different level so far and they're only at the start under Guardiola. Ilkay Gundogan and Leroy Sane are just a couple of games into their City careers, Vincent Kompany is yet to fully return and Gabriel Jesus hasn't yet arrived. Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and John Stones will only get better. Throw in Silva and Sergio Aguero. It's all a bit scary.

Which Premier League team will be the surprise package?

The early signs are that Liverpool might emerge as City's closest rivals and that would be a surprise given Liverpool's relatively modest transfers. It also seems Everton under Ronald Koeman could be at the start of something special and they could shock people by getting in the top four. I don't support either club, but I have a great affinity with Merseyside as a football region, having lived there for so long, and it would be great if it revives in this way. A smaller club to exceed expectations? Watford.

Jonathan Northcroft's book: Fearless, The amazing underdog story of Leicester City, The greatest miracle in sports history, is out now.
Danny Glendenning

Passions include reading, sport, and nights out with friends. A football fanatic whose writing career began in May 2016. Now 30 years old, lives in South Yorkshire - local team is Doncaster Rovers, although heart lies with Arsenal. Contributing editor for It's Round And It's White. Current claim to fame is an interview with Ron Atkinson. Always looking for work, either editing or writing. Contact via email: Dannysg1988@outlook.com. Or Twitter: @DannySG1988.



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