I Want To Be A Football Writer When I Grow Up

Chasing my professional football writing dream, catching it...and letting it go. permalink

By Alan Hylands — 12 minute read

Chasing my writing dream, catching it...and letting it go. permalink

I blame The Sun newspaper. permalink

My dad usually bought The Sun.

Occasional dalliances with the Mirror or (worse) the Daily Star but his main paper of choice while I was growing up was The Sun.

This was during the '80s and '90s which was very much pre-internet days.

No forums, no message-boards, no Twitter, no Facebook. If you wanted football news (and which self-respecting football mad kid didn’t?), you had two choices.

1) The internet - before the internet permalink

First was Ceefax and Teletext. (For the younger reader, these were like the internet - on your telly). Short news articles would keep you up to date with general goings on. But best of all was the page of one liner adverts for the Clubcall and Teamtalk phone-lines.

These were premium rate phone lines with pre-recorded messages, updated on a daily basis, giving “behind the scenes” info and gossip on your favourite club.

On the Teletext page they would list half a dozen clubs with a teaser headline to get people to call in and ruin their parents’ phone bill.

I had no chance of getting sign off from my folks to actually phone them. So I had to make do with sitting in front of the TV, waiting on the Teletext pages to turn, to see if there was any mention of Spurs.

Something similar to the way we check our phones for transfer gossip and news these days so it definitely foreshadowed that kind of addictive behaviour. It was a simpler time.

2) The daily rags permalink

The second source was the tabloid newspapers which, in my case, was The Sun. They had interviews, columns with big name former players and managers and, best of all, transfer gossip. What really piqued my interest in becoming a football writer was the Goals supplement in Monday’s paper. The traditional round-up of match reports of all of the weekend’s games.

In my younger days I would religiously read every word and keep a record of the match ratings. When Fantasy Football launched in the UK in the mid-90s I was like a moth to a flame. Football AND stats – what wonders we were provided with!

Dreaming of North London...sitting in south Belfast. permalink

When I got to university I found myself slogging through an Accounting degree I had zero interest in pursuing once I graduated. I would buy the paper on a Monday lunchtime and sit in McDonald’s over a Big Mac meal (I had a much faster metabolism then, don’t judge me). There I would pore over the match reports as if I had actually been at the games.

I decided then that being a football writer must be the best job in the world. Unfortunately for me I was stuck studying accounting and getting increasingly depressed over the possible paths in front of me.

I didn’t pursue journalism or writing when I graduated in 2000. Instead I:

  • Was on the dole for a while.
  • Played guitar in a band and dreamed of becoming Slash (forewarning: I didn’t become Slash).
  • Worked at the lowest rung of the Civil Service filing paperwork and leading a small mutiny against the conditions and workload expected of my grade. Yeah, we lost that too but I was bored and aimless.
  • Then I got into a graduate bootcamp to fast-track into IT and actually found a career path I enjoyed.

It wasn’t until 2005 that I decided to do something about becoming a football writer.

The rise of blogging and SOTG is born. permalink

Blogging as an activity (and an occupation) was just breaking into the mainstream and I wanted in on it. I still sat and chatted (mostly) rubbish about football every day with friends and on internet forums so I figured why shouldn’t I write about football?

Those hazy days sat in Mickey D’s in Shaftesbury Square in Belfast reading the match reports came back to me. So I registered a domain name, read about some new blogging software called Wordpress and away I went.

StateOfTheGame.co.uk was born.

State Of The Game in 2006

I roped in some friends to write and we got cracking. Whatever came into my head on football related topics went into the text box and was published and…crickets.

It took a while to get up and running but once we got to a few hundred readers a day it started to snowball.

I had grand visions of being a football investigative journalist (from the comfort of my bedroom in rural Northern Ireland). What people really wanted to read though was transfer gossip and shock jock-style over-the-top opinion pieces. Plus ca change.

We built up a good following over the next couple of years, peaking on the day Tevez and Mascherano signed for West Ham. I wrote an opinion piece which got to the top of Newsnow’s football page and the site had 19,000 visitors that day.

While the comments were going mad I was on a building site cleaning cement and plastic protective covers off new build house windows. The rock n’ roll lifestyle of the football writer.

Football is a team game permalink

I wasn’t a lone wolf by this time. I made a conscious effort to give young writers a platform to get started by guest posting and running their own regular columns. Looking back, that’s one of my best memories.

Many of our old writers went on to have professional football writing careers for papers and blogs and it’s a source of great pride to have helped give them even the smallest of openings to help them along the way.

My own writing “career” was ticking along nicely in terms of having a platform. But the small ad revenue the site was bringing in barely covered hosting costs and the building sites weren’t great places to hang about on when it got colder.

Writing For Other Websites - And Getting Paid. permalink

When prominent bloggers Jeremy Wright, Darren Rowse and Duncan Riley joined forces to create b5media, I paid close attention. They got VC funding for their own blog network and began hiring writers. So I applied.

I spoke to Jeremy on Skype, told him my football writing background and why I would be a good fit. He gave me a gig on one of their sites, (imaginatively titled) The Footie. My first paid football writing job, hurrah!

The Footie

I kept SOTG going while I wrote for The Footie and let some of the other writers pick up the pace there. While the pay was small and revenue share-based, it did feel like validation on some level that I had shown I was a competent writer. Imposter syndrome be gone. Someone believed I knew what I was talking about!

The money situation was getting to be a concern however. I was self-employed at the time and a part-time software development job had fallen through when the company went bust. So I needed more cash coming in to pay the bills. And quickly.

Chasing the corporate dollar and joining the big leagues. permalink

I had no intention of following the starving artist trope in real life. So I was rather excited when I saw a position for World Soccer Guide open up at one of the web’s most visited websites, About.com.

For those too young to remember About.com: there were Guides on virtually every topic under the sun, from photography to martial arts to travel to foreign language. They had a massive network effect and top search rankings on nearly every keyword so it really was a prime spot to get into.

Added to that, they were owned by the New York Times Company, which gave a little CV kudos that needs no further explanation.

So I applied and jumped through some hoops. And with the industry validation of running and writing a lot for my own football site behind me, along with writing for b5media, I got the job.

World Soccer Guide at About.com

Rolling that boulder up the hill. permalink

The previous material under your chosen topic was scrubbed from existence and you started with a blank slate. Great in one way. Not so great in another.

The previous World Soccer Guide had built up to a massive crescendo after the 2006 World Cup when his traffic stats had been through the roof.

About.com gave new guides an initial grace period where they paid you a set fee per month to get you going. After that, your pay all depended on a rather complex formula based on growth over the previous year’s traffic. So I was starting from a zero base and trying to get as much content written and uploaded to pad out my site. All while spinning up traffic versus numbers from the most visited site in the world during the biggest football event ever. If Sisyphus springs to mind, you'd be getting close to the task at hand.

The beginning of the end. permalink

In the beginning I was well into it. SOTG had slowed down as I concentrated my time on About.com. But banging out the quantity of material needed across the whole football spectrum was taking it’s toll. I was losing interest in the game itself and the ever-increasing banality of rich clubs fighting it out between themselves in ever decreasing numbers.

After 6 months or so the money situation caught up with me and I took a six month contract as a data analyst just to keep the lights on. Nearly twelve years later I’m still there...

Ultimately the thrill of getting a monthly pay cheque from the New York Times Company decreased while the time I had to keep on the hamster wheel of content production dropped to nearly zero. So I resigned.

SOTG got shuttered. I left b5media and that was the end of my football writing career. Disillusioned, burnt out and barely interested in even watching a game on TV. Not quite what I expected when I was a kid dreaming of it.

A phoenix from the flames. permalink

Fast forward four years to 2011.

I’d been re-invigorated and was back in the wider football world. This time I was building a football betting prediction and analysis engine, called Sports Boffin.

Sports Boffin

I enlisted my designer brother to revamp the SOTG website and we re-launched with some new writers and some familiar old faces, ready to pick up where we left off and fight the likes of Football365 for online football supremacy.

State of the Game circa 2011

The site looked good. The writing was sharp and it was nice to be involved again. But I quickly found out that I really hadn’t got my mojo back enough to dedicate the time needed to make it a real success.

With a one year old daughter, a job and my real interest being in the predictive engine side of things, I handed the keys over to one of our main writers. Dave Fox took on the running of the site, firstly as editor and later as owner.

"You should never go back" is one of football's most-worn old adages. I really have no excuse for thinking it would be any different for me.

Where I am with it all now. permalink

Fast forward another five or six years to the present day.

I think the football writing bug is well and truly out of my system. The old mental images of hanging around the Spurs training ground, asking questions at the pre-game press conferences then breaking big transfer stories were a totally different path to the one I took.

I don’t regret any of it for a second though.

  • I started a website that people read and enjoyed. Plus it gave other people a platform to chase their own dreams.
  • I got to be a part of b5media. Although that was only short-lived (for them and for me), it was a great experience to be involved in.
  • And of course, I got to cash pay cheques from the New York Times Company. They trusted me enough to pay me real money as a professional football writer.

Dreams can come true. And then change. permalink

If I’d offered that to the young guy dreaming in McDonald’s in the late '90s, I think he’d have taken it. And rightly so.

It’s OK for dreams to change and for us to tick things off as we do them and then move on.

There is no straight path in your life that says this is what you can or can’t do. If you go one way, you don't have to stick with it forever.

I think we all need a reminder of that from time to time. It's taken some time in the corporate world to get me back into writing publicly for other people. Now I do it to share some of my experiences, as a writer, in business and in my career as a data consultant. It's became fun again and that, for me, is the most important part.

Writers write and, once again, I am writing. Maybe some day I'll even write about football again. But just like a kid kicking a ball in the park, this time it'll be purely for the love of the game.