Whether they like it or not, athletes are branded as role models. Young children across the world have ambitions, whether firm or delusional, to be sports stars. Most people do not make it, possibly because of lack of commitment or just generally not being skilled enough, so what is the next best thing? A sports journalist is towards the top of the list. Being able to write about your favourite hobby and inform people is highly satisfying. But is it as good as it is sounds?
Dan Brennan is a freelance football journalist who currently writes for highly respected publications such as FourFourTwo, World Soccer, When Saturday Comes and the official Arsenal magazine. Being based up in Scotland has its merits, with Brennan being the Scottish correspondent for World Soccer, as well as having written pieces for The Scotsman. But he stumbled into the industry by luck.
“I got into it by chance really, and very much through the back door. I’d been working abroad – in the former Soviet Union – for a couple of years in my mid-20s, in a completely unrelated field. When I came back to London, casting around for a job, I applied for a post as editor of the monthly publication of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce. They wanted a Russians speaker, but didn’t need someone with previous journalistic experience. It was basically a one-man operation – I did everything from writing the editorials, to commission features, laying out the pages and selling the adverts. I did it for about three years, but my heart wasn’t really in the world of business and commerce. I wanted to write about football. I’d had a sideline as English teacher for Sergei Rebrov (Former Ukraine and Tottenham Hotspur player) for a while, and as I recall my first major break was a piece on him for The Guardian. The Arsenal Magazine and When Saturday Comes were also kind enough to take my work when I was still finding my feet – I still write for both of them 10 years on.”
With the current economic climate still instable after the recent recession, the media industry has been hard hit. Many journalists have been made redundant at newspapers to help with cost cuts. Being a freelance journalist means the demand for work has increased, and an already competitive industry has only strengthened. Having already built a respectable relationship with many publications, Brennan has not been hit as hard, although the need for new ideas and subject pieces needs to be continually fresh to attract job opportunities.
“As a freelancer, the recession has definitely had a tangible impact on the amount of work around. There are fewer scraps being thrown from the table, so you have to work harder to get stuff published. That said editors are always in the market for good ideas for interviews and features – and it helps to have established a bit of a name for yourself. That said I am doing much less for newspapers than I was until about two years ago. Almost all of my writing these days is for a handful of magazines in the UK and abroad.”
And whether you are a staffed or freelance journalist, the financial security in the job is still worrying. Having already built bridges with his publications prior to the financial meltdown, he was lucky that they stuck with him.
“I have two-three regular monthly gigs (a column for the Arsenal magazine, stuff for World Soccer and content for a South African magazine), but everything else is ad hoc, so that means a fair degree of uncertainty. Staff journalists don’t have the same kind of security as they had until a few years ago either, given the stringent cutbacks that have hit most papers. I’ve had a few ex-staffers coming to me looking for help getting their work placed after they’ve been laid off”
Luckily he does not rely solely on journalistic work to make a living. He runs a sport translation agency called Libero Language Lab, which has a network of over 100 interpreters with the diverse knowledge of 40 languages spreading over 15 countries. It is an agency which is making a reputation for itself, with regular clients such as: Manchester City, Arsenal, The football association of Ireland, FourFourTwo and the manager of the Indian football team. Top journalists such as Ben Lyttleton – who is a columnist for Sports Illustrated and a European football writer, Alex Bellos – author of Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life and Oliver Fowler – who is currently assisting Faustino Asprilla with his autobiography, are translators for the agency, which is proving to be a sustainable business. “It has been more or less stable in the last few years, and I would have to say that without that to lean on, I think it would have been lean times relying solely on freelance journalism.”
The security of being a journalist for a national newspaper was once seen as the dream job, but with work amounts increasing and demand higher than ever, perhaps the broader aspect of being a freelancer is more appealing now, with there being little restrictions on the content you produce.
“Most turn freelance after building up experience and contacts working as a staffer for a good number of years, on at least one national publication. I think there was a time – maybe 20 years ago – when being a staff journalist on one of the nationals would have been an exhilarating experience, but in the current deflated times, I get the impression that it wouldn’t be much fun.”
Brennan’s football interests are slightly different to your mainstream fan. Instead of following the norm and writing specifically about the English game, he has a strong interest in Russian football, and likes to write about a variety of topics to help prevent himself becoming tedious with a specific topic.
“I started out by carving a niche for myself writing about football in Russia and the former Soviet Union. It’s a part of the world I know very well, and I speak Russian, which helps. Since then I’ve kind of built up an eclectic mix-and-match portfolio. I do a lot of Arsenal-related stuff – they are ‘my’ team, and I’ve written a regular interview column for the club’s magazine for the last eight years. Being based in Scotland, I’ve also turned that into a niche, and am World Soccer’s Scottish correspondent.”
The problem being a journalist is you have to hide your affection to a team, to prevent criticism for bias you may give off. For some people this is fine, and perhaps they are more critical towards ‘their team’. Brennan does not seem to have this problem, although he is pleased to be writing for his team’s official magazine.
“Arsenal are my team, and given that I write for the club’s publications I can’t hide my partisan leanings entirely, though I would like to think that when writing for others on Arsenal-related themes, I am pretty neutral – I am certainly not a full-time cheerleader.”
In recent times football finance has been a big issue affected some of Britain’s major clubs. Recently Liverpool looked in turmoil with the joint ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett while their rivals Manchester United have a bleak future with the Glazer family in charge. The reason for the fans disgruntlement over the ownership is that the club was bought with money borrowed from the bank. In doing so, the owners have just loaded their debts onto the clubs, leaving them in a financial mess. So what, if any, club should be the model which the British clubs aspire to be like?
“At the risk of undermining my last answer, I would say that, in terms of Premier League clubs, Arsenal offer a much saner model for long-term development and financial stability, on and off the pitch. They have not got themselves knee-deep in debt and they have not tried to buy their way to success. I think there is something commendable in that. More broadly, I think the Premier League could learn a lot from the way the Bundesliga is run.”
The demands of being a journalist mean people want to hear the opinions of people, and the process is not always an enjoyable experience. Players are now trained with how to deal with the media, therefore meaning their answers are rarely controversial, unlike the past where there were colourful characters such as Brian Clough.
“Modern stars tend to be too ‘media-savvy’ and self-censoring. Interviews can often be bland and cliche-ridden – though I also accept that we, the journalists, must take some responsibility for this. Clarence Seedorf is interesting, opinionated and articulate. That’s a relative rarity among players at his level, I would say. Andrey Arshavin is another, though I sense he has become less forthright since moving to England.”
There could not be an interview without finding out Brennan’s favourite footballers.
“The two players who have given me most pleasure personally are Thierry Henry and Eric Cantona. I started watching football just as Liam Brady was coming to the end of his time in England – he made a big impression on me as a young kid. To state the bleeding obvious, Leo Messi is by far the greatest player in the last 20 years.”
With England once more flattering to deceive at an International tournament, the old jibes of having too many foreign players in the Premier League was brandished. Spain reached the World Cup final with their league containing 77% of Spanish players. Compare that to the perennial underachievers England who had just under 40% of English players in the Premier League in 2009/10. With stats like that, there is a correlation that the more home based talent in the league will be healthier for the national side. But a reason for the Premiership being so attractive is the foreign talent here in England, which also means that the players have to play to a higher standard if they are to compete against these luxury foreigners such as Fernando Torres. Is the foreign player argument just a poor excuse?
“I think it’s a dangerous argument. I think most people want to watch good football and good footballers – they are not interested in the colour of their passports. Nobody can argue that English club football has not been enhanced by the arrival of foreign players. And I would also argue that young English players have benefited from their presence. Would Jack Wilshere be the great talent he is today if he was learning his trade at a club with the Arsenal midfield of the 1980s rather than the one that contains Cesc Fabregas? Probably not.”
There have been frequent discussions about whether Rangers and Celtic should withdraw from the Scottish Premier League and play down south in England. The two Glasgow clubs continually dominate the league and the last club outside them two to win the title was Aberdeen back in 1985. The move has never materialised, mainly because Scottish fans feel it will affect the commercialisation of the league. Brennan feels the transfer would be positive for both parties.
“Yes, I think it would (be a good move) – not least as it would allow us to put to bed what has become a very irksome pub debate! I can’t see the Groundhog Day duopoly of the Old Firm ever being broken in the SPL, which makes things very tedious for a neutral. And I think both clubs would, eventually if not immediately, make a decent impact in the Premier League.”
The profession of sports journalism is becoming more popular now more than ever, especially with university’s targeting the sector as an individual subject, unlike before when students only had the opportunity to study solely journalism. Brennan’s established himself in the industry and is only helping to improve his profile by using the social networking tool Twitter, so if there was any advice he could pass onto to aspiring sports journalists, what is it?
“Now, more than ever, there is no excuse for not getting your stuff out there. If you want to write and have other people read what you write, start a blog. Don’t hang around for someone else to publish your work – do it yourself. It’s a great way to hone your skills and get noticed. Write about what you know. And, if you can, develop an expertise in a particular niche.”