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Behind the @: Iain Macintosh on how to become a successful sports journalist

Introducing ‘Behind The @’, a feature dedicated to finding out more about some of social media’s biggest names within the football industry. From popular Twitter accounts to YouTube superstars, we want to know more about the people behind the @ – the ones running the accounts that so many fans appreciate on a daily basis worldwide.

Ever wondered what it takes to become a fully-fledged football journalist? Well, to give you an insight into the role, we spoke to Iain Macintosh, a football writer for ESPN and editor of ‘The Set Pieces’, as well as the author of several brilliant football books.  

RealSport: At what age did you decide that you wanted to become a football journalist? What was it that convinced you to pursue that dream?

Iain Macintosh: I think I was about eight. It was the same point when I realised that I was too rubbish at playing football to hold even the slightest hope of doing it for a living. But I was obsessed with the sport, I read everything I could lay my hands on. I was the weird kid who wrote match reports of TV games in old exercise books, or set up school newspapers to cover five-a-side games. I suspect that most people who do this for a living were also that weird kid.

RS: After making a decision to pursue a career in football media, what were the first steps that you took in order to realise your ambition?

IM: I started to drink heavily and I failed most of my exams. I went to sixth form and did English and History A-levels, both of which are very important. You need some sort of frame of reference if you’re going to write. Then, I went to a remote art college in Cornwall for a journalism degree. I still maintain that it wasn’t a very good course back then, but I acknowledge that I might have taken more from the experience had I actually turned up from time to time.

The only sensible thing I did was apply for loads of jobs halfway through my second year, back in the days when there actually were loads of jobs. I interviewed for Match Magazine, PlayStation 2 Magazine and an obscure business news website.

Naturally, I landed the latter role. The site was bought out and I was redundant within 18 months. When I came out, all those jobs had vanished. I didn’t write professionally again for five years. I did, however, sell a lot of black bin bags.

RS: Thousands of young people across the country who want to pursue a career in football journalism face an extremely tough decision as to what path to follow – do you take the local publication route? The journalism degree route? Or some other path? What are the merits to the different routes into football journalism? Which route would you recommend?

IM:I honestly don’t know. There are so many journalism degrees, and so many sports journalism degrees, that there just aren’t enough jobs for everyone. I would recommend reading loads of good stuff and writing as often as possible, even if it’s only your own pleasure. And if you don’t enjoy writing, you probably shouldn’t go any further with this. After that, try to make yourself useful. What do you know? Who can you speak to? What can you offer? Every editor will be inundated with people sending in their booming opinion columns. Offer something different. There are lots of people in this industry who have no relevant qualifications whatsoever and it never stopped them.  

RS: Nowadays, it seems as though every aspiring young journalist is starting up their own independent football blog in the hope of getting noticed. Is that an option that you believe is worthwhile – or would you recommend instead trying to write for established blogs or publications?

IM: I think it certainly helps to have lots of people reading you, but it’s still no guarantee of success. Writing good stuff remains the best way of getting noticed. Andi Thomas is one of the best writers to come from the non-traditional background and he’s now doing outstanding stuff for SB Nation, but he started out with his own blog. The same goes for Michael Cox, hosting his own stuff didn’t do him any harm. But again, the connection there is that they’re both very, very good at what they do.  

RS: Do you think it’s a good thing that so many young people want to become football journalists in the age of social media? Or as a generation are we setting ourselves up for failure in such a competitive field?

IM: Anyone who wants to do anything creative for a living is setting themselves up for failure, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Choose not to do it because the pay is generally crap. Choose not to do it because the hours are generally anti-social. But don’t choose not to do it because it’s difficult. Life is very short and you get old very quickly. You don’t want to wind up wondering what might have been.

RS: You are a regular contributor for ESPN, you run your own site (The Set Pieces) and have still found time to write a number of books too. How demanding is the job of a football journalist? Do you feel like you’re always ‘on the clock’ – especially in the age of Twitter?

IM: It’s a funny one, this. When you count up the hours you spend ‘working’, it comes to a formidable total. But a lot of it is the sort of stuff I’d do if I’d won the lottery and I didn’t have to work. I love watching football, so it’s hard to consider that ‘work’. I also love travelling up and down the country for the football and the hours either side of every game that you spend talking to other journalists, ex-players, club officials and so on, so that’s not ‘work’ either.

I love reading about football, so the hours spent with history books or newspapers definitely aren’t ‘work.’ I love writing too and I’m lucky enough to have a bit of a say in what I write, so that’s not ‘work’ either. I guess the admin, organisation and book-keeping of The Set Pieces count as work, but that’s about it.

I remember one of the first games I ever covered. It was a Newcastle vs Sunderland game years ago and it was freezing cold and the football was rubbish. The guy in front of me in the queue for the tea and coffee was moaning away at half-time. He said, “I wish I was still in bed.” I thought, Christ, really? Someone’s paid for you to get here. You haven’t had to pay to get in, you’re pouring yourself a free cup of tea, there’s a tray of free pies over there, and you’re moaning? Seriously. There are busy times and there are stressful times and there are low points, but it’s still the best job ever.  

RS: What has been the highlight of your journalistic career?

IM: The first game. I was sent to cover the Emirates Cup in 2007 and the first time I walked off Holloway Road and saw the stadium rising up in front of me, that was the best moment. I didn’t know if I’d ever get to do it again, there was no guarantee that anyone would let me, but for that one day, I was a football writer.  

RS: Any heroes within the industry?

IM: Loads. But I have to single out Brian Glanville. I first started doing this in the pre-Twitter days and very few journalists were recognisable faces (byline pictures are traditionally about 10-15 years out of date), but I knew what Brian looked like. I went over, introduced myself and told him how much I enjoyed his work. Rather than wave me away or politely make small talk until I felt compelled to leave, he sat me down, chatted to me about the stuff I was doing, asked me what I thought about the game and generally made me feel like I belonged in the press box.  

RS: It wouldn’t be right if we went through this whole interview without mentioning the fact that you have written two books on RealSport’s favourite computer game – Football Manager. Tell us a bit about that experience – was it just an excuse to spend time doing ‘research’?

IM:Pretty much, yes. I’m amazed that you’re the first person to say it. I’m still quite surprised that they let me do it. I can’t imagine getting two books out of Civilization IV or Carrier Command. That’s not to say I wouldn’t be interested in trying it though.  

RS: Finally, give us the 3 qualities you think are most important in a successful football journalist.

IM: You need to be able to write, you need to be able to think and you need to not be a total cunt. Football journalism isn’t just about writing down what you think about stuff. It’s about building and cultivating relationships with people, both in football and in your own industry.

You can follow Iain on Twitter @Iainmacintosh

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Behind the @: Iain Macintosh on how to become a successful sports journalist

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