Five things I learned from match reporting
NOW it can be told. When Leo Tolstoy finished his novella, The Cossacks, he was asked by the sports editor of the Evening Red if he could cover the Moscow derby. Pausing only to gasp at the word count, Leo demurred, saying: “I would be quicker writing another novel. And it will take less ink.”
Thus he produced War and Peace in just under the word count of the average Scottish fitba’ reporter at the very average SPFL match. It is why he baulked at man by man ratings. There are more characters in War and Peace than a roll call of the British Expeditionary Force. And Tolstoy was haunted by one dilemma: is Prince Bolkonsky a seven or an eight? This is also why Dickens never, ever watched Brentford, Dante disdained Lazio and Zola chose to play for, rather than write about, Chelsea.
But for the sporting hack, there is no choice. Our Bleak House is an afternoon in a dismal stand, our Inferno was the seething cauldron of indifference that is the Indodrill Stadium, our J’Accuse is a tepid assault in print of an assistant referee who misses an offside.
But compiling a match report was once manageable. Our only order was to turn up at the game and write something that gave the impression that we were not there. Countless readers have testified to how good I was at this.
Then sports editors decided that we should provide a match report, postmatch quotes, man by man ratings, referee watch, number of yellow and red cards and a philosophical reasoning on the morality of falsely claiming for a throw-in. I lie about the last, of course. But there was once in this very blatt a feature called Pub Manager that related to the match. No one knew what this was supposed to entail, no one understood the resulting comments. Again, I was very good at being incomprehensible. Years of practice, I suppose.
The whole package came to just more than 4000 words. Seriously. Thus we were condemned to use more words to reflect on a drab goalless draw at Fir Park than Raymond Carver used to break my heart, inform my life, strengthen my soul and renew my spirit in Where I’m Calling From. Though, he did, shamefully, neglect to give his characters numerical ratings.
There is now another development. It can broadly be called Five Things, as in Five Things We Learned from Dundee United v Hamilton Academical. The poor chaps and chapesses have to come up with reflections on an afternoon of desperate scuffling. There is, therefore, much talk of poor defending or tactical anomalies or even the need for better players. Who would have thought it? But the sporting press have to find the relevant in what is normally the very dull and the defiantly mundane.
In the spirit of this innovation, I feel I must share with my reader the Five Things I Learned From Match Reporting...
you want a goal to be scored, always tell you colleagues that this match is sure to end goalless and then bend your head to type in something on a laptop that is as liable to freeze as a koala bear on a Saltcoats beach. A goal will then immediately be scored and you will know nothing of its conception or execution.
this point: always sit next to a professional. They will tell you what happened. It is why Blanche DuBois, sports reporter for the N’Awlins Pink, always asserted she relied on the kindness of strangers.
appropriate clothing. The rule of frostbitten thumb in Scotland is to consider a trip to a press box as an expedition into Antarctica on a particularly brisk day. Once, in Vienna, I could not write. My sports editor chortled at this, saying: “Always in Scotland you cannot write.” My right thumb and left forefinger are still stuck to the keyboard to this day. If nothing else, this attachment makes an interesting conversation piece.
that sometimes, just sometimes, someone will read what you have written. He or she may even be a sub-editor. But this only happens occasionally now. More disastrously, that someone may be a player who you have slaughtered without the aid of a humane killer. He may quote this back to you in a press conference months later. Thank you, Scott McDonald.
ever engage with the punter. They can walk towards the press boxes with all the innocence of an ingénue auditioning for the lead role in Annie. They should be accompanied by the soundtrack from Jaws. Many of them have little interest in one’s careful positioning of wicked in front of deflection. They believe syntax is a levy on brothels. And grammar is grandad’s wife. But they know what they don’t like. And it is invariably a pressman hunched over a laptop and under more stress than a Kardashian corset. They proceed to berate one’s incompetence with a withering fury. It is particularly vexing when it is one’s brother.
The rule of frostbitten thumb in Scotland is to consider a trip to a press box as an expedition into Antarctica on a particularly brisk day
THE PRESS BOX: An ivory tower for the overworked and underqualified of the Scottish media.
Sports Feature Writer of the Year