Sport Editor Alex Alton discusses Alan Shearer's research into Dementia and the potential link between the disease and heading within the game of footballWritten by alexalton on 22nd November 2017
Interview: Phil McNulty
Sports Editor Alex Kronenberg spoke to BBC Sport's chief football writer Phil McNulty on his career in journalism, Aston Villa and England.
Phil McNulty is one of the most highly renowned journalists in English football. and has been the BBC's chief football writer for 15 years. He kindly took the time to answer a few questions about his career and give his opinions on Aston Villa and English football.
Did you go to university?
No. It was always journalism for me from a very early stage, so I decided the best way in was to attend a one-year NCTJ pre-entry journalism course at Preston Polytechnic (now the University of Central Lancashire). It was a fantastic experience and I recommend an authorized course to anyone who asks me the best way into journalism.
“I’ve covered both Everton and Liverpool winning the league. Some feat that in the modern era!
What made you pursue a career in sports journalism?
I pursued a career in journalism rather than sports journalism. I was a news reporter for seven years before I started covering sport permanently. I was perfectly happy with that, but as a football fan it is fair to say I always had my eye on joining the sport department at some point.
Where did you start your career?
I started my career on a three-year indenture (apprenticeship if you like) at a weekly paper, The St. Helens Reporter. It was a brilliant grounding in the basics of journalism: straightforward reporting and the coverage and recording of events, with great colleagues in a town with plenty going on and really nice, friendly people. It was the perfect start and great training.
What was the rest of your path to becoming the BBC's chief football correspondent like?
I left the St. Helens Reporter three years to the day after joining to go to the Daily Post in Liverpool. I was a news reporter and news editor there over a four-year period before becoming Chief Football Writer at the end of the 86/87 season – so I’ve covered both Everton and Liverpool winning the league. Some feat that in the modern era!
I then joined a national newspaper TODAY in 1993 and was there for three years as their Merseyside football reporter before it closed.
It was part of the News International stable and as I recall there was a print shortage at the time (sounds old-fashioned doesn’t it?) and it was sacrificed. I always felt it was a mistake to close it because it was really developing as a paper. Jonathan Agnew was TODAY's cricket correspondent, and sports journalists like Paddy Barclay and Rob Shepherd worked there along with Des Kelly and Mike Walters. Again – a great time.
I then returned to Liverpool to join the Liverpool Echo as assistant sports editor and columnist, before joining the BBC as chief football writer in summer 2000. I saw Bradford City escape relegation and deprive Liverpool of Champions League football on the final day of the season, wrote my report, closed the lid on my laptop and that was me done with the Echo.
“Then there are people like Jose Mourinho, who you don’t get one-to-one but experience his press conferences.
Was it always just football you were interested in writing about?
I did some Rugby League when I was at the St. Helens Reporter, which was interesting as I had never watched a game before, but that is a great sport and the people in it are so friendly, co-operative and incredibly nice. A breath of fresh air, even to someone they probably knew was clueless.
I also covered some cricket for TODAY, which I loved, apart from the day I was phoning the sports desk from the press tent and called a player, who had denied Lancashire’s John Crawley a triple century against Somerset at Southport by losing his wicket, an “empty head” (or something close to that) – only to find he had just been moved to long leg and was standing three feet away from me as I made the call. He wasn’t happy – and I can’t say I blame him.
Has there been anyone who influenced you from when you started out as a journalist to now?
If there is one person who helped and influenced me it was the Daily Post sports editor Len Capeling. He trusted me to do a very big job without any real sports experience. Len was, to put it mildly, “a character” and anyone who has worked with him has a story to tell, either good or bad. Love him or hate him – he didn’t care. But he was a great boss and a wonderful writer.
Even now there are influences though, when you look at the writing of people like Paul Hayward and Henry Winter in the Daily Telegraph. There are plenty of superb writers and journalists around, such as Chris Bascombe at the Telegraph and Paul Joyce at the Daily Express - who I worked alongside in Liverpool.
What are some of your fondest memories from your experience as a football journalist?
Just the sheer experience of it, the travel to four World Cups, great experiences - a lot more good than bad. I’ve been very lucky getting paid to watch football, travel the world and mix with some great colleagues along the way.
What has been the greatest match you have witnessed live and reported on?
No contest. Germany’s 7-1 win against Brazil in the World Cup semi-final last summer. I’ve never witnessed anything like it. The sheer weight of expectation from the whole of Brazil leading up to that game, then the emotions as the whole thing completely collapsed as Germany went 5-0 up at half-time. Grown men and women were crying in the stadium and the atmosphere was like nothing I had ever experienced.
More seasoned observers than me said it was a game to remember for a lifetime and to say you were there. I can still picture it vividly every time anyone mentions it.
“Tim Sherwood will also need to prove he is the long-term answer rather than just a short-term fix but he’s got a lot about him and doesn’t lack confidence.
Who have you most enjoyed interviewing?
Hard to answer. I always enjoyed interviewing Gerard Houllier. He was very interesting. I wrote Alan Hansen’s column for various newspapers and the BBC for almost 25 years and he was always great to speak to – interesting and informative.
Then there are people like Jose Mourinho, who you don’t get one-to-one but experience his press conferences. He can be pure theatre whether you are a fan of his or not. A brilliant manager.
Someone I have all the time in the world for is Mark Lawrenson. When I was starting out as a sports reporter in Liverpool he was at the height of his career – and people forget what a magnificent player he was. I was asked to call him at home but he wasn’t in. I was a bit wary as I'd never rung a high-profile footballer before but left a message and thought that would be the end of it. He had the courtesy to return a call to a young reporter he had never met, didn’t know and then gave me a very good interview. When people want to criticise him I always remember that.
Which player(s) do you consider to be the best you have watched live as a reporter?
There have been so many but I’d have to go with Lionel Messi, who I have seen playing in Champions League Finals and World Cups. Cristiano Ronaldo was something special when I watched him regularly at Manchester United while Luis Suarez was a magician, particularly in his final season at Liverpool.
There has to be a special mention for Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard, who performed more solo rescue acts for his club than so many I can remember.
On Aston Villa:
Do you think Sherwood will be able to keep them up?
Yes I do. He has come in like a charge of electricity. Positivity oozes from him and he has got crowd and players onside again. Do not see any way they will go down.
What do you think he has changed for them to start scoring again?
Sherwood has given Villa an attacking mindset, gets players in the box and consequently gives the likes of Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor more chance to score goals.
“the Premier League teams are behind the real European superpowers and the days when we had three teams in the last four are gone.
How can they distance themselves from another relegation battle next season (should they stay up)?
Wise additions is always the key – but they have got plenty of quality. A high-class midfield player to go alongside Fabian Delph would help. I thought they would struggle this season because I just felt the club was going nowhere.
Tim Sherwood will also need to prove he is the long-term answer rather than just a short-term fix but he’s got a lot about him and doesn’t lack confidence. I would feel a lot more confident about Villa’s prospects for next season.
On the England National team and English football:
What do you make of England's slip to 17th in the FIFA rankings?
I don’t take any notice of the FIFA rankings. Sorry.
Do you think the current regime with Hodgson at the helm is well placed to make sure the potential of the emerging crop of young players is realised?
I hope so because England certainly have some great young talent and a relatively easy Euro 2016 qualifying group to bed a few in. I hope Roy can relate to the occasional failings of young players as I thought he was very harsh to publicly criticise Everton’s Ross Barkley for a couple of misplaced passes in a friendly in Miami. Young players make mistakes and mature on the job, so I thought that was very harsh. England and the manager got off pretty lightly after a shocking World Cup but they now have the chance to do some rebuilding and re-moulding of the team with these young players. Euro 2016, of course, will be the real test.
With English football's poor showing in Europe this season, where do you think the main problem lies for our clubs competing on the continental stage? (If you think there is a problem...)
I think the problem is a simple one. I think the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid etc. just have better players. I was surprised Chelsea slipped out when they did against PSG and Manchester City have been a little unlucky with the draw.
The big disappointment was Liverpool, who could not get out of a group they should have cruised through. Ironically, if those games were being played now they probably would, such has been their improvement, but that’s no excuse.
For the moment, as least, the Premier League teams are behind the real European superpowers and the days when we had three teams in the last four are gone. Their rivals have better players – and that is invariably the key.
“If you apply for a job you can bet your life a prospective employer will ask if you are on Twitter then check your feed, possibly Facebook as well.
How do you think the Top 4 will play out, given the form and run-ins of the top 7 teams?
My honest answer? I wouldn’t risk a penny on it, but when I did my Premier League predictions in August I went for Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool in that order – with Arsenal to finish fifth.
I suppose I should stick with that – but apart from Chelsea winning the league I think the other four could finish in any order. It will go right to the wire.
On breaking into the industry:
What would be your top tips for any young sports journalists hoping to make it as a journalist?
Firstly, get yourself on a good media course. When you do, get yourself and your work out there, make contacts, attend events, write and broadcast for whatever medium you can, student newspaper, hospital radio, local listings magazines, anything. Apply for placements with local papers or radio - pester a few people. You will find there are plenty of outlets for your work so take advantage. There are so many more opportunities than when I started, when it was either newspapers, or radio and television.
Have a Twitter feed but don't be idiotic on it. If you apply for a job you can bet your life a prospective employer will ask if you are on Twitter then check your feed, possibly Facebook as well. I was asked for advice by a young media student and after making this point I checked his Twitter feed. It was full of bad language and stupid remarks, often about the quality of journalists as well. He would have been crossed off any short list instantly for it.
You will need to be persistent, professional and most of all accurate. You will also have to want to do it or you will be found out very quickly.
If you want a 9-to-5 job that won't interfere with your social life, go away and think of something else. Be prepared to work hard and at unsocial hours. If you put the groundwork in it is a fantastic career.