Skip to main content Skip to site footer

Real Football: A journalist's matchday

19 March 2013

On meeting a football journalist, the common refrain from the average supporter is often, 'you watch matches for a living? What a great job you've got.'

Undoubtedly, it is. And yet the average supporter has little idea of what goes on behind the scenes or what it can take to transform the writer's words into print. Or, nowadays, to post them on the internet.

Terry Phillips does. He works on the frontline, has been a sports writer for 44 years and, for the past 14 seasons, has covered Cardiff City for the South Wales Echo. And, in the ever-converging media world, he also works for the Western Mail, the Echo's sister paper, Wales on Sunday and the Media Wales group website.

Chuck in a bit of blogging, the occasional Tweet and a few video interviews along the way, and Joe Public might just get the picture. It is full on, not that far short of 24/7 and, as the industry contracts at an alarming rate, demands more and more of the journalist.

Phillips, the Echo's chief football writer, is not fazed.

"Sure, the workload may have doubled," he says, "perhaps more. But I've never been scared of work, anyway. I grew up in newspapers. My uncle, Don Ellis, was editor of the Chatham Observer in Kent and my mother, Frances, was an editorial assistant. In terms of work, I've always been completely over the top.

"At five-years-old, my mum tells me, I went up on stage at Butlins and was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, 'A sports journalist'. I didn't do very well in my exams at school so I wasn't eligible to be a journalist. But I wasn't going to give up that easily. I wrote to 20 newspapers in the South East saying, 'give me a job'. And the Kent Messenger offered me one as a copy boy [essentially a 'gofer'].

"After a few months, someone on the sports desk went off ill and I was asked to fill in for two weeks, just to help out. No one ever said go back to running copy so I've been keeping my head down ever since. I started off doing weddings, funerals and 'death knocks'. I went to do a death knock [a call on a bereaved family] and I was terrified. But I got it done and, when I drove back, I was so elated at getting the story that I drove too fast and got a speeding ticket."

Terry, 60, chats in a coffee shop on a busy retail park opposite the imposing Cardiff City Stadium, in which Cardiff, the npower Championship leaders, will take on Leicester City later that evening. "Be with you in an hour," he said, when I had rung him earlier. "I'm just finishing a story."

Stories are Terry's profession, his love, his lifeblood. I pick up a copy of Echo and he has three bylines, previewing that night's big game. He has to fill an average of five pages a day on the fortunes of the Bluebirds - no mean feat. When he arrives, on my request, he points out another five stories that he had written in the paper.

Cardiff City may take up a major slice of his workload but his net is spread wider. He also covers Merthyr Town in the Southern League Division One South & West as well as the MacWhirter Welsh League. Not to mention the Cardiff Devils ice hockey team. And more. Before he had arrived for coffee, he been working for the Park Life grass-roots supplement, writing articles on Cardiff City Ladies, amateur ice hockey, squash and Celtic Dragons netball.

Dancing with the Devils is fun. No one covered the team so Terry put up his hand. "I said, 'I'll go over there'," he recalls. "I had no idea what was going on. This puck was flying around and players were leaping on and off the ice. I'm thinking, 'what the heck is this all about?' Devils won 16-1 and I came away thinking, 'I don't know what's happened there'. But I've been covering them ever since."

It is football, though, that is the passion of the Rochester-born Tottenham Hotspur fan. And he has done the hard yards, as most aspiring sports journos have to, with Chatham Town, Maidstone United and Gillingham. Terry's anecdotes are two a penny yet illustrate the dedication required for an all-consuming job. A sense of humour helps, too.

"With my first club, Chatham, I remember them playing Brent Sports away in the Kent League," he says. "I had to do a 'runner' [copy filed at regular intervals] for the sports paper but there were no press phones at the ground and, in those days, no mobiles. So I had to run to the nearest phonebox about half-a-mile away at half time, race back to the ground, then leg it down the road again at the end to file the rest of the copy. It was a runner, literally.

"When I covered Maidstone, a director of our paper was also the chairman of Maidstone. They'd lost a game against a struggling team and, basically, I wrote that they were rubbish. He didn't like it so he banned me from the ground. He thought that, as I worked for the paper, I should say that his team was great. It was ridiculous, really. I mean, he was effectively my boss."

At the time, Phillips encountered two figures who would go on to be ranked among England's foremost football brains. Bobby Houghton, the Maidstone manager, went on to coach Malmo, Bristol City, Toronto Blizzard, China, Uzbekistan and India. Roy Hodgson, his assistant, has since graduated via managerial posts with, among many others, Switzerland, Inter Milan, Blackburn Rovers, Udinese, Finland, Fulham, Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion and now England.

However, it was when moving to the Derby Evening Telegraph, covering Derby County reserves and the Nottingham Forest first team, that Phillips had to report on a legend - Brian Clough, the Forest manager. "He was a real character," Terry says. "You'd arrange to meet him and he just wouldn't turn up.

"In Sweden, after a European Cup match, I came out of the ground and had to get to the airport to get a flight home. I was legging it along the road and Cloughie pulled up in the coach and said, 'young man, get on'. So I jumped on and he took me to the airport.

"I didn't get to their European Cup finals because of the cost or we couldn't get press tickets, which was a shame, but I covered all their First Division matches, some of their European games and their League Cup finals. And I remember when Forest, the then European Cup holders, played a pre-season friendly at Gravesend & Northfleet.

"Brian took the cup out on to the pitch before kick-off and all the fans cheered. Then he brought it over to me, put it on the desk and said, 'look after that'. It was there for 45 minutes. I was just sitting with my hand on it. Nowadays, of course, you'd have security all over you."

Phillips added another sport to his growing portfolio whilst in the Midlands - Derby Turbos basketball team. And another, when he moved on to the Gloucester Citizen, where he spent 11 years. Gloucester Rugby Union club took his fancy as well as, of course, Gloucester City Football Club. As sports editor, he made decisions, designed pages and barked orders. And, as ever, he wrote.

Seventeen years ago, he switched to the Echo in Cardiff. Again, as sports editor, but with "a bit of writing". And then, after office changes, as chief football writer on the Ninian Park beat. Then, it was Fourth Division fare; now, City are on the brink of the Premier League.

Yet the journalistic ethos never alters. Put in the graft and you will be rewarded. "It's full-on virtually every day," Terry says. "But I don't mind hard work, it doesn't bother me. The job has changed dramatically. When I came into it all those years ago, it was all hot-metal printing and typewriters.

"But, really, it's still the same. Most of it is talking to people, keeping your contacts. It's still down to trust. The crucial factor for me, and I've always lived by this, is that I don't ever want a manager to pick up the paper and say, 'what the hell's that?' Even if he won't like it, he should know that it's going to appear in the paper. I'll have told him what we're going to do. So when he picks up the paper, he knows what's coming."

Phillips has welcomed many Cardiff managers, with whom he spoke on a daily basis, and bid them farewell, too - Kenny Hibbitt, Russell Osman, Frank Burrows, Billy Ayre, Bobby Gould, Alan Cork, Lennie Lawrence and Dave Jones. And now it is Malky Mackay, the incumbent, the leader of Cardiff's charge into the top division.

"Malky's got to be one of the best managers I've ever worked with," Terry says. "He's so good, so willing to talk. He keeps you in the picture and then you don't make yourself look silly by writing something that's not right. He understands what we're trying to do.

"I don't think I can be a Cardiff fan but I have a certain affiliation. I want to see them go up, I want to see them do well. I spend a lot of time at meetings of supporters, mixing with them. And I always reply to their emails, I think that's important. Even if they have said that what I have written was rubbish.

"Hopefully, this season, Cardiff can finish off what they have started. I'm convinced they can because this team is far more together than it has been. In the past, they've had a lot of stars, a lot of really good players, but they weren't really a tight-knit unit. But this lot will not give in."

Phillips does not give in, either. Even when it all goes pear-shaped, as it once did with his player ratings. "The worst mark I ever gave anyone was nought," he says, laughing. "To Craig Middleton [the former Cardiff midfielder]. They had a template set up in the office with noughts on it and then you'd put in the marks.

"But they missed changing it and it stayed at nought. Thankfully, Craig thought it was funny. The lowest I've properly given anyone is two, to a few players. One of them never spoke to me for ages. When he left the club, I said to him, 'why wouldn't you speak to me?' And he replied, 'you gave me a two'. That's the way it is sometimes."

The door of the coffee shop opens and a group of the Cardiff City staff - kitman, analyst and physios - come in to get their pre-match fix of caffeine. Terry's must-have fix, away from the laptop, is squash. "I'm getting on a bit now but I played league squash for years," he says. "I once played Jansher Khan, who was world champion at the time, and he chased me all over the court. But I took three points off him and I was chuffed to bits."

As chuffed as when he landed his first job. "My advice to anyone just starting is to love it, enjoy it," Phillips says. "Just throw yourself into it. It won't be easy and it wasn't when I came into it. I got rejected so many times but I kept pestering people until someone gave me a chance. The industry is shrinking but there's not much we can do about it. I just try to do the best I can and I'll keep doing that until someone taps me on the shoulder and says that's it."

And that's it. For now. Kick-off approaches and Phillips makes his way to the stadium, greeting folk along the way, including Gary Bell, a full-back in Cardiff's legendary 1-0 victory over Real Madrid in the first leg of their European Cup Winners' Cup quarter-final at Ninian Park in 1971. "Not a bad win, eh," Bell, now a hospitality steward at the club, says.

In the first-floor press lounge, which overlooks the retail park, Terry devours his chicken and rice and then chats with Chris Wathan, the Media Wales football correspondent. They will work together this evening, Terry doing a 1,000-word report for the Echo and Chris a similar sized report for the Western Mail. Chris, 31, will also write the player ratings, in close liaison with Terry.

"We all contribute equally across the three titles and the online site," Wathan says. "We're all part of the team and we've all embraced the changes. Terry's really 'Mr Cardiff City' and people want to read him. Local papers do have an influence and his opinions carry weight.

"Terry goes to many supporters' meetings and the fans all know him. It can be very easy for journalists to wait for stories to come to them but he immerses himself in everything. He throws himself into it all. By doing that, you can get a greater sense of feel for the club and who you are writing for. He has a caring for the club on the same level as the fans have."

At 7pm, Phillips leaves the lounge for the press box. "I like to get out here early, just to see what's happening," he says. "And to see if my laptop will wind up." When the teamsheet arrives, Ben Turner, the Cardiff centre-back, is absent. Terry trots off to investigate and returns with the explanation. Turner turned an ankle in training.

Terry rings his office to check their requirements, though is barely able to hear them above the noise of the PA, and Chris puts on his gloves to combat the bitter cold. "He's a bit of a wimp," a gloveless Terry says, rubbing his hands. After a spot of pre-match blogging, Phillips is ready for the off.

An often feisty first half passes quickly and with no major incidents. Terry takes it all in, digests it and, during the interval, gets cracking on his 1,000 words. Wathan already reckons that he has his intro - the first few paragraphs of the report - whatever the scoreline.

In the second half, the conversations between the pair are restricted to match-related issues only. No time now for idle chit-chat as they hunch over their laptops. Wathan switches effortlessly between his report and his player ratings, updating as he goes along.

When Leicester go ahead through a Michael Keane header, Chris and Terry work through the sequence of events. It is impossible to type and watch at the same time and there are no mini-television screens on which to view replays. Teamwork, as ever, is called for.

Much the same when, with 10 minutes left, the pair discuss Wathan's Cardiff player ratings. If Terry has praised a player to the hilt in his report, and Chris given him only four out of 10, it might look a shade odd in the paper and attract criticism from the bemused readers.

With both match reports and the ratings due to be filed on or soon after the final whistle, the curse of the late goal - the bane of all football writers - strikes like a cobra. Rudy Gestede nods in a 93rd-minute equaliser and Chris has to tweak his intro. In Cheltenham Festival week, it has an equine theme.

"There are plenty of punters, especially in this Gold Cup week, who will remind you that the bookmakers are never wrong," it reads. "And Cardiff are 20-1 on to win promotion with many of them for a reason. If Malky Mackay's men did little to justify such a faith with their display last night, the fact they were again able to rescue a point against Leicester keeps them inching towards their Premier League target. This was no pure-bred performance by any stretch but in this final furlong all that matters is that Cardiff ride through such a worrying rough patch and get to that finishing line."

Terry keeps it straight. "French substitute Rudy Gestede came to Cardiff City's rescue as his injury-time equaliser put the Bluebirds four points clear at the Championship summit. Trailing to teenage defender Michael Keane's 72nd minute strike, City produced a big finish to snatch a point - and how crucial that could be in the final reckoning. Three minutes of injury time had elapsed when Gestede powered home Andrew Taylor's cross."

Jobs done? For Wathan, but not Phillips. Terry has to go down to the post-match press conference to listen to the verdicts of Mackay and Nigel Pearson, the Leicester manager. It will form the back page lead story in the Echo. And again, the deadline is tight. Pearson is in and out in a flash, Mackay is late.

"Come on, Malky," Terry urges. At 10.31pm, his wish is granted. Mackay enters the room. Terry taps the quotes straight into his laptop, to save time, and presses the send button shortly after the press conference has finished. And Phillips is finished for the day? Not yet, not quite. Gestede comes in to offer his thoughts on the match and his point-saving heroics. Terry asks most of the questions - and Chris a couple, too - which will make a follow-up story. That, at least, will not need to be written until the next day.

At last, Terry could relax and reflect. "Cardiff didn't play that well but this is a team that never gives up," he says. "Before Malky came here, they were a team that tended to capitulate at bad times. Now they're a team that battles to the end. They just keep going."

And so does Phillips. The evening had gone smoothly, there had been no technical issues and, as usual, he had hit all of his deadlines. But he is running late for a lift from his wife, Jan, outside the stadium and sets off at pace. To miss that deadline would be inexcusable.

For all the latest news on Cardiff City please click here

Advertisement block