On Saturday, I had the opportunity to interview a man who has been a sports journalist for 35 years. He was named Specialist Correspondent of the Year at the British Sports Journalism Awards in 2004, 2009, 2010 and 2013 and Football Writer of the Year in 2016. He has reported on eight World Cups and is currently the Chief Football Writer for The Times. He has interviewed everyone in football, from Sir Bobby Robson to Pele and now has the dubious honour of being interviewed by yours truly. A huge thank you, to Mr. Henry Winter.
How was it for you, reporting on Project Restart? Was it a different challenge trying to write about a game without any atmosphere or fans to spark your creativity?
“Horrible, to be quite honest, going into empty grounds. I didn’t do a game at St. James’ Park but I went to twelve or thirteen stadiums. I’ve done empty stadiums before with England due to problems with racist fans resulting in behind closed doors games but Project Restart just highlighted everything I’ve been banging on about for years regarding the importance of the match day supporter.
From a journalistic point of view, it’s very difficult without the fans there as, just like the players, we bounce off them and the adrenaline of the atmosphere. People who read my work want to know about the occasion. I can’t give a tactical analysis like an ex-player can but I can capture the occasion and the atmosphere and without fans, it’s very difficult. I talked to 30-40 players and managers during lockdown and they all echoed the same sentiment. Whether it’s the adoration of the home end or the bile from the away end, it inspires them and motivates them.
I had to turn off the fake crowd sound when watching a couple of games at home as it felt like cheating in a way as you can’t mask the fact that the fans aren’t there. It has been interesting to hear the players and managers communicating and hearing Arteta speak in three different languages from the touchline, for example, but once it’s safe they have to start coming back.”
As you say, the supporters, players, managers and journalists have felt it but with football continuing anyway and the broadcasters showing every game, has it shown that ultimately it is the television audience that matters to the people who run football?
“It’s highlighted what we already knew, that as far as the powers that be go, the television viewer is king. Someone like me who goes to 130-140 live games a year doesn’t matter, or any match going supporter like yourself, yet you’re the ones who will fight for the club when things are bad. The long term health of a club is the fans who go into the ground, the club shop and buy the programmes. They were right to get the show back on and sport has to continue and the Premier League and clubs have been so organised with the protocols and procedures and all the testing they’ve done to make it work.
The reason why domestic and overseas broadcasters pay so much is to see the skills of a Salah or de Bruyne but it’s also because of the backdrop and I say this whenever I speak to a Premier League official. Think of St. James’ Park - you don’t have a great team at the moment but when the fans are there and there’s the backdrop of them walking into the ground - the cameras love this. If I travel around the world, everyone asks me what the atmosphere was like, ‘It looked great on the television, what was it like?’
I think match going fans should be more militant, though. Things like ticket prices, particularly pertinent for a team in the North East, and the Twenty’s Plenty movement is important but needs to go further. The away travel for you, particularly, it was probably a sigh of relief when Bournemouth went down! The Premier League should underwrite all away travel because it adds to the occasion and it adds to what the broadcasting bidders would be willing to pay. Look at Germany, they’ll turn their back on games or they won’t turn up to them.
The Premier League has done well out the game, the broadcasters, the players, the agents. Have the fans? It’s time the match going fan benefited and I’m amazed they’re not more militant about it. The only argument the Premier League understand is financial and if they understood that if they treated fans better, the atmosphere would be even better and the product would be better.
Newcastle fans have been great with the protests, I’ve just seen the new flags at the stadium, although I think maybe you should target the Premier League as an organisation, as a whole, rather than an individual. It’s really been put into focus by the callous handling of the takeover in terms of respect of the fans. They’ve shown no support, sympathy, empathy and I’ve talked to them about this and said, ‘Look, you need to talk to the fans, you need to put a statement out.’ They hid behind confidentiality and I said Mike Ashley will be gone one day, PIF or whoever comes in will be gone one day but it’s people like you, Andy, who are the past, present and future of Newcastle United. You are the emotional owners, if not the contractual owners, and you deserve more respect”