Careers Advice and Insight from Football Journalists: Sky Sports, FourFourTwo, Bleacher Report and More...

26 October 2016 | By Billy Dowling-Reid

Writing and talking about football is a dream career for many and it is little surprise that football journalism is one of the most competitive job markets in the UK media industry. What advice does one of Sky Sports' most tenured broadcasters have for football journalism hopefuls? What does Match of the Day Magazine's Editor suggest new entrants do in order to make a positive impression during work placements? Read on to find out.

Ian Foster, Editor at BBC Match of the Day Magazine

Ian graduated from the University of Manchester in 1996 with a degree in media and business management. He was the Editor of MATCH Magazine from 2000 until 2008. He has been the Editor of Match of the Day Magazine since 2008. He says:

After graduating I got a lot of work experience on local newspapers, where you can be given a surprising amount of responsibility: writing everything from NIBs to cover stories, interviewing public and private figures, court reporting, etc. It was an invaluable journalistic grounding after three years of theoretical learning at university and it allowed me to create a portfolio of work for magazine interviews. It’s hugely advantageous to show employers that you’ve got relevant work experience as well as your academic qualifications.

I’ve seen thousands of CVs (typically getting over 600 per vacancy) and the better ones stand out for the following reasons:

1) They’re presented well;

2) It’s quick to see where people have relevant experience;

3) The CV has been tailored to the position I’m advertising for.

I got into football magazines after meeting the editor on a work experience placement and working hard to show I’d be worth considering if a full-time position ever came up.

I’ve hired several work experience students because of my own route into magazines but it’s been a long time since we’ve had anyone good enough – and enthusiastic enough – to recruit, which is frustrating because the chance is there for anyone to come in and show they could be a brilliant addition to the team. Obvious advice is to get on well with the people you’re working with on a placement and they’re more likely to give positive feedback to the boss after you’ve left.

Being an editor means that you have already impressed with hard work and great ideas to get you promoted in the first place. In the job you have to be a decent all-rounder with a packed contacts book and a real passion for your brand, but honing your management skills is crucial in getting the best from your team and knowing how to motivate them. I’ve also spent a lot of time on recruitment, hiring talented people with potential who are a good fit for our business. My pet hate is interviewees being totally unprepared: it’s such a waste of time for all involved.

One last key editor skill is to listen to the people you work with and to your customers. There’s a simple formula to conducting consumer research that allows us to constantly evolve and improve our products: ask them what they want; give them what they want; check that they like it. Repeat.

Twitter: @ianfoster_motd

Geoff Shreeves, Pitchside Reporter at Sky Sports

Image: 10Ten Talent

Despite having no formal education beyond high school, Geoff is one of the UK's most respected football reporters. He is one of the longest-serving employees of Sky Sports, where he covers key English Premier League and Champions League matches. He says:

My route into sports journalism was unconventional to say the least. Although an ardent football fan I had no formal journalistic training or indeed qualifications. A friend of mine's brother was working at The World Cup in Italy in 1990 and asked me if I wanted to carry his bags! As soon as I found myself in a sports television environment, I loved it. I soaked everything up like a sponge, asking everyone as many questions as I could. I also networked like mad hoping to find the next person who could help me on my journey. That worked out and I was in the right place at the right time when Sky won the broadcast rights to The Premier League in 1992.

Although I knew I always wanted to be a reporter I started out as a floor manager. It was a great way to learn what television is all about. Through a mixture of persistence and sheer bloody mindedness I started to get the opportunity to go and do interviews. Of course you make plenty of mistakes in the early years but you learn from those. I have now been at Sky for 25 years and can honestly say I have loved every moment of a thrilling ride. My advice to anybody starting out? Believe in yourself, don't take no for an answer and take time to listen to advice from experienced people. They will teach you far more than any course or book. There is only one person who can decide if you will make it or not and that's you.

Twitter: @GeoffShreeves

Chris Flanagan, Staff Writer at FourFourTwo

Chris got a degree in mathematics from the University of Oxford in 2004. He was a Sports Writer for both the Warrington Guardian and Lancashire Telegraph before joining FourFourTwo in 2015. He says:

My transition from a maths degree to sports journalism probably wasn't an obvious one, but I realised I'd always regret it if I didn't try to pursue a career writing about football.

At the start it was just about writing for free, as often as possible. As well as doing a six-month journalism course in Liverpool, I did work experience at the Lancashire Telegraph and the Bolton News. It's so important to throw yourself into work experience, talk to the people in the office, come up with ideas, not be afraid to ask for advice. Newspapers get a lot of people coming in on work experience, and they won't remember you if you just sit there and say nothing.

After that, I offered to cover non-league and reserve team matches for them. That was a good way in – most local papers don't have reporters at reserve games so you're getting regular reports in print, as well as early experience of interviewing Premier League footballers. It allowed me to build up a portfolio and show I was committed to journalism – two things that helped me to get my first permanent job at a newspaper in Warrington.

That job was mainly covering rugby league and I didn't know much about rugby league, so I researched everything I could, as quickly as possible. The key to anything in journalism is research – the more knowledge you have, the better your interviews and your articles will be. Read what the top journalists write too – it will give you ideas, and you'll learn what makes a good writing style.

I later moved on to the Lancashire Telegraph to cover football, having kept in touch with the people there. Progressing becomes easier when you're working in journalism full-time, because you're making good contacts all the time. But if you're ambitious to go further, you can't ease up – you need to see every article you write as a chance to prove yourself.

I wanted my next move to be a job at FourFourTwo, so I wrote articles for their website when I could, and also wrote a book about Bolton Wanderers. It wasn't always easy to find the time to do everything, but at the end of it the effort was all worth it. I joined FourFourTwo as a staff writer in 2015, which has given me the opportunity to interview some really interesting people and work for a magazine I've always read – I've loved every minute of it.

Twitter: @CFlanaganFFT

Gregor MacGregor, Deputy Digital Editor at FourFourTwo

Gregor's view from the press box while on match duty.

Gregor obtained a politics and media studies degree from Loughborough University in 2000, as well as an MA in Newspaper Journalism from Nottingham Trent University in 2003. He has over fifteen years worth of experience working on the likes of Football Week, Goal and GamesMaster Magazine. He joined FourFourTwo in 2015. He says:

It can be tough and slow-going but if you're determined enough then it's possible to do anything. From my experience it's best to grab as much experience as you can at every level, and take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way. Learn new skills as you go along, and look for openings. Read as widely as possible (not just sport either as good ideas can come from anywhere), network, monitor multiple outlets and look for the detail: Why are people doing it that way? Technical skills can be a real advantage, and with new technology comes new openings. Figure out what you're good at and build from there. 

Twitter: @GeeMacGee

Sam Tighe, Writer & Video Analyst at Bleacher Report

Sam graduated in 2011 from the University of the West of England with a politics degree. He has worked as a Sports Writer for Squawka and writes for Southampton Football Club as a weekly columnist for their matchday programme. He joined Bleacher Report in 2012. He says:

I only realised I wanted a career in sports journalism toward the very, very end of my political studies, meaning I hadn’t taken advantage of the many avenues available to gain experience at university. I was a little irritated with myself but decided the only way to begin taking steps forward would be to write on a daily basis and settle into a writing rhythm.

I took up a job at a call centre in Bristol, sticking around after university, and wrote whenever shift timings allowed. Initially, all of my work was submitted to websites for publication free of charge, with Bleacher Report – my current employer – one of them. I decided writing every day was important as it, therefore, became the norm; hitting the keyboard became a natural, easy process.

I focused on building a Twitter following and honing my craft, and after a bit of persistence, B/R offered me a five articles per week deal in May 2012. By November that year I’d increased that number to ten, then to fifteen, and then made the jump into a full-time role.

The four keys to breaking into the industry, for me, are:

1. Write, write, write! Lots of prospective journalists don’t seem to write much. It’s a little strange. I took an off-piste route into the industry and probably did more free written pieces than many, but your writing is your face-value proof that you can do what you claim you can. If finding one hour a day to write, five days a week is too much to ask, you don’t want it enough to make it in an extremely competitive industry.

2. Build a social profile. Fairly or unfairly, there are writers with hordes of Twitter and Facebook followings who get more chances than those who don’t. If you can combine talent and dedication with a large number of eyeballs to put your work in front of, you tick every box.

3. Meet your deadlines. This is so incredibly important; do not underestimate how much timely, clean copy is appreciated by those handling your work. The easiest way to rub someone up the wrong way is to make them chase you.

4. Embrace new media. 80% of my role is now, in fact, video-based. At B/R we have two to three Facebook lives a week and produce in-studio video hits too. I was absolutely terrified the first time I switched on the webcam to do a video hit for B/R – and doubly so when I made my first in-studio appearance on CNN’s World Sport show – but if that opportunity arises, do not decline it. Writing does not naturally translate to on-screen work – you have to practice – and if you can nail it, you’ll suddenly become an extremely attractive proposition, as the truth is there aren’t many out there that can do it.

Twitter: @stighefootball

Gary Taphouse, Football Commentator at Sky Sports

Gary's view from the commentary box.

Gary graduated in 1997 with a degree in multimedia journalism from Bournemouth University. He is a freelance football commentator who works for Sky Sports, talkSPORT and IMG Media. He says:

The degree taught me the key skills and the theory – and it was invaluable. But what got me into the workplace was the work I did outside the degree. This meant writing articles for the local press and offering my services for free to local broadcasters and the local football club. By the time I left, I had a big portfolio of work – and it was that work that got me a job as much as the degree itself.

Two things I learnt very quickly were: be very patient and prepare yourself for disappointment. It’s a crowded, competitive workplace and knockbacks are inevitable. Be resilient and be persistent. If you don’t get a response, go back politely and ask again. When you do get an opportunity, be punctual, do your homework, remember names. Ask for advice from established names via social media. Prove yourself! If you don’t adamantly believe you have what it takes, no one else will. Ultimately, it won’t fall into your lap; you have to make it happen, and that involves hard work and belief.

You might not earn a full-time wage doing what you really want to do until later. I didn’t get a full-time job in sports broadcasting until I was 25. Before that, I was working in local news during the week and sport at the weekend. Like I say – be very patient!

Twitter: @garytaphouse

Alex Richards, Football Writer at Mirror Online

Alex graduated from Staffordshire University in 2009 with a degree in sports science and journalism. Having previously worked for the likes of Bleacher Report and Goal, he joined Mirror Online in 2013. He says:

I finished university in 2009 after studying sports studies and journalism. I chose the dual award as I didn't know whether I wanted to go into journalism or coaching. I realised within a year that I wanted to go into football writing but couldn't switch to studying sport journalism specifically. Anyway, come the end of uni, I lacked any meaningful experience and struggled to break into the industry, so while working for a variety of places on a freelance/unpaid basis, I actually ran a pub in Shropshire. During this time, I held talks with various betting companies about them potentially moving into content along with betting, but saw that they were only keen on my ideas, rather than anything tangible. I continued doing unpaid work while running the pub before applying for a job at the Mirror on their new sports desk in the Manchester office. After an interview I got the gig and after fifteen months I moved down to the London office.

My advice to avoid going my long-winded route is that a journalism degree isn't as important as it may sound, but experience on a desk, on the front line is – whether locally or nationally. That and a willingness to prove yourself will go far. Get through the door, show willingness to work and learn from those already there and have some creativity to do something a little different/extra and kick on from there.

Twitter: @AA_Richards

In Closing

Football journalism is a massively competitive niche to break into. As always, it is crucial that you work on creating your own content while building yourself as a brand. Build a loyal following on Twitter, just like all the good journalists do. Get as many contacts as you possibly can. Start small with your local newspapers and football teams and concentrate on working your way up from there. If you want to be the top football journalist of tomorrow then there are plenty of unearthed stories which you can start reporting at a local level today. Above all, you will need to showcase evidence of self-motivation to get anywhere in football journalism, so get to work!

Hopefully, your services will be in high demand come the next transfer window.   


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