In the latest addition of quick-fire interviews with Irish football journalists, Neil O’Riordan talks about leaving his laptop on a plane, bed bugs in Paris and how pub gossip landed him his first scoop.
Q&A by Neil O’Riordan (Irish Sun)
How did you get started in your current job?
I worked freelance for for five years, throughout my final year in school and four years in university. I graduated in 2000 and had intended doing a Masters in journalism but was approached by another newspaper, which shall remain nameless about a full-time job. All appeared to be going well after chats with the sports editor and editor until they then asked me to an article on the implications of Euro 2000 for Ireland. The newspaper concerned was a broadsheet and they were worried that my experience was largely from a tabloid background. Given they had approached me about the post, I wasn’t too keen to write what amounted to an essay for them to correct.
I told the Irish Sun that I had spoken to another paper about a job. They asked me what I was offered. I didn’t strictly lie; I told them what the person in the job at the time was earning as I had checked. The Irish Sun matched it and I told the other paper that I no longer wanted to be considered for the position. It wasn’t the worst decision I ever made – the other paper is no longer in existence.
What were your first steps into journalism?
I worked as a lounge boy in a pub where Robert Reid, the then football writer for the Irish Sun, was a regular and through him I did work experience during transition year. Throughout fifth year I went to League of Ireland games and practised writing match reports on the final whistle and, by sixth year, I was covering games for the paper.
My first published article was in the summer in between, a couple of weeks before my 17th birthday. I had picked it up in the pub from someone involved in one of the clubs that Bohemians were going to sign Brian Mooney from Shelbourne, which they subsequently did I hasten to add. Somehow it ended up on the back page.
Can you remember the first big event that you covered?
Probably the 1998 World Cup final play-off between the Republic of Ireland and Belgium. I had covered a couple of games outside Ireland that year; the friendly against Wales in Cardiff and Shelbourne’s European Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Kilmarnock, where, incidentally, Shels’ player Dave Smith mistook me for a waiter in their hotel and asked me to fetch him some more water at lunch.
But, because of what was at stake, the game in Brussels was the biggest by far. I still remember Shay Given’s tears and David Connolly’s petulant sending off as Ireland narrowly missed out in what was the second of four successive play-offs. I wasn’t too happy either as the chances are I would have gone to France for the finals the following year had Ireland qualified.
Did anyone show you the ropes or was it a case of being thrown in at the deep end?
I would have been shadowing Robert for a long time, so he would have been my main source of advice. And, much as reporters love to moan about sub-editors, in the early days in particular, they were an invaluable help. You might not always like what they were telling you, but it was a big help in the long run. There should be better relations and more communication between the two rather than moaning about each other. My first and, for a long time only, sports editor Geoff Thompson – who sadly passed away two years ago – was a source of great encouragement.
What is the most valuable thing that experience on the job has taught you?
Not to take yourself too seriously. Part of our job is to criticise people but yet journalists can be among the most sensitive people going. Of course, it is annoying if someone has a general and ill-informed swipe at the media but, if there is criticism made in a certain context, rather than going on the defensive automatically, you should take a step back and see if they might have a point. If you’re going to dish it out, you have to be ale to take it. Much like the sportspeople we cover, we make mistakes.
What has been your most memorable match?
I’ve always got the biggest buzz out of Irish clubs in Europe, particulate as results began to improve. Seeing Bohemians win in Aberdeen in 2000 was memorable. Shels had claimed the first away win in Europe for an Irish side in 18 years earlier that summer, but beating Sloga Iugomagnat did not have the same impact as Bohs winning in Aberdeen. Similarly, I won’t forget the sight of Shels being 3-0 up on Rangers in 1998 at Prenton Park. Obviously it would have been better had they not gone on to concede five times in the closing stages.
Shels beating Hajduk Split was great too. I wasn’t in Serbia for Shamrock Rovers’ win over Partizan Belgrade to reach the group stages of the Europa League but I’d imagine that was big thrill for those that were. The 2006 World Cup final between France and Italy, and Liverpool’s Champions League win over AC Milan in 2005 were not bad ones to be at either.
Do you have a particular career highlight?
Probably covering the 2006 World Cup final. I didn’t necessarily appreciate it at the time but I remember a more seasoned hack than I telling me I should savour it, get the report framed because not everyone would get to do that. It did make me stop and think, although I never got around to getting the report framed and probably never will.
And what about a lowlight?
Getting things wrong. It has happened more than once, a recent example possibly being the worst. I had been told that someone who had died was the brother of a footballer and some quotes from the player seemed to tally. I wrote it as such but it was completely wrong. The player concerned could not have been more understanding and, despite receiving a sympathy cared in the post about a bereavement that never was, was happy to forget about it once a clarification had been published. I was mortified and still am. But it was a valuable reminder to check and check again before you write anything.
What has been your worst work-related disaster?
Leaving my laptop on a plane en route to Paris for the World Cup play-off game in 2009. It was the one time I regretted not flying Ryanair as there would have been no seat pocket, which is where I left it. I never got it back from Aer Lingus, which meant I had to beg, steal and borrow other people’s computers for the next few days. I also had to rewrite two lengthy features, which had been on the computer, in an internet cafe.
I didn’t tell anyone in the office what had happened until after I came home as there was no point in having them stressed as well as me but telling your employers you’ve left an expensive piece of equipment behind is not the most enjoyable conversation you will ever have and they weren’t buying my story that Thierry Henry had nicked it.
Is there one particular question you regret asking an interviewee?
Probably asking Darren Potter to remind me how he qualified for Ireland. Given I asked it after only his second senior cap against Bolivia and I hadn’t asked him before, I didn’t think it was an unreasonable question. But his reply began with ‘For the 1000th time…’. He was not the most charming of individuals as other incidents involving him that I’ve witnessed or heard about would confirm.
Who has been the best player/manager to deal with?
Owen Heary. You will get lots of players who are successful and have a real drive and determination and others who are happy to, and good at, talking to the media. It’s rare enough you get all of those qualities combined but Heary always made time for interviews and never shied away from calling it like he saw it.
They wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I also enjoyed working with Mick McCarthy and Pat Fenlon. I had rows with both but, once they had got something off their chest, it was generally left there and you got on with it. It’s always better to know where you stand. To be honest, I’d say 90 per cent of the League of Ireland managers with whom I’ve had dealings have been accommodating. I also like Giovanni Trapattoni too. Obviously, many of his press conferences were baffling but he was engaging and likeable.
What stadium has the best media facilities?
The new Wembley is pretty decent. I think the FAI media department were kind of embarrassed by the lavish spread put on by the English FA for journalists before the game in May 2013. The press box was close by, the press conference room was good. If a journalist cannot find fault with it, then it must be really good.
The Aviva Stadium is decent but two major design flaws; one slow lift linking the working room and press conference room to the press box and having only one socket per two desks in the press box. This was brought to their attention when it was opened in 2008 and it still hasn’t been addressed.
Do you have one particular big scoop that you are proud of?
It’s always a relief to get it right when it comes to the appointment of an Ireland manager because the recruitment process is probably the part of the job most journalists hate because there are so many bum steers and blind alleys along the way. I had a story that Roy Keane was in talks with Brian Kerr to come back to play for Ireland, which I was happy to get but to be honest I probably got the biggest thrill out of my first article that was ever published. It’s been downhill ever since!
How does covering football differ to other sports?
The biggest difference is probably access. I’m aware that there would be similar issues in rugby or GAA, although perhaps not as pronounced. As well as the money issue as, golfers aside, footballers are our most well-paid sports stars, perhaps it boils down to the difference between them and individual sports. Individual athletes are probably more aware of the value of publicity and, generally speaking, are happy to do interviews. International level footballers, on the whole, would prefer not to. To be fair, they probably have more request to deal with but it is often seen as a chore to be avoided rather than a part of the job.
What is the biggest misconception about your job?
That it is glamorous. Interesting, yes, glamorous, no. I don’t know how many hours of my life I have wasted waiting for interviews, some of which never materialise and others which may as well not have done. Yes, the travel is a perk of the job but, believe me, we’re not talking about chauffeur-driven limos and first-class flights here. At the Rugby World Cup in France I stayed in a studio apartment where the bathroom was under a mezzanine bed which had to be reached by a ladder which I couldn’t always negotiate late at night. It was located in a red-light district in Bordeaux. In Paris, I stayed in a hotel where, after an hour in bed, I was covered in red blotches which I assume were caused by bed bugs. Nice.
Any advice for someone coming into football reporting?
Never trust a sportsperson’s memory. Sometimes it is accidental but on other occasions people will happily exaggerate their achievements. Treat every claim with a degree of scepticism and check it out. Clearly someone shouldn’t lie to you but if that lie appears in print you’re to blame, not them, and in the internet age almost everything can be either verified or disproved. Also be exact with statistics. It drives me mad when I read about someone winning ‘more than 50 caps’ or doing something ‘years ago’; give the exact number and year.
What changes do you see happening to your profession in the future?
The way it’s headed we will probably be writing reports, taking pictures, filming videos and uploading social media all at the same time and on an unpaid basis! I try not to think about it – it scares me too much. I think we all just have our fingers crossed that papers will survive the recession and adapt to the digital age and convince people that our content is worth paying for.
Check out previous ‘Q&A’s’ from SWAI members…
Stephen Doyle (98FM)