I recently got the opportunity to sit down with Rob Smyth over electronic mail and ask him a few questions about how he got his start, what he’s currently up to, and even get his pick on next summer’s World Cup. Many of you will know Mr. Smyth from his appearances on the Guardian Podcast and his writing on the Guardian website. He’s also contributed recently to the Guardian’s daily email, the Fiver.
Q. How did you become a writer? – More specifically, where did you study writing/journalism and for how long?
A. By chance. I didn’t study journalism because I couldn’t get on any courses: I did Criminology as an undergraduate and Film Studies as a postgrad. I’ve used approximately 0.00 per cent of both courses in my career. But somewhere in between I did work experience at a cricket magazine, and it mushroomed from there. In the absence of any discernible talent, I had luck on my side.
Q. Which other Football writers inspire you, or, are there any you look up to?
A. The old dons, Hugh McIlvanney of the Sunday Times and David Lacey of the Guardian, are still peerless I would say. McIlvanney’s rhythm is a thing of beauty, and I’m not sure I’ve ever read a better judge of football than Lacey. We frequently go through the Guardian archive when researching stuff like The Joy of Six, and the consistency of Lacey’s work is mind-blowing. Of the next generations, Scott Murray is the funniest, most interesting and most original. Richard Kurt, who writes about Manchester United, is extremely good too: he was doing 21st-century football writing in the mid-1990’s.
Q. Which team and or teams do you support? Talk a little about your very first experience at a football match – who played and where? The outcome? Any special memories from that day?
A.I’m a Manchester United fan, for which I obviously get all sorts of abuse. I have extremely fond memories of my first United game: it cost £2.50 to get in, we hammered the champions Arsenal 4-1 on the first day of the 1989-90 season, and it looked like the start of a glorious era involving Michael Knighton, Neil Webb and others. It didn’t quite work out like that.
Q. Describe the differences of writing for the Guardian and that of your experiences writing for other publications.
A. The main difference, I suppose, is that you put a different head on for each publication – you have a sense of your target audience, and what you can and can’t write, and adjust accordingly. That applies within the Guardian too: the tone when you are writing for the paper is completely different from when you are writing for the web.
Q. Describe some recent experiences meeting deadlines for the Fiver and the insanity of the supposedly slow IT Department. (Are they anything like any of the characters on the TV show The IT Crowd?)
A. I tend not to deal with that side of things any more, as I just write now, and we are plonked a special writer’s desk, well away from the Important Stuff. The Fiver is, sadly, a lot more punctual than it used to be. A few years ago, when the whole operation was less professional, there was an endearingly shambolic air to it all – the wrong Fiver would be sent out some days, and so on. I’ve never met anyone from IT, although I’ve smelt them in the lifts. Not that I’m saying the IT department and the famous “technical problems” are a euphemism for us being useless/incompetent/lazy. I’m not saying that at all.
Q. As a successful writer, what books are on your list of “must read football books”?
A. I am a poor reader as I have the concentration span of a four-year-old, so there will be many great football books that I just haven’t got round to reading. But here are some that I would strongly recommend: Brilliant Orange, Only A Game?, Fever Pitch, The Red Army Years, Day of the Match, Inverting The Pyramid, All Played Out, The Damned United, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me and On Penalties. Then there are autobiographies and biographies by or of Roy Keane, Stan Collymore, Tony Cascarino, Garrincha, Diego Maradona and Eric Cantona.
Q. On your Guardian profile page, it states you have a healthy relationship with two people, one of which is Gerd Muller. What is it about the prolific German striker you admire so much? Name two or three players you hold in high regard in today’s game.
A. Muller was the most supernatural player I’ve ever seen, which is why I find him so fascinating. His awareness was not of this world: both in his ability to score some of the ugliest goals you’ve ever seen, just screwing it apologetically into the corner, and also in the way he rolled defenders as if he had eyes in the back of his head. He was totally unique, and effortlessly cool. My favourite current players are Andres Iniesta, the heir to Zinedine Zidane, Andriy Arshavin and Patrice Evra.
Q. As a writer myself, I know it can sometimes be difficult to find inspiration for a particular article or piece. Do you have any tips on how to continually publish relevant thoughts, opinions and ideas on football without becoming stale?
A. Not really, as regular readers of my work would testify. I think the most important thing is to try to detach yourself from the prevailing discourse, because original thought is increasingly rare in all walks of life, not just football writing. This doesn’t mean being contrary for the sake of it; just knowing your own mind and sticking to it.
Q. Do you have any current plans to write a book? If yes, on what topic?
A. I’m currently working on a cricket book, called ‘The Spirit of Cricket’, which will be published by Elliott & Thompson next year. In terms of football, I’m very keen to write a book on the Denmark side of the 80s, the subject of a recent Forgotten Story on the Guardian site, and hope to begin that in the new year. I have a mildly dangerous obsession with that side, for no particular reason.
Q. Got any hilarious stories on happenings around the Guardian office that include members of the Guardian podcast?
A. Hilarious is probably pushing it, but it can be great fun in the office. Honest. Most of the amusing incidents happen during the live coverage, when there’s more scope for a farce: TV coverage going down, computers crashing, some poor hapless MBMer trying to cover a game involving Poland without a teamsheet.
Q. As far as the current EPL season is concerned, who’s your pick to win the league and three teams to go down?
A. Chelsea look the likeliest champions, although we said that at the same stage last year. I would make United second favourites, and then Arsenal. Wolves and Hull will go down; if I had to pick a third team at this stage, I’d say Bolton, but I change my mind on that every week.
Q. Will a team break the traditional Big 4 this year? If yes, who?
A. Manchester City are the only team that could. I think they have a real chance, because they have no European commitments and can add quality to their squad in January.
Q. Lastly, who wins the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa next year?
A. Spain or Brazil. I think they are a long way ahead of the field. England have an outside chance, purely because of Fabio Capello. If I had to pick, I’d go with Spain. They are pure class, and they got their shock defeat out the way in the Confederations Cup.
My thanks to Rob Smyth for his time. Rob will be taking a short break from freelance writing at the Guardian in order to finish his cricket book, he hopes to return sometime after the first of the year.