In the latest of our Art of Football Writing series, I had the distinct pleasure of chatting to author and writer Patrick Barclay.
In short, Paddy is one of the most talented and esteemed writers around. He has written for The Times, The Guardian and The Independent in his time as a journalist and now contributes to the London Evening Standard four days a week. He also makes regular appearances the Sky Sports programme ‘Sunday Supplement’.
In our interview, he talks about his craft, changes in the writing industry, MLS and his upcoming book.
Matt Jones (MJ):You’ve written two biographies; one on Jose Mourinho and one on Sir Alex Ferguson. Would you say is your specific area of expertise is as a writer?
Patrick Barclay (PB): No, not really. I’m been a football writer for nearly 40 years now and I only starting writing the first biography about Jose Mourinho when he arrived at Chelsea in 2004 and now I’ve nearly finished my third. But it’s certainly something I enjoy. Maybe I’ll do another one!
MJ: Do you go through a lot of rituals each day before writing?
PB: When writing a book, absolutely. Mainly just an avoidance of the avoidance of getting down to work, as any kind of writing is always subject to procrastination.
But the joy of it is the research; those little discoveries you make along the way. To give you an example, when I was writing the Mourinho book, I didn’t really have as much time as I’d have liked to research his early life. But I was sent to cover a match between Sporting Lisbon and Newcastle.
I stayed the one night and as I was checking out, the manager of the hotel said to me “Ah, you’re from London, the adopted city of our great Jose Mourinho!”. We got talking and it turned out his assistant had been taught by Mourinho at school!
So I got my tape recorder out and got a great account of back when Mourinho was a school teacher. It was a huge stroke of luck and when you stumble on something like that, it’s great fun.
MJ: Do you have music you like to listen to whilst writing?
PB: Never! Under any circumstances! If somebody is playing music two streets away, I absolutely hate it. I can’t stand any distractions.
I know Henry Winter from The Telegraph listens to music whilst he works. He does write with a great rhythm and perhaps that is where it comes from.
MJ: You’ve spoken on how you need to be fully immersed in what you’re working on, but do you sometimes find it difficult to escape the football bubble?
PB: Yes I do. If I go to the pub, people won’t ask me about the situation in Syria. They will want to talk about football because they know I’m interested in it.
But I’m the same! Even if I’m at home and we have guests, I might suggest watching a Barcelona game that we’ve got recorded, so it is kind of voluntary.
In many respects, I am addicted to football.
MJ: You’ve been in the industry for a long time. How has football writing changed throughout your career?
PB: It’s changed immensely. There are far more people doing it, a lot who I wouldn’t call professionals.
Theres also a barrier between yourself and the players. We’re certainly not in the same financial bracket as them anymore! The in-England clubs do shield them. In America, the relationships between the players and the media are much stronger, and we envy that. We truly envy that.
In all honesty, I’m glad I’m coming to the end of my career instead of starting out. Mainly due to the workload that 24 hour media demands. There’s really no time to think!
In those circumstances I have to say the quality in the written-in press is very good considering the pressures that the journalists are under.
Above all, for journalists in their twenties and thirties, the pressure it must put them under domestically when they are trying to bring up young up families.
MJ:With that in mind, if you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
PB: I’d say two things. The first would be to diversify yourself as a writer.
The second would be to be yourself. If you love football, then your opinion is valid. One of the main failings I think about modern journalism – not just in football or in sport, but in politics as well – is that people deal in perception.
I like people to say “this is wrong” or “this is right”. Not do things the sneaky way and pretend there is somebody outraged. If you’re outraged, say so; don’t hide behind an anonymous block of people or a silent majority.
If you’re immersed in football, then your opinion has to be heard, because you’re an expert in the game and you should treat yourself as such. I do wish more writers would do that.
MJ: A lot of our readers are from the United States. Do you get chance to watch much MLS? Can you ever foresee a time when the MLS might become a global league comparable to that of the Premier League?
PB: Well, I go back a long way with football in the United States. I actually visited for the first time in 1978 and went to watch the Tampa Bay Rowdies to see the likes of Rodney Marsh play.
For the foreseeable future, probably not. At the moment, the Premier League, Spanish League, German League and most of all the Champions League are so far ahead.
It seems to me that MLS clubs are building 20k-30k seater stadiums, but they are full. When I went to watch Chicago Sting back in the seventies, they had a 4k seater stadium.
Short-term, I think MLS could grow to become a medium-range league. But I think it was Sir Alex Ferguson who said recently that it is no Mickey Mouse competition and that the athleticism and physicality is particularly impressive. Obviously with it being in America too, the atmosphere is always excellent.
I would like to watch more, but there are not enough hours in the day!
MJ: Your newest book “The Life And Times Of Herbert Chapman: The Story Of One Of Football’s Most Influential Figures” is out on 9th January 2014. What was it about Chapman that made you so keen to tell his story?
PB: Basically, I was asked to do it. I probably wouldn’t have come up with the idea myself. Basically the publisher is an Arsenal fan and he joked that the club wasn’t doing so well and the fans might need cheering up!
I knew a little bit about Herbert Chapman and knew he was the first great manager. But I didn’t realize that he’s maybe still the greatest, which is of course a hot topic following the recent retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson who many feel is.
Maybe I’m biased, but not for me. Herbert Chapman not only for his brilliance as a football manager – and I would have loved to have seen his teams play – but also for the innovation and the manner in which he built the world’s first great club. The world’s first aristocrat club with the modern stamp.
There are so many things he pioneered: The way he changed the name of the subway station. The way he wanted European football 25 years before it actually happened. I ended up thinking of this man as not only a giant, but a genial giant. I wouldn’t have dared cross him, but he was a polite man.
It was fascinating to look into not only him, but the times in which he lived in with things going on like the first World War and the rise of America. It was a time of immense change, and I’ve tried to reflect that in the book.
The only sense of sadness I have as I finish the book is that I couldn’t meet him. But I suppose you can’t have everything, certainly not a time machine!
MJ: Finally, where can our readers find more of your writing?
PB: Google my name! I also write Monday to Thursday in the London Evening Standard and I would be thrilled to hear from any readers from World Soccer Talk on their website.
You can read Paddy’s articles for the London Evening Standard here.
Editor’s note: EPL Talk Podcast host Laurence McKenna had the pleasure of sitting down with Barclay in 2010 for a series of one-on-one interviews, which shine more light on one of the top writers in the game. Those videos are included below: