This piece first appeared in the Autumn edition of Press Gazette – Journalism Quarterly, to take out a subscription (from £20 a year) – call 0845 073 9607. Please specify if you would like your subscription to begin with the current edition.
Martin Samuel was in New York, poised to cover Andy Murray’s historic US Open victory, when he was told he had been voted as the best sports journalist in Press Gazette’s top 50 list. Three days earlier, he had been in Moldova to watch England in a World Cup qualifier.
Talking to Press Gazette at 6am from his New York hotel room, he says: “It’s not for someone who likes order and structure, this job. I don’t have an average week. You never know where you’re going to be.”
Samuel’s career began in the early 1980s when he joined Hayters sports agency where, as a “tea boy”, he began running messages and phoning copy for journalists. After catching the attention of the editor, he was on his way.
“The way I got in was fantastic. I was just thrown in at the deep end,” he says. “At Hayters, once you’re given that opportunity, you are learning with some truly great journalists. The things I was taught by senior Hayters journalists have stayed with me to this day.”
His early days in the job were a far cry from the jetsetting lifestyle he has today.
“When you’re at Crystal Palace on a wet Tuesday night you are on your own. You have to make it work.
“I did radio reports on rugby matches that were, frankly, terrifying. When you’re 19 or 20 and you didn’t play rugby at school, you’re not quite sure you know the rules and you’re sitting next to great rugby journalists, it’s hard. But what a fantastic proving ground.”
If he had the choice, Samuel says he would still prefer to enter the world of journalism in the same, old-fashioned way, but he adds that he does envy some of the opportunities young journalists now have.
“What there is now is the opportunity to write – that opportunity has never been better,” he says. “You can write a blog, a fanzine – you can write to your heart’s content.
“What you can’t do is work out how to get paid. The guys I speak to can’t work out how to get any money. That’s a problem.
“How do you make this career into something that’s going to enable you to live from week to week? That’s the thing I read about from media professors and things like that. I don’t see many answers, though.
“I see a lot of people saying ‘give all your content away for free’. But all the students that contact me ask: ‘How do I actually get paid for any of this stuff?’ If you’re not getting paid it's not a job – it’s a hobby.”
Asked for his advice to aspiring sports journalists, Samuel says: “Don’t do media studies. Do English. It’s about English.
“You get people phoning you up who are doing a course in sports journalism. Don’t study sports journalism, study English. If all you do is look at other people’s work, you’ll never get your own style.
“My absolute hero when I was growing up wasn’t a sports journalist – it was Alan Coren. He was the guy that made me want to be a journalist – I thought his stuff was fantastic but that came from a way with the English language.
“English is the degree – it’s a much more graduate-based job now. Or history or geography, or something like that. Sitting around reading match reports, I don’t see what you’re going to do with that.”
Although Samuel takes great pride in his own writing style, he does not pinpoint this as the most important aspect of sports journalism. “You can’t just single one thing out. You’ve got to be a good writer, you’ve got to be a good reporter, you’ve got to have good contacts.”
Asked who his number one sports journalist is, Samuel singles out David Walsh, in recognition of his long-running investigation into the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. But he says a number of different journalists, with different skills, could have gotten his vote.
“It’s a mixture of a number of things. Often writing is recognised and what is less recognised are the guys that do a really good job for the newspaper in the context of the funds and the staff the newspaper has got.
“If I was to talk about David Woods at the Daily Star, people don’t necessarily know him, but Dave is doing a fantastic job. They’ve got next to no staff, next to no money being invested in the product, and yet a guy like Dave is really at the coalface of it.”
Samuel cites a number of other journalists who could have won, many of whom he knows well, having either worked with or alongside them at matches, tournaments and events in the UK and across the world.
Asked what has been his best ever assignment, he doesn’t hesitate. “Myself and Oliver Holt on a speed boat in Sydney Harbour during the 2000 Olympics.”
He says: “Essentially, we were covering the sailing. We were sitting in Sydney Harbour, in a speed boat, sun shining, and looking at white handkerchiefs in the distance. That was the sailing.
“No one could make head nor tail of it. That was a great day. And Paul Hayward got on board half way through and got soaked. That was hysterically funny.”
Samuel describes his next two favourite experiences as trips to Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, for the 2000 Club World Cup and an under-21s football tournament in the south of France.
“I think the theme through this was nice weather. I’m not saying they were the most professionally-satisfying jobs, but if you are asking what’s the most fun, it’s those three.
“There have been a hundred other stories that involved sitting around in offices that were much more professionally satisfying, but sitting in a speed boat in Sydney Harbour is as much fun as you can have while working.”
Since starting at Hayters, Samuel has written for various national publications, including The Sun, the News of the World, the Daily Express and The Times.
Despite the variety, Samuel says he adopts the same approach when writing for tabloids as broadsheets.
“I don’t change a thing. A piece that’s good in The Times is good in the News of the World. A piece that’s good in the News of the World is good in The Guardian.
“I have never consciously changed a word I have written going from The Times to the Daily Mail. I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. If you get all the words in the right order, it will work in every single paper.”
Samuel says: “The Daily Mail has never been anything but wonderfully supportive of me. I couldn’t work for a better paper. The people I work for on a day-to-day basis are fantastic.”
He also praises the Mail website. “What the Mail Online have done is brilliant. It’s a fantastic website and it’s a very exciting time to be working in journalism.
“People say it’s a dying industry but I don’t see that. I don’t feel that at all. Good journalists will be as much in demand in the internet age as they are in the newspaper age. And I don’t think the newspaper is over yet in this country.”
Samuel’s says his optimism over the future of journalism, and sports journalism in particular, was reinforced by the London 2012 Games, which he thought were “absolutely fantastic”. Gold medals aside, he feels the British people’s enthusiasm for sport made the Games what they were.
“There are a lot of people talking about how it made people proud to be British and all of that. You didn’t need the Olympics to do that – you get that just from listening to the music at the opening ceremony,” he says.
“British people get behind things. If you say to a British person ‘this is big, this is a huge sporting event’, then they are there.”
Is he therefore grateful to be a sports writer in this country? “Absolutely. You feel you’re writing about something people care about. I’ve never felt less than very fortunate in the job I’ve done.”
Having just returned from Moldova, Samuel was particularly full of praise for the dedication of England football supporters.
“A Moldovan taxi driver, who spoke a bit of English, absolutely marvelled at it. He couldn’t believe it,” Samuel says.
“They’ve been playing qualification football in Moldova almost 20 years and they know how many fans they usually get. And then suddenly they have all these English fans with musical instruments.”
And defending football from those who have criticised it in the wake of the Olympics, he says: “We’re a nation built on politeness and the Olympics brought that out and I don’t like a lot of the behaviour that goes with football now. But at the moment, knocking football in comparison to the Olympics is a tap into an empty net. Every single week someone makes a comparison.
“I tell you what, take football away. If I was football, I’d take a year off. We’d all be twiddling our thumbs and begging it to come back. Newspapers, all of these journalists, would be begging it to come back. ‘Please come back – we can’t sell a newspaper!’
“Football is a very easy mark at the moment, as the sport was when England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003. Funnily enough, you’re not reading as many articles now about why can’t footballers behave more like our rugby players now. Not so much since the last Rugby World Cup.”
Asked whether he has found access to big-name footballers more difficult as the game has become more commercialised, Samuel says: “The closeness has changed with players, clubs and managers. There is a difference now as a result of the commercial side of it. Because there is so much money in football now they are very keen to protect this product.
“The days of being able to stick your head around the door of the training centre and say hello to somebody and have a cup of tea are increasingly disappearing because people want to control their brand, their image, their product. And it’s a shame because it creates problems.
“In the past, the fact that you did see people on a weekly basis or daily basis I thought was good for players. It kept people straight in terms of journalism. If you wrote something about the guy you were going to see the next day, you couldn’t be too naughty.
“Now you can have a solid career in journalism and never speak to a footballer from one day to the next. It’s not healthy. That’s what’s going wrong.
“Before, when you were a little bit closer, you were called to account for what you’d written. Now, someone might get a dressing down from a press officer, but that’s about all. The idea of turning up at a training ground and a player turning around saying ‘what’s your game?’ has gone now.
“Players think they’ve got more control now for that reason, but actually they’ve got less. Personal accountability is not what it was.”
Despite his enduring love of football and sport, there remains one overriding reason for why Samuel became a journalist and enjoys his trade.
“I was always interested in writing. Obviously I liked football and came through as a football journalist, but it was my interest in writing that got me into journalism,” he says.
“I didn’t come into it because I wanted to get into football matches for nothing. I came into it because I liked writing and enjoyed writing. I still do, and I always miss it when I’m not doing it.”