Interview with Oliver Kay

Having gone to The Game Live the other week and be present at a live recording of The Times football podcast, I had the chance to meet some fantastic journalists at the top of their game. In the line up was none other than Oliver Kay, Chief Football Correspondent for The Times. After watching him do his thing on the show panel I had the chance to have a brilliant and insightful chat with a heavy weight of British football journalism.

A couple of days later I contacted Oli asking if he would be interested in conducting an interview for our new site, and here it is. Get stuck in to see his views on Barcelona, EPPP, general elections and how England WILL win a world cup.

Adam Scott-Allen: Did you always want to be a football journalist?

Oliver Kay: Yes, absolutely always. I’ve still got match reports that I did from games on the TV when I was seven or eight. And, erm, of Subbuteo matches. Against myself.

Adam: If you could cover another aspect of journalism what would you choose?

Oli: I’d love to cover a General Election. I’m capable of ignoring a lot of the day-to-day nonsense in politics, but elections, electioneering and electoral behaviour fascinate me. I’d love to parachute in and do that every four years or so – which is probably like one of our political correspondents saying they’d fancy doing a World Cup and ignoring the four years between. It doesn't really work like that, does it?

Adam: What is your earliest football memory?

Oli: The first thing I remember is the tail end of the 1980/81 season, when I was five, coming up to my sixth birthday. I remember the League Cup final, the FA Cup final, the European Cup final etc. I started going to matches at the start of 1981/82. And from then on, I remember EVERYTHING ... My three nephews are at that age now, all of them going football-mad and absolutely wide-eyed with enthusiasm. It’s great.

Adam: What is your favourite football memory?

Oli: I’ve been to so many great games and important games and I’ve watched Messi, Ronaldo, Zidane etc – never Maradona unfortunately. I love the technical and tactical sides of the game, but nothing delights me more as a fan and journalist than the emotions that

football can bring. There are loads of examples, but I’ll give you the most recent one: being at Manchester City when they clinched the title in such dramatic style was incredible. For them to end such a long wait in that manner was amazing. What I will remember is the noise, the looks on people’s faces and the jubilant feeling in the air. That’s what football is about. It’s not just the goals. It’s what they mean to people.

Adam: Where has covering football taken you that you never imagined it would?

Oli: All over the place. I didn’t expect it to take me to Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Rio etc, but it’s a very welcome bonus. Then there are the places like Yerevan, Baku, Podgorica, Almaty and all these far-flung corners of Eastern Europe that you’d never go to as a tourist. Often they’re whistle-stop trips, but somewhere like Baku is fascinating if you manage to get a few hours to explore. I’m planning to visit Auschwitz whenever time allows on this trip – hopefully Saturday. People talk about “Holocaust
tourism”; providing you can stomach it, I think there’s a duty to go there when you are in this part of the world.

Adam: How has the digital age via twitter, podcasts and search engines changed your job? And in what ways is that for the better and worse?

Oli: The impact of the internet, Twitter etc on the newspaper industry would be a very long conversation. The industry was undoubtedly slow to realise on one hand the threat but on the other hand the potential of the internet. I’m sure if you turned the clock back to the 90s, newspaper execs, with what they know now, wouldn't think it was a good idea to give away content for free online, which most papers still do. As for how it impacts on individuals, it just means it’s now ever closer to being a 24/7 job. It always was a job with very long hours, but podcasts, webchats, Twitter, radio, TV etc mean that you very rarely get a quiet
hour. But as individuals we wouldn’t do Twitter etc (or wouldn’t do it so relentlessly) if we didn't think that it was in some small way worthwhile. The downside of Twitter is that you can’t say anything without someone perceiving some kind of slight. Or an “agenda”. We all have “agendas”, apparently.

Adam: How hard is it to report on "your team" in a neutral light? And does it change the relationship you have as a fan?

Oli: It’s not hard at all. Whoever any journalist supports, they’re as likely to be accused of being anti as pro. In terms of what we write, we’re neither. What would be the point in saying a team played brilliantly or that their prospects were brilliant if they didn't and they weren't? What would be the point in saying a rival team were lucky when they brilliant? You couldn't get away with being embittered if you’re doing a proper job. Certain fans think certain journalists have got it in for their team. Seriously, we’re only interested in trying to
do a job.

Adam: Where do you rate the relationship between players and the media? And how do you see this developing?

Oli: The relationship isn’t bad. It’s just distant. Some distance is probably healthy, but we journalists would all prefer it if we were more like it was ten or fifteen years go. I know the media coverage, certainly at the front end of the papers, has changed over that time, but what changed far more, independently of that, was clubs’ attitudes towards the media, which influenced players’ attitudes. There’s a climate of mistrust now, which is a shame because when you manage to clear the various obstacles, you find that players and journalists are quite capable of having trusting relationships. But it gets harder as the distance grows.

Adam: What do you believe to be the biggest issue facing football in the next 10 years?

Oli: The greed of the biggest clubs, which threatens to reduce international football and domestic club football to a sideshow. I love the Champions League, but I don’t want it to get any bigger at the expense of the domestic game. As for international football, it has diminished more than enough already and needs to try to claim back some ground.

Adam: To what extent to you believe tabloid media pressure has been responsible for England's "under-performances" at major tournaments?

Oli: I think it’s a very small factor – and I wouldn’t want to insult friends by saying it’s “tabloid pressure”. It’s media and public pressure. It struck me during and after the last World Cup that there was more hostility to the England players/team from the public than from the media. But I keep recalling something John Terry said in an interview with Martin Samuel after the World Cup, when he said the players had been intimidated by training in front of the cameras, saying “we’d better not laugh or we’ll be all over the front pages”.
How screwed-up is that? No paper is going to criticise a player for laughing in training – unless, for example, he’s been sent off the previous day for something stupid. And even if they were criticised for smiling, a top-class footballer, who’s had to show great mental strength to get where he has, should be above worrying about something so stupid. I'm just pleased the FA and Hodgson have managed to create a more relaxed atmosphere at the Euros because, while I had more respect for Capello as England manager than most, the mood among the players under him was terrible.

Adam: What is your one bugbear with the laws of the game and how they are enforced? (Mine is with the lack of additional time added and the non-policing of foul throws.)

Oli: It doesn’t worry me enough to call it a bugbear, but if you’re talking about throw-ins, surely it would speed things up and increase the skill element if players had the option of dribbling the ball into play when they've got what currently is a throw-in, a free kick or a corner. Is that such a bad idea? Then there’s the total lack of consistency about tackling. I appreciate referees have an incredibly difficult job, but I don’t understand why they make it more difficult by being less card-happy when it’s the early stages of a match or it’s a final on the spurious basis that it might “spoil the occasion”. It’s a nonsense.

Adam: If this wasn't your job, what would you be doing?

Oli: I always thought I’d have to do something football-related because it was only the kind of job that would really engage me and I couldn't do a job that didn’t engage me. If not journalism, I might well have gone into law. I did briefly think about that. Sports law, probably.

Adam: What are your interests outside of football?

Oli: My family. It’s an obvious answer, but they’re about all I’ve got time for outside of football/work. If I played golf, I’d never see them. And they’re much more fun than golf.

Adam: In your opinion, is this current Barcelona team the best team we have ever seen?

Oli: It’s so hard to say, but they’re right up there. I know they didn’t win La Liga or the Champions League this year, but no team has ever won every trophy every year. Real Madrid continually won the European Cup in the 1950s, but they didn't win the league every time. If that was now, Twitter would be abuzz with people claiming Di Stefano was useless. People just seem so desperate these days first to hail someone as the best ever and then to leap up and down hysterically on the odd occasions when “the best” falls narrowly short. We’ll never have a definitive answer. I prefer just to enjoy watching great teams. The Barcelona of the past four seasons are among the very best.

Adam: Can you play? Are you any good? What's your position?

Oli: Yes. No. Midfield. Funnily enough, this was being discussed on Twitter the other night between a colleague and one of my best mates, who have never met. My mate described me as “a luxury box-to-box midfielder with a frustrating tendency to over-elaborate”. That is a devastatingly accurate description. I’m trying to think who that makes me sound like? Anderson maybe? I don’t rate Anderson. And that description was from when I was able to get from box to box … . I was supposed to be playing in a game the other day – English press v French press, with Robert Pires playing for them. Unfortunately I wasn’t up to it. I slipped a disc in my back last year ago and I'm still not up to anything strenuous, so that seems to have pretty much paid to what remained of my sad football career.

Adam: Do you believe youth and coach development is finally heading in the right direction?

Oli: Yes. I like the Elite Player Performance Plan in terms of how it will improve player development, but I don’t like the way that it allows bigger clubs to cherry-pick the best talent. For a club such as Crewe, developing and then selling young players is a means of keeping afloat. They've just sold Nick Powell to Manchester United for something like £4 million. Under EPPP, United or another club could have picked him up at 16 for next to nothing – and there’s nothing to say he would have developed anything like as well there or at Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, or wherever as he has done at Crewe. I welcome the more general progress towards higher standards at academies and the chance for kids to be coached by better coaches for longer, but the cherry-picking element doesn't sit comfortably with me.

Adam: If you don't already, do you believe Leo Messi will become the greatest ever?

Oli: As with the Barcelona question, we’ll never get a definitive answer. What does Messi have to do to be better than both Pele and Maradona? Score 1,500 goals? Win two World Cups almost single-handedly? I think he’s magnificent. Ronaldo could win Euro 2012 single-handedly for Portugal and it wouldn't elevate him above Messi in my eyes. That’s nothing against Ronaldo. I just think Messi belongs in a different dimension. He’s truly special. I was never able to watch Maradona in the flesh, but I must have watched Messi 20-odd times and it’s always an absolute privilege. But the whole job is a privilege – much harder work than you would imagine, but definitely a privilege.

Adam: Do you believe England will win a major tournament in your lifetime?

Oli: To my surprise, I’m going to say yes. Any self-respecting football nation can win a tournament at some stage. You don’t have to be the best in the world to do that. And people are living longer these days... From everyone on The Man On The Post team I would like to pass on a big thank you to Oli for taking the time out of his busy schedule to find the time to answer some questions for us.

Oli is currently out in Poland and Ukraine reporting on EURO 2012 for The Times you can find his articles here.

Oli is also part of a fantastic line up on The Game Podcast, you can download that on iTunes or from here.

You can, well lets face it should join Oli’s army of followers on twitter (135,000, see what I mean by heavy weight?) where you can get his opinions and many breaking stories in 140 characters here