Football’s primadonnas are not worth their salaries

Robert Cantarero talks to Daily Telegraph correspondent Henry Winter about deadline pressures and the state of English football

Robert Cantarero talks to Daily Telegraph correspondent Henry Winter about deadline pressures and the state of English football.

The Daily Telegraph’s Henry Winter is a familiar name to fans appreciative of accuracy and objectivity in a football-related articles, as opposed to the controversy and bias often seen in tabloids. London-born Winter is of one of the most respected sports journalists in Britain, a columnist for football magazine FourFourTwo and a regular guest on television and Radio 5 shows.

Unable to meet me in person as he was attending the UEFA Under-21 European Championships in Holland, Winter gladly agreed for the interview to be arranged over the phone. I started the by asking him about his normal work routine. “There is no work routine,” he said. “Anyone looking for a routine 9-to-5 does not go anywhere near journalism, but that’s the joy of the job. Waking up in the morning and thinking that I have a match to go to is fairly straightforward.” “The real excitement”, he said, “comes from the stories that break in out of nowhere, as you have to be prepared for the unexpected.”

Like any normal football supporter, he adds that he likes “going into the game as a fan, wanting to see good football and good players”. He told me that his favourite grounds are Old Trafford, Anfield and the Emirates Stadium, and he surprisingly reserved special praise for Stamford Bridge – an ironic comment, as Mourninho’s team have been criticized by both supporters and Abramovich for playing defensive and often dull football.

Winters said most match reports have to be about 1000 words. He normally writes 600 words at halftime and saves the last 300 or more to the last 20 minutes. “Normally, you need to have filed everything by the 80th minute, so if anything happens in the last 10 minutes, there is a massive scramble as you have to scream down the phone to the desk and instantaneously give them the updates.”

He had to do just that at the 1999 European Champions League final, when Manchester United players Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer dramatically overturned a 1-0 deficit to enable United to lift the Cup. He insisted he never normally feels under any real kind of pressure, though he said those final three minutes were “completely mad”.

“If you are a minute late and you miss the deadline, it can cost the paper a lot of money in terms of the press having to roll on without your story in it.” He also dismissed the internet as having greatly influenced the way journalists work altogether: “The pressures present today are the same as those which used to affect printing presses years ago. The fact that the article goes online literally minutes after the end of the final whistle does not actually affect our work.”

Impartiality is also a key part of Winter’s job, and particularly significant when reporting on the Premiership and the Football League. “We [journalists] can’t jump up and down like other football supporters”, he adds, yet conceded that this rule is “somehow softened” when England or an English club are playing in an international competition. The different aspect of football journalism is that the level of knowledge of its readers is incredibly high compared to ones reading about current or home affairs.

“You can shape a reader’s opinion, but all football fans have their own views. I get letters from readers saying ‘You haven’t got a clue what you are talking about’… It is not gospel. But that is all part of the job: the great thing is that nobody can be totally right and nobody totally wrong.”

Having been the ghost writer for both Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard’s autobiographies, I ask about his relationship with the players themselves, particularly at a time when footballers are becoming multimillionaires and often primadonnas who seem sometimes to forget about the limitations their background posed to them in their younger days. “Travelling around, you obviously get to meet them,” he said. “The majority is formed by ‘middle-ones’, the ones who are not worth what they are paid for and who make it incredibly difficult for the press, often showing a lack of respect. But the top people – like John Terry, Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen – are particularly impressive.”

He lavishes special praise on the supporters of Newcastle United: “Newcastle fans are great and the club is the sporting works of the Geordie nation, so they have that extra element of pride there.”

He described Michael Owen, who is a regular columnist for The Times, as “an incredibly bright lad with a certain authority about him, lucky enough to have grown up in a football background as his dad Terry played professionally.”

I then asked him how he rated England’s national team, who currently sit fourth in the Euro 2008 group. “The talent in the squad is unquestionable: we have Rooney and Owen coming back; Beckham is an effective weapon when the game is slow or dead; Steven Gerrard is a world-class player, a great defence; Neville and Richards are two of the best right-backs around; and we have good goalkeepers although the best one (Foster) is currently injured.”

His appreciation for the players does not extend to the management. “I wouldn’t put McClaren in the top quality status, and you can see that judging by the reaction of the England fans when he enters the ground.” He describes him as “uncharismatic”, a “bad choice” in that he is merely a continuation of the failed Eriksson regime. Winter laments the fact that McClaren “does not have a successful footballing background behind him, as opposed to someone like Scolari”.

“He managed a Middlesbrough team who weren’t exactly the most entertaining team to watch. I reckon it is very difficult for someone who has for so long been a number two to become number one. I still think that if we win the World Cup, there will be a lot of people saying that it was the players that won it and not the manager.”

He said he sometimes feels “selfish” about doing the job he loves, and tells me how he had decided on sports journalism as a career when he was just 12. Stressing the vital role that TV and the internet have in informing the public, he still highly rates the importance of journalists and newspapers, especially in Britain, which Winter describes as having “the best press in the world”. “People are still buying newspapers in their millions. After a big Champions League match, our circulation goes absolutely crazy. After Liverpool’s win in Istanbul, you couldn’t get a copy of the Telegraph. I find that reassuring in terms of job security.”

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