23 February, 2009Issue 8.5EuropeInterviewsSport

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Dividing Opinion

James Appell

An exchange with sports writer Martin Samuel

Google “Martin Samuel” and, with some minor exceptions, you will find two types of result. The first is examples of his prize-winning journalism, spanning a career that his taken him from the Sun and the Daily Express to the Times and now the Daily Mail, and from the sports pages all the way to the op-ed columns. With the reams of column inches has come a raft of awards. He picked up the 2008 Sports Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards, and was Sports Journalist Association Sports Writer of the Year three years running from 2005 to 2007.

The second type is rather less flattering. Take these examples from an online forum for fans of Manchester United: “Samuel is a fat slug”; “a talentless scribe in a toss newspaper”; “I cannot stand Martin Samuel”—and those are only the ones appropriate for publication. Some of the comments are positively eye-watering.

“That sort of thing can become a little trite,” Samuel said during an interview in his living room in a leafy London suburb. “The people who think you’ve got it in for their club, that gets very wearing. It’s like: Mate, I don’t hate Arsenal. They just didn’t play very well. You must know that, there were 60,000 people in the stadium and they were all slagging them off! I can’t have been the only one to notice.”

Though Samuel is as affable in person as he can be in print, he is at his best when he directs his acerbic wit at the things (in both the sporting and political worlds) that annoy him. It is, as such, unsurprising that in cyberspace he is showered with praise and vitriol in equal measure. The two-hour interview he gave was punctuated by nuggets of opinion, expressed in a way that might have his audience either doubled up with laughter or on the phone to their lawyer.

On his profession: “There are a lot of journalists out there who you wouldn’t trust to write a note to the milkman.” On the perks of watching professional sport for a living: “I could not care less about what the cup of tea is like or whether you can get a decent sandwich at half time.” On secondary education in Britain: “I’m not saying 10 GCSEs is anything special. I wouldn’t trust some people who’ve got 10 GCSEs to find their back pocket with both hands.”

And yet Samuel combines these hammer-blows to propriety with a razor-sharp ability to observe and assess—one which has earned him a lucrative move from the Times to the Daily Mail. Why had he moved from Britain’s oldest and most esteemed newspaper to one that has the reputation for being rather politically reactionary?

“It was for all sorts of things,” Samuel begins cautiously. “I’m not going to pretend it was just ‘for the challenge’. There were all sorts of reasons. It was a better job. It was a better job financially, a better job in terms of what I was being asked to do. I never thought I would leave the Times, but the Daily Mail is a newspaper where when they want you, they make it clear in no uncertain terms that they want you.” In fairness to Samuel, he was so honest about his economic motive—rumours of a ¬£400,000 per year salary abound—that you could hardly hold it against him.

But one wonders whether a move from the serious pages of the Times would necessitate a change in style.

“I haven’t changed a single word going from the Times to the Daily Mail,” he maintains. “I used to write for both the Times and the News of the World, and people used to say it must be strange to go from one to the other.

“All I found was that you had to get to the point quicker… you had to make the point a little bit sharper. But in terms of people thinking you change your vocabulary or things like that, I never found that. I think it would be patronising in the extreme to talk down to readers, and it would be very fake to talk up, to try and pretend you were something you weren’t. I once started a column with a Proust quote in the French but that was just a little joke because Simon Barnes [a former colleague at the Times] always quotes Proust and so I did it as a laugh, and not only that, but I did it in French.”

On leaving school at 18, Samuel gave himself a year to establish himself as a journalist, taking a job at Hayters agency. The job bore fruit, and he never made it to university. He admits that missing out on student life—he had planned to read English—was a difficult sacrifice to make.

“I always look back and think that [university] looked great, it looked like a lot of fun. But I spent my years 18 to 21 at Crystal Palace on a Tuesday night, stuff like that. Obviously not every Tuesday—some Tuesdays I’d go to Brentford.”

Clearly Samuel is passionate about journalism, and he retains great optimism for the future of his industry.

“The best value in Britain today is a good newspaper,” he says animatedly, before launching into a polemic about the price of coffee.

In addition, it is clear from the way he talks about sport that he adores his job, even despite some occupational hazards. A football stadium is not always the most comfortable office environment.

“I used to turn up to cover every event in collar and tie, but that went out the window long ago,” he says. “You used to ruin too many good suits—catch it on a nail, get covered in dust, stuff like that.”

So he has seen plenty of grim places? “They’ve got their own charm you see, even the small places. Sometimes it’s not the place, it’s the sport that’s awful, because you can be in the grimmest place, but if you’re watching Yeovil holding Liverpool to a 0-0 draw, it’s fantastic. You’re looking at it thinking ‘this is magnificent, and I know the roof hasn’t stopped leaking onto my table for two hours, but this is magnificent’. So it’s the sport that makes a place grim.”

A relatively uncontroversial conclusion maybe, but even the most opinionated people have to have some time off.

James Appell, the Sport editor at the Oxonian Review, is reading for an MPhil in Russian and East European Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford.