GUEST POST: From the Sky Sports tone to the authentic voice: What non-league football taught me about communications

I’ve known Max Hall for 30 years. First as a reporter and then as a colleague in local government communications. He’s a born storyteller with an obsessive passion for non-league football. Despite being born in England he self-identifies as Welsh because their less glamorous national team strikes more of a chord. I asked him to blog about what non-league football has taught him about communications.

I misread the brief at first. I thought it was “communication”, singular. I was going to regale you with the time I single-handedly brought down a Football Association charge on the club I support after threatening to do something unmentionable to a certain referee’s balti. Or there was the time Mark Bellingham, policeman and father of England ace Jude, threatened to have me arrested for yelling what I thought Lye Town’s players should do to one of his overly-physical teammates.

P’raps it’s best I stick to the lessons non-league football has given me about communications. Plural.

Sky Sports and the changing language of sport reporting

My generation of trainee newspaper reporter was never taught much about “tone” and “voice”. Being concise, accurate and disinterested was all that mattered, but when you spend a quarter of a century in any line of work, you can’t help but notice the changes in your industry.

When I was promoted to my dream job in the summer of 1998 – sports editor of the Stourbridge News, Halesowen News and Dudley News print titles – aping Sky Sports was the thing. Men’s non-league football clubs (and it was only men that mattered then, I’m ashamed to say) didn’t play one another, they “clashed”. The most inept of them, playing in front of 36 fans separated from the field by a bitterly exposed running track at places like Sandwell Borough FC, “fought” “basement battles” every week. Those chasing the silverware of league titles and cherished pots such as the Polymac Packaging Services League Cup were, by contrast, constantly disputing “top-of-the-table” affairs.

It got to the point where I found myself using at least two clichés in every sentence as I interviewed managers by asking them exactly the same round of questions every week. Occasionally it would creep into conversation with real people, leaving me sounding like Alan Partridge whenever football came up at the pub.

It wasn’t real, it was PR and spin and make-believe but then this was the late 90s and early 2000s so, you know, just take a look at the wider world of politics and communications and you’ll get the context.

The low pay of print journalism forced us all away at some point and it was only after a stint working in the real world that I noticed the change in tone and voice that was occurring. Somewhere in the 2010s, journalism became less hard, fast, fact-driven and became more conversational. Blogging had begun to affect the industry and national newspaper journalists were emerging as brands. It made journalism easier to digest and more entertaining, for all the dangers it potentially carried.

Clicks and the changing tone of online news

I dropped back into my old Black Country football patch whenever I had the opportunity because another change was taking place. The dominance of online journalism has driven a rabid pursuit of clicks, with the result the Stourbridge News was only focused on the biggest men’s football club: Stourbridge aka The Glassboys, who did themselves no harm in that respect with their perennial FA Cup heroics. The side-effect of sports pages filled with Stourbridge FC and, bizarrely, Worcester Rugby Club – who play 20 miles away – was that my club, The Lye, never got a mention.

That gave me my in as a, largely unpaid, occasional reporter. I thought I’d try my hand at this new style of sports reporting. I wrote about how dreadful a 0-0 draw is at this level, highlighting the sheer slapstick comedy that can be witnessed at level 10 of the national game. It was liberating: the honesty, the sense of humour, conveying the camaraderie of the straggling band of familiar faces in the stands who spend most of their time thinking: “Oh God! Why do I bother?”

It wasn’t all successful, mind. At one point, a Lye manager rang me up after reading my thoughts on a particularly awful encounter and accused me of “taking the piss”, of wanting the club to fail. My attempt to explain the shifting sands of tone and voice in reporting and communications fell on deaf ears, which was not altogether surprising.

The rise of the authentic voice

So where are we now? The raw, honest yet often tongue-in-cheek blog-style approach has gone, replaced by a desperate scramble for authenticity. Make of that what you will. Maybe we have Trump to thank. More likely, perhaps, is that rather than face the inequality present in today’s society – and the resulting lack of genuinely diverse voices – newsrooms, PRs, brands and what-have-you instead try to find a quicker, cheaper route to sound more “real”. In football, that manifests as hearing supporters’ voices. You might struggle to find any fans on a bad night at Blackheath Electrodrives so I’m not sure how this is achieved in non-league but a recent enquiry I made about a football writing role laid bare to me the latest approach in the industry.

Now, not to be too much Billy Big Bollocks about it but I’ve written about football at every level of the ladder in the West Midlands and in Berlin, I’ve worked my way through the top six levels in Italy, where I live these days, and I’ve been to the ground to watch a game on five of FIFA’s six continents. I’ve been Manchester United correspondent for the North Wales Daily Post, vying for half-time chicken nuggets with David Platt, and I’ve stood against a rope on the sideline at Inkberrow FC. All of which made it something of a surprise when the person advertising for reporters to cover various men’s Premier League teams told me I was unsuitable because I wasn’t actually a supporter of Wolves or Nottingham Forest or whoever. The question of exactly who football supporters are in 2022 is a whole ’nother blog in itself, of course.

That search for authenticity is the paradox of non-league football, and perhaps of branding and wider communications. I don’t think you can craft authentic; you just have to find it. Trying to graft authenticity and real-world identity onto the world of the Champions League, billionaire sovereign wealth fund owners, mega-millionaire footballers with armies of branding consultants and the like is an exercise in futility. A simple, five-minute search online will reveal a wellspring of footballing authenticity nearby, in most cases within walking distance of your front door.

Your own authentic football path

Try it. Make a Saturday afternoon available and walk down to your nearest non-league football club. Tell the person bagging up the match balls during the warm-up, or perhaps a member of the bar staff in the clubhouse that you’ve come down for the first time because you want to see what FC XXXXXXX is all about. And just see what happens.

Max Hall is a former local, regional and national news journalist who now pays for the bills by editing copy about solar panels. Black Country-born, he lives in northern Italy and has identified as Welsh for almost 30 years. He has represented his adopted country on the international Blood Bowl stage. If you enjoyed this post, have a read of Heathens, his novel-cum-memoir about growing up in the Black Country at the turn of the century. It can be read online, for free, here.

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