Will Watt’s had a tough year, trying to cover a football club which would prefer he wasn’t in the ground. His efforts saw him shortlisted for the SJA’s Regional Sports Writer of the Year, and got him interviewed by ANTON RIPPON
For Will Watt, reporting on the affairs of Blackpool Football Club has always been more than just a job. Blackpool-born and a lifelong supporter, it has been a passion.
The last couple of years, however, have been difficult. Almost impossible some might say. As reported here on sportsjournalists.co.uk, Blackpool’s chairman, Karl Oysten, fell out with Watt’s employers, The Gazette, which left Watt calling for the Football Association to outlaw the practice of banning newspapers from attending press conferences, interviewing players and managers and reporting on matches.
“Being a lifelong fan helps in many ways, but it can also be an issue when things are going as badly as they are,” Watt said.
“We’re involved in this row with Karl Oyston who recently went on record saying that fans should stick to the club’s official website for all the news – but that’s total nonsense. Local journalism is more important than ever in football and the industry must stand up to clubs who try to silence them.”
Blackpool’s fans have been protesting for years now, and in pre-season against Lancaster, supporters ran on the pitch and forced the game to be abandoned. The club’s official website ran a report which had no mention of the abandonment. If fans followed Oyston’s direction and used that as their sole source of news, then no one who was not at the game would have even known the game ended on the hour-mark.
“The Gazette has become a key part of the story in Blackpool as fans battle with the club’s owners, and at the moment I think we are doing a decent job. We’ve found ourselves ‘restricted’ in access this season, which hasn’t helped. But it’s taken the shackles off a little and allowed us to get really stuck into the issue.
“I’m actually quite proud of the way The Gazette has handled itself in the last 18-months when covering the Blackpool FC shambles. As a newspaper we’ve stood-up and been counted when it would have been easy to crumble.
“We haven’t taken sides and haven’t fallen into the trap of being dragged into the politics of the situation that has been developing at Bloomfield Road. It would have been a much quieter life for everyone had we just toed the company line – but we haven’t.
“It’s probably the biggest part of being a local journalist, the politics. Football clubs these days want to control what is written in the press, as well as who and when the media speak to players and managers.
“The key for me has been not to take sides and to try to be as fair as possible. Luckily the story at Blackpool speaks for itself, it needs very little dressing up.
“As for the current situation of clubs banning media, it simply shouldn’t be allowed. The FA should step-in and make sure the press are allowed to report freely.
“If I could change anything to improve PR between football clubs and journalists I think it would be simply to encourage people to talk. Actually talking would help. The best times I’ve had working with managers have been when you are able to pick up the phone and have a chat, on or off the record.
“But for some reason clubs want to wrap players and the manager in cotton wool and keep them as far away from the media as possible. They’d probably find the whole thing would work better if we all went for a coffee and actually spoke every now and then.”
Watt’s first job in journalism was the Lancashire Evening Post sports desk 11 years ago: “I was initially employed as a ‘digital sports reporter’ and was thrown on to a sports desk. I wasn’t exactly excited about the prospects of websites and social media. It was a baptism of fire really, but while I was there I was able to work closely with Brian Ellis who covered Preston North End for more than 30 years. I’d say that I learned a lot in that period.
“At the LEP I was doing online sport reporting which involved me attending Preston North End press conferences, but mainly I was covering amateur sports. When I moved to The Gazette I got much more involved in covering Blackpool FC, attending all the games alongside the then chief sports writer, Steve Canavan.
“I’ve now been covering Blackpool as the main reporter for four years now, but did three years attending the games with Steve. That was an incredible time with ‘Pool being promoted to the Premier League. No one expected Ian Holloway’s team of misfits to achieve what they did, and the day at Wembley will take some beating, so it’s all been the perfect platform for me to learn the trade.
“Steve managed to get out at the perfect time, just as the decline was starting at Bloomfield Road, and I took over. It’s been interesting since then to say the least.”
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