In the first of a series of interviews with the leading entrants to the SJA’s Regional Sports Writer of the Year Award, ANTON RIPPON speaks to Chris Wathan, of Media Wales, a regular on our short list
Chris Wathan always wanted to be a sports writer. It was an ambition that he realised with something to spare.
“My parents recently dug out a match report of a Wales v England rugby match that I wrote-up on a typewriter when I was seven. I can remember getting frustrated at not being able to keep up noting down every pass and tackle as it happened, so I guess that was an early lesson on runner reports.”
Today, Wathan covers Swansea City, Cardiff City, Newport County and Wrexham, as well as the Wales national team, across Media Wales – what used to be known as the Western Mail group. Originally from Neath, he lives just outside Newport.
He thinks that being so clear-minded about what he wanted to do from such an early age was quite a help. “I was suppose that I was quite lucky in that some folk can go on for some time not really knowing what to put their focus on, but I was adamant I would go down this path so I could throw all my energies into it and, fortunately for me, it paid off. I went to Cardiff University to study journalism, got accepted in the Cardiff School of Journalism after that and went straight into agency work with Westgate.
“It’s quite funny that I had plenty of support when I was younger and I’d tell people what I wanted to do, but at the same time there were plenty who would question my logic. One careers advisor at school basically told me not to bother because it was too competitive and the advice from work experience placements when I was at CJS was then to get a news reporting job and hopefully drift over to sport.
“I wasn’t really interested – or much cop – in that side of the job and when I had the chance to go into sport straight away it was a no-brainer. In fact, when I went to one tutor to ask him what job to accept, he told me that I was an average news journalist but a good sports writer so to go for it against all the textbook advice.
“I had some varied part-time work during my university years – I was a store detective at one point and an industrial landscape gardener at another – but I’ve never had a ‘real job’ if you want.
“I guess my break came when I was on work placement with Wales on Sunday. I had done several stints at various papers. Very often it was the case of being given ‘nibs’ and not much else but I was given a great chance to write there and, on the final day, one of the regular reporters fell ill and the sports editor, Nick Rippington, took a punt on me and sent me to cover Cardiff-Wigan, an end-of-season game with little on it. It was goalless and not exactly a match that made great copy but, without a laptop, and filing a 1,000-word report plus ratings and quote pieces over the phone, I must have done okay as I was recommended to Westgate who offered me a job after graduating.
“Rob Cole trusted me to look after their football coverage and the huge learning curve of matches where you’d have seven reports for titles from the Daily Sport to the Daily Telegraph. There’s nothing that prepares you better than filing intros on 75 minutes and then having to rewrite off the top of your head over the phone when there’s a late goal or two.
“I was also lucky to have some great pros to learn from on the patch – the late Ken Gorman was a huge influence and a master of making one or two notes in his pocket pad and then reeling off quality copy. He was someone who knew the importance of keeping subs happy and wouldn’t let anyone stand in the way of hitting deadlines.
“There was the great example of ushering Ottmar Hitzfeld out of a press conference after a midweek Wales v Switzerland match with a simple: ‘Thank you, that’s all we need,’ because he needed to get back on the phone.
“I was offered the role of chief football writer at Wales on Sunday a few years later, and, when the desks merged, I became football correspondent for all of Media Wales’ titles, including now, of course, WalesOnline.
“I’d done a season as part-time just covering games, and then my first match as a full-time reporter was Swansea v Bury in 2003. I’d had problems with the laptop so I was late finishing up and leaving The Vetch. What I hadn’t realised is that, stuck in the old press box, they’d locked the rest of the ground. Without having any contacts at the club and the press officer not answering his phone, I had to try to climb the main gates to get out.
“I managed to make it to the top, only to realise it was covered in anti-theft paint and the shirt and trousers I’d worn for my big day were now ruined by this black tar all over me. My last hope was the police, but just before I got through, one of the old ladies whose terraced houses backed on to the old ground happened to come out to put her washing out, took pity on me and found the spare key to the gates the club left with her. Not quite a dream debut.
“Safe to say it got better from there and I’ve had some great times covering the patch. I’ve seen Swansea get promoted through the divisions, win the League Cup and play in Europe, I’ve covered Cardiff’s cup finals and promotions – not to mention the off-the-field dramas – and Newport’s promotion back to the Football League. What’s topped it all is being there for Wales’ qualification and seeing so many of the young players who first came through under John Toshack fulfill their potential and achieve something that not many of us thought we would see.
“Covering Wales across Europe for the past 14 years has been a privilege and I know how fortunate I am to be on this patch in such a golden time. There’s been some great writers here in my position over the years – Peter Corrigan, Peter Jackson, Joe Lovejoy and plenty more – but I happen to be in the role at a period where there’s been so many real history-making moments to report upon.”
Like many sports writers, Wathan has encountered at least the occasional difficulty with local clubs: “In the main it’s been very good. Swansea City in particular have been great to deal with over the years in good times and bad, although you have to say they’ve had the benefit of not having much of the latter.
“At Cardiff, though, Dave Jones banned me from speaking to him and the players for a while after, in my first week at Wales on Sunday, we ran a front-page splash about Robbie Fowler being pictured on a night out at a time he was supposed to be trying to regain fitness. I turned up at the training ground before the press conference every week to be told I couldn’t come in. Eventually, though, they got tired of me asking. Funnily enough, I met Fowler a few months later and he hadn’t been bothered by it one bit.
“As an organisation we were banned from press conferences by Jones for about a year over something or other he didn’t like. We would still get our hands on the quotes and come up with probably better stories from digging around, but it did get frosty and pretty much lasted until he left the club. At away games we would ask a guy on the local patch to put our dictaphones down but Jones clocked this and, I think it was at Barnsley, started the press conference by picking up one recorder at a time and asking who it belonged to. When no one claimed ours, he turned it off.
“Paulo Sousa wanted to ban me at Swansea but he left the club before he got the chance, and there have been the standard ding-dongs with managers. It got a bit terse with John Toshack at one point but he saw it as part of the game, and me and Chris Coleman had a bit of a back-and-fore out in Macedonia after the incident where he lost his passport. We shook hands the next week and we’ve had a great relationship ever since, both able to look back and laugh at it.
Sometimes you have to go through that type of thing to build relationships and I think both manager and players have a greater respect for you if you just call things as you see it.
“It is a tightrope, although perhaps we’re different to other regional papers because we’re a national of sorts – we don’t have that same one-city issue if you like. Different situations and different circumstances call for different approaches, I guess. The way I see it, there are the standard things like not being quite as free to fly things as others because you want the brand to be a trusted one and almost have a stamp of approval when you carry it. Of course, sometimes it means you won’t always be first to the punch but, when you do run, it should mean there’s a bit of authority with it. In terms of trust, I think as long as you’re up-front and honest with the people you deal with so they know where they stand with you I think that’s all anyone can ask.”
Is there anything he would like to see that would improve relationships between clubs and sports writers? “For the clubs not to see us as rivals – I can never be sure whether to laugh or cry when I see club websites or programmes talking of their ‘exclusive’ interview with a player – and I’ve always felt that the more contact you have with managers or players then the more understanding there is from both sides. Plus, and again for both sides, never get personal.”
Wathan is in no hurry to leave Wales, despite the occasional approach from a London sports desk: “There’s been the odd suggestion or question, but in the main it’s been on the promise of a handshake rather than a contract and with a young family it’s not been a serious option to this point. I’ve always been ambitious but at the same time I’m appreciative of the opportunities of the patch I’m on.”
One story that still gives him most satisfaction wasn’t about the Wales national team or Swansea City’s ascent to the Premier League, but something from the dim and distant: “I was quite proud of a recent feature I wrote on an amateur side called Cardiff Corinthians, who were the first British team to play Barcelona back in 1910 and were oblivious to it until I told them. It had got lost in history a little but I spent a fair bit of time researching it and finding old match reports and pictures from Spanish archives and ended up filling in some of the blanks for Spanish football historians and Barcelona themselves.
“I think Corries managed to get some sponsorship on the back of it so it was nice to have that impact.
“Another that gave me particular satisfaction was breaking the story on Alisher Apsalyamov, the young Kazakstani who was plucked from work experience to become Cardiff City’s new head of recruitment. It was one of those that came from nowhere. A contact with whom I’d built a good relationship over the years tipped me off and we managed to get it all checked out and keep it under wraps before going for it online. When I’d been Googling Alisher Apsalyamov’s name to try to find out some information beforehand, I don’t think there was a single match; the morning after we published you couldn’t move for hits on his name. And because everyone else was following up the initial story, we had that position where we would already be working on the next one.”
There have been many memorable moments: “Covering Swansea and Cardiff’s promotions gave you a sense of writing something that might be looked back at in years to come, as was Swansea’s League Cup win. Swansea’s win at the Mestalla was special, where they played Valencia off the park, especially because I’d covered them when they’d been so close to going out of the Football League. I have to say, though, Wales’ recent qualification campaign was such an incredible journey and the win over Belgium was something else; the moment when the crowd started an impromptu national anthem with 20 minutes to go was spine-tingling, and you could just see these Belgian players looking around wondering what on earth was going on.
“The win over Andorra at the start of the campaign was a real highlight too, Bale scoring a free-kick in the last 10 minutes, because you just knew that without that all the hard work and what had gone on with the national team would have been for nothing without it. Of course, the game in Bosnia when they actually qualified was something that will live with me forever. Wales lost the game but to finally qualify, as they did that night, and to see the players celebrating with the same joy with the fans who have travelled half the world when there was nothing on games was incredible. I’ll admit it got all a little emotional later that evening when everything was finally filed, but I reckon I was allowed it that once.”
Football has consumed most of Wathan’s working life, but in his early days he also covered boxing: “I was fortunate enough to be ringside for some of Calzaghe’s big fights, including Mikkel Kessler. It’s a totally different feeling around the sport in terms of access and even the nature of the reporting. But I was strictly on the football beat when Joe fought in New York and Las Vegas so I’d love to go there for a similar big title fight.”
Even in the dozen-or-so years since he began his working career, Wathan has seen great changes in journalism: “It’s difficult to put into words how big the shift is, especially considering I spent a lot of time as primarily a Sunday man with the agency, writing for the Welsh edition of the News of the World before I moved to Wales on Sunday. Then you might spend a lot of the week hoping a story would hold, but now it’s a case of getting it out there the moment you’re happy with it.
“We’re digital-first at Media Wales, which means that it’s the website that is our real focus. In many ways, it’s a reversal of how the digital-print relationship used to be; where the site would carry what had been in the paper, now the paper carries what’s on the site, so it’s no longer just a case of thinking how much space in the paper is needed to be filled. The workload and the need for speed have increased, especially from games, but with an agency background I’ve always been fairly comfortable with that.
“There’s an emphasis, too, on having something to say, certainly with reports where you try to avoid the runner-style – we have a live blog to cater for seeing who passed to who – so the report needs to try to have a greater voice, which is something I enjoy, even if it does test your nerve when filing on the whistle.
“I’m lucky that my desk do allow me to have a little bit of a free rein when it comes to ideas on features or interviews so – as much as there is a need to make sure the site is on top of anything around the clubs we cover – I can’t subscribe to the idea that I’ve been forced into writing ‘click-bait’. If anything, because the competition across the internet is limitless, I’ve had greater encouragement to come up with something that is different to what you will find elsewhere. For all the disappointment with falling print figures, you have to say that regional journalists have a chance to have their stuff read by more people than they ever did before.
“Ultimately, for all the changes, one of the first things I was told to remember in journalism still stands true: tell them something they don’t know.”
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