The Questionnaire: Rob Steen

Freelance sports writer Rob Steen says he is “on vacation” from the day job at present, and is working as a senior lecturer on the BA Sport Journalism course at the University of Brighton. He does admit to being in the midst of writing Sports Journalism – A Multimedia Primer, the latest in a regular stream of books, many of them on cricket or football. drawing on a near-25-year career in sports journalism that started at the Hayters sports agency, and which sees his recent work glimpsed in the FT, Observer Sport Monthly, India Today, The Wisden Cricketer and Cricinfo Magazine.

What was your first sports journalism assignment?

It was covering a Birmingham City reserves game, or some team managed by that notorious tartar Ron Saunders, back in the early 1980s. “Hard man” Mark Dennis was coming back from injury and I was there for Hayters, for a provincial paper, to monitor his progress.

I nabbed him as he was getting on the coach and he said something naughty about Saunders, which duly led my story. Living in London, there was no chance of my seeing the end product, so it was with some horror that I was told the next morning that the story had to be pulled for libel.

I didn’t get a call from Hayters for another three months (not that that stopped me ringing in every Thursday to besiege the endlessly patient Paul Maher). By then, happily, I was safely ensconced on a journalism course.

What has been your most memorable or enjoyable assignment during your career?

For sheer this-is-what-makes-sport-the-greatest-subject-to-write-about exhilaration, representing The Guardian at Yankee Stadium in October-November 2001, when the New York Yankees won back-to-back World Series games. Walking to the exit as the crowd sang “New York, New York”, and feeling enough of a quasi-New Yorker to sing along, remains my single most memorable sporting-related moment.

What is the latest task you have been working on?

I am just completing my monthly county cricket column for The Wisden Cricketer, which is something I have been doing in the 22 years since David Frith gave me my break on Wisden Cricket Monthly. It’s fun, worthwhile, but hard, bitty work and extremely fiddly, a real test of newshounding and editing. I always speak to somebody to try to find something that hasn’t appeared elsewhere. I cover six southern clubs, trying to compress anything from one to three stories into about 200 words then adding a few sidelines.

I would like to think I never knowingly submit bad work, or indifferent for that matter. My college tutor, Steve Clarkson, then news ed at the Evening Standard, wrote on my report that I always wrote pieces as if they were the last I would ever write.

What sports did you play – and to what level?

Cricket, golf, tennis, table tennis, the last three at the non-competitive level, though I did almost break 100 at the Royal Harare Golf Club once. Helped win cricket trophies at secondary school and club level (beat Mike Gatting’s Brondesbury on Stanmore Colts debut), slogging merrily and bowling mostly over-flighty offspin for Stanmore and Wembley 1st XI before weekends disappeared. Captained City Limits XI until it stopped being fun or the magazine folded (can’t recall which came first), but now planning a comeback with Brighton-based London Exiles CC.

Which colleagues or managers have been most influential or helpful in your career, and how?

Matthew Engel and Frank Keating – for inspiration and encouragement. Steve Pinder, Reg Hayter and David Frith – for recognising an unnatural obsession and taking a chance on an extremely spotty CV. Neville Holtham – for being the first sports editor I knew who combined honesty with humanity, an example seldom followed. Christopher Martin-Jenkins – for remaining a gentlemanly, fair-minded, ego-free zone. Simon Barnes – for demonstrating that the ageing process need not suppress passion nor eliminate the capacity for enchantment. Mike Marqusee and Huw Richards – for wisdom and knowledge, a rare combination indeed.

What has been the best sports-related book you have read recently, and why?

Howard Bryant’s Juicing the Game – one of those “instant” history books that demand immediate reading, it assembles a series of lengthy newspaper articles by Boston-based Bryant tracing the genesis of baseball’s drug problems and why the game’s sultans were so content to shrug off the doctors’ warnings.

They did so, Bryant suggests, for one simple reason: home runs were bringing fans back to ballparks after the 1994-1995 players’ strike, so who cared if those hitting them were on the needle? I’m no hardliner on this, but tales of student addictions and depression-fuelled suicides turned me around. As an expose of callous brinkmanship, festering racism and the sins of the capitalist way, look no further. Journalism like this can still make a difference.

What changes in the business during your career have you most welcomed?

Laptops and the internet: no more dictating down crackly phonelines, less chance of error, more time to check facts and write.

…and what changes in the business do you really dislike?

Moaning about ex-players taking jobs is pointless, and mostly lacking in justification. I do dislike the obsession with football and the lack of space for formal previews (as opposed to using only interviews-masking-as-previews), but what gets my goat is the space given in one allegedly serious daily paper to the prognostications of a betting analyst who knows all the figures and none of the flesh.

Which sports journalist’s work do you look for first (and why)?

Simon Barnes: still making it read as if every piece may be his last and he’s damned if he’s going to hold back.

John Terry or Steve Gerrard?

Gerrard – he’s less liable to do what might currently be termed “a Mel Gibson”.

Click here to read an extract of a piece by one of Rob’s students.

And for details of how you can become an SJA member, click here.