Book of the Week: Men who watch men play games
Veteran football journo Bruce Holloway on the best Kiwi sports writers
US author James Michener once observed that the greatest advantage of being a sports reporter was freedom. “It is not by accident that so many of our good writers once wrote sports, and not politics, or business or city government,” he wrote in his 1970s magnum opus, Michener on Sport. “It was on the sports page alone that they were free to write evocatively or sardonically or brashly or alliteratively or pompously ... Numerous former sportswriters have testified to the fact that top editors left them alone, the sports pages were an arcane region where the big brains of the paper never really comprehended.”
I’ve been reflecting on that proposition in the wake of releasing my recent football publication Matchday: An eclectic anthology of 40 Waikato United, Waikato FC, WaiBOP United & Melville United match reports.
This anthology, covering a 27-year timespan, was pitched as a tribute to the dying art of the football match report, which used to be the bread and butter of fandom for generations. These days, daily and weekly publications, and even online and social media, have increasingly abandoned the written report in any guise. Apart from a few staunch outposts, football match reports are fast disappearing as a cultural-literary phenomenon.
Sports writing is a language of hidden codes. It speaks to those who have ears to listen. It draws maps of emotional landscapes. It plants ideas, dreams to incubate in the imagination, and at its best, sports buffs are attracted to it like blind men to braille.
Of the current newspaper sports writers, Dylan Cleaver (New Zealand Herald) is probably the pick of the crop. Cleaver shows supreme journalistic rigour whenever he assembles a case – and even greater rigour when he disassembles one. There’s always great structure to his writing. But more than that, he paints with words, displaying all the artistry of a clever photographer working with fading ambient light. There is a significant difference between being a good sports reporter and being a good sports writer. A good reporter will have a contact book and a nose for news - but a good writer will always squeeze the most juice.
Chris Rattue? He’s a diamond. He operates in a field of one. He’s the Tom Waits of Kiwi sports writing. Cranky, contrary, and often a literary grump, though his worst excesses are always leavened by a touch of wit and charm. He’s the rich man’s Mark Reason (the most mis-named sports writer in New Zealand since Doug Golightly was doing the back page for Truth).
I also like reading Stuff's Ian Anderson, who has matured into an astute storyteller. Of the younger brigade, Andrew Voerman does a good job of justifying his opinions, though it’s a shame to see him having to trundle the business beat for Stuff post-Covid.
In earlier times, TP [Terry] McLean (New Zealand Herald), Alex Veysey (The Dominion) and Dick Brittenden (Christchurch Press) were regarded as the holy trinity of Kiwi sports writers, with DJ [Don] Cameron (New Zealand Herald) also right up there. When Veysey and Brittenden died in 2002, Cameron (run out for 83, said his own 2016 death notice) penned a joint obituary.
Cameron was always more likely to quote Wordsworth than a team coach in one of his own match reports. He observed there were echoes of Beethoven when Brittenden was in his best form, while Veysey would spread a mood of blues or jazz among his words.
Of the football match report journos, Derrick Mansbridge (Christchurch Press) was always quality in the 1970s, and his colleague Tony Smith, who is still going today, was a personal favourite. Further out in the provinces Roger Moroney always liked to have fun with his reports, though only Iain Gillies (former Gisborne Herald editor) was ever likely to be found quoting Shakespeare.
Michener argued that readers turn to the front pages of a newspaper to learn about men’s failures - then turn to the sports pages to read about their triumphs. I’m not so sure about that when I look at my own back catalogue.
I spent about 13 years writing football match reports for the Waikato Times, Soccer Express and Inside Soccer between 1989 and 2009, and a decade more doing so on a voluntary basis for websites, blogs, club programmes and fanzines. During that time I figure I’ve written over a thousand football match reports.
It seems like every second week I was writing about failure, missed opportunities, or somebody having a shocker. That’s perhaps not surprising when you consider the mathematics. For every league-winning team there are a lot more losers or also-rans, and for every Chatham Cup winner there are 130-odd teams thinking “always next year”.
Being prepared to criticise goes with the territory. The target market must always be readers, rather than the egos of coaches or players. However, in retrospect I wish I had found nicer things to say about some of the players who have been tapping me up for a copy of my Matchday anthology. And I should also acknowledge many times I have had paragraphs or even whole reports removed from club websites for being overly critical.
But perhaps the most vitriolic player reaction I copped for a football article was in 1999, when Irishman Sammy Smith confronted me after a match at Porritt Stadium with a four-pronged metal spike used to anchor football nets.
Smith's wrath was inspired by a quote I gave in a midweek Waikato Times news story about his transfer from Melville to Wanderers. The copy read: “Holloway said signing Sammy Smith was the second biggest mistake Melville had ever made. ‘Paying him was the biggest,’ he added.”
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