On Wednesday, The Boot Room had the pleasure of interviewing The Set Pieces editor, and co-author of the excellent Football Manager Stole My Life: 20 Years of Beautiful Obsession, Iain Macintosh.
Why did football journalism appeal so much to you as a career path? And, what advice would you give to younger, aspiring writers looking to break into the industry? From our own attempts, we know it’s an incredibly tough cookie to crack.
Like most people reading this, I was obsessed with football as a child. I had the magazines, I had the sticker albums, I had read and re-read my dad’s old ‘Tiger’ and ‘Valiant’ annuals, I’d scour jumble sales for old books. I desperately wanted to be a footballer, but at the age of nine I was forced to accept that I was so cataclysmically shit that it was never going to be an option. This seemed like the next best thing.
I’m the worst person to ask for advice. I didn’t start doing this until I was 29 and I spent a lot of the time before that either on building sites, godawful offices or, in one memorable four month stint, selling black bin bags. My career path is not one to be followed. However, I do rely on a simple question at The Set Pieces to help me decide whether or not to commission a freelancer. “Why is this person the best person to tell me this story?”
Sometimes, it’s an easy question to answer. Nick Miller is a writer of such class that I’d read a 3,000 word history of Belgian agriculture if it had his byline on it. David Preece is one of the most articulate footballer/writers in the industry, one of the few who can really explain what it’s like to be there. But with lesser known writers, you don’t have that reputation to draw on. Those writers have to do something to stand out from the crowd.
In Joe Devine’s case, he found the award winning photographer Mark Leech and offered not just a brilliant interview, but permission to use a selection of his pictures too. Any editor would jump at that. Babak Golriz was able to provide an authoritative perspective on the story of Ali Daei. You have to grab the editor’s attention and say, “I am not just recycling stuff off the internet. I am not basing these views on computer games. I have left the house. I have spoken to people. I know stuff.”
Now Iain, we love ‘Football Manager Stole My Life’, and it’s fair to say that we would struggle to find a football fan out there for whom the game itself isn’t their guilty pleasure, but at what point did you decide to devote an entire book to it?
Publishing my first book ‘Football Fables’ in 2008 gave me only the most fleeting moment of satisfaction. Within days, all I wanted to do was to go and write another one, so I started scribbling down ideas. I asked myself what I had done with my 30 years on the planet. What did I know? What was it in this life that I understood more than anyone else? Regrettably, the answer was ‘Football Manager’.
Annoyingly, no-one else agreed with me when I said that a product that shifted a million units every year probably warranted a book. And at the same time in Scotland, a journalist called Neil White was enduring the same stream of rejections. The difference between Neil and I is that I went to the pub, got drunk and gave up on the idea. He set up his own publishing house and made it happen on his own terms. When I heard that the book was in development, I sent him a tweet wishing him luck and telling him my story. One thing led to another and now we’re very happily married.
Set the scene for us, what does your ideal football manager save consist of? Would you start in England, or abroad? In the higher echelons of said country, or as a lower, cash-strapped side, with the view of giant killing and back-to-back promotions?
I need a four hour time slot, teabags, a bag of mint imperials and a notepad. In an ideal world, I’ll have two saves for every edition. One that begins with me with starting near the top, wherever the opportunity presents itself, like Man Utd post-Ferguson or Newcastle at any point since 2004. I’ll have another where I’ll set the lowest reputation and start unemployed. One will end in disaster, the other will sustain itself over many months. That said, on FM15, I’ve had five cracks at it and I’ve been sacked before Christmas on every occasion.
If you could manage any club in real life, who would it be? And, why? Furthermore, do you consider yourself as Pulis-esque tracksuit manager, or a Mourinho-style tactician?
I would never manage a football club. The players would hate me, the fans would hate me, it would be a disaster. I sometimes have fantasies about running a club though, parachuted into a CEO role by a Singaporean billionaire who quite liked my articles for The New Paper. For some reason, it’s almost always Newcastle United that comes to mind, probably because it would be hard to be less popular than the present regime. If any benevolent billionaires are reading this, I can have a Powerpoint presentation up and running by nightfall.
Tim Sherwood’s appointment at Villa has received a mixed reaction. Do you think he has what it takes to inspire them to safety and can you see him sporting a Claret and Blue gillet long-term?
I didn’t think Villa would stay up last week and I do think they’ll stay up now. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. I don’t think he’s as feckless as people make out. The way he manoeuvred himself into the Tottenham job, the way he played hardball over contract length with other clubs, the way he got this job, it all suggests the sort of rat-like cunning that will sustain him well. Look at his CV, he’s got no coaching badges, he has less than six months experience and yet he’s managed two of the ten biggest clubs in England.
Much will depend on lessons learned, or otherwise, at Tottenham. If he hammers the Villa players in public then his will be a tenure of ever-diminishing returns.
It’s early days, but which teams do you think will end the Premier League season in the bottom three and who can you see coming up from the Championship to replace them? Meanwhile, Bradford City are leading the charge of the underdogs in this year’s FA Cup, do you think this shows a lack of respect for the competition from some Premier League teams, or is it simply the beauty of the game?
At the beginning of the season, I said Burnley, WBA and Aston Villa, but the latter two have changed managers and I think they might survive. I would love Burnley to make it, but I think it will be too much for them. Queens Park Rangers look very vulnerable and I really fear for Sunderland.
I’m delighted that Bradford have progressed so far. The people there deserve it for all the strides they’ve made in pulling that club back from the brink. However, there’s no question that many Premier League clubs see the FA Cup as a secondary competition and with the Premier League TV deal, you can understand why. If I ruled the world, I’d put a Champions League place up for the FA Cup winners. And the League Cup winners too. Whoever comes second in the league can have the play-off place. That way, we’d reward actual success rather than doing our best to preserve the status quo.
Back to serious matters, if you could watch one football game before you die, with dream teams of players from any era, who would be your first names on the team sheet and why?
I’d set Don Revie against Brian Clough and let them choose footballers of the 1970s one-by-one like you used to pick teams in the playground. Watching the selection process would be almost as entertaining as the match itself.
If you could go for a pint with any current Premier League player or manager, who would it be and why? Also, what’s your choice of poison? (we can’t resist a sly Guinness).
There are plenty who’d be a nightmare. Louis van Gaal would end up in a pointless argument with a drunken local by 10pm, so he’s out. Christ knows what Brendan Rodgers would bang on about after three pints…I can’t take that risk. Roberto Martinez would be lovely, but he probably wouldn’t drink much, so there’s no point there. I think I might just play it safe and pick Steve Bruce in a quiet pub that takes care of its beer, like the Tapping the Admiral in North London. Just sit there at the bar and put the world to rights. Maybe have a quiet word about that whole, “I’ve read about the court case,” thing. Then we’d get a takeaway, go home and sit up watching Airplane. He’d bloody love Airplane. But after all that beer, he’d only last 20 minutes and then his head would roll back and he’d start snoring. I’d put a blanket over him and leave him to it. When I come down in the morning, he’s gone, but he’s tidied up the mess and folded up the blanket, because he’s a man of simple values.
Finally, The Boot Room team love the content on thesetpieces.com, how would you describe the site to any readers who are yet to visit?
Well, that’s extremely kind of you to say. I had a very good job with The New Paper in Singapore, the sort of job from which no rational person would walk away, but I gave it up for this. I’m very fortunate to have backers who share my view that we don’t have to race everyone to the bottom for hit rates. I want The Set Pieces to put quality and authority above all else. I want to turn my back on the sort of fleeting conjecture that would bring my 40,000 hits in a morning but is forgotten by lunch. I’d rather have 1,000 readers saying, “Fuck me, that was brilliant. Why isn’t there more stuff like that?”
Ultimately, we have a very clear objective. We want you to spend so long sitting in the staff toilets reading us on your phone that when you get back to your seat, you get a bollocking. And yet you’ll still think it was worth it. If that happens to one person every day, then I’ll consider my mission accomplished.
We would like to thank Iain, while wishing him and all the guys at The Set Pieces the best of luck.