“In most ways I am content not to know such information, and to think of sportswriting not as a real profession but more as an agreeable frame of mind, a way of going about things rather than things you exactly do or know. A reasonable guess is a source of pleasure, since it makes me feel like one of the crowd rather than a human FORTRAN spitting out stats and reducing sports to unsavory accountancy. When sports stops being a matter for speculation, even idle aimless, misinformed speculation, something’s gone haywire…”
— Richard Ford, The Sportswriter
“You’d think anyone with a passing interest in sport would know that the most reliable, bullshit-free place to find out the likelihood of something happening is to check the odds on a betting website.”
— Barry Glendenning
During Euro 2008 in Vienna, the Guardian decided to send a camera crew to film the Football Weekly podcast journos in various states of play. Short clips of mock-tourism around Vienna alrernated with frattish Wii tournaments and Croat-filled street parties. Ostensibly the least successful video, yet one that stuck out the most, was a four minute minute film of Barry Glendenning enjoying a beer and some sauerkraut while watching the Romania-France group stage match.
The game, you’ll recall, was a dud, a deadly boring defensive parlay. Glendenning is seen alone, slowly drinking his beer and smoking cigarettes, at first mugging to the camera and then trailing off as the game descends into nothing. We know the game is terrible, yet he watches, transfixed and with a hint of real disappointment giving the lie to his flippancy (he texts to someone, presumably James Richardson, “are you watching this shit?”). In the end, he asks that the camera be turned off like a bereaved loved one after a tragedy.
Many posters on the Football Weekly blog remarked on similar experiences, sitting in empty bars, watching abjectly miserable matches yet unable to look away. Modern football disgusts us with its scandals, transfer fees, officious stats and journeymen divas, yet we still hold on to something outside of our own cyncial shells that keeps us coming back to the empty pub. Barry Glendenning, perhaps more than other football journalists, exemplifies this contradiction.
His audio work is the weaker of his gifts. Glendenning is, by his own admission, a failed stand-up comic. He is not a rapid-fire laddish pun-spinner in the English mold — his role is more hipster curmudgeon, ratcheting up his outsider status as a farmer’s son from the County Offaly while wearing Pixies shirts and bigging up his Brixton hood. On the Football Weekly podcast, whole minutes pass with Glendenning silent, brooding over metered stats and propped up controversies. And then he’ll suddenly pipe in, ravaging someone or another’s politically correct faux outrage, or making idle predictions on matches based more on his prejudices than on the typical signposts of choice — injuries and stats. It isn’t exactly ‘ha ha’ stuff, but you notice when he isn’t there and the podcast descends into bland enthusiasm.
His written work is superb. His daily info-email, the Fiver, is laden with adjectives and adverbs dripping with icy contempt for football’s bureaucrats, mercenaries and moneymen. This invective almost rivals his complete disdain for any hint of righteous anger on the part of football’s ‘aggrieved,’ whether taking on the toothless ‘Just Say No’ approach to racism within England’s temples of intolerance, the football grounds, or taking on Rio Ferdiand’s holier-than-thou ranting over everyone’s favourite minimum-wager, Ashley Cole. His minute-by-minute reports too have an off-the-cuff wit, well-formed on a minutes’ notice. He is clearly a journalist’s comedian, able to scratch out pithy lines on the post, in time for deadline.
He has many critics, some justified, many simply partisan football supporters. Glendenning’s ranting against Big Four supporters sometimes tips into the absurdly self-negating – his views on Sunderland are left unchecked, and his loyalty to Roy Keane in particular sometimes grates. And it’s true — the man can’t rhyme off Marseille’s starting eleven at the drop of a hat, and he is constantly accused of not being a proper journo for his lack of Guardian Football front-page blogs. But his acerbic style, contrasting the dry autopsies performed over and over by football’s self-appointed scribes, comes closer to the ugly truth of Modern Football. He may be bored watching the football, sitting and texting about the pointlessness of it all, but you can see behind it all a boyish hope that football will transcend its roots in money and madness.
Richard Whittall also writes at A More Splendid Life.