Confessions of a Sports Reporter

As the press coverage of the Olympics reaches peak boring, sports reporters are all over the place. On the radio, on telly, in the papers and of course, on social media.

Telling everyone how it is sports-wise, and of course, tallying up the medal count as though it’s a very important number in a year of lots of very important numbers.

But have you ever wondered who these people are? Or how they got into being sports journalists? Or how they make-up football transfer stories?

Former Sports Reporter of the Year Paul Smith has got the answers and will tell you just how it is.

He begins a deep dive series into 35 years of corruption and controversy in the upper echelons of international competitions.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics – Dressage Individual Grand Prix. Beatriz Ferrer-Salat of Spain on her horse Elegence competes. (Reuters/Alamy)

By Paul Smith

SO, FOR FOUR WEEKS of every four years, the nation becomes marginally obsessed with Olympians.

Albeit without a single proper spectator due to COVID-19, in a country coming to grips with a pandemic that has disabled the world, not to mention its economy.

This is a competition that has seen amateurs upgraded to professionals, and been decimated by drug scandals that have frequently made more headlines than the athletes who participated in it.

Of course, there are striking similarities to something like tennis, whereby we become entrenched in a festival for two weeks of the year at Wimbledon and couldn’t care less what happens for the rest of the time.

Paul Smith (Author’s own)

Personally, I have no interest in athletics whereas tennis has spiked my imagination and led to some hilarious stories over the years.

As a multi-sport interviewer, when I entered the trade I was stunned to discover that over 85 percent of national newspaper coverage revolved around football.

Other sports were marginally covered, but most of the time failed to kick football off the back pages of the national press, which was was totally obsessed with the game and its world-wide coverage.

But have you ever wondered how you get to report on sport? A great deal is down to luck, friendship and misplaced judgement.

I’ve been amongst so-called elite national journalists. In reality, most of them are rank average, massively egotistical and spend far more time talking about how good they are rather than delivering on those claims.

Lots of excuses instead of exclusives.

And when they did break a good story, you always had to ask yourself: ‘Is that all made-up bollocks?’

Or worse: ‘Was that story obtained illegally from phone hacking, or unlawfully tasking a private investigator?’

Or even worser: ‘Was that a spoof and a crime, at the same time?’

For over 35 years, I have covered sport as an elite, multi-award winning journalist – with knobs on – and for the first time I’m going to reveal the secrets, corruption and controversy of an industry that wished I’d remained silent.

I have no doubt I can regale you with many, many war stories that will shock and amuse you in equal measure.

It’s fair to say I have lived a life less ordinary as a marquee journalist in my chosen field.

Some of those stories simply defy belief, others will make your toes curl and a few will leave you questioning my sanity, and whether I should have been sectioned instead of writing this column.

‘Paul Smith: Britain’s Top Sports Reporter’ (Sunday Mirror)

Believe me when I say I’m not your average sports reporter, and for the first time I intend to lift the lid on a career that led to bizarre confrontations, explosive revelations and criminal corruption.

But before we get down to the dirty business, let’s start with my humble beginnings.

Prior to submitting my first bit of copy, the editor was so appalled by its contents that he set fire to it and said I was a complete fraud.

Yeah? So what? Thanks very much! As far as I was concerned, that qualified me for the job.

He also said that I was an embarrassment to the profession.

‘I’m Not On Drugs’ Interview with footballer Robbie Fowler. One of Paul Smith’s many exclusives with elite atheletes during his 30 year career as a sports reporter.

Profession? What profession? Being a reporter is a trade. But unlike being a plumber or a spark, anyone can do it. Or blag it, even.

I’d never set out to be a journalist, and fell into it by accident rather than design.

My early career choices left a lot to be desired and included being fired for failing to show any interest in mending lawn mowers.

Then I got chased by the police on my motorbike after nicking half a cow from a restaurant that I ‘worked’ at.

Followed by getting the boot from a shoe shop, after telling the owner that my mother had passed away so I could watch football on Saturday, instead of helping some women with fat feet trying to squeeze into 20 pairs of high-heels that they had no hope in hell of getting into.

The latter was slightly embarrassing as the shoe shop owner called my home to see if I was alright and my mother, who had miraculously risen from the dead at this point, answered the phone.

A few other uninspiring career choices followed, until I decided to try my hand at selling newspaper space for a free newspaper in Portsmouth.

Actually, I would have done reasonably well if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was giving the advertising space away to my mates instead of making them pay for it. 

In my defence, the newspaper gave me a company car that was life threatening and blew-up a week after I was given it, so I wasn’t exactly motivated to go out and bust my balls for them.

It’s strange how you fall into a career you never considered though.

When I was about to be sacked by the paper for charitable donations to my mates, as luck would have it, something fortuitous happened.

The paper’s sports reporter covering the football had an untimely heart attack which wasn’t altogether surprising watching Portsmouth FC at the time.

Keep Off the Grass signs at Portsmouth FC’s Fratton Park. (Alamy)

It hadn’t gone unnoticed in the office that I had been boasting that I was a big Portsmouth supporter, who hung out with a number of players and pretty much knew all the gossip in the dressing room. So, the editor thought it was a great idea to exploit this untapped knowledge.

Oh, and he didn’t think I had much of a moral compass either, after he’d heard that I had prematurely killed off my own mother just to watch a football game, so he knew I was the ideal candidate for the job.

Well that was until he saw my first match report.

I thought it was six pages of brilliance, whereas he said it was five pages too long, and one of the most embarrassing stories that had ever been written since they had started doing continuous assessment in O’Level English.

He said it was worst copy that had ever been submitted to a British newspaper and promptly set fire to it in front of me.

The fact it set off all the fire alarms in the office, and three fire engines turned up appeared to be completely lost on him. 

Nonetheless, I was an extremely quick learner.

My scaled down version of the match report was a far better offering even though I never recognised a word of the published version.

In other words, a very experienced sub-editor had got hold of it, worked his magic on it, and made it sing.

Barely two weeks into the job I was sent to interview the world snooker champion Steve Davis.

Six-time World Snooker Champion, Steve Davis. 1997. (Alamy)

Ordinarily you’d expect to get excited about interviewing someone of Davis’ stature, but as I hated snooker, I didn’t really give a shit as I thought it was one of the most boring sports in the world, and the only thing more boring was Davis himself.

The fact I went into Davis’ dressing room without a care in the world, and with no fear whatsoever of upsetting him, made for a great interview.

I mean, what cub reporter would sit in front of a man who had dominated his sport and ask questions relating to how boring he was and why snooker sent people to sleep when sleeping was a far more favourable option than watching snooker?

Actually, I don’t ever recall Davis laughing so much, as he found my interview technique rather entertaining and he admired my bottle – well, that was until he saw the article when it was published and threatened to sue me and the paper.

He screamed down the phone that he would never talk to me again but rather than be disappointed I was over the moon.

Unfortunately for Davis, he had mentioned during our chat that he was so upset after beating his mate Terry Griffiths in the World Snooker final that he got blind drunk that night.

The headline on the article was, ‘Beating Pal Terry, Drove Me To Drink’.

I thought it was slightly harsh, and I realised that my boss had completely stitched me up.

But I always thought that Davis’ outburst was slightly over-the-top too, when he claimed that I had depicted him as some raving alcoholic. 

I do recall saying to Davis, ‘Stop being ridiculous, how could you bore so many people if you were drunk all the time?’

This was a tough, if not amusing, introduction into tabloid newspapers.

But trust me, I was about to embark on a career that should have come with personal life insurance, as Davis wasn’t the first or last star I would upset.

More follows in the next instalment….

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