Growing up, I used to harbour ambitions of becoming Wolves Correspondent for the Express & Star.
It was the Holy Grail, the headline gig, the only career path I could ever see myself taking.
I got a brief taster in the late 90s, shadowing David Instone for a few weeks of work experience on the sports desk, but aside from that and a dodgy writing degree that was as far as it ever went.
Ever since though, I’ve held a keen interest in the people who’ve done the job and how they’ve gone about doing it.
The first time I clocked the name Tim Spiers was in the blog he used to produce for the E&S website (a Wolves Blog rival of sorts I suppose you could say – nice example here) before taking over the big chair.
I’ve got a lot of respect for what Tim did during his four and a bit years as Wolves Correspondent, moving with the times and redefining what the role entails.
When he was able to speak candidly, I liked his balanced views (even when I didn’t agree), his sense of humour and his genuine elation (no surprise there, being a lifelong supporter) when the good times finally returned.
His live reporting of games via Twitter along with the videos and podcasts he produced with partner in crime Nathan Judah really made the E&S feel relevant when it could so easily have drifted out of style with the round the clock bombardment of news and views online.
Given all that, I was shocked to hear Tim was vacating the role to work at The Athletic – a subscription-based sports news service backed by significant US investment.
It felt like a good opportunity to make contact and get the low down from Tim about his time at the E&S, his views on the ‘dream’ job and how he’ll be covering Wolves for The Athletic.
Thomas: Tim, thanks for coming on Wolves Blog. I’ve always enjoyed your balanced perspective on the club and felt like you made the job your own at the Express & Star. It must have been a major decision to leave?
Tim: My pleasure Thomas and thank you. In return I’ve always found the Wolves Blog an enjoyable read and a good source of insightful fan opinions. Yes you’re absolutely right, it was a major decision to leave the E&S as I’d been there 10 years in a variety of roles and it’s a fantastic place to work – I grew up reading the paper and it was a huge privilege to be Wolves correspondent for more than four years.
Thomas: You and Nathan, in particular, seemed to be having the time of your lives. Was it as fun as you so often made it look?
Tim: Haha, I have to say, it was about as much as fun as you can have being a reporter. The podcasts in particular were a delight to do, especially the two live shows we recorded. As regular listeners/viewers of the podcasts/videos will have known, there was *very* little preparation done in advance, we often just turned up and pressed record, which I think/hope is what gave them a natural and relatable feel.
People in the business take their journalism very seriously – and there’s absolutely a place for that, of course – but I think people in the Black Country appreciate a bit of humour and being told a spade is a spade. There are a lot of long hours, travel and dull moments behind the scenes that people don’t see but we shared a sense of humour, which made things a lot more fun.
Thomas: The concept of a regional paper reporting on sports ‘news’ feels dated to me with clubs reporting their own announcements, often before news outlets even get a chance to break the story. What’s your take on that and do you think regional news can survive long term?
Tim: The job has changed beyond recognition in the past 20 years. In the 1990s there were no press officers, no websites, no social media. If you wanted to speak to a player you’d rock up at the club car park and interview him. Journalists were in constant contact with the manager, staff, players, on or off the record, which is were all your stories would come from. And you’d only have to come up with one or two each day. In 2019 some papers/websites require seven or eight stories a day. Almost everything goes through a press officer, interviews are staged and people are told what to say, they’re media trained. That makes the life of a journalist incredibly hard in terms of prising information from a club that wants to keep things in-house and has its own media outlets to share news. Hence why you get cringeworthy clickbait, agents pushing out dodgy information, etc. That said, I think there will always be a need for an independent voice, particularly one that holds a club to account. That’s the hole that regional news will always fill, because supporters will demand it.
Thomas: As someone who follows you on Twitter, some of the responses you’ve had to put up with while at the E&S have been appalling. I know you and Nathan often made light of this in your Podcast but that must have been tough?
Tim: Horrendous! I really struggled with it in the early days…every single aspect of my personality/appearance was absolutely torn to shreds on Twitter at one time or another. Sometimes I’d turn my wifi on in the morning and be greeted by a barrage of snide comments/abuse. It’s like waking up and 20 blokes walk past your bed, pointing at you and calling you a twat. For someone who has been a huge Wolves fan all my life, to have ‘your own kind’ turn on you was hard to take. A few of my predecessors at the E&S said they could never do the job now, primarily because of Twitter. But hey, I was getting paid to report on Wolves, I can’t complain, and to be honest in the early days I wasn’t really providing people with enough information as I didn’t have any contacts at the club. Building that up takes time. Me and Nathan did make light of it and I think that turned the tables a bit, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest now. What always makes me laugh is when people come up to me and ask to be unblocked…they’re always so friendly! I never block anyone unless they’ve said something really despicable so it always leaves you wondering how on earth they can be so different in real life.
Thomas: What’s the work/life balance like of a Wolves correspondent for the E&S? I read David Instone’s Between The Golden Lines book and it seemed a challenging existence even back then and I imagine with round the clock reporting, it’s a big ask?
Tim: Yeah it’s the worst part of the job – your social life takes a battering. It’s more just not being able to switch off at any point, football is a 24/7 business, especially with added interest in Wolves from overseas, you could have to react to a transfer rumour at 7am or 11pm. I’ll never forget being on a night out in July 2016, having had a fair few drinks, and at 11.30pm Wolves announced they’d sacked Kenny Jackett, so I quickly sobered up and was working until about 5am. And then I got a call at 8am to say Walter Zenga was being appointed shortly. Then there was a game against Swansea at 3pm! But those are the days you live for to be honest. Also these days there’s the issue of being recognised in the street, which happens far more than people might think. The job takes over your life, for sure. But as I said earlier it’s a true privilege.
Thomas: On a more positive note, Wolves have been on a steep upward trajectory over the last two years (recent weeks notwithstanding). I just wondered how the success of the club impacted your day-to-day job and whether things became easier with everything going so well on the pitch?
Tim: As the team has transformed from a Championship also-ran to seventh place in the Premier League and Europa League football, the club has dramatically changed off the field. When I started, I’d have a one-on-one interview with the manager every single week, players were fairly readily available to speak to (certainly to interview – again, you’d have one available to interview every week) and the club would come to me to share news just before they were about to announce it. i.e. you’d get 30 minutes advance warning of a signing being made, etc. But back then, the E&S were basically the only news outlet who covered Wolves seriously, so that relationship was imperative. Nowadays you’ve got Sky Sports, BT Sport, national newspapers, foreign broadcasters, foreign written press etc. Wolves are *big* news and the local paper naturally becomes less important to the club as there are so many news outlets who want a piece of Wolves. When Wolves are 20th in the Championship, or in League One, the link to the local paper is absolutely crucial for the club, in terms of getting the right messages and relevant information across to supporters etc, but if you’re seventh in the Premier League, everything’s going brilliantly so, in essence, what do the club need you for? Things like one-on-ones with the manager or players just aren’t possible and Sky, as rights-holders, get prominence, not the local paper. As a local journalist your job becomes much harder in terms of A) Obtaining exclusive information/interviews and B) Staying relevant and different in what is now a very crowded market for Wolves news.
Thomas: Nuno gives nothing away, which must be a nightmare for journalists. Do you think managers are wise to keep their cards close to their chest or should they open up a bit more?
Tim: Again, it probably depends on the circumstances – a struggling manager needs to justify his actions and explain to supporters via the press what he’s trying to do. Mick McCarthy was similar to Nuno in that regard – great after a defeat in terms of quotes, but when they’d won I think he didn’t feel the need to justify anything, i.e. “we’ve won, we were great, what else is that to say?”. I don’t blame Nuno for keeping his cards close to his chest – he doesn’t give the opposition an extra inch of motivation, which many managers have fallen foul of in the past, and there’s rarely anything to be gained from sharing transfer information before a deal is done. Equally I think fans would like him to open up a bit more sometimes, certainly when giving reasons for preferring certain players over others, or tactical decisions, etc.
Thomas: You must have a hundred stories you can never share, but give us one anecdote from your time covering them Wolves?
Tim: Thousands! I’ll write a brilliant book one day. One that always sticks with me is a bonkers day in Cork, July 2016. Wolves were on a pre-season tour but back home Fosun were about to buy the club. They were training in some random field but I was on the phone throughout the whole session, trying to get details of what was happening. At the end of the session a few of Kenny Jackett’s backroom staff wandered over to ask what was happening, had the club been bought? I said it looks imminent (which at the time meant Julen Lopetegui becoming manager and these guys losing their jobs). One of them started singing “and now, the end is near…” and they all started singing My Way in unison. Completely surreal.
Thomas: Let’s finish off your E&S stint with a speed round on your Wolves’ experiences…
Best player you covered? Ruben Neves in his Championship season. He did things I never thought possible.
Worst player you covered? Paul Gladon
Friendliest manager? Paul Lambert
Meanest manager? For his press conference glares it has to be Nuno! He’s lovely in person though.
Easiest player/manager to interview? Conor Coady is a dream and the nicest bloke you’ll meet, not just in football.
Hardest player/manager to interview? Walter Zenga was seriously spiky in the early days. He’s mellowed out now, genuinely a really nice bloke who loved his time at Wolves, even if it was brief.
Jez Moxey. Pie in the face or pint down the pub? Pint! Jez was extremely tough to interview – he’d question your questions rather than answering them! So I reckon he owes me a pint.
Best kit? This season’s black away kit.
Worst kit? That lime green one from 2016/17, yeesh.
Best goal (apart from Neves’ vs Derby)? Costa v Cardiff sending two players to Asda.
Best ground? From a journalist’s point of view (i.e. things like view, wifi, helpful staff etc) The Emirates is perfect, closely followed by Brighton.
Worst ground? Brentford is horrendous for leg room. I’m 6ft2in and your knees are pressed hard up against the seat in front. Not great working conditions! Quaint ground though.
Best moment? A close second is the Anfield FA Cup win but it has to be Jota v Man United. I was in tears at full-time!
Worst moment? Deulofeu’s winner at Wembley. Hardest match report I’ve ever written.
Thomas: You’ve joined The Athletic – a subscription-based sports news service – as their go-to Wolves correspondent. Tell us a bit about what motivated you to join and how your output will differ from what we saw on the E&S.
Tim: Whether people have subscribed or not, I’m sure everyone can agree that The Athletic is something that can potentially revolutionise sports journalism in the UK. To be part of something new and exciting from the ground floor was something I was really excited about – and the opportunity to still cover Wolves full-time but on a national/international platform and with the freedom to write long, in-depth pieces was too good to turn down. The focus is very much on quality rather than quantity. People will only see me publish a few things a week but they’ll be long reads, features and interviews that have been given a lot of time, effort and research. So for example in the past week or so I’ve done a big interview with Walter Zenga (his first about Wolves since leaving the club), a profile on Ryan Bennett and whether he’s the right man in defence, a couple of comment pieces on the current state of play and an article on how Conor Coady has managed to play every single minute of every single game for the past 20 months. I’ve got loads of ideas coming up which I hope people will enjoy reading. We also plan to launch podcasts soon and there are regular Q&As with fans on the site.
Thomas: Do you think people will be willing to pay for Wolves content when they can get so much already for free? I’m not against the idea necessarily as I think the current machine-gun approach to sports reporting has come at the expense of quality and that needs to be addressed somehow.
Tim: Quantity over quality is an issue for the industry as a whole and one that’s a very difficult problem to overcome given the need for newspapers to try and attract more people to their website despite having fewer resources at their disposal. What’s different about The Athletic is we’re trying something different, we aim to produce articles that no one else is writing. We’re not doing match reports, player ratings or filing 10 stories from a manager’s press conference which say very little because all those things are widely and freely available. So for The Athletic it’s not about *what* happened, it’s about *why* it happened, using in-depth analysis and the opinions of players/coaches/managers in the industry. If Wolves sign Cristiano Ronaldo, I won’t write a story saying “Wolves have signed Cristian Ronaldo”, I’ll talk to people in the know and get the background story; why did he sign, how did the move come about, how much money is involved, what does this mean for the club, where does he fit into the team, etc etc. I’m also lucky enough to be working with some phenomenally talented people and you only have to look at some of the content produced in the past few weeks to know that it’s a quality product. Hopefully people think it’s worth paying for.
Thomas: Because you’re such a nice chap you’re giving people an introductory offer if they want a taste of what The Athletic has to offer. Insert plug here my friend:
Tim: People can get 40% off for the year if they visit theathletic.com/welcomespiers, which gives them access to our American sports content as well as the work of 50+ reporters covering English football.
Thomas: Thanks again Tim and best of luck at The Athletic.