He has the job that we have all dreamed about. To get a feel of what it was like reporting on the sport that we all love, our intrepid reporter Dan Williams talked to the Times' correspondent for the North East, Mr George Caulkin, about life writing about football, Sunderland and of course, our 'noisy neighbours'.
Hi George, is the day-to-day life of a football journalist as glamorous as we all imagine it to be? Can you give us an idea of a 'normal' week?
George: Come with me on a journey. A journey to Oldham. A journey to Oldham, on a cold and forbidding Saturday evening, amid emasculating cold and horizontal rain. Gaze at this fresh-faced young sports reporter, pain etched across his face, attempting to read notes from a sodden notepad in a phone-booth without glass, the wind lashing against him, his fingers numb, his mobile useless, his car battery dead. Tears well in his eyes.
That, however, was several years ago. So come with me on another journey. Watch as the self-same writer, now hard-bitten and cynical, stumbles from the pub in the middle of the afternoon, wearing last week's suit and yesterday's vomit. Look as he takes out his laptop, churns out 500 words of invented hyperbole and promptly collapses into the gutter. What has he become. Tears well in his eyes.
And you ask me about glamour?
Glamour probably isn't the right word. Half of my life is spent hanging around. Or travelling somewhere and then hanging around. And then going to a stadium and hanging around. There are lots of games to watch, which is fab, although a lot aren't much fun to watch. Chatting to people, doing interviews and making contacts, is all great. Working to deadlines that are ridiculously tight (for night games, I have to file a complete match report for the first edition of the paper BEFORE THE GAME IS OVER. And then re-write it) - is less so. There's quite a lot of stress, late nights, tiredness, travel, a fair bit of frustration and, when it comes to digging out news, the more people you talk to - IE, the better you are at your job - the more confusing things seem. Quite frankly, the whole thing is a mess. And it also happens to be the best excuse for a bloody job in the world. Typical week: game, press conferences, game. With all of the above crammed in. Magnificent.
Do you support one of the teams, and if so, is it hard to stay impartial?
George: Steve Bruce, who was raised as a Newcastle supporter, is paid to manage Sunderland. Steve Howey, who was raised in a Sunderland-supporting family, played brilliantly for Newcastle. I'm paid to report impartially on North East football (and beyond, sometimes). The fact you're asking me the question suggests I must be doing something right. And I've been employed as a reporter for far longer than I was a supporter. Crazy. And frightening. But true.
A brief bit of autobiography. I come from Durham. The North East is my home. I love it. I couldn't do my job half as well anywhere else, because I would care a great deal less about the football teams. I was brought up during the 1980s, when our region was left to rot by the Tories and I've always held the opinion that there's more to unite us than divide; the geographical isolation, the industry, the rhythms of our week, the passion for football.
Rivalry and banter is integral to that.
I don't 'support' an individual club any more. I feel affection and respect for all of them (there are times when I've felt rage at all of them, too). I'm lucky enough to have formed firm bonds with people as diverse as Sir Bobby Robson, Darren Bent and Steve Gibson. Without being too precious, I try to be an advocate for a place I consider to be the best in the world and the football clubs that are our standard bearers. If I was sacked tomorrow (always a possibility), I'd go and watch games at all of them.
Is sports journalism what you always wanted to do/had planned to do?
George: I always thought I'd probably write, although I didn't know what or how. After Uni (history and politics), I did a year-long journalism training course, applied for work experience on the sports desk of the Sunday Sun, that became a full-time position, I stayed there for a few years, went freelance for a couple, was offered a job by The Times and I've been there since 1998. Gulp. I fell into the sports side, but I'm very glad I did.
Twitter has become a big part of sports reporting, do you enjoy people being able to interact with you and, inevitably, comment on your work?
George: It's been a real thrill; a source of great humour, inspiration, intelligence, insight and sporadic abuse. The instant feedback is terrific. Before the Times went behind the paywall (you have to subscribe to access the website now), it helped lead people to articles and blogs etc and now the paywall is there, perhaps it encourages them to take the plunge. Perhaps. Being on Twitter has provided at least one belly-laugh every day. And I can genuinely say I've made new friends because of it (not in a Thai-bride internet-wife sleazy kind of way. Not that I'm ruling that out, mind).
Is there a big rivalry among journos online to be the best 'tweeter'?
George: Well, I guess there's the occasional urge to break stories there. As newspaper journalists there is a constant dilemma; you want to get information out there, but we can't really post material on Twitter that is 'exclusive' to our papers, or covered by a daily newspaper embargo, too early.
Do you think that social media could replace newspapers in terms of sport reporting?
George: It certainly compliments newspapers. If I want to find out quickly what's going on in a live game I'm not at, you get an instant flavour by looking at Twitter. When a big story breaks, there's immediate reaction. Blogs and so on provide great insight. It's another form of holding clubs and media to account. A decade ago, sports journalists worked in a vacuum - now there's scrutiny with everything we do. Quite rightly. What newspapers provide is the benefit of speaking to players, managers, chairmen, agents and so on, building contacts, getting to know people, being at matches and writing based things based on all that. To me, that remains something quite powerful. But we're not infallible. And we should be held to account.
If someone had told you in December that Bent and Carroll would have both left the NE is January, would you have believed them? What did you make of the transfer madness?
George: No, I wouldn't. And I won't make that mistake again. The overall reaction is one of real disappointment and for reasons which apply equally to both Sunderland and Newcastle. For all that they've recouped huge fees, they've lost their best players, which can never be dressed up as a good thing (in Newcastle's case, there's the local dimension, which can only bring back some queasy memories). The distressing thing is that both Bent and Carroll spoke publicly about their fondness for the region and their clubs, which makes it hurt more. I interviewed Carroll at the end of November and he spoke about becoming a Newcastle legend, 'my team, my city, my shirt' etc. I was (and am) very friendly with Darren and I know how much he loved it. So it poses the question, why did they go? Money, is the answer; the money that is being paid to clubs and the money that's being paid to the players. If either Sunderland or Newcastle had come close to matching what Aston Villa or Liverpool were offering in terms of wages, I'm pretty sure both would have stayed. In the circumstances, that was impossible. Villa have been in the top division for decades and have been regulars in the top-six recently. Liverpool are Liverpool. Those fees are statements of intent. But, wherever they go, neither man will experience the same love and adoration they had in the North East or have the same opportunities to be heroes. They've lost that. And the region has lost two England internationals. Sad.
You have obviously seen a lot of Sunderland recently, what do you make of them this term?
George: Things have changed a bit since January, but they've been very impressive. Good players, great spirit. I haven't done the stats recently, but I'd bet that for the first half of the season they were the youngest team in the Premier League in terms of average age, which speaks of great potential. Sessegnon and Muntari give them a different dimension. The one worry at the moment is the lack of options up front and the lack of options on the bench. There are some big players to come back but there are also some big games ahead, so hopefully they'll be able to hang in there. There will be significant decisions to be made this summer, on loan players and other acquisitions, but it's very encouraging.
If you had to make a prediction, where will Sunderland and Newcastle finish this term?
George: Thankfully, I don't have to. I'm happy to wait and see. But both are making progress and that's great to see.
Is it still possible to make friends with the players and staff at clubs in this day and age?
George: In general, the distance between journalists and clubs continues to grow - mainly through less access - and that's a shame. Clubs want to control their own message, which is understandable, except that to a certain extent it's self-defeating, too. The better you know people, what they're about and what they're aiming for, the better sourced what you write is and the less easy it is to criticise blindly. So, it's more difficult. But it's still possible, yes. I've known Niall Quinn for years and think he's great. I'm really fond of Steve Harper and Kevin Nolan at Newcastle. Darren is a mate. Steve Bruce is great company. Away from the players, staff and journalists mix a lot on match days and for press conferences and from top to bottom of the club, there are some top notch people at Sunderland.
Do you have a 'favourite' player in the North East?
George: With Bent and Carroll gone ...? Hmm. It's a difficult one. Barton has had a great season at Newcastle, but favourite? Not quite appropriate somehow. I've met Jordan Henderson and he's both a fine player and credit to himself, but he's not had the most fruitful of times recently. Tiote is very good. I think Sessegnon is going to be. Two fullbacks have taken prominence, which is unusual, but Bardsley and Enrique are up there, aren't they? I'm waiting for a new favourite, I guess.
Who, would you say, has been the best player to watch in your time covering the NE? And do any teams stand out?
George: Hell. That's impossible. Hell. Impossible. Hell. I can't do it. Hell. I can't remember last week, never mind ten years ago. Hell. Lost in a thick fog of alcohol and broken dreams. Hell.
Too many players, too many teams (mostly swamped by a sea of mediocrity). Sunderland: I loved Peter Reid (even though he once pinned me up against a wall at Roker Park and NOT in a sexy way) and the Quinn/Phillips axis sticks in the memory, obviously. The early moments at the Stadium of Light were remarkable; full ground, breathtakingly noisy, young team, hunting in packs, dashing wingers, full of goals. Roy Keane sent a bolt of lightening through Wearside and it was brilliant to be around that. And there have been so many good performances against big teams in the last couple of years.
Newcastle: that magical Keegan era, coming close to the title, the privilege of reporting on Bobby's team in the Champions League, watching Shearer score goals for a decade and protect points by shielding the ball in the 93rd minute. Shay Given was a favourite. Have to mention Beardsley, Ginola. And watching them rebuild under Chris Hughton and senior players (in spite of the madness in the boardroom) was proof that football people do still care. I realise the colours of the stripes may be 'wrong' from your perspective, but perhaps that's not a bad thought with which to end.