Craig Hope is the North East football correspondent for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday. He was previously based in London but has been back in his native North-East covering Sunderland and Newcastle since July, 2014. He started out as a news reporter for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle 10 years ago and has since covered football for the BBC, Hartlepool Mail and Wardles Agency. Here, he takes time out to talk to Roker Report about the challenges of covering the North-East patch and returns his verdict on current affairs at the Stadium of Light.
RR: What's the biggest challenge you've experienced about the running of the club since your time covering it?
CH: Sunderland are far from alone in this, but it would be beneficial to themselves, their players and the press if they granted more interviews with newspapers.
I can honestly say that a one-on-one sit-down with a player will always result in a positive piece, improving relations between the player and the press and creating more goodwill on our part.
Too many clubs fail to realise the benefits of promoting their ‘assets’ via interviews which get away from the bland soundbites of pre and post-match press conferences. It also gives supporters more of an insight into the players they are paying to watch.
RR: How easy are SAFC to cover in terms of press access and to receive information?
CH: Like the majority of clubs now there is a general mistrust of the written press. There doesn’t have to be. The best clubs work with the press to the benefit of their club.
RR: What's your opinion of the Director of Football role in the modern game?
CH: If he has a good working relationship with the manager then great, I’m all for them. Gone are the days of one guy taking training, picking the team and then ringing around trying to sign players. However, it is when a director of football is put upon a manager that the problems start.
RR: And your view of Lee Congerton's impact at SAFC?
CH: Everything you hear about him is positive, but I think we’ll have to wait until the end of the season to pass judgement on his impact.
The profile of one or two targets (i.e. Stewart Downing) is a concern. Sunderland need to get away from signing players whose best years are behind them and work on bringing down the average age of a creaking squad.
Congerton seems bright and ambitious and I think, given a little bit of time, he can make a real impact.
RR: If you were in charge of SAFC’s summer recruitment drive, who would you like to realistically sign and why?
CH: I would like to see them rivalling Newcastle for the likes of Georginio Wijnaldum and competing with Southampton for Jordy Clasie, both 24-year-old Holland internationals with their best years ahead of them and a high resale value should they prove successful.
Jermain Defoe was obviously a short-term fix and perhaps has one good year left in him, while Jeremain Lens turns 28 this year and Sunderland will probably see little return on their £8m investment down the line.
RR: What is your view of Advocaat’s one year contract arrangement? Do you think it will have an impact on attracting players?
CH: I had hoped it would see Sunderland use Dick’s reputation to target the best young Dutch players. As for the one-year deal, I was convinced Congerton would target someone like Paul Clement and try to mark this summer as the start of a new era.
I like Advocaat and I think he’ll keep Sunderland in the Premier League this season, but I would have preferred to see more of a long-term vision.
RR: Kevin Phillips has recently suggested he was surprised about Advocaat’s U-turn as it may indicate we lack clear direction. Do you know how close we were to appointing another coach?
CH: Not very. From the end of the season until the moment Dick's wife allowed him to return, Congerton and Ellis Short were only interested in enticing one man back to the club.
RR: What do think the main issues are that hinder us from attracting quality signings on a regular basis? Is it simply geography, budget, mixture of both?
CH: Location is a slight issue but that can be overcome by selling the ambition of the club to a player. To that end, I still don’t really know what Sunderland are striving for and their signings have been a little bit scattergun in recent seasons.
In that market outside of the top six, all clubs now have the financial power to compete with each other in terms of wages etc.
For me, it’s more about Sunderland being in need of an identity and making themselves a little bit more interesting and appealing. Let’s be honest, last season was boring.
At the moment they’re in that band of clubs that are just happy to survive. They’ve got far more going for them than that and should be doing all they can to promote the positives – that comes back to the first question about using the media to your advantage.
RR: What’s your view on agents in the modern game and what sort of relationship do they have with the press generally?
CH: There are some agents who are trustworthy and decent fellas making a good living (Sunderland’s players have a couple of these) but there are too many who don’t tell the truth.
Now I appreciate their interest is their client, but when someone tells you an outright lie it leaves a sour taste. Also, too much money is leaving football via agents.
RR: How do you feel the club is viewed outside of the region both by the football press and from those specifically within the game itself?
CH: Your earlier question deals with this to an extent but I feel Sunderland are not doing themselves justice when it comes to maximising their potential in terms of profile.
However, only they can change that by producing a better product on the pitch and making themselves more appealing to football fans, players and the press.
RR: Is the press aware of the perception from some in the NE that media coverage is unbalanced between SAFC and NUFC?
CH: NUFC are more appealing to London-based sports desks because of the history of the club and their alarming ability to put themselves on the back page for the wrong reasons.
So it is unbalanced, yes, but Sunderland should be doing more to combat that by producing good news stories and taking advantage of NUFC’s breakdown in relationship with the written press.
RR: What do you think about having transfer windows in football? Do you think we should return to the previous approach?
CH: The best thing about the transfer window is when it closes. I honestly detest the summer months spent ringing around agents and being told half-truths and lies.
As from a football perspective, I think the transfer window works and allows us to concentrate on football for the majority of the season. Although I do think it should close on the eve of the season.
RR: As a journalist for a national newspaper, what are the highlights and pitfalls of covering the transfer window?
CH: The pitfalls are being told something that you believe to be true and then it turns out not to be. Add to this being told something that you know is true and then a club denying it. It is one big game of subterfuge.
The highlight, of course, is getting the story that you know is spot on and then breaking it ahead of your rivals (I’m still waiting for that story…).
RR: What’s been your most satisfying article to write so far in your career and why?
CH: I went to see Julio Arca playing for the Willow Pond pub team last year. It hadn’t really been picked up on by the press so I went and spent a Sunday morning with him and the lads, ending up back in the pub.
It made for brilliant copy and pictures and Julio was a genuinely nice fella.
The feature we produced Daily Mail gave our readers something different to enjoy away from the narrative of the Premier League season.
A former Newcastle manager even sent a text to say he’d really enjoyed the piece and thought Julio came across a top bloke!
RR: What are your hopes for Sunderland this season?
CH: I’ll be honest, part of me wants to see them enjoy a season of stability under Dick - but then a season in and around 12th isn’t very interesting is it?
So from a selfish point of view I either want them to have a season like two years ago (relegation scrap, cup runs and the Great Escape) or really kick on and push for the top 10, giving us genuine hope that something good is on the horizon in the coming years.
RR: Thanks Craig, all the best and we hope the transfer window doesn't give you too many late nights!