Ken Early: “Football teams view the press as parasites, not partners”

The esteemed journalist discusses social media, accessibility for readers, and hostility towards sports journalists

For those who read Ken Early’s weekly football column in the Irish Times, or tune in to the Second Captains podcast regularly, it is difficult to picture the man as anything other than an astute, sophisticated, and perhaps even self-righteous journalist. Most people who challenge Early on footballing matters generally fare quite badly, so it is natural that any prospective interviewer would feel slightly intimidated when approaching the man with the golden curls for a conversation.

And certainly, as the discussion begins, Early impresses his extensive sporting knowledge. Over the course of the interview, he laments the turbulent relationship between the traditional sports media and football’s biggest personalities, as well as the effect that the rise of social media has had on the industry. But he also manages to shift suddenly to a lighthearted tone, and his digressions offer a brief respite from the pessimism in his commentary.

Early grew up in Templeogue village and recalls that his was a football-obsessed household: “My mother used to enjoy watching football, I used to play football on the street. Football was always just something that I enjoyed talking about with my friends and playing.” Early studied English Literature and Philosophy at Trinity, where he was heavily involved in both Trinity News and TCD Miscellany. After graduating in 2000, Early started working at sports website Setanta.com.

After leaping from job to job, Early eventually landed at new radio station Newstalk to join the sports talk show, Off The Ball. Again, Early explains that for the new presenters, it seemed that crafting a new programme would be challenging: “I started working in there probably when [the show] was extended to three hours. We asked ourselves, ‘how are we gonna do this? How are we going to fill three hours every night?’ So we just found some stuff to talk about and talk about it for three hours every night – I don’t remember us sitting down and saying, ‘look, this is our aim, this is our goal’. We just did our job and did what seemed interesting to us.”

“If you go too basic about how you cover a certain topic in an attempt to attract people who don’t care about what you’re talking about, then the people who do care about it might not find what you’re saying very interesting. There are different levels of expertise with any discussion of any subject, and not all sports journalism is aimed at any general audience, which makes sense to me because it tends to be read by a specialist audience. I don’t think there is a problem with inaccessibility in sports journalism.”

Early finds it baffling that there is such an overemphasis on statistics in sports today: “That [statistical analysis] only happens because it can happen. Before, you couldn’t say which player had more passes in a game. Now, every single little thing can be counted, catalogued, and used. People are doing it in their everyday lives anyways with Fitbits and different apps. It’s quite natural for people to say, ‘I’ve taken 1,500 steps today,’ or, ‘I’ve eaten x amount of calories’.”

Football players do it too, with the interest in their FIFA ratings, complaining, “why have I only got 62 in my pace rating?”

“Football players do it too, with the interest in their FIFA ratings, complaining, ‘why have I only got 62 in my pace rating?’ Kids are playing Championship Manager, where it’s natural for them to see sports on these terms, where all the attributes of a player are calculated and quantified numerically. It just seems like it’s the language of the game today and that is how young people see it. It’s not like you learn anything by watching the game.”

Early’s involvement in journalism coincided with the rise of the Internet, Early has witnessed the drastic changes within the industry during the transition to the digital era. As one of the crucial members of the Second Captains podcast, Early is at the heart of the technological revolution in the media and is fair in his assessment of the new world: “More and more is expected of you so that they [media outlets] can remain competitive.” He admits that working in the media, as with any industry today, has become a sort of continuum, and that the job is not done once you leave the office every evening: “You don’t get to the end of the day and go, ‘that’s my work done’. It intrudes [your private life] and is always there. This is just required of you now – if you can’t do it, someone else will.”

Early also finds that relations between sports personalities and the press have soured significantly since the rise of social media. A notorious example of this was Martin O’Neill’s post-match interview with RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue after Ireland’s 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Denmark. The Republic of Ireland manager walked out of the interview, disgusted by the broadcaster questioning his tactics on that fateful night in the Aviva. Ever since then, and perhaps before it too, O’Neill has been quite reserved and even bashful when dealing with the press. Early believes that this is an issue in sport on a universal scale, and that social media has played a big part in its development. “You’ll notice that the FAI put an increasing amount of stuff on their own channels. They’ll do player interviews – the kind of stuff that used to be in Shoot magazine – what’s your favourite colour, that sort of shit. Man United are also like that – they used to be a football team, but now they are an advertising company and the football team is the thing which all the advertising is inserted into.”

“But they don’t make any money out of all the stuff that’s in the newspaper or on the radio about Man United. If I write an article that says ‘José Mourinho is a fucking fraud,’ they get nothing from that but aggravation. It used to be that they needed the media to literally be the medium through which their message can get out, but now they don’t need that. They have their own Twitter page and can broadcast through their own methods. They don’t need journalists to write about what they are doing. The question is now, ‘why are you still in the room? Why are we still working with you?’ They increasingly view the press not as partners, but as parasites.”

In football, if they see another bus-load of journalists rolling up, [they would] “tell them to fuck off”.

“The UFC have a different attitude – they will make every fighter available [for an interview], because they want as much coverage as possible. They are in a position where they are small and trying to grow, whereas in football, if they see another bus-load of journalists rolling up, [they would] tell them to fuck off.”

Then the dynamic of the conversation shifts entirely, as Early interrupts his negative thoughts with a random question: “Are more people giving their kids Irish names?” The discussion is saturated with these amusing tangents, which demonstrate Early’s artistic mind. While he is one of Ireland’s most highly-regarded sports journalists, he preserves the quirky originality of his college days – when the interview is over, Early smokes a cigarette before hopping on his bicycle, all the while discussing a piece he is writing for tomorrow’s paper.

Despite attaining prestige in journalistic circles, Early still manages to marry serious, well-crafted arguments with pop culture references. Although he admits that he saw student journalism as a “mock-up” where “there is very little at stake”, his writing style is reminiscent of a young student cutting their teeth at a college publication. If anything, Early’s appeal lies in his ability to keep in touch with his roots. Moreover, his meandering stream of consciousness exhibits a mind that is constantly at work.

Since Early made his first strides into the world of journalism, there have been dramatic developments in the industry. He admits that the drastic changes have left him feeling a little disoriented and uncertain as to where the profession goes from here. Indeed, it seems that sports journalism, in particular, faces many challenges, such as the focus on instant news and the poor relationships with sports stars. However, Early’s articles, podcasts, and attitudes prove that despite this, one can carve out a successful career in the field without sacrificing much other than some sanity.

Cameron Hill

Cameron Hill is the current Sports Editor of Trinity News. He is a Senior Fresh English Literature and French student.