By Nick Friend
I landed in Lahore three weeks ago ahead of the final leg of a journey that would leave me in Lodhran, a small countryside town in the South Punjab region of Pakistan.
It is a tough part of a country on the road to recovery; there are few employment opportunities and little infrastructure.
Yet, among the swathes of cropland that stretch for miles on either side of a solitary highway that ultimately leads back into the nation’s urban hubs, sits a cricket ground. There is not much to it; we are beyond the height of summer, and so the grass has lost its lush sheen. An unpretentious sign hangs over the entrance and tucked away in one far corner of the field stands a single bathroom.
The facility is home to a cricket academy doing incredible things in the area; it has given the young people of Lodhran a raison d’etre and a home away from home. The objectives are twofold: to open doors in a community where they have often been slammed shut and, in a glittering utopia, to see this speck in the rural wilderness produce an international cricketer.
Sports journalism is about saying yes to opportunities. It is a phenomenal job and one that I’m hugely fortunate to wake up to each day
I’ve been home for a fortnight now. To say that I’ve been to Pakistan feels a remarkable privilege. I’m humble enough to admit that I knew little heading into my trip. I wish I had known more. But I return having enjoyed the experience of a lifetime.
And if this reads like a self-indulgent sojourn down the lane of a recent memory, then perhaps that’s because, in part, it is.
But there is a wider point I want to get at. Sports journalism, I think, is about saying yes to opportunities. It is a phenomenal job and one that I’m hugely fortunate to wake up to each day. It was a dream that properly began at Durham, where Palatinate took a punt on me.
I was sent to Lahore by The Cricketer, the world’s oldest cricket magazine, and where I have worked since joining the publication a week before last year’s World Cup. I can’t lie: it is a dream job – a magazine I had been buying for years and a sport I love almost too much.
As you can imagine, those initial weeks were frenetic, all culminating in the day of all days, when Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer clinched a maiden world title for England’s men. I’ve been assured by colleagues that it simply won’t get better than that, that I’ve seen cricket’s greatest day. I guess that depends on what you’re looking for.
I was the sports editor of this student newspaper for two years, before graduating in 2017 with a degree in modern languages. I was set on a career in sports journalism long before I first took on the role at the beginning of my second year, but I had been encouraged by writers I’d spoken to that I was better served studying something I knew I would enjoy at undergraduate level and then taking things from there.
It is a decision I would wholeheartedly endorse seven years on from starting out at Hatfield. Four years later, I began a Master’s in sports journalism at St Mary’s University. Once again, I would recommend it to anyone – a terrific course with superb lecturers and a vocational focus. Forget Kafka’s theories of journalism. Instead, get out there and do some sports writing. And I’m so glad I did.
It’s by no means the only way in – nor, necessarily, the typical route. Press Association run excellent courses, as do News Associates; others too.
My first job came with SportsPro, a sports business magazine and website. If England were to win the World Cup, that wasn’t really a story for us. But when England would partner with a major brand, then that was our bread and butter.
It might sound dry to some, but I learnt a huge amount. I’d go as far as saying that without understanding the businessof sport, it is difficult to truly understand sport itself. Sport is business. Big business. I spent eight months there, writing news stories and features, while getting out of the office to source my own interviews.
That approach has its roots at Durham. Ever since sitting down with former Newcastle defender Olivier Bernard in my first week as Palatinate Sport Editor as a petrified 19-year-old, features have been my major focus.
They’re great fun to do. Athletes are human beings – society often lets us forget that. I remember sitting in Bernard’s office, his feet up on an adjacent chair, chatting with the Paris-born left-back about his honorary Geordie status, his work with anti-racism charities and his ambitions for Durham City FC, where he was chief executive at the time. There was a starstruck moment – why am I here? But then, it felt natural.
Over the next two years, I spent afternoons with Rafa Benitez and Gabby Logan; there were interviews with Chris Kamara, Jeff Stelling, Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards and Lennox Lewis.
What I’m trying to say is that this is all possible. Who knew? I definitely didn’t. Receiving a reply from the representatives of some of these people was a thrill – even in rejection.
If you want to go for it, go for it. Blog, podcast, throw yourself into student media. Tweet and email journalists and editors; ask if you can spend a week shadowing them or, better still, working on their sports desk. Get a taste for it and see for yourself whether it’s for you.
Discover a favourite writer and read him or her religiously. And then follow others. Pick up styles that you like and others that you don’t. If you like a long read, subscribe to The Athletic. It’s awash with quality football writing.
When I moved on from SportsPro, it was to join CNN. It was a tremendous chance to work for one of the most reputable names in the industry and to experience life in one of the busiest newsrooms going. It’s quite a place. To say that I’ve written for their enormous global audience is a thrill; to say that my features – long thought out and meticulously researched – have stood front and centre on the homepage of their website is a quite surreal feeling.
It pays to stand out from the crowd. What can you do that makes you different? Chase stories, be bold and build up a portfolio
All that stems from Palatinate. George Bond, my deputy editor in my final year at Durham, is a sports journalist at MailOnline. Ollie Godden, another deputy alongside George, is completing his own Master’s in sports journalism. Charlie Taylor-Kroll, a deputy in my first stint in the role, is now a business reporter with Merger Market alongside Ryan Gould, who was my editor-in- chief. And Tomas, who I worked with in my final year, is now in charge of this section. Kishan Vaghela, once a deputy himself, now freelances with MailOnline and The Independent, having worked for four months with me at The Cricketer.
If nothing else, that chain should provide hard evidence of the pathway that exists and, indeed, the value of student journalism. It is not the be-all and end-all by any stretch – I have university friends who have gone into the industry without ever touching student media during their studies.
I’m not convinced that there is a single piece of advice that is more important than any other. But jumping at opportunities – no matter how far outside your comfort zone – is definitely a start. I spent the first week of December 2018 holed up in a Prague hotel, covering the World Floorball Championships. I had never heard of the sport until I had a flight booked and my accreditation approved. It’s indoor hockey with plastic sticks and a hollow plastic ball, by the way.
It pays to stand out from the crowd. What can you do that makes you different? Chase stories, be bold and build up a portfolio.
Palatinate gave me the chance to do all three, doing so in the knowledge that I was contributing to a publication that has seen some fine names pass through it. Mark Pougatch, so generous with his time when we interviewed him in my second year, is a former sports editor of the paper. He, of course, fronts ITV’s football coverage. George Alagiah, the great news presenter, was the editor-in-chief many moons ago. Hunter Davies, the journalist and author who has ghostwritten the autobiographies of Wayne Rooney and Paul Gascoigne, also contributed as a student. And then there is Jeremy Vine as well.
It is embarrassing company, but also a reason to put everything into it. Hindsight is terrific and, at times, I wonder whether I could have put less into Palatinate and perhaps made more of other areas during my time at the university. But then, I know what I learnt from the approach I took.
Sports journalism is no 9-5 job. It’s weekends, it’s evenings, it’s news breaking just as you were planning to leave the office for a pint. That’s the nature of the beast.
But it’s also terrific fun. Some would say that I’m far too willing to take work home with me. But work doesn’t feel like work.
If you’re even slightly thinking about it, you should give it a go.
And then, all of a sudden, you’ll be stood in your very own Lahore – be it Wembley, St Andrews, Silverstone or Twickenham, doing something you never once thought you’d do, covering an event you never once thought you’d cover, breaking the news you never once thought you’d break, interviewing the superstar you never once thought you’d interview.