Mike McGrath: “There are great stories all around us”

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Mike McGrath is living his dream. Since leaving Durham in 2001 he has established himself as one of the country’s most prominent and up-and-coming football journalists. He is currently writing for The Daily Telegraph, covering everything from injuries and managerial changes to governance and transfers. 

Palatinate sat down with him to discuss his career to date, his time at Durham and his thoughts on his industry moving forward. 

“I think back very fondly of Durham all the time. It was just a great three years for myself and all of my friends, who I stay in touch with. I think with collegiate life you have a bigger friend base because college life dominates so much so you get to know lots more people compared to university in bigger cities.” 

McGrath studied sociology at St. Aidan’s. He was a prominent member of college life and remembers his footballing outings for both Aidan’s and Durham as highlights of his university career. Despite his sporting triumphs in the college league, he knew that his career in sports was more likely to be on the reporting side.

“I realised quickly that if you’re playing for St Aidan’s then you’re probably not going to make it as a professional,” he joked. “I played for the Durham University 3rds when they had a sickness bug and needed a few players. But I wasn’t going to be a professional and I knew that from an early age, so I wanted to be a writer. 

I realised quickly that if you’re playing for St. Aidan’s then you’re probably not going to make it as a professional

“With journalism, I must admit I didn’t maximise my time at Durham as much as I should have but I was concentrating on my degree a lot. I did a couple of pieces for Palatinate but not as much as I should have considering that it really has been an ambition of mine to be a football writer since I was young.” 

After leaving Durham, McGrath embarked on the agency route. First working for the Press Association and then Wardles Agency, he spent years cutting his teeth before writing for The Sun, and then subsequently The Daily Telegraph.

Since joining The Telegraph he has reported on pretty much everything football related. His ‘transfer notebook’ has been a particular success since he’s been at the paper. In an age where transfers have become such an integral part of the modern game, McGrath is all too happy to tap into the excitement which surrounds the transfer window.

“I find transfers to be the most interesting part of football, because if I get in a cab and the cabbie asks me what I do, the first thing he’ll ask is ‘who are we signing?’ And everybody asks it. ‘Are United really going to sign Ronaldo?’ For example.

“Whilst the original ambition as a kid was just to watch and cover football, the transfer market is the most interesting sideshow to football but it is also the toughest to crack. It is so tough, there is so much false information. I think to get good information, like we do at The Telegraph regularly, shows real journalistic quality.”

There are so many different skills and qualities which are needed to make it as a football journalist. When it comes to transfers, though, McGrath is very honest when he puts it down to sources. With so many different players and actors in a transfer deal, getting the right information from the right people is the key to a successful story. 

He makes the link between this part of his job and Durham. The people skills which he uses on a day-to-day basis is something which he acknowledges was honed and refined at university.

“Our job from when we start is to have the best sources. They might be from the buying clubs side, people working around the deal, they could be working for the player, it could be relatives, it could be anybody.

“To bring it back to Durham, that is one of the best things that the University can teach you: how to talk to people and to engage with them and listen to them. To have that skill which is implicitly taught whilst you are a university student is really valuable. In the workplace for me it has been 110% about contacts; without them, you have nothing.”

The transfer market is the most interesting sideshow to football but it is also the toughest to crack

Football journalism in the United Kingdom has long been synonymous with the England national team. Especially around the time of major tournaments, the noise created by the national tabloids has always been a determinant of the mood in the country. 

Whilst the media have indeed come under fire in the past of their treatment of the England team during World Cups and European Championships, it is still something which McGrath has relished during his role. 

“Covering England has always been seen as the pinnacle of football journalism. To follow England around the world and cover their games and to try and get as close as possible to the manager and the players has always been seen as the pinnacle. 

“I haven’t really taken a step back to think about what an incredible three years it has been. I was so tired I probably didn’t appreciate how big a moment it was to go to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Moscow in 2018.” 

This summer, the country was engulfed by the success of the England team. McGrath was one of the reporters who was at Wembley covering England’s first major tournament final since 1966. Although the game did not go England’s way, being there was enough for him.

“A few minutes in when Luke Shaw scored everyone thinks they are going to be champions, but it didn’t work out that way. For those few moments I thought it was going to be a historical moment. 

“It is incredible to be part of that coverage, and you kind of feel invested in them and you want them to do well. A lot of people sometimes think that the media can be negative, but that’s wrong. I, for one, really wanted them to win it and to be one of the journalists lucky enough to cover it.” 

It is no secret that newspaper sales are not at the level which they used to be. The decline of hard papers has given the whole industry a need for reform. To some extent it is a problem which is still being fought.

Many outlets, such as The Telegraph, have chosen to pursue the subscription model. McGrath is a strong advocate of this and believes that it provides hope for journalism. 

“The internet has been something that journalism has wrestled with, probably since after I left Durham. Our model at The Telegraph is to get subscribers to pay for our journalism which we believe is worth paying for. I think there is a market for people to pay a reasonable price for very good journalism.” 

He is therefore incredibly upbeat about the future of journalism. When talking about his advice for budding journalists at Durham, whether in sport or not, the roots of the industry are at the heart. Both finding and building relationships with as many contacts as possible, and most importantly finding stories. 

“My advice for people who want to pursue it is to take everybody’s mobile phone number whenever you meet them and keep talking to as many people as possible, which is the foundation of getting any story. There are great stories all around us at every corner. From very high stakes to the notice board outside the local shop; there are stories all around. Be perceptive of them, learn them and pursue them.”

Image: Mike McGrath

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