No journalist comes to mind faster than Henry Winter when English football is the topic in hand. The Edinburgh graduate has been Chief Football Writer at The Times since 2015.
In the latest issue of the Talking England interview series, he answers a handful of questions on the national team and how best to report on the matter.
Here is Talking England with Henry Winter.
Do you approach England match reports differently from other match reports, if so how and why?
If a game is just on satellite, I write more “headers and volleys”, actual match incident, as fewer people have watched it live. They tend to be more emotional pieces, as you inevitably get caught up in the occasion. This, of course, can lead to mood swings, hero to zero, in headlines.
Is it the case that you have to supress your emotions when you’re covering England, or does the emotion help to enrich your writing?
Emotion’s vital. Just look at the last World Cup (any World Cup) and you appreciate the level of interest in the team. It’s the time of year when I get football-related texts from friends or relations who usually have absolutely no interest in football. England matter hugely.
It’s easier to be emotional about England now because they are such a likeable bunch under Gareth Southgate. There are some very impressive role models, Raheem Sterling, Danny Rose, Harry Kane etc, and one inevitably warms to them. Plus they are playing good football, reaching semi-finals, so after years (decades) of lows, it’s a joy to cover some highs.
It’s vital to pour any emotion into the screen. It’s cathartic, so I often walk out of the ground very relaxed, having let rip (I hope) with the piece. I’ll be chatting to fans and admire how still buzzing they are. Like all the football writers, I’ve left a lot of the adrenalin in the piece.
Do journalists tend to have favourite players and managers? If so, who are your all-time England favourites?
Wayne Rooney never ducked a question, always spoke well. Sven-Göran Eriksson was not a great coach, but I admired his laconic approach to life. Southgate is always very impressive, as a player he came out and talked after that penalty miss at Euro ’96 when it would have been easier to hide, and he’s the same, open and friendly, as a manager.
Raheem Sterling is special as a man and a player. I have huge respect for Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes from the Golden Generation. Paul Ince is always great company. I spent a year writing a book with Michael Carrick and as a character and player, few are better.
Would you say England’s long underachievement post-’66 can really be attributed to pressure from the media? Have you been able to rationalise results like Germany 2010 and Iceland 2016?
Not good enough, not hungry, not well-coached enough, not brave enough. Too fearful. Southgate has removed the fear.
What would you say is England’s best ever performance? Is it really the 1966 final or have we ever topped that?
Far more experienced journalists than me always say the 1970 squad was better. There were moments at Italia ’90 and Euro ’96, against the Dutch, was special.
What has Southgate done right?
Removed the fear, got the players to express themselves to the media, to their families, to the fans, reconnecting, and expressing themselves on the pitch. He’s also got some very good players. He’s made turning up for England fun again. As there are more age-group games, the players are building up relationships before reaching the first team.
Why do impressive England tournaments unite the country to such a strong degree?
A sense of longing, a deep passion in football and this is a team everybody can share.
You wrote the book ‘Fifty Years of Hurt’ a few months after England’s Euro 2016 capitulation against Iceland. You’ve followed England at high and low points, where do we stand right now?
In a good place. I was indebted to the publishers for inserting the words “and why we never stop believing” because there’s always hope, never more so than now under Southgate.
It will certainly be pleasing to England fans that figures such as Henry Winter are still so passionate about the England team, so hopeful for the future. Many thanks to him for kindly agreeing to take part in Talking England.