ANTHONY VICKERS INTERVIEW

Miniboro catches up with Anthony Vickers to discuss his early days as a regular FMTTM contributor. From his sporadic first articles, right through to his current role at the Evening Gazette. What is very apparent in this interview is that Anthony is first and foremost a Boro fan, someone who is passionate about both the club and the area. I would like to thank him for taking the time to talk to me at such length and with such honesty about the club he clearly loves.

1. You wrote for FMTTM between 1989 and 1994, how did you first get involved with the fanzine?

I’d been involved in anti-racist politics when I was a student in Newcastle and helped write and produce a TUC-funded Geordies Are Black and White proto-fanzine in the early 80s when the National Front were recruiting and selling their hate rags outside grounds and doing their monkey chants on the terraces. It got a bit hairy selling that at times. Fisticuffs once or twice. Then, later, when I lived in Coventry I did the odd bit for the West Enders fanzine there.

I was always quite engaged with the whole fanzine movement. Whenever I went to a match – I went all over at all levels of the game when I was in Coventry, its handy for that –  I’d ask around to see if there was a local fanzine and I’d stop and chat with the sellers to get a feel for what the local issues were. They were usually more or less the same ones – fences, poor facilities, aggressive policing, inept directors, terrible media coverage, the usual shopping list of dissent.

I’d also been one of the first people to join the fledgling Football Supporters Association in 1986. I wanted to be an active part of the fight back against all fans being demonised as knuckle-dragging hooligans so when I came back to Middlesbrough as a trainee news reporter at the Gazette in 1989 I was an angry terrace radical looking for a cause. The fanzine was a natural place to turn to for me.

2. How much of your first article do you remember / do you still have it?

I can’t really remember my first bit for FMTTM but I’m guessing it was some strident polemic against the oppressive, draconian Thatcher ID card attack on ‘the enemy within’ and how fans had to organise to reclaim the game.

I did keep most of the stuff I’d written, but not out of vanity. I’m a hoarder. I’ve got a huge bundle of old FMTTMs and Get A Grip, the Teesside FSA fanzine we did and When Saturday Comes. They are all up in the loft now in a big box with all other kitsch from that time, you know, inflatable Transporters, the video of the ZDS final, a Slaven For Scotland t-shirt and some signs from Ayresome Park.

3. You wrote under a variety of pseudonyms during that time, which ones did you have the most fun with and why?

I wrote my main FSA articles under the brand Chairman Vic, a nod to my position in the group and to my leftist leanings but myself and Dave Lee (another football obsessed Gazette hack and the FSA secretary) used to write at least one article each for just about every issue.

We used a variety of names, partly as a joke riffing on the topic of the piece, partly as shameless opportunism and making it look like there was progressive bandwagon behind the FSA platform and partly, especially after I had moved to the sports desk, to protect my own back from any backlash over things I wrote that people at the club or the police chiefs didn’t like.

I seem to remember We used a lot of rock stars real names and people from fiction with cred (Winston Smith was one) plus assorted Teesside references, Martin Manor, Clive Road, that kind of thing.

4. I understand you were also the person behind ‘The Kerny Liberation Front’, which sought to take on the Ayresome Park Boo Boys, was there a specific incident that prompted those articles?

Not so much one incident but there one particular nasty foul mouthed individual in the Holgate that was permanently incandescent with rage at poor Kerny and who used to scream spittle flecked obscenities for 90 minutes. The mentality was frightening but fascinating too. We used to watch him in gob-smacked horror. There was some incredibly creative invective. Poetic almost. Sometimes you would think it was scripted beforehand.

I found it incredible that the bunch of young lads who had saved the club could come in for such vitriol. Even if they were now seen to be not good enough (and I didn’t agree with that) they still deserved credit for what they had done collectively to save the club. None of them were cheats.

I also took a general position of by all means boo at the end if the team have had a shocker but nothing was to be gained by torturing them while the game was one. Or in some cases before it has kicked off. I think I’ve broadly written that every couple of years since as the scapegoat cycle rolls on.

Ironically I’ve since met nasty shouty Holgate man a few times and he is a perfectly sane and polite individual but he admits he did get a bit wound up on matchday.

5. Did the fanzine’s treatment of certain players ever go too far in your opinion?

I’m not sure. It could be quite abrasive and insulting but fanzines then worked in a much smaller universe and a much more clearly working class and overtly male environment where quite savage piss taking was the norm. I think they just reflected that.

I certainly don’t think what was in the fanzine was any worse than they heard shouted from the terraces. Remember chanting then was far more cutting and obscene. A few lines in a fanzine their mam and mates would never see weren’t going to worry them.

It was quite clear the fanzine was for the fans, by the fans. I doubt many players even saw it. It is not like now where it is all on-line and they stumble on things ego-surfing on their I-Phone and a bit of bitching goes viral in an instant.

6. That said, do you think fanzines have lost their initial bite since the late 80s early 90s?

Yes, undoubtedly. They have lost their political edge as the game has been sanitised, packaged up and sold off and admittedly as some of the chief issues (racism, policing, hooliganism, and facilities) have been addressed by the game.

They have also lost their underground feel that gave them a sense of cultural rebellion. They went from a culture of literal cut and paste and sneaked use of the office Gestetner machine to virtual cut and paste and desk top publishing. Some are glossy lifestyle magazines now. Some are a business. Some are very close to their clubs. That is not necessarily a bad thing but it does change the entire ethos, strategy and voice.

More importantly I think they have lost their old role as a focus for dissent. The internet forums mean a political hot potato is deconstructed and discussed to death for days or weeks on-line long before the next issue of a paper fanzine. By the time a fanzine comes out the issue is dead. I dread to think how hollow and dated a monthly one must feel now.

I think a lot of fanzines now are ghost ships looking for a role.

7. Back in those early days did you see writing for the fanzine as a potential route into sports journalism?

No. I saw it as a vehicle for political activity. I was a committed and active leftie and anti-racist and fanzines were on the frontline back then. I’d cut my political teeth as a punk energised by the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism and saw how angry, hairy-arsed working class yobs could become a key part of a progressive social movement. I think getting involved in the fanzine movement was a natural extension of that.

And for a few years I think that was true. I think what was vaguely labelled “the fanzine movement” became briefly a massively influential national progressive network: anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-Tory but fiercely non-partisan. I think they educated people on broader political issues and made people question how the game was structured and owned, how they were treated as individuals and a collective. They were a good thing.

Before the fanzines there was no coverage of football politics, finance and culture and the Ivory Tower elite would patronise us and generally treat fans as stupid.

The fanzines helped challenge that old approach. They forced the media to think more about who their readers were. Fanzines built a new consensus of what active ‘fandom’ was about that ultimately stopped the tired old media response that we were all racist boot boys one beer away from a riot or the police perspective that we a public order problem.

Fanzines were important in creating the conditions for fighting racism from within, isolating the hooligans and reshaping the image of football fans as more articulate and informed, more complex. They gave us a voice at a crucial moment in the game’s history. It was important we had a vibrant media-savvy mechanism ready to fight our corner, especially after Hillsborough.

And that’s why I was involved in fanzines, because I believed all that stuff. It wasn’t a career move.

8. Fair enough, but do you think a lot of football blogs these days are created with that kind of career move in mind?

As a stepping stone to journalism? I don’t know. Some, maybe. If you go into something so cynically as I think it would show through. The writing would be soulless and hollow. Most blogs, good ones anyway, are a labour of love fuelled by passion not ambition. And you can tell.

The better ones seem to be run by professionals who are already web and net literate, by people already in good jobs and who probably couldn’t afford to take the cut in wages to be a lowly hack.

9. So do you think people coming into journalism through blogging is a good thing or a bad thing?

It’s probably a good thing. Better than people coming in because they are star-struck and want to meet players or want to get onto TV. I think it is always a good thing if people coming into the industry are already writing well about things they know and love.

And if they can hone their skills and write well and topically enough to catch the eye of an editor and get themselves a job, better still, although I would be surprised if it happened like that. Access to the limited number of jobs in a shrinking market is generally about hard work, qualifications and a bit of luck.

If budding journalists can put a crisp, well designed, well written blog alongside their cuttings file and a good CV it can only help them get a job and that’s a good thing. If people are coming into the industry with new skills, a new perspective and an understanding of what the audience wants and how to deliver it, that’s a good thing too.

10. Given the proliferation of blogs, message boards and social media?  How do you see football journalism evolving? What can traditional journalism learn from it?

Lots, I hope. Especially about immediacy and networking and the use of different media – video, sound clips, data, user generated content – and links to source material to offer a more complete package.

We need to tease and trail things on Twitter, break things in brief on-line and then do the news story with quotes and graphics in the paper and then follow up with reaction, background and picture galleries on blogs and the web.

We need to be aware that most supporters are obsessive, news hungry and web-savvy and a lot are ahead of the industry and hard-wired into the internet 24/7 at home, at work and via their phones. We can’t pretend we are the crusty custodian of information and we can decide how and when it is released. We can’t pretend that people haven’t seen a transfer story from Hungary or Spain. They’ve read it via babelfish and know all about the guy from his wiki and YouTube.

We need to factor this in, assume that the readers are well informed and add something extra: analysis, context, colour. We need to be smarter.

But people shouldn’t get the impression that journalists are all cartoon tabloid dinosaurs unwilling to change. Most are keenly interested in the mechanics of disseminating news and the technology and want to use social media more and usually we are aware of the stories as soon as they break but we are restrained by the fact that we have a print product or a radio or TV programme geared to a set print or broadcast time. If we use everything immediately we will cut our own throat.

11. Who were your main literary influences back when you were writing for Fly Me?

Johnny Rotten, George Orwell, John Pilger, PJ O’Rourke. Dissidents with a turn of phrase.

12. And now?

Pretty much the same general cultural touchstones. Plus in the football media I like David Conn and Jonathan Wilson for their knowledge and grasp of their specialisms and the passion and eclectic breadth of websites like twohundredpercent and In Bed With Maradona. And I like the cynical misanthropy of Charlie Brooker too. I wish I could be so savage in print.

13. What was your first paid for piece of journalism?

Working at the Gazette.

14. How would you describe your written style?

My twitter profile says “tub-thumping tabloid rabble-rouser” which is as good a phrase as any.

It depends what I’m writing I suppose. You have to be tight and clean and hammer home information on news stories and when space is tight but generally, when I climb on my soapbox, I do colourful rhetoric, daubing liberally from an emotional palette. Some may say overblown and pompous.

I like alliteration, I like the sharp crunch of tabloidese, I like making up words when I weld a few concepts together. I like words to sing and sting. I’m creative. I want people to read my stuff and whether they agree with it or not, at least enjoy the language and imagery and pace. What a bloody luvvie!

15. How has it evolved since your days writing for Fly Me?

It has expanded with the space I am allowed, I think. I was always too clever by half and very wordy but looking back on the old Fly Me stuff or even on my early shorter Gazette columns the feel is very clipped, concise and maybe a bit more shouty and didactic.

Now I am given a free-hand to approach things as I want and I have the space to take a theme and run with it. I can bring in cultural and psychological perspectives and the methodology and language or philosophy, economics, politics, demographics and look at things through a different prism. I am allowed to show a bit of emotion too. That is a great luxury as a writer and I know I am lucky to have it.

16. Is there a specific method or process you work towards when writing about the Boro?

Again it depends; on the issue, on the result, on the general political landscape.

Sometimes, when it is a polemic it is because I have been ranting andarguing with Eric and all comers to formulate a position on a contentious issue then while I am still in full flow I bash it out as a sizzling stream of consciousness. Then I go through, take out the overly abrasive bits, reorder it a bit maybe and polish it.

Sometimes, especially if it will take a bit of research, I let ideas percolate a bit, write down scraps and phrases and build a skeleton of an article and leave it a while I go through the cuttings and records books.

Sometimes, when it is a state of the nation piece weighing up public opinion on a big issue – an under fire manager say – I try to be very balanced and nuanced and represent every possible viewpoint fairly and that makes it seem like fence sitting.

17. How often do the lines between fan and journalist blur? (do you have any specific examples)

Well I do opinion and colour so I am allowed to be a bit passionate and engaged in a way that news pieces can’t. Charting the highs and lows on Plant Boro and the crazy swings between them, which is kind of the territory I work in, mean you have to reflect the emotion in your writing.

Actually on the job, in the press box, you tend to be very clinical and controlled but I have been a bit “unprofessional” a few times. I was screaming and being highly partisan Cardiff when the goals went in and the whistle went for instance and I was up on the desk and EIOing on the laptop and punching Eric black and blue at the Steaua game. I’ve been furious after games a few times too, after the Cardiff cup catastrophe too.

18. What aspect of the job gives you the most satisfaction?

When readers stop me and thank me for putting their own feelings into words or say that I “tell it like it is.”

I get letters from people saying they have cut out a particular article and shown it to their mates at work because it sums up what they feel or sentit to a brother in Australia because he needs to understand what is going on or whatever and I feel vindicated in my job but also privileged to be part of the whole cultural universe.

I also enjoy defending Boro and Teesside against the arrogant and blinkered Cockneycentric national press with their lazy Northern stereotypes and air of horror at our upstart club. I like a bit of our defensive passionate parochialism. I think that tendency to quickly detect an unspoken insult and to hold a grudge over it is one of the most defining elements of our collective cultural DNA.

Being able to articulate the angst and frustration that whole layers of fans feel when things are not going right is hugely important. Ultimately fans are the lifeblood of the game, the one factor that remains constant and it is only right that their voice is heard. Seeing it in print and seeing it relayed with some empathy is a safety value for the psyche.

19. The nature of your work means that you are often ‘there to be shot down’ to a certain degree. How do you respond to your more vocal online critics?

I don’t respond to them. They are free to get on with it but it doesn’t bother me too much.

There has always been a chickenrun mentality among Boro fans and in the enclosed hot-house atmosphere of cyberspace, and with anonymous alter-egos scoring points off anyone that looms into view in surreal competitive negativity, it has become worse. I’m not going to tailor what I do to a minority who can never be satisfied.

Doing what I do, which is expressing opinions, by definition invites opposition and I don’t mind that. It is part and parcel of the job. Sometimes my opinions are contentious – defending a manager or player from the critics, having a pop at the Pavlovian booing – and football is a game of passions. I expect people to argue back.

Nothing I write is set out as a definitive version of the truth. It is the starting point for a debate and debate is healthy.

Sometimes I get accused of being unrelentingly hostile to the club. Sometimes I get accused of being a ra-ra puppet of the club scared to upset them in case they take my free ticket away. And sometimes over the same article.

The thing is, you can’t be precious or thin skinned about it. Debate is healthy and I am more than happy to accept that people have different views. Indeed, if they take a diametrically opposite opinion and it is well argued and they submit it then I am happy to print it. Not insults though. Unless they are funny. There is plenty of critique of my own position on my blog for instance. I don’t censor it.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not short of opinions and that I don’t shy away from an argument. I have always been an iconoclast, a natural dissident and a barrack room lawyer. I have always had to fight my corner and enjoy it so I am not getting to get upset over a few oblique comments on the internet.

20. Which article past or present are you most proud of?

It’s hard to do lists like that. It’s like children, you have to love them all, even the ugly ones.

In the last year or so I’ve enjoyed the one about our former boss and his fetish for ‘Strachanovite’ heroes of labour, an on-line essay about the values at the heart of the club and what Boro means to individuals and the debate that followed and the bit on Mogga’s liking for Ancient Chinese military theory.

21. What has been the worst backlash to one of your articles?

I’ve had the odd writ or two but they are kind of a badge of honour in this job. And I have had a lot of “how could you do this to us” complaints from the club over the years for writing perfectly legitimate questions that have provoked diplomatic incidents. That’s par for the course given the job I do.

The biggest, most sustained backlash I have faced came early on, ironically when I was still a news reporter. I did an eye-witness report in the crush in the away end at Ayresome at a Leeds game six months after Hillsborough.

The police took out a load of Leeds fans from the Holgate and directed them into the back of an already crowded away pen and they ones at the front had to scramble over the fence. There were a couple of minor injuries but it could have been far worse.

I pointed out the stupidity and insensitivity of the action coming from exactly the people who should have been keenest to learn the lessons of Hillsborough in that piece and then in the press conference that followed when the top cop Terry Tasker tried to justify it by the then official default blaming the fans I asked a series of quite tough questions and wrote up the replies verbatim on the front page.

There was an alliance of the police top brass, emergency services, council licensing suits and the club all berating the editor and demanding my blood. I was only a cub reporter and I was worried about my job. Luckily for me, the paper defended me robustly but a lot of people never forgot it. I was marked down as a trouble-maker from then.

22. Your blog has been going for about 5 years now, how difficult is it to keep a fresh perspective on the Boro?

It’s not. Football is in a permanent state of flux with the picture changing by the hour as news breaks, opinions change and emotions shift.

The immediacy of the way fans react on-line and the need to be constantly in the forefront keeps me on my toes and prompts me to write quickly. And frequently. Except the past few weeks when I’ve been on holiday and the once didn’t take the laptop.

The superb feedback from a lot of regular readers who post their own analysis and opinions keeps it lively too. I get 20,000 plus unique users a month reading so it is a big audience and I hope I have created an atmosphere on there where everyone feels they can contribute.

The standard of informed and articulate debate, the passion people show, the surreal digressions and the gallows humour make it a good read even if my own stuff isn’t.

23. Do you still contribute to the fanzine these days in any form?

No. I’ve got far too much on my plate as it is. The last thing I did was for the Millannual.

24. Are you able to confirm or deny your existence on the FMTTM message board?

I can confirm that I still occasionally dip in but don’t post anymore. A decade ago I was on 24/7 under a variety of guises. Eric-Paylor was one. I only posted sporadically and rarely about Boro but I read vast amounts. Mainly the none football threads.

It was a fantastic, eclectic and liberal community, witty and erudite and a great hub for organising things – the big cards and Miro’s role in Ostrava for instance. I used to make colleague read threads that were wonderful. I thought was a brilliant advert for everything that was good about Teesside. You would learn something every day.

Now I am not a regular, despite some people thinking I sit here all day cutting and pasting. I dip in and out with a heavy heart. Yes, it is still popular I think it has been dumbed down and while I know there are still a lot of good people on there they get shouted down to easy. It has a nasty undercurrent now with a lot of foul language and crude sexual things. I very rarely direct anyone to it now.

25. What has been your most difficult interviewing experience?

In sport? There have been a few very famous players who are complete prats, arrogant and surly beyond belief but most are OK. They know it is part of the job and so even if they are half-hearted they still talk to the press.

Football interviews are relatively easy. They are all set up for you, the game poses its own questions. Everyone knows what is expected.

The really hard interviews are over on news, death knocks, having to go round to talk to a grieving family who have just lost a child tragically and needing to get “a story.” I was never emotionally equipped to do that. I used to feel sick walking up to the door. I have utmost respect for that group of empathetic journalists who can do it in a way gets a human interest story that reads well, expresses the emotions and helps the bereaved family.

26. What have been your most ‘typical’ and ‘untypical’ moments as a Boro fan?

Typical….  Trevor Steven’s extra-time equaliser for Everton in 1988, Wolves 1981, Emile Heskey’s cruel late leveller at Wembley, the Cardiff cup catastrophe, the Blackburn fiasco, announcing Keith Gillespie before he’d passed his medical, Phil Whelan’s signing, Diego Forlan being hijacked at Heathrow… and, as they say on compilation albums, many many more.

Untypical… getting to Wembley so often we had our own end, winning a trophy, playing in Europe. All through the glory years I had a sneaking feeling that it was all a hoax. It did not compute.

27. You’ve recently been nominated for an FSF Writers Award, can you tell us how that came about, who you’re up against and how you rate your chances?

Yes, I’m chuffed to bits with that. I get nominated for industry awards quite often because of my colourful style, that’s a technical thing,  but this is by the fans, for the fans and it is more about the passion I show and the subject matter I think.

It is based on nominations from readers – thanks anyone who voted for me – and then a short-listing panel made up of leading members of the FSF, which is the national campaigning body for supporters.

I’m also chuffed because I am the only lowly local hack on the short-list of six. The rest are A-list big-hitting famous Fancy Dans from the nationals. I’m up against David Conn and Sid Lowe from the Guardian, Oliver Kay from the Times, Henry Winter from the Telegraph, Des Kelly from the Mirror. So raggy-arsed Northern upstart against the highly respected Premier League of print.

Have I got a chance? I don’t know. I suppose I must have or I wouldn’t have been short-listed. I suppose, thinking positively, most people on the judging panel will be familiar with the others’ but my stuff will be the shock of the new. Hopefully they will take into account the open debate that the blog promotes too.

Maybe it will be seen as sound politics to recognise the local press too. Most of their members support clubs that never get a mention in the national press after all. Here’s hoping.

28. Will the Mogganaut get a mention in any acceptance speech?

If I get a chance I’ll definitely point out the unstoppable momentum of the #Mogganaut. It will certainly be rolling in the Gazette next season.

29. If you could rewrite one bit of Boro history what would it be and how would it go?

“…with just minutes to hold on Boro were under pressure but the Leicester end of the Wembley crowd were left screaming in frustration and whistling in disdain as Bryan Robson’s side cynically took the sting out of the game.

“Boro made a series of substitutions that broke up the tempo of Leicester’s attacks, the ball spent much time hurtling towards row Z and twice Boro players went down needing treatment after what appeared innocuous tackles.

“Leicester ran out of steam and direction and when the whistle went Boro went barmy celebrating the club’s first ever national knockout trophy and a dream debut trip to Europe.”

ANTHONY VICKERS INTERVIEWsteve.welsh@gmail.com