On The Whistle

Day 16 of the blog post a day in May challenge and we hit the midway point by harking back to my past life writing to deadlines.

IT may sound obvious, but crafting an intro is a key first step to an awful lot of writing.

It is a very good place to start.

Given my normal blog writing schedule, the intro tends to get kicked around in my head, written and rewritten over a period of time – sometimes days – and the likely first paragraphs take shape.

Get that down and the rest of the piece takes shape from there, often heading off in a completely unexpected direction.

But that has not always been the case. There was a case when a key part of my job was writing the first few paragraphs on top of an article which was otherwise complete.

All within very tight time constraints.

Those days writing match reports to tight deadlines were the topic of discussion after an article in The Guardian was shared into my Twitter feed this morning.

It brought back some good memories and also some cold sweats, although supporting Gloucester am used to that feeling in the closing moments of games.

“You can almost feel sparks popping inside your tiny overworked brain as you grapple for new words to replace instantly inadequate ones as quickly as humanly possible.”

It can certainly concentrate the mind and have seen some very experienced news journalists crumble – in one case, reduced to tears – as they fought to juggle words into some form of order before a deadline looming just minutes after the final whistle.

Late goals and controversy force a total rewrite and change of angle, all while you are too busy looking at your laptop rather than what is happening on the field.

Among several strange finales, a football match was meandering to a 1-1 draw in the last few minutes with little threat of anything that was going to upset the completed report which was bang on the required word count.

It finished 4-4 after eight minutes of stoppage time.

There is little option than to cram those mad 10 minutes or so into three or four paragraphs, redo the intro and take out the easily disposable stuff you stuck in early in the report to up the word count in case nothing happened.

Or rely on someone back in the office doing that – this was before the days of laptops when the report was rung through in chunks to copytakers, who you just hoped did not hear you say a team had come out organs blazing or going for the juggler. It happened.

This was in the days of the Saturday night Pink Un sports editions, sadly lost to the rise of other sources of early results and reports, to say nothing of the move away from Saturday afternoon kick-offs.

For my first live report there was not even a phone. The office mobile was on duty elsewhere and my only option was the payphone in the bar at the club had been playing for a week earlier.

Had to kick the barman off the phone and find someone who could be trusted to take notes while the pitch was out of view, but think it all got through accurately enough.

Even having a mobile did not always mean smooth sailing.

Reception was not always great on the brick of a mobile, especially when reporting from the touchline of a club out in a bit of a communications blackhole – the Forest of Dean in the mid-90s say. Which was pretty much my patch a a rugby writer.

Have half-scaled trees, stood on the top of radio cars, retreated to the team coach and even sat on the bench to get some sort of reception. While the replacements and coaches listened in to what was being written about their team.

Sat on the bench took on a new meaning on a couple of away trips when a spare pair of size 12 boots were rustled up from somewhere and was pressed into service as the only available replacement front-row option.

Thankfully, never called on to play (several levels higher than anything in my playing career) but did have to warn a copytaker someone else may be ringing them to finish the report as a player went down injured.

Even safe from the threat of being called into action, positioned in the sanctuary of the press box and tapping away on a laptop, things can go wrong.

Not sure at what point somebody kicked/pulled (delete as to which person was being blamed) the plug on my laptop out, but nobody noticed until the screen went dead about 900-odd words into the live report of a Scotland v Wales match at Murrayfield.

Never saw the last 10 minutes, except quick glances to the TV screens in the press room as found a plug and did my best to retrieve or remember what had vanished from my screen – while keeping an eye on a couple of late scores which saw the match end level.

Remember far more about a long Edinburgh evening gathering quotes and liquid refreshment than about the match.

But probably the most eventful match was a National League Three trip with Lydney to Wharfedale.

Team boss Gordon Sargent and Ian Seymour, his counterpart at neighbours Berry Hill, were both great rugby men, exceedingly patient and kind to a young journalist (as well as being much missed), allowing me to travel on the team coach in return for a few quid in the beer kitty.

Sarge was on the end of the phone when met with a very loud scream after the handset was held against my ear having been against a red-hot radiator all night.

The Wharfedale trip was fine until the moment we arrived in the Yorkshire Dales – very picturesque and absolutely no mobile phone signal.

Having found the one phone in the clubhouse in an upstairs bar, set up an impromptu press box on a balcony with my counterpart from local radio, one relaying key details while the other was inside getting their report across.

Right up to the point when somebody in the radio studio forgot to flick a switch and all that could be heard down the phone line was commentary on another match.

Eventually somebody realised and got a message through to the office that the rest of the report would be coming in one big block at the end.

And it was all but done as the clock ticked to 80 minutes with Lydney trailing by 12 points, the intro was written and it was time to start dialling.

At which point, Lydney scored two converted tries – both in the corner which was totally out of view from my vantage point and the only option was to hang over the balcony and shout down at the winger to ask who had scored. Not surprisingly, he tried to claim them both.

Eventually the report was filed, key facts confirmed for Monday’s report and a few quotes gathered (Sarge’s usual response: “You know what I’d say, Rob. Clean it up and put that”) and the notebook went away – to the realisation the players had eaten and, keen to start the long journey home, were ready to go.

Faced with the prospect of several hours on a coach with the odd beer on board, grabbed a bag of crisps to line the stomach and settled in to getting at least my share of the beer kitty.

Details of what happened next are hazy. Know we stopped at what was then my local and there were tequilas involved (more interesting expenses). And my flatmate came home to find my uneaten packet of chips on the front room floor and me curled up in the bath.

Pretty glad there was no deadline looming.


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