"...this is the most articulate and accurate piece written about the club for years!" - Tales from the Front, http://www.otib.co.uk/

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Interview with a Middlesboro blogger

My latest article from Bristol City's matchday programme, Red Alert:
Middlesboro, Dec 3rd

This is the full version of the interview, which was edited for the programme due to space constraints
This week I’m delighted to welcome Middlesbrough fan Steve Welsh to ‘On the Social’.  You may have heard of “Fly Me to the Moon” as one of the better-known club fanzines – it was started 23 years ago and in its time saw distribution peak at more than 3,000 copies.

So, where does Steve come in? Well, amongst a series of ‘Boro related articles and interviews on his blog, Steve has undertaken the quite remarkable task of trying to bridge the gap between paper fanzine and electronic writing by archiving the first 100 editions of FMTTM onto his blog – www.miniboro.com

Steve, I think the first question has to be: Why?!
I'd toyed with the idea for about 7 years but it just felt like the time was right. There had been so much apathy under Southgate and Strachan that people were harking back to days gone by, as tends to happen in times of adversity. So I wanted to give an authentic view of those times and see how much of it had been watered down, forgotten about or rose-tinted over the years.

The first 100 issues had been sat on top of my wardrobe for about 20 years and one day I decided to have a bit of a thumb through them, before I knew it I had lost about 4 or 5 hours.

It was incredibly absorbing; the thing that struck me most was not just the quality of the writing but also the parallels that could be drawn from then and now. There were some genuinely important issues and historical events, racism, Hillsborough, ID Cards, all-seater stadiums etc, a really important time not only for the Boro but football in general.

I find the stories, letter and content in printed fanzines often now seem dated due to printing deadlines.  With so many people now using forums or Twitter to communicate with each other about their team, do you feel the days of the fanzine are numbered?
I recently interviewed Middlesbrough journalist and FSF Award nominee Anthony Vickers and asked him a very similar question, his answer probably sums things up better than I could (see below):

“They (fanzines) have lost their political edge as the game has been sanitised, packaged and sold off. They have also lost the 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 think a lot of fanzines now are ghost ships looking for a role.”

Without meaning to disrespect your considerable writing ability, the most eye-catching feature of your blog are the simply wonderful illustrations, which have featured amongst the great and the good of online football blogs, including ‘Surreal Football’ and ‘In Bed with Maradona’. So how did that come about and have they taken over from the writing a little?
The main problem I had was that transcribing each fanzine by hand was a very laborious and time consuming task. To make matters worse, people naturally wanted the content to change regularly to keep their interest in the site going. So I decided I would need to include a couple of extra sections to keep people happy while I worked chronologically through the back catalogue. I began a series of interviews with ex-players and also started to test the water with a couple of my own Boro-centric illustrations.

It was at that point the lads over at In Bed With Maradona got in touch and asked if I’d consider turning my attentions to some of the bigger names in world football, Cruyff, Maradona, Pele etc with a view to creating a gallery on their site. Once that gallery went live things really started to snowball. Unfortunately by this time the illustrations and interviews were starting to take precedent over the fanzine archive.

I do intend to return to the fanzine archive (currently standing at 27 issues), but it occurred to me that once all 100 issues had been documented, I would have to take the site in another direction anyway, so I decided to plough on with the illustrations and just add the odd back issue of FMTTM here and there.

You have an impressive list of interviews on your site, including the likes of Craig Hignett and Bernie Slaven.  How do you go about getting these interviews and how did you feel speaking with your heroes?
Gaining access to players has been a very hit and miss process. It’s been a mixture of introductions, patience and simply being in the right place at the right time. I had no real game plan and a lot of it was down to luck, Craig Hignett offered this insight when I played against him in a recent charity match at the Riverside “you sounded fairly normal, so I thought yeah why not”. That’s pretty much the way I’ve played it, I try not to be too formal but not too familiar either. I see if they have the time to do it and then choose my questions carefully.

The thing that has surprised me most is how receptive most of the players have been. In the majority of cases they simply want to tell their story and are happy to share their memories with the fans. I think it’s a definite advantage if you are speaking to ex-pros, since they can be a little bit more relaxed with their answers. All the media training and years of giving no-committal answers to bland questions must take its toll. So I try to make things as interesting as possible for the player and at least try to uphold my end of the bargain by doing a bit of research.

It’s often been a fine line between asking challenging questions and not over stepping the mark, but I’m pleased to say that no one has refused to answer anything yet. A good example was when I asked Bernie Slaven what the source of friction was between himself and ex-boss Lennie Lawrence, he replied “It was a clash of personalities… he didn’t have one” (Ed - City fans should appreciate that one!).  So it’s been great when players are as open and as forthcoming as that, to be honest each interview I’ve done has been a bit of a treat for me too.

Until a couple of years ago bloggers were fairly niche, known to each other in quite a small world, but Twitter has allowed some fairly major-scale expansion and PR. Would you agree and how have you used Twitter to benefit your site?
I started my site in April this year and to begin with I didn’t really “get” Twitter. It just seemed like Facebook Lite to me. But as time went on I thought I’d give it a go and see what all the fuss was about. I was immediately struck by the general ‘mood’ or ‘feel’ of Twitter, people are genuinely trying to help each other out on there. If you need something there will invariably be someone else on there who can help you out, or at least point you in the right direction.

The thing is, it’s done with no ulterior motive or agenda, it just like-minded people helping each other out and that’s what I loved most about it. I’ve had so much exposure to products, websites and people that I wouldn’t have known existed. Shared knowledge and shared experiences is what it’s all about as far as I’m concerned. It’s very much a give and take mentality, if you show people you have something to offer and can demonstrate ‘why’ you are worth talking to, you will soon find yourself having a huge number of very interesting conversations.

Do you feel forums, blogs and Twitter have influenced the 'instant success' requirement we see at many clubs?
Not really, if anything it’s given fans a more balanced view on things. We now have a variety of sources to go to and are not just spoon-fed from the National / Local Press. It gives people the opportunity to explore things from a variety of angles and moves away from the knee-jerk ‘Sack the Board’ mob mentality that was prevalent in the 80s/90s. I’m not saying every fan tries to, or even wants to see things from an alternative perspective, but to have the opportunity to do so is important I feel.

What's the best thing about Twitter?
People are always ready to give you honest constructive feedback, the fact it’s not said to your face makes for some very candid responses at times. If you are thick skinned enough to take criticism and more importantly you are prepared to act upon it, then Twitter can be a very powerful tool in the creative process.

Who are your favourite football-related 'follows' on Twitter?
Far too many to choose from really, there’s the obvious big hitters like @inbedwimaradona and @surrealfootball. There are sites with huge back catalogues that I can happily spend hours sifting through like @DannyLast and @ghostgoal. There are site from other clubs (other than Boro) that still capture my imagination like @AFC_Collective and finally there are the hidden gems you discover like @500RTLF and @foospaper.

And finally, quickly onto football matters: you’ve had a great start to the season, probably better than most expected.  What’s been the secret behind the success and who should City look out for?
It has all been down to one man and that’s Tony Mowbray. I can’t speak highly enough of him; the turnaround has been nothing short of miraculous. He hasn’t just changed our playing style he’s had an influence on every single facet of the club. Many Boro fans have long thought it was his destiny to manage our club and he has surpassed all expectations. We’d already had one former captain sully his good name through an unsuccessful stint as manger (Southgate) so there was real fear that lightening might strike twice.

Thankfully that’s not been the case and there is a feeling Mogga is building something quite special. I think the following quote sums things up best “Mowbray is a confident, principled man with a commitment to improving performances and footballers, as well as results".

In terms of who you should look out for today, that’s difficult because a lot of our success has been built on team work and a willingness to work for one another. That said, Nicky Bailey is about due a goal I reckon, he’s been playing in a more defensive role than when he was at Charlton, but if you see him bursting through from midfield today don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Follow Steve on Twitter @miniboro_dotcom
The Exiled Robin (@TheExiledRobin)

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