Going way back to 2012 when you first joined up with Blyth, what were your original goals/targets when joining the club?
My main aim was to get into the media on a full-time basis and to gain experience working within a club and within football in general. I think that was one of the successes of the media team under Phil Castiaux because there were a number of highly-motivated volunteers that could see the opportunity that was on offer. That meant we were able to really push things on and working at the club benefitted both ourselves and Spartans. It was similar to when Jordan Cronin was working at the club because he helped produce some outstanding output and really got things to a high level – but don’t tell him I said that.
Looking back with rose tinted glasses it feels like when you joined it was the founding of the ‘media team’ as it is now. Did it feel like that at the time?
I think that’s possibly a little harsh on the volunteers that were already at the club at the time. I am grateful for the praise but there was a lot of hard work and, more importantly, quality work going on at the time. From my point of view, I just wanted to get more content out there for my own benefit and to gain experience of writing match reports, features, reactions, previews on so on. Phil was brilliant if I’m honest, he just told me to press on with things and I think he was really open to a number of suggestions. The likes of the BSAFTV launch, Instagram, podcasts and Radio Northumberland commentaries worked really well and I think we had one of the most complete media outputs in non-league football at the time. That was far from my own work because we had some many forward-thinking people involved. Obviously you look at where a whole host of them are now and it shows just how much of a talented media team we had.
In your early days at Blyth the club was a bit of a mess it’s fair to say. Any fun or interesting stories you can share with us from those days?
I seem to remember just grasping at anything positive because the disappointment of relegation was still very much in the air. I used to live near Tommy Cassidy so I travelled with him to home games and pickup points at away games. I loved Tommy, he was a great bloke and I do think he did some great work in testing circumstances. He would ask me what I thought of performances and, being new, I’d try and be positive, suggesting Spartans had been unlucky or just aren’t getting the rub of the game. He turned around on more than one occasion and said ‘really, I just thought we were shite’.
I don’t know if you remember the 1-1 home draw with Workington in the FA Cup but Tom Berj scored a last-minute equaliser. I thought he’d be a good person to speak to post-match and the interview went really well until I asked him about the replay at their place. He answered with ‘oh aye, we’ll go there and smash those c***s’. That line didn’t get used – and we didn’t go there and smash them.
By the end of the 2013/14 season the club had a quality match highlights package, YouTube shows, radio commentary, a podcast and regular interviews. How did you and the lads build all of that up in just 2 years?
I think as I said earlier it really was a team effort. We were lucky to have so many talented individuals involved but it was their range of talents that allowed us to do so much. I can’t do editing or anything like that but I can write and speak about the game. But then you had people like Stephen Hurst, who was a brilliant cameraman and video editor. Jonny Hall was an outstanding commentator and I honestly think he could have done that full-time because he was so effective behind the mic. You look at the likes of Luke Bidwell, Matt Riggs, Ryan Gray, Rory Mitchinson and they’re all produced outstanding written, audio and video content before going on to work in full-time roles. I will say again, Phil Castiaux deserves more credit than anyone because he oversaw what was going on and was always there for advice and guidance.
As 2014 the club of course began a bit of a cup run. How stressful and busy did all of that become for you all?
It was wonderfully mental! I was essentially working two full-time jobs because we were just rushed off our feet from the moment the Leek Town striker found the car park with that penalty. That game, as you’ll probably know from my annual reminder on social media, happened on my birthday and it was just a very special day. I look at what followed, the build-up and aftermath of Altrincham, the craziness of preparing for a Match of the Day live game and a derby at Hartlepool, holding press conferences with national and international media, dealing with some local writers that I admired greatly, it was just brilliant.
That’s without forgetting Luis Figo following Spartans on Twitter during half-time in the Birmingham game and the weird contrast of utter disappointment and sheer pride at full-time. I can really explain what was going on in side. But from a personal point of view, and this may come across as a bit self-indulgent and I apologise if so, but the cup run was probably the biggest learning curve of my time at the club and played a significant role in what I am doing now. I learnt lessons that I still fall back upon when I am writing for different publications at present.
Shamelessly steeling this from Jord and Stu’s Q&A but, what advice would you give to anyone getting involved in football media, especially at non-league level?
Work, just work, work, work and get as much experience as possible. Try new things, develop new skills and find a niche that makes you stand out a bit. Whether that’s a style of writing or a unique form of video content, find something different to do. I think from my point of view I just didn’t say no to any offers of work at the time. It meant I could experience all aspects of the media and took advice from several different people.
What do you think the biggest hurdle was that you had to overcome at Spartans in your time as Press Officer?
It’s quite a tough one to answer because my time at the club was so enjoyable. I think going through a settling-in period during what was an awful time for the club was the biggest challenge. There was so much change with Tommy Cassidy leaving, Paddy Atkinson taking over, Paddy leaving and Tom Wade taking over. Three managers in my first season was an eye-opener and let’s be honest, for large parts of the season it was just such a slog on the pitch. There were new players on a weekly basis, or at least it felt like it, and some of the defeats were just draining to say the least. I really wanted to come in and be positive but it was difficult to be that way until the final months of the season when things belatedly started to turn.
Favourite player/manager to interview?
There’s a few to be honest. Nathan Buddle and Paul Robinson were always good value and very professional but that’s because it’s so blatantly obvious both of them used to practice at home in front of the mirror. Jokes aside (it wasn’t a joke) but they both gave genuine answers and were very professional in the way they conducted themselves. I had left the club by the time Alun Armstrong was appointed but spoke to him on a regular basis for the local papers and during my time working for Non-League Daily and Football Matters. Alun was basically no bullshit. If the lads played well, he said it. If they didn’t, he said they were poor and wouldn’t hide from that. I get that from Graham Fenton too. I’ve dealt with Graham at his last two clubs and he’s still very much the same manager in terms of how he deals with you. Straight to the point, open and honest. That’s all you can ask for really.
What would you say was your proudest/biggest achievement at Spartans?
I think the greatest praise we got as a media team came during the cup run and I think it was during the preparations for the Hartlepool tie. We had some of the best writers in the country – in my opinion – at Croft Park for the pre-match press conference and The Mirror’s Simon Bird paid us a great compliment after things came to an end. He said we had a Premier League-style media output and given he was works at that level on a daily basis I think it was a massive validation of what we were trying to do. George Caulkin was also very complimentary and actually went on to sponsor Tom Wade, Sammy Perez and Boris Bonket (legend!).
I’d also say it was some effort for a club in the third tier of non-league football to get that sort of recognition given we were all essentially volunteers and most of us were learning on the job in what was quite a pressure environment at the time.
Since leaving Spartans in October 2015, can you give us a round up of what you’ve been up to over the years?
I had already taken up a role at editor of the Non-League Daily website by the time I left Spartans. I tried to combine the roles because I just fell in love with Spartans and, as predicted when I joined, the club got right under my skin. But the work levels of working both positions just wasn’t possible and leaving was not an easy decision.
During my time at Non-League Daily I started working as a pundit on the Made in Tyne and Wear show Football Matters before going on to host and produce it too. At the same time I was offered the chance to go freelance and take on the Chronicle, Journal and Sunday Sun’s non-league content, as well as becoming a feature writer for the Non-League Paper. A year later I also started covering non-league for the Sunderland Echo, Shields Gazette and Hartlepool Mail. I also now work with Jordan (who is doing very well and deserves massive credit for what he did as media manager at Spartans) on Newcastle World, as well as working for National World covering clubs in the EFL and Premier League for a number of their websites across the country.
Also as a freelancer, I’ve produced content for the likes of the Press Association, Mail Sport, The Sun, Four Four Two and the Set Pieces…and played an inexplicable amount of Football Manager.
Lastly, how would you like to see the club improve in the near future and what changes would you like to see?
Looking at on-pitch matters it would be to see Graham Fenton given time and space to build a squad in his own mould. In my opinion, he really is the best possible manager the club could have appointed but it will take time and patience from the board and supporters. Obviously we hope they club stay up this year, but even if they don’t, I firmly believe Fents will remain the right man for the job if he is given the tools to build what he wants to build.
Looking at off-field matters, I know the club consistently talk about increased crowds and welcoming further investment. It would be tough to see one coming without the other, but it would be lovely to see someone bringing further investment to really push the club forwards because I think there is real potential within the club. It has everything going for it. The size of Blyth and the surrounding areas, the history, Croft Park, the unique name and brand, the iconic kit and the fact the town has its own identity and doesn’t get lumped in with Newcastle too much. Hopefully that potential can be realised at some point in the future and the club can really kick on under Fents.