TrawlerMeets: The Tomkins Times

Posted on February 17, 2012 by

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As the brains behind the popular Liverpool FC website The Tomkins Times, Paul Tomkins has established a thoughtful and wide-ranging club-specific football blog which thrives behind that most inauspicious of online phenomena: a paywall. His ability to find fair-minded, statistics-based conclusions about the team he loves has earned him a loyal following of interactive subscribers. He has also contributed to The Blizzardand authored a number of football books including Dynasty: Fifty Years of Shankly’s Liverpool, and the influential Pay As You Play which finds generous transfer spending to be the true price of success in the Premier League era. But Tomkins also faces a number of uncommon challenges – including, most recently and most painfully, dealing with the Suarez/Evra debacle – and he expands on these and more in this interview for The Trawler.

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TT: Firstly: how/why did you get into football writing? What appeals to you about football writing rather than, for example, fiction?

PT: I had to leave my job at the end of 1999 when I was diagnosed with M.E. (Myalgic Encephalopathy). This led to serious depression, and my marriage broke down. I lost pretty much everything I had – job/income, marriage, home, and full-time access to my young son. I also had to give up playing football, which was incredibly hard to accept. I couldn’t hold down a job due to the unpredictable nature of my illness, so, with the internet my one luxury, I started writing for a few independent Liverpool websites, purely as a hobby, to keep myself busy and sane. And there began a long journey.

My interest in writing dates back a further ten years or so. I never liked English at school, because my spelling and grammar got in the way of what I wanted to say. But I wanted to be a novelist from my late teens onward, once I started reading books by people like Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and John Updike. I was studying for a degree in graphic design, and one day I just quit the course – I was going to be a writer! Next morning I woke up in a panic, realising I had no safety net, and no idea how to actually go about writing a novel, so I came to my senses and returned to college – and wrote fiction in my spare time. Purely by reading a lot and writing a lot I gradually improved, to the point where my work was no longer awful.

I still have an almost-finished novel that I hope can see the light of day in the next year or so. I prefer writing fiction, as it’s more challenging and more rewarding, but football writing takes precedence – it’s my bread and butter, to paraphrase an old Liverpool FC saying. And ultimately, it all helps you improve as a writer.

When you approach a footballing subject, what is your analytical starting point? What are your basic journalistic principles? 

I never studied journalism, so I’m never confident of calling myself a journalist. I believe in accuracy, and trying to stick to the facts – opinion without fact is just hot air, so I try to back up what I’m saying with evidence, but then that can make the articles longer, which in turn turns some people off (not that this bothers me). I have no interest in a ‘good story’ or getting a scoop. I could never do that kind of thing. I work hard to make my football writing as clear as possible, so that the message gets through, but without dumbing it down.

I’m not really a footballer ‘reporter’, but more of an ‘analyst’; I try to analyse situations, and find explanations for what is happening. Ultimately, whenever I write something, I ask myself ‘is this fair?’. I don’t mind people not liking my work, but I don’t like being considered unfair.

Obviously I have a Liverpool FC bias, but I have been involved in a lot of work looking at the Premier League as a whole, in terms of performance (in relation to finances), and try to be fair to where Liverpool realistically ‘belong’, not where people think they should be based on bygone eras.

I don’t do hatchet jobs, although I was seen to be very critical of Roy Hodgson. However, unlike a lot of his critics, I never said he was a bad manager – far from it. He’s a bloody good manager – at the right club, where less is expected, and a certain approach is acceptable. He did brilliantly at Fulham. There’s no denying that.

But I’ve no doubt that he was a bloody terrible Liverpool manager.  It’s a totally different kind of job. When the new boss of a major club starts talking about simply wanting to avoid getting beaten 6-0 by relative minnows in a pre-season friendly, and then starts saying exactly the same in the first away Premier League game, you know haven’t got the right man. He just sent out the wrong messages from day one. Liverpool FC

Even if Liverpool weren’t champions anymore, the club still demands certain standards. ‘Famous victories’ are not ones against Bolton. Winning at Everton would not have been ‘utopia’, when the club had grown used to winning there. And the team played in this tentative, negative, soulless way, that mirrored his press conferences.

He was a bad fit. It would have been like the Beatles going out and replacing John Lennon with John Denver; no matter how good Denver may have been in some people’s eyes, and how long his career spanned, he wouldn’t have been suitable. The chemistry wouldn’t have been right. Hodgson was singing Annie’s Song, when we were expecting Strawberry Fields. And as the season wore on, that contrast only grew more obvious.

What do you think have been the main benefits and drawbacks of the increased use of statistics in football journalism, especially in the ‘blogosphere’?

I think it’s generally a good thing, but obviously it depends on how the stats are being used. Information is power, but it’s often about interpreting the data. Sometimes you can come to wildly varying conclusions based on the same set of numbers.

My love of stats moved to a new level when Andy Gray was readily slating Liverpool’s zonal marking a few years back – every time a goal was conceded that way, he told the world why it was such a flawed approach. But in 2005/06, when Gray was slating it on a regular basis, the Reds had the best defensive record from set-pieces in the league, conceding both the fewest, and the smallest percentage of those faced. The evidence told me that Gray was wrong.

Gray never appeared to have studied the stats; he just believed in what he had been taught, and spoke as if it was fact, not opinion.  He never challenged his own belief system. And when the Reds conceded a goal from a corner as infrequently as every few months, as happened in 2005/06, that one goal was all the proof he needed. But it wasn’t genuine proof. It was confirmation bias. No matter how much I tried to defend Benítez’s approach, Gray, and the majority of the mass media, had its narrative: Benítez was a fool to persevere with zonal marking. The facts stated the opposite. He rotated too much, when Alex Ferguson rotated more frequently; and so on.

And when Gray praised Aston Villa’s marking from set-pieces under Martin O’Neill, he ignored the several players marking zones, and only focused on those man-marking – and in any zonal marking set-up there are three or four who pick up the runners – because it didn’t fit his narrative. We all have our beliefs, but we need to question them, and hold them up to scrutiny.

So, anything that causes people to think more and analyse things has my blessing. After all, there’s an anti-intellectualism at the heart of English football. Any player who has an A level is called the Professor; intelligence is nerdy, and to be distrusted. It bugs me when, during a game, one of the commentators will make an interesting statistical point, and then the other instantly says, to kill the analysis, “but the only stat that matters is the score”.

Well, in terms of the result ‘today’, of course that’s true. But do teams win a greater number of games if they dominate possession, or is that unimportant? Or is the area of that possession, or the direction of the passing, the key? Do the number of shots on target matter? What type of chances are easier to create and score from? “The the only stat that matters is the score” argument reduces all stats to an irrelevancy, and yet stats can often tells us a lot more about the pattern of any given game than the result.

Equally, stats don’t tell us everything. They are just one part of the picture.

Then there’s other data, such as the wage analysis introduced in Soccernomics, and the Transfer Price Index (TPI) project I co-authored with Graeme Riley (and which will be covered in Soccernomics 2.0), both of which measure performance in relation to the investment in the team. Our book, “Pay As You Play”, showed clear patterns in Premier League performance, and how success often comes from fielding the most expensive XI (with inflation taken into account) over the course of a season. On average, a team will finish within two places of ‘expense’ rank of its XI; so if a team fields the 10th most expensive XI over the course of the season, it will usually finish very close to 10th place. You get some exceptions, but this is the rule.

Do you prefer writing the day-to-day football columns, or focusing on a long-term book project? What are the main differences, and what are the most important skills for each? 

It depends. Some articles almost write themselves, out of a sense of injustice or outrage, when I know someone prominent has said something factually incorrect about Liverpool FC. In these instances, it’s harder to stop writing than to start. Other pieces are carefully planned and pored over. They can be enjoyable to write, or a chore to finish.

But books are a long slog, and your mood varies along the journey. When I’m writing them I can feel like it’s going nowhere – the midpoint is the hardest, like rowing a boat across the sea, when you’ve lost sight of where you started, but still can’t see where you’ll end up. By the time I finish, I think I’ll never do another, but then, further down the line, the urge to produce something with a satisfying depth returns.

But at least now I don’t have to write them to try and scrape by financially – I can write when I have something to say. You need to sell a hell of a lot of books to make a living, and that’s why most authors have a day job, as journalists and university lecturers.

As an ex-semi-professional, to what extent do you think having played football at a high level helps/hinders you when writing about football? Does it give you an advantage over writers who have never had that kind of background? 

I think it helps to a degree, but I also think that it’s more about how deeply you study a subject, and the hours you put in, rather than just having been ‘out there’. And a lot of my work has been analysing transfers and expenditure, and poor media reporting, and that doesn’t really require any playing experience. I try to be logical, and you don’t need to be logical to be a footballer.

Having said that, there’s no doubt that a lot of what I understand about football comes from having played regularly from the age of eight, at various levels, and having come from a working class footballing family where it was just a part of life. It gives you an innate feel for the game. But I was also taught and coached a load of nonsense at times, and sometimes you have to learn to see past some of the bad habits and be prepared to challenge the myths.

I think that playing helps in certain respects, and even those managers who weren’t great players, like Mourinho and Benítez, still played at some level. The time it takes to become an expert in anything is surely helped by getting in there at a young age, and someone like Villas Boas was studying football theory at 21, when others were simply playing. But even then, Villas Boas grew up immersing himself in football, and didn’t just turn his hand to it on a whim. I’m not sure you could never play football at any level and just turn your hand to management later in life.

I know about certain issues, like form and confidence, from experience: when I first started as a semi-pro, I felt out of my depth, and was hopeless; a few months later, after a couple of vital late goals that won a big game, I found myself chesting down a high pass onto my knee and volleying into the top corner from 35-yards. I can still picture it now, like an out of body experience. But then later in the season I lost my form again. So it helps me understand what players might be going through.

But a lot of players aren’t great thinkers, and even fewer are great writers. Too many players, as pundits or just when giving interviews, fail to think about the bigger picture – they think from their own narrow perspective. When Alan Shearer or Andy Gray would criticise a manager for taking off a striker who was on a hat-trick, they saw the small picture. Yes, the striker wants his hat-trick. But the manager knows that the striker’s confidence will be fine with two goals, and wants to save him for the match in three days’ time. The striker himself may be unhappy, but it’s a manager’s job to see the bigger picture.

While naturally gifted, I was never a great player, and I’m not necessarily a great thinker or a great writer. But I’m not bad at each, so hopefully provide something of worth. Add an interest in statistics, and other analytical skills, and hopefully I provide a holistic approach to football writing.

Perhaps with reference to the recent Suarez/Evra/FA debacle, what are the unique challenges/benefits that come from being known as a club-specific writer? 

I do write from the perspective of a Liverpool fan, although I’ve tried to be neutral on certain projects, such as the Transfer Price Index. But it’s hard to specialise in too many areas – you just cannot be an expert in every aspect of the game. My knowledge of football outside this country is not that great, in terms of knowing loads of players in different leagues. And while I have a decent tactical sensibility, I leave the more in-depth stuff to others.

I have to say that the Suarez/Evra case was a challenge, and fairly depressing. It’s an emotive issue, between two clubs with one of the biggest rivalries in world football. There seemed to be almost zero critical thinking about the incident in the mass media. It was almost a case of hysteria.

If you stick to the facts, I don’t see how Suarez gets an eight game ban. He admitted to one use of a Spanish word (black), in a way that the experts deemed acceptable in his own country. Evra claimed it was said on several occasions, but Suarez claimed just once. The conversation was started by a black Frenchman, in Spanish, on English soil, with a Dutchman called as a witness on behalf of the accused, who was a Uruguayan with a black grandparent. Straightforward, huh?

The experts also concluded that if the conversation happened the way Evra claimed, Suarez was indeed guilty of racist language. So, basically, the experts backed both men; it was just a question of who you believed.

The whole thing was a mess, and both stories seemed to have a load of inconsistencies. The FA’s panel, in finding Suarez guilty without any corroborating evidence, upheld the organisation’s staggering conviction rate of 99.5%, based on ‘he said, she said’. I don’t think this is a process indicative of ‘justice’.

A two match ban and a clear explanation to Suarez that such words are considered inappropriate in this country would have sufficed, because that is what he admitted to; and therefore, in the absence of any witnesses who actually heard the exchange, all that could be verified.

But a media narrative was in flow. Suarez was the evil racist, and so on. Then, all Liverpool fans were racist.

In defending Suarez, I got personally labelled a racist. But my view is that you need evidence – in all areas of life – to reach conclusions. Only Evra and Suarez know what really happened. Without corroboration, it should have gone no further.

Liverpool fans, including at least two fairly prominent lawyers, pored over the report because they felt it seriously flawed. If a decision goes your way, you say “that’s it, case closed”. You don’t want to look any deeper; you want to move on. If it doesn’t, you want to find the faults. It’s like when you get too much change from the supermarket – you just carry on. But if you get overcharged, you go through the receipt, item by item.

The FA’s 99.5% conviction rate and propensity to increase bans probably put Liverpool off appealing, as well as the tide of ire aimed their way throughout the whole episode.

Appealing the decision, if it had been possible, would have been seen as condoning racism; you just had to read a newspaper to realise that, because that’s what the media said! I feel that Liverpool were right to question some of Evra’s behaviour, too, without it meaning that they condone racism. In any case where someone accuses someone else, you have to test that person’s character.

What if he’s a habitual liar? The FA had already labelled Evra unreliable from a previous incident, and the French FA had called him ‘a man of low character and a liar’. He changed the number of times the offensive words were said, and he changed what the words were. Equally, it’s not as if Suarez is seen as trustworthy by the world at large. On this, I wouldn’t have trusted either man, and just dismissed the case.

Because the issue was one of racism, it all got so sensitive. Say that the incident had instead been one of spitting. Player A admits to spitting in the vague direction of Player B, without intent, during a heated exchange. Player B, however, claims he was spat at five, seven, ten times. No-one else saw any of it: none of the players in the crowded penalty box, none of the dozen or more cameras. The FA, who are not a neutral court but essentially the prosecution, find Player A guilty of spitting multiple times, and ban him for eight games, instead of the two he would get for spitting once.

Without the emotive presence of race, Player A would be less vilified before the ‘trial’. He would be encouraged to appeal if he thought he had been wronged, and innocent until proven guilty – which has been applied to John Terry – may have been applied here, too, instead of all the certainty of guilt. And Player B would be roundly booed on his return to the home of Player A, because that’s the way fans react to players involved in spats with one of their own – especially if they don’t believe their side of the story.

Now, perhaps spitting is more visible than speech, although lip readers can still pick things up via cameras. And of course, speech is audible, and it’s not unthinkable that the players in the penalty box should have been able to hear something, had it been said. However, absence of evidence does not mean something did not occur; but you need that evidence to prove that somethingdid occur.

Whether or not Evra was telling the truth, it seems that now anyone can make up whatever they like, and take it to a tribunal where three men, chosen by the prosecuting body, and under pressure to find a verdict that suits the press, select who they prefer.

And yet for trying to make all these points, based on rational thought, I got a lot of criticism. I probably lost some respect of neutrals, but had to stick to what I believe in, in terms of any justice system. I’ve never said Evra definitely lied, or suggested that Suarez was – without doubt – innocent. I just think that people should be acquitted when there’s no actual evidence.

Through your use of Twitter, as well as the forum/comments function on your website, your role involves a significant amount of interaction with ordinary fans. To what extent is this enjoyable/exasperating? And does it persuade you to (or dissuade you from) dealing with certain subjects?

Twitter is great, and Twitter is awful. It introduces you to the best and worst of society – a bit like the average fan forum. I’m happy to talk to strangers about football, but it’s irritating when you know the full story on something, and they know only a fraction of it.

You also get loads of people trying to score points over you, and you get plenty who misunderstand even the most clearly worded tweet. When Capello was forced out, I remarked on Twitter that it’s now time for England to get a manager who’d actually won something. Irony doesn’t work well on there!

And of course, you get all kinds of abuse, much of which is amusing. At the same time, there are some brilliant people worth following, and the general public do send interesting information your way.

When I set up my subscription website, I was looking to try and make a living doing what I enjoy, without compromising myself – I would write what I wanted to write, when I wanted to – or was able to – write it. But the biggest bonus is that, with people having to pay £3.50 a month to read the articles, a ‘safe’ environment of commenting arose. No-one could spam or troll the forum, and anyone who didn’t respect other posters risked losing access and wasting their £3.50. Intelligent people were happy to post, when on other forums they’d have steered clear. And any arguments, should they arise, are resolved amicably. In two and a half years, just a handful of subscribers have been banned.

Obviously most people on there broadly agree with me – why sign up to mywebsite if you don’t like my work? – but we can disagree on the details, and learn from one another. I’ve lost interest in debating with people whose views are the polar opposite to mine. You often learn nothing from such people, because it feels like you’re not even discussing the same subject, you’re so far apart in your opinion. So it just becomes a squabble.

Finally: what advice would you offer to budding football writers and bloggers? 

I get asked this a lot. Many ask how to become a sports journalist, but as I said earlier, I never really took the conventional route. I made a niche for myself, over a very long period of time – like digging a tunnel to escape prison using a spoon! I took the long way to get to the top (if indeed that’s where I am). My story, however, may contain its own advice. And so:

Eventually, after almost five years of writing for independent LFC sites, I started writing a book. This was early 2005. I ended up self-publishing it in June, with it just happening to coincide with the road to Champions League glory, and it did pretty well – no.1 on the Amazon football chart. That, and my work at RAWK, led to the official LFC site asking me to write a weekly column. I did that for five years, although it was unpaid at first, and then only a nominal fee – but it was very good exposure. However, the lack of any real pay, and the erratic nature of book sales, meant that I wasn’t really making a living.

So it took me about a decade – and the advent of my own subscription site in 2009 – to make it ‘pay’. That’s a lot of free and low-paid writing, for almost a decade. In return for all that hard work, I’d built a name for myself, and garnered a bit of a following. In keeping with the 10,000 hour rule, I’d put in the time and honed my craft to the point where I could be seen as towards the top of my profession.

I’ve never studied any form of writing or journalism, and never applied for any writing jobs. I feel I’ve worked for what I’ve earned, but also had luck at the right time – how many people start writing a book on their club in January and it ends in May with possibly the best cup final story ever?

Ultimately though: love what you do; try to see the bigger picture;  and finally, be your own worst critic.

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This interview was originally available for subscribers to The Tomkins Times on 10/02/12. 

Be sure to catch up with the rest of our In Conversation With… series.

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Posted in: Football, Interviews