Lessons to be learned from Scotland’s football periodical

One of the best things about living in Manchester is the city’s annual football writing festival.

The event, co-organised by the National Football Museum at the city’s former Urbis centre and the Deansgate branch of Waterstones, sees a series of talks and panel events being held across Manchester every September.

It brings together a remarkably diverse set of writers and commentators, from local and national levels, to discuss everything — usually hung on the hook of a new football book release, but sometimes clustered around topics on locality and diversity.

Over the last three years I’ve seen the same faces at events time and time again, from talks on Football Manager to the history of Argentinian soccer, and from women in football to the young development policies in Manchester.

One of the key parts of the event — indeed, usually serving as the festival opener — is the acclaimed football periodical The Blizzard hosting an open panel at the Football Museum. Big name national and international writers congregate there for a discussion as varied as the contents of Jonathan Wilson’s periodical itself.

And Scotland should look on with envious eyes at the festival, because it’s something that Scottish football journalism could — and indeed, absolutely should — be emulating. But at least, in one respect, it has taken a step in the right direction.

It’s a year now since Scottish football’s answer to The Blizzard successfully completed a Kickstarter to fund its first issue. Nutmeg, published and designed to within an inch of its beautiful life by Edinburgh editorial consultancy Palmer Watson, has now successfully released its third, and is gathering a similar profile to its English cousins.

Periodicals have become big things in football journalism again. As mainstream publishing outlets have increasingly moved away from long-form reporting through shortened deadlines and declining revenues and staff levels, periodicals have stepped into that gap — providing an indulgent, in-depth platform for writers to dig into

The Blizzard has been joined by the likes of Nutmeg and the gorgeous-looking, insanely detailed Glory – a one-topic title that has dug in depth into football from the Faroe Islands and Kosovo. But Nutmeg has a unique position as the only title covering Scottish football in any depth or scale.

Yet three issues in, and even despite the breadth of content and world class names lined up to contribute, it still feels like the magazine hasn’t quite hit the mark yet.

Obviously any title with such a diverse group of contributors risks being a curate’s egg of a publication. Yet the balance does not feel right. There’s some odd anomalies that rankle — the continued shoehorning of a poetry section in, for example, or Richard Walker’s tiresome essay on why he’s never engaged with football as fan or writer.

Nutmeg feels, still, like it is tipping towards quantity over quality. Not to disparage the standard of writing on offer, but too often across the three issues so far articles cry out for an extra couple of hundred words. Culling a couple of thinner, weaker pieces to give those remarkable ones more space to breathe would seem a kindness.

A comparison with The Blizzard, now running for more half a decade, feels unfair, yet pretty much from issue zero it got the balance of depth against content right.

But there has also been some outstanding journalism within Nutmeg’s covers. Neil Forsyth’s story on Ralphy Milne.  Richard Winton’s look back at the controversial U16 World Cup final from 1989. From the most recent issue, Joel Sked’s essay on the history of the main stand at Tynecastle and Peter Ross’ astonishing piece on Auld Harry and the mentality of fandom are essential reads.

The one thing that you could define Nutmeg as is anti-mainstream. Long-form essays on tactics and statistical analysis of the heights of key Scottish players past and present are not the sort of things readers will find within the sports pages of the Scottish Sun. It is representative of a shift in attitudes from a more football literate audience.

A significant proportion of consumers interact with sports news, and especially football news, in a different way. The growth of rolling coverage via Sky Sports News transitioned into social media’s constantly on, ITK approach to gossip and discussion. A more engaged audience, younger, hungrier for data and statistics as much as — if not more so than — analysis has grown up, raised on a diet of Football Manager and Opta.

However, I don’t necessarily buy the constant criticism of the Scottish mainstream media coverage of sport, and especially football. It is certainly not perfect, and recent years have exposed some of the deeper-rooted issues with it, but the ‘not fit for purpose’ tag constantly bandied about by a proportion of the audience seems over the top.

If Scottish sports journalism has failed anyone, it has failed that engaged audience by failing to include them. Too often, in print and broadcast, it’s led by the talent — and the same talent in particular. The golf club pals mentality of radio, television and columnist output, of the same voices presenting the same arguments every week, has become an echo chamber serving only a part of the overall audience — an audience which continues to diminish.

That’s not a criticism — it’s what suits their traditional audiences well. But it’s also become a rote, something continued to the detriment of their coverage because that’s what’s felt audiences want. Five pages of retired Old Firm players talking about how their former teams are doing sells papers. Five pages of why the 1962 Dundee side was the greatest in Scottish football history doesn’t — not even the Courier.

That is not to say there isn’t good writing and analysis among the mainstream outlets. STV’s digital team continues to blaze a trail in terms of its analysis and approach to covering the national game, while writers such as Richard Wilson, Graham Spiers and Kenny Miller bring a different perspective in broadcast and mainstream online outlets.

There is definitely much the traditional media outlets can learn from the likes of Nutmeg — the question is whether they can learn in time to evolve their output and embrace wider, different audiences before circulations hit a tipping point.

It is notable, though the writers contributing to Nutmeg are, by and large, the same figures producing compelling Scottish football content and analysis away from the highest profile channels of the mainstream. Theirs are the same voices heard on podcasts such as The Terrace — usually a must-listen, even if their constant ignorance of Partick Thistle gets a bit wearying…

It is the likes of John Maxwell, or Craigs Fowler and Telfer, responsible for exceptional analysis of Scottish football for the Scotsman website and the late lamented Tell Him He’s Pele blog.

And they are the same voices you would hope could drive a Scottish football writing festival.  There’s a surfeit of talent, from within the pages of Nutmeg and without, that could easily drive a similar event for Scottish writing as Manchester.

If there’s an audience for the likes of Nutmeg and the sharper edged, non-traditional football media in Scotland – and the continuing publication of both would indicate there is — then surely there’s also the audience for a festival that doesn’t just degenerate into neanderthal knuckle-draggers barking ‘Rangers died’ and ‘BJK; at each other ad nauseating.

It’s difficult, because I really want to love Nutmeg, yet at the moment I can only really like it.  It doesn’t feel like it’s there yet, albeit it’s only three issues into its life.  But it also feels like an important first step towards the smarter, wider audience that has developed across the border to the extent it can sustain an annual festival celebrating great football writing and journalism.

Here’s hoping a similar day dawns in Glasgow, Edinburgh, or indeed both, soon.