Pressure and thrills: what it's like to sit in the press box at a football match

There is nothing quite like reacting to the twists of a live game – especially an intro-busting late goal

As anybody who has ever attempted a match report will tell you there is nothing quite like a decisive last minute goal to make you momentarily want to smash your head through your laptop. 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. Fingers bash at keyboards in an unwieldly frenzy. Panic meets pressure. It’s a good look.

It is also absolutely thrilling. It explains why even seasoned reporters ought to have that frisson before any game - even something on a par with Ukraine v Switzerland at the 2006 World Cup which might have been scientifically proven as the most boring international match in history. Any fixture has the potential to turn into a moment of wild, unscripted drama, and the humble reporter has to be ready to react to almost any event within the parameters of sport.

Take the twist in the tale of the recent Champions League quarter-final between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. In a bananas period of stoppage time the result and consequences lurched from one frazzling extreme to the other and back again. Not many would have spared a thought for the mere scribe at this time, however the task of recording live events and doing justice to the occasion with the deadline slipping through your rattling fingers is not for the faint hearted.

The Tottenham conquer intro which had been cautiously prepared after Fernando Llorente’s 73rd minute goal was binned when Raheem Sterling netted three minutes into stoppage time. Throughout VAR a City euphoria intro was bashed out, only for that to be deleted as the goal was disallowed. Three different intros were required in as many minutes, all of this is taking place, by the way, seconds before the editorial team are expecting the writer to press “send” on their final copy to meet the newspaper’s deadline. Let’s just say it takes a while for the adrenaline to settle after something like that.

A personal love affair with the match report began in inauspicious conditions, namely the press box toilets at Selhurst Park in February 1996. It was there I found myself, head in hands, willing a mind gone blank to wake up, wondering how on earth to summon an intro for my first ever live match report for a national newspaper.

The game between Wimbledon, tenants at Selhurst Park during that period and fighting for Premier League survival, and Aston Villa contained enough drama to melt the lead in this rookie’s pencil - a last minute equaliser, two splendid own goals scored by the home team, a comeback, a disputed penalty. I had no idea how to make sense of it all and craft something vaguely readable. When the final whistle blew I looked down at my notebook and felt the blood drain from my face. The hole in the Observer reserved for Wimbledon v Aston Villa suddenly felt like a crater. The press box toilets was perhaps not the most glamorous spot to search for a moment of clarity, but just getting away from the terrifying notebook for a moment somehow flushed out the writer’s block.

Football School/Guardian Young Sportswriter of the Year Competition.

“Crazy gang, bizarre match,” was the best start I could come up with as an opening salvo, and it helped that Wimbledon’s manager offered a sharp soundbite in the post match press conference. “We scored five goals and only got a point,” he grimaced.

Those early experiences took place in an era when some of the skills required were different to today. There were some rudimentary portable word processors out there but in the days before laptops, mobile phones and internet, many of the scribes just relied on a pen and paper and the art of dictation. Post match press boxes were alive with the sound of journalists shouting down a phone wired into the wall to a copy-taker in an office typing their words out so they could be prepared for the printing presses. Punctuation, words that could be easily misheard, or foreign names needed to be spelled out, with pauses to wait for the typist to catch up with the dictation. It was a weird and laborious process. “Yorke with an E… Y O R K E… broke down the right… and his cross… comma… aimed at Milosevic… M for mother I L O S for sugar E V for Victor I C for Charlie…”

The press box at Victoria Park, the home of Hartlepool United, in October 1998
The press box at Victoria Park, the home of Hartlepool United, in October 1998. Photograph: Graham Whitby Boot/Allstar Picture Library

Some wonderful misheard mishaps would be published. There is the infamous story from Marseilles during the 1998 World Cup, as violence flared down by the port. “The trouble-makers dispersed when a police van drew up containing a dozen armed gendarmes,” said the reporter down the phone line. Or as the following day’s paper would have it, the troublemakers dispersed when a police van drew up containing a dozen armed John Barnes”.

Another famous tale comes from the 1982 World Cup when Northern Ireland’s most esteemed sports writer Malcolm Brodie phoned in his report from one of the grandest results in their history as they beat hosts Spain to top their group. He started his report by bellowing: “Magnifico! Magnifico! Magnifico!” at which point there was a pause on the end of the line. “Alright Malcolm,” said the copytaker cooly, “I heard you the first time.”

Because of the arrival of new technology such incidents belong to a bygone age. Some even wonder, not unreasonably, how the match report survives and indeed continues to thrive at a time when coverage of football in general is so saturated.

In my childhood match reports were devoured as access to football was scarce unless you happened to be inside a stadium. A tiny fraction of today’s relentless output was broadcast on television and radio didn’t always have the capacity to go into detail on results. Now, with the hurricane of social media reaction, the preview shows, post-match highlights and analysis, the blogs and podcasts, the minute-by-minutes and marks out of ten and five things we learned, it is a miracle of sorts that the match report is still alive and kicking.

The best ones transmit energy and atmosphere, bring context and meaning to a live event. So even if the reader has already seen it and heard about it, scanning the match report and wondering if the journalist has been watching the same bloody game is still, thankfully, an essential part of the football experience.

The Football School/Guardian Young Sportswriter of the Year competition is open to 7-12 year-olds. The deadline for entries is Sunday 19 May at 6pm. The winners will watch a Premier League game from a press box.