Q&A with Neil O’Riordan – Chief Sports Writer, the Irish Sun

Typewriter. Image credit: Flickr

Neil O’Riordan is the Chief Sports writer at the Irish Sun.

He has worked with the national newspaper and the industry for a long time, covering football and rugby extensively.

I caught up with him for a quick Q&A and asked about journalism and his path into it; challenges he’s faced; and one of, it not the biggest, Irish sport stories in the last 15 years: Saipan.

How did you start out in journalism?

I had to do work experience in fourth year in school. I was a lounge boy at the time and Robert Reid was the soccer writer in The Sun. So I had gone through that then spent most of fifth year practising writing reports. And then in sixth year in school I started doing reports for The Sun.

I worked for the Sun part-time for the four years of college. I did history and politics in Trinity. Then I went full-time when I got through that.

Who was the guy who had faith in you for getting the job full-time?

Robert Reid would have given me the chance but Geoff Thompson – a former sports editor – would have been pretty encouraging. Although I was in college initially, I was sort of working almost full-time. But they were pretty encouraging.

When I finished college I was approached for a job in another national paper but I came back to The Sun and said listen, ‘this is a possibility’ and then they offered me a full-time deal.

Who’s pieces did you read growing up?

Probably Hugh McIlvanney a lot. I liked Gerry Thornley in the Irish Times at the time, he would have been covering soccer.

I would have kind of read everything.

And actually the stuff on Monday in The Sun, the Premier League stuff, is probably a lot better than what people give it credit for. I always liked Steven Howard in The Sun who has always been pretty good.

Then growing a bit older I liked Michael Walker a lot – he wouldn’t feature too much in the papers now but at the time he worked in the Irish Times for a period and was in the Guardian. His stuff was always short and succinct sentences and weren’t too flowery, I don’t particularly like when stuff is too flowery. His simplicity of writing was very good.

The Irish Sun pictured along with the daily newspapers. Image credit: Jack Acecroft (flickr)

Who helped you get to the standard of writing you are at now?

At the time with the Irish Sun, everything was still being produced in England, in London. Until maybe ten years ago all the production, sports editors, sub-editors were all in London.

And all the subs were English which could lead to some bad mistakes. But also, while they might fall down on their knowledge of Irish sport, they were very good in terms of what they demanded in terms of copy. They were quite good in terms of challenging mistakes you made whereas sometimes I think mistakes you make just get corrected but because the journalist is never told about them they just continue making the same mistakes. Those subs were quite good in terms of pointing those stuff out to you and you learn from that.

I remember doing one feature, Steve Finn had got to a Champions League final with Liverpool and I just happened to be in England. So I did a feature with Welling United where he had started out. I had written a pretty flowery feature and the sub just said to me, ‘the fella you mention in the first paragraph, no one has a f**king clue who he is.’ And basically make it a bit more tabloidy.

They were pretty good as an education. It wasn’t always pleasant being told what you had done wasn’t great but it was beneficial in hindsight.

Do you ever get The Sun/redtop tabloid abuse thrown at you?

Ah yeah. Especially I suppose you’re more exposed it more now through Twitter. It’s more direct. You might have put something up and someone might have retweeted it and then someone will abuse you, ‘it must be sh*te if it’s something in the Sun.’ But it’s kind of water off a ducks back and I wouldn’t pay much heed.

Do you take yourself seriously or can you take yourself too seriously in this game?

Not really. We spend our lives criticising people so I don’t think you can be too precious about someone having a go at you.

If I made a mistake I have no problem holding my hand up or they can take issue with an opinion that’s fine.

One of the couple of times people might accuse you of having an ulterior motive – that would annoy me because that’s just bullsh*t. I don’t mind somebody pointing out something if you’re wrong or contesting your opinion or whatever that’s fine.

When you get to know someone in the game, but then you also have the responsibility of doing your job, do you ever have problems in calling them out and writing stories involving them in your experience, can that be difficult? 

Yeah it can be. Plenty of people who I have been pally with, then I’ve written something and they’re upset and we’re not so pally any more. It’s easier to be critical with someone you don’t know. Maybe you might show some more leeway to someone you know. Not even necessarily because you know them but because you’re maybe more aware of the circumstances where they weren’t performing well or whatever else.

Saipan in 2002, Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy, what was it like to work at?

Yeah it was pretty mental at the time. Up until that it had been fairly relaxed. The time difference meant that we were under no real time pressure in terms of work.

At that time The Sun didn’t have a website so you weren’t doing web copy so it was just for the following day’s paper. And we also wouldn’t be doing as many pages as we are doing now. So between that and the time difference, it was fairly relaxed and then this obviously blew up.

Roy Keane is now the Ireland assistant manager, pictured with Commandant Gerry McAnaney of the Irish Defence sources. Image credit: Irish defence forces (Flickr)

How did you find out about the Roy Keane/Mick McCarty row initially?

I remember somebody coming in and saying there was a row. That was the initial row. That was the training row with Alan Kelly and Packie Bonner and all of that. And that had been blown up and then sorted out.

Then there was the other interview Keane had done with Tom Humphreys. Then all of sudden we heard there was a press conference, where they said that Keane was gone.

Then we were trying to get some feeling of what was said at the meeting. But people weren’t giving too much away at the time initially, with some stuff seeping through.

It kind of ended up crazy. I don’t know whether it was the following day or the day after that, we left Saipan for Japan, but most of the journalists went with the team but a couple stayed behind to get Keane. There were the papers that had one person there – I was the only one there for the Irish Sun, so I didn’t feel that option was open to me and I felt I kind of had to stay with the team.

The time difference ended up being a nightmare because there was people trying to sort stuff out back home. I can’t remember the time difference it was – it might have been ten hours. It meant what was happening in Saipan and Japan, whatever you had written by the time the story had appeared in the paper everything had moved on… whether it had been Keane’s interview with Tommy Gorman or John Delaney and Bertie Ahern trying to stage an intervention.

So it ended up trying to work in 24 hour cycles. It was very kind of hectic. I was pretty glad when it died down eventually.

What’s the biggest event you’ve covered?

I guess it’s Saipan in terms of an Irish story, it’s definitely the biggest.

I did the 2006 World Cup final too for the paper. In terms of a global event that would be the biggest.

Is it difficult switching between different sports like you did with this year’s rugby World Cup and the Ireland football qualifiers?

I definitely would be more comfortable with football. I never played rugby. I would have watched it as a kid, not to the same extent as football.

It is kind of weird coming into an event. I remember in 2007, there was a clash with rugby and football. Ireland had qualifiers in Slovakia and Czech Republic at the same time as the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

At that point I had decided to go to the rugby World Cup from the start because it was pretty apparent the soccer team weren’t going to do anything. Stupidly as it happens, we thought the rugby team might do something. And I didn’t really want to go to a tournament halfway through.

It can be difficult. You obviously read stuff that has been written. But you might not have picked up on stuff because you’re not there everyday. So it can be tricky.

You’ve never taken to GAA…

No. I’ve written one piece in my life. It was a sit down with Mick O’Dwyer which he kept saying to me ‘you know yourself’ and I was like ‘nah’.

I just never had a huge interest in it growing up. I think people who know it better can write about it better.

It would be a sport in which ignorance would be exposed pretty quickly.

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