WhalleyObjectLessons

For any reporter up against a final whistle deadline, a glut of late goals can make life difficult – especially when you've managed to leave your laptop at home

2 October ~ It’s just a rectangle of card measuring 10.5cm by 17.5cm, but my press pass from the Championship match between Sheffield United and Fulham – played on November 21, 2017 – reminds me of the value of keeping calm amid chaos. That night, I skirted close to insanity. Or at least major professional embarrassment.

I was working as a sports journalist, freelancing for an agency that serves national newspapers. My order that Tuesday was to supply bespoke reports for the Times, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star and the Daily Express. The deadlines would be tight but I wasn’t expecting to file anything too long.

Even so, I didn’t want unnecessary stress, so I got to Sheffield early, almost three hours before the 7.45pm kick-off. On parking my car, I looked to the passenger footwell, and an awful realisation struck. I had left my laptop at home. This is the modern journalist’s equivalent of turning up for a flight without your passport. I had a problem.

There was not time to fight back home through rush-hour traffic, as I live in Greater Manchester. I was near Sheffield city centre and could have bought another laptop, but that would have required clear thinking and money to spare. Instead, I rang each of the four papers to ask for a word count, reasoning that if they were short enough, I could file using my battered smartphone. No one wanted more than 400 words; the Express only needed 100. No need to confess to my laptop mishap, I told myself. I’d be fine as long as the match wasn’t crazy.

Everything was to be filed on the final whistle, with two exceptions: the Times wanted team line-ups in formation straight after kick-off, and the Star needed their report 20 minutes before the end, with me phoning through any late goals to their sub-editors.

Sheffield United’s “Greasy Chip Butty” song filled the air as the match began, and my thumbs got to work. But a journalist nearby who saw I was just like him in having no laptop decided this must mean I too had no urgent reports to file, and started chatting breezily to me. As I fobbed him off to finish typing out the teams, there was a roar. Leon Clarke had scored for Sheffield United. At half time, Fulham led 3-2, and I regretted my failure to hunt down a PC World.

Fulham scored a fourth just before I filed to the Star at 70 minutes. Amid all the excitement, I had not been paying attention to my word count. “We asked for eight paragraphs, not 12,” came a sharp email in response. I began crunching down the report for the Express. Just in time, I looked up to see Ryan Sessegnon completing his hat-trick – 5-2 to Fulham. A phone call to the Star. Then another call as Samir Carruthers pulled a goal back for Sheffield United. Then another as Clarke headed in his own hat-trick goal to make it 5-4. “Tell them to stop scoring,” laughed the Star’s sub-editor.

Somehow, I filed everything in time for the first editions. Now I had to send four rewrites containing post-match quotes. With no laptop. I needed to keep this simple.

But as Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder walked into the press room, I had a thought: two players had scored three times, so who had the match ball? Sessegnon’s hat-trick was his first in senior football; surely it meant more to him? Wilder, who hadn’t realised any Fulham player had scored three, said Clarke had the ball, so Sessegnon would have to make do with a spare from a kit bag. Now I had to work this into my reports too. Why had I made life more difficult for myself?

Second deadlines passed. At 10.38pm, an email from the Express: “Hi Mike – any quotes?” In my general rushing, I had forgotten to file them. Panic. A renewed flurry of typing. Just after 11pm, I finished my final rewrite, for the Times, and exhaled. I rang in to apologise for its lateness. “Oh, don’t worry,” said the desk editor. “It was such an incredible game, we thought it might take you a bit longer than usual.”

As I look at the press pass now, two things occur to me. One: I was allocated seat 13. I am not superstitious, but perhaps I was destined for a torturous evening. Two: I have my souvenir from that match, and Sessegnon does not. Maybe I should send the pass to him. Mike Whalley

This article first appeared in WSC 391, October 2019. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here

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