In the age of mass-consumed football coverage, social media and dedicated team-focused reporting, the voice of a handful of journalists has never been so important for a club. This is especially true for a club like Aston Villa, not in the handful of clubs covered ad nauseam by the national press like Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea, but instead focused upon by just a handful of reporters.
The Athletic is the first publication to dedicate one reporter to every Premier League team (and a small number of Championship teams), churning out content often tri-weekly in an attempt to quench the insatiable thirst fans have for coverage of their team.
Gregg Evans, who covers the Villa across his written work and on the weekly Villa podcast “1874” on The Athletic podcast network, tries to bring a rounded focus to covering the team, going beyond just match reports and transfer rumours.
Speaking to Gregg this week you realise how a dedicated club reporter has to have his finger on the pulse of a fanbase, reporting on the issues they expect to see covered, whilst steering clear of the bandwagon of fan opinion.
Gregg has been a reporter focusing solely on Villa since the 2014-15 campaign. Under Paul Lambert’s leadership, the season ended with Villa treading water and finishing in 15th place. Gregg chronicled the many downs and few ups in between, which have characterised the club over the last 6 seasons.
“The (FA Cup) semi-final win over Liverpool was a highlight, and to be honest Tim Sherwood’s whole spell in charge.” Sherwood’s time as Villa manager was a mixed bag, to say the least, but his attitude towards the press was a reporter’s dream “It was a complete breath of fresh air, box office most press conferences!”
Interviews with Gerard Houllier in his apartment overlooking the Eiffel tower, and trips to Marbella to cover Thomas Hitzlsperger, now one of the youngest CEO’s of a Bundesliga side in Stuttgart, are particular highlights. But Gregg’s recent piece on Dutch Striker Luc Nilis’ ill-fated time at the club, felt more poignant than most.
“It’s an interview I’ve been waiting for years, obviously his last ever game as a professional was for Villa and to get hold of him and go through all his memories…it’s just a really sad story.”
Nilis, who signed for Villa from PSV in 2000, played his last professional game away at Ipswich Town when a collision with the goalkeeper caused a double compound fracture of his right shin which, when later became infected, nearly led to amputation.
Covering one club so closely clearly gives a reporter influence and sway on fan opinion, and having such an important voice on team matters is not lost on players, agents and club executives. “Naively I decided to write a piece focusing on Sam Johnstone (former Villa goalkeeper) and all the errors he had made in his first few weeks.”
“A coach at Villa pulled me aside and told me to come back to the piece in 6 or 7 months. What I didn’t realise was he’d been injured for a long time, and just needed those games to get back to where he could be. And looking back on his time he was a very good goalkeeper for Villa, so I was probably a bit hasty.”
During the Paul Lambert, Tim Sherwood and Remi Garde era’s speaking to managers and players was often difficult. “Consistently writing negative stories and asking players and managers every week ‘why are you losing? The fans want to know,’ can be really tough…so you want the coach to be doing well.”
The Athletic, a start-up formed in San Francisco in 2016, has truly unrivalled team-by-team coverage both here and across the Atlantic. However, one criticism that has been levelled at the platform is that the club reporters are so reliant on the relationships from club figures that they can be seen as a mouthpiece for some. A fine line which can be difficult to tread.
“It’s about finding that journalistic difference between yourself and the club, and yourself and the supporters,” Gregg told Avillafan.com, “it’s about being aware of the issues that matter to the supporters, whilst not jumping on the bandwagon after a few bad results.”
Characterised by consistent, calm and well-informed coverage that steers away from clickbait headlines, the Athletic’s reporters have become the voice on club matters. And as Villa’s steady rise on the pitch continues, so too will the attention off it.