Ernest Hemingway insisted he never had a drink while writing, despite having a legendary drinking habit. You could, however, understand if writing about Leeds United for well over a decade had made Phil Hay have a stiff drink or two.
The football writer at the local newspaper is the staple diet for the discerning football fan, with a well-worn tradition of match reviews, interviews and analysis. But, thirteen years ago, the introduction of Twitter changed the way we consume media. Enter, the goal tweet.
Phil Hay, as you all know, is the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Chief Football Writer, covering Leeds United up and down the land, from Yeovil Town to Carlisle United. As the clamour for information intensified and everybody grew tired of message boards filled with irreverent nonsense, when the Ken Bates inspired Yorkshire Radio project was pushing BBC Radio Leeds to the fringes, Leeds United fans migrated to Phil Hay’s Twitter account for news. Following a game 280 characters at a time (previously 140) as the incumbent iteration of Leeds United (I’m thinking 2013 vintage) contributed to the ongoing misery of the supporters was a unique experience.
It’s the modern-day version of Ceefax, waiting for page two of three to roll around again and see that beautiful sight, the news that Leeds have scored.
“Twitter … it’s one big game on there”
Phil’s goal tweets have become so iconic that somebody began selling merchandise based on them, which is peak Leeds United. A viral tweet appeared around Christmas when a man had been gifted a canvas print with a screenshot of a goal tweet from @PhilHayYEP, reading something like, “GOOOOOAAAAAAAAALLLLLLL”, complete with timestamp. I decided to ask the man himself a few questions about the weird and wonderful world of Twitter, and how it has changed the sports media landscape.
For a sports journalist, how much has social media, particularly Twitter, changed the role?
“Massively. That goes without saying. It’s changed the interaction with supporters and it’s also changed the speed at which news breaks and then develops (not to mention the amount of nonsense stories about transfers etc). When I first joined the EP, our last newspaper edition went to print around 1pm so we literally couldn’t publish anything from that point until the following morning, no matter what fell into our lap. These days, if you got thrown something big at three in the morning then you’d put it online straight away.
“In terms of how Twitter behaves, it’s one big game on there. People bang on about abuse and trolling and everything else (I have to say, people are generally really good with me) but I always think that if you don’t want any of that, don’t get involved. Far too much is made of it, in my opinion anyway.”
Do you pay any attention to the litany of responses, memes, and posts about yourself?
“It made me laugh to see that someone got a canvas of my ‘goal’ tweet for Christmas. I’m not sure it’s a present I’d want but he seemed happy. But I seriously hope that no-one is wasting money on those T-shirts with my face on. Save your cash. As I said in the previous answer, I’ve no problem with anything that gets sent my way on Twitter. A bit of rough and tumble is a good thing, I think, and it’s not bad either to have your opinion challenged (or to have your mistakes pointed out).”
Leeds United, as you all know, is a club with a reputation for the extraordinary. To plummet so quickly, through administrations to the verge of liquidation, is hardly conducive to success. But for this football club, success is always forged in the fires of adversity. There was a day in 2010 when ninety minutes encapsulated everything in the history of the club. It was Leeds United in microcosm, and one of the few moments of genuine success that Phil has witnessed in his time following the club.
“Bielsa doesn’t half cut through the usual bollocks”
What is your favourite moment covering Leeds United?
“I always go back to the last day of the 2009/10 season, simply because it’s the only time in all the years I’ve done this job when Leeds delivered in a decisive game. When Gradel got sent off and Bristol Rovers scored, it felt as if the club were going to be trapped in League One forever and I still think the performance from 1-0 down is one of the bravest any Leeds team has delivered. But in terms of an entire season, this one has been the most fascinating and enlightening, simply because of Bielsa. He’s a one-off and he doesn’t half cut through the usual bollocks.”
It did feel as though there was momentum at that point in 2010, even if in hindsight it was a top-heavy squad that was soon decimated essentially to fund the club. The intervening years were soul-crushing. The promise of a middle-eastern bank buying out Ken Bates and banishing him whence he came (I hear hell is a tax haven, too) was so unifying that it brought a full house to witness Luke Murphy metaphorically kicking the memory of Bates down below in homage to Russell Crowe in 300. But it was built on PR and lies. The results on the pitch nosedived and in stepped Massimo Cellino to ‘save’ us. But despite everything, there was always solace to be found in the witty, sarcastic musings of Phil Hay. There are moments you remember despite the general apathy of the time. Phil has only given one 10/10 rating, and that was for Ross McCormack’s four goal haul away at Charlton Athletic in 2013. I remember that fondly, despite all logic telling me it doesn’t matter.
What is one thing that made you question why you do this?
“The 2am phone calls from Cellino? All joking aside, I’ve got very little to complain about. The job’s more demanding than most people realise but it’s football after all and the pressure you’re under is nothing compared to more meaningful or serious lines of work. I’ll tell you one thing I do hate though — the driving. I’ve always said I’d happily cover the games for nothing. It’s the travelling you’d have to pay me for. I’ve got a smashed-up Ford Fiesta which had 2K on the clock when I bought it seven and a half years ago. It went past 175k on the way home from Reading this month. I could probably recite every M1 road sign in order.”
Think of this as an ode to Phil Hay. Because who writes about the writers? He’s a journalist writing about a second division football team, when he could be writing for national publications in more glamorous locations. Perhaps one day he will. To navigate the changing media landscape and regularly deliver the quality of content he does is impressive. More impressive is the way he engages fans and doesn’t completely lose his mind when he’s asked the same mundane questions hundreds of times a day during the transfer window. And now we get to hear his in-depth analysis through the medium of a podcast, with Joe Urquhart (other podcasts are available).
There was a wonderful, unifying moment during the recent 1-0 win away at Bristol City. The internet is awash with streams for Leeds United games (or so I’m told, I would never participate in said activity), and as such, most fans manage to see more of the game than ever before. Even if that’s watching on a mobile phone with adverts flashing up. But after several streams were taken down by the thought police, or the EFL, everyone in unity turned to Phil’s Twitter feed. Following the game through every ‘CHANCE’ tweet, with anxiety levels through the roof, everyone seemed to find more appreciation for him than ever.
And so they should, because the Championship is relentless. Leeds United can consume you, and it’s hardly a 9-5 job. So here’s to you, Phil Hay, the king of Leeds United Twitter, a truly excellent journalist, for whom we’re eternally grateful.
Finally: any news, Phil?
(artwork by Lee Shackleton)