Henry Winter is one of the most gifted sports-writers of his generation. Go on, argue with that.
So what motivates a man whose ascendency to the summit of reporting has been marked by a masterful, meticulous understanding of the passion imbued in England’s national sport?
“I love the immediacy of turning up having learnt all your lines, not knowing that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would score in the last minute of the European cup final, and having to burn the script at the last minute,” he explains, speaking from Basel ahead of tonight’s Europa League Cup Final. Winter, who currently pens for the Times as their chief football writer, enjoys what he does but relishes the challenge that comes with covering history’s seminal sporting moments.
“Like any profession, it’s all about hard work at the end of the day,” Winter says. “It’s about leaving maternity suites when kids are born to get to a cup final, going with four hours sleep to finish reports, missing your best mate’s wedding to attend a press conference.”
Strenuous demands, but for the 53 year old Londoner it represents another day at the office. An office which, for twenty years, sat on the north side of the Thames, before Winter defected from the Telegraph in 2015 to pursue a boyhood dream at the Times – a publication he fondly dubs ‘the most famous newspaper in the world’.
“About a week after I joined last year, I sat in an office looking at all the people who had either written to or for the paper,” he remembers. “During World War Two, the Times was bombed but the newspaper somehow continued to distribute and no-one mentioned it so as to not fuel German propaganda – Winston Churchill wrote them a letter to spur them on. I felt quite humbled.”
It was a move which attracted a great deal of press attention, the irony of which was not lost on Winter. “People felt it was an acrimonious departure but it wasn’t from my perspective – I said goodbye to everyone, shook hands and packed up.”
Having handed over his keys for the kingdom to Sam Wallace, a journalist he refers to as ‘superb writer’, Winter has been busy converting his enormous social media following to a new line of reasoning. Twitter has become a powerful tool for journalists, an immediate draft of history for supporters to swallow. “When I first started, the depth of football coverage was absolutely minimal – it might be a few columns,” Winter says. “Now, if you look at the back pages, it’s full of football related material – columns, opinions, reports, data, and previews. I certainly don’t see myself as just a print journalist – social media, television, radio are all becoming equally as important.”
Is that the key to entering a business stacked with talented writers, armed with keyboard and TV licence? “You need to blog, and blog against the clock,” Winter says. “I’ve read articles before that have taken writers hours. In this line of work you don’t have that luxury. If I’m writing a 1200 word match report, I’m filing 700 words by 55-60 minutes with another 300 by 75-80 minutes. After that, I might top and tail on the introduction and conclusion and pray that there aren’t six goals in injury time.”
Every year, Winter attends over 130 games. He’s witnessed true theatre, observed matches which inscribed themselves into folklore and documented all that he sees. A voyeur of passion, but the thrill remains in the chase of true sporting genius. “I’ve never perceived it as work,” Winter explains without hesitation. “I always raise my eyebrows slightly and sigh when people moan about traffic and late nights and missing kick-off. We’re so lucky to be paid to be ringside at some of history’s greatest moments.”
It seems too easy a question to ask one of the games great scribes to summarise a season that has reversed the polarity of the Premier League. “It was refreshing to witness,” Winter says. “From a broader perspective, there were life stories contained in Leicester’s triumph – if you have faced adversity in your life, keep battling on.”
After scrapping in non-league football a mere five years ago, Jamie Vardy’s party is rolling all the way across the channel this summer and Winter believes Leicester’s success will only help the sport. English teams continue to struggle in the Champions League though, a symptom of the fact that the Premier League is becoming increasingly competitive. “It’s not great news for clubs trying to compete on a continental front, and a winter break might help alleviate that,” he suggests quickly. “There’ll be big investment this summer. City will be very busy. They would love to get Toni Kroos from Real Madrid but that’ll be difficult. Mahrez and N’Golo Kante will obviously be targeted too.”
As conversation edges towards this evening’s Europa League final, I press him for a prediction. He muses, humming in conservative thought.
“Liverpool to win it in extra time.”
British optimism, even from those in the know. It’d take a brave man to argue with that.