Mark Critchley: Full marks from Ms Eccles to Manchester’s engrossing stories

There are two formative experiences that made me want to become a football writer, both from my school days.

When I was 12, my English teacher, Ms Eccles, asked us to write a review of a book of our choice. I read a lot when I was young but had stopped by that point because I’d decided reading was for geeks. Now, as a journalist, I am obviously not still of that opinion, but it was what I thought at the time and so I was stuck for what to review.

My mum had a think and dug out her old copy of A Kestrel for a Knave. You probably know the film better: Ken Loach’s 1969 classic, Kes.

Last year I found my parents had kept a copy of my Kes review. “Billy Casper is a boy with nowhere to go and nothing to say,” it begins. “He hates and he is hated… His only companion is his kestrel hawk, trained from the nest, and, like himself, trained but not tamed, with the will to destroy or be destroyed.”

I added: “Kes is any lad’s dream book. Any person interested in the rough side of life, fights and the odd two-fingered salute will love this book. Overall, I’d recommend this to anyone, even my grandma.”

OK, so it is all a bit of a cliche. I lay the ‘grim up north’ schtick on thick. There are sections of the review that simply do not make sense, such as when I call the book “a real slap in the face to anyone who thinks orange juice and comprehensive schools have taken the meaningless out of life in raw working towns”.

But it’s not bad for a 12-year-old. In fact, even after eight years working in journalism, it is probably the most well-received piece I’ve ever written. Ms Eccles gave it 20 out of 20. Full marks.

A few years later, I was playing in a school dinnertime kickabout. I was going through a phase where I would try to take the piss whenever I got the ball because I thought it was funny. Someone rightly kicked me up in the air for attempting a few stepovers and when I got back to my feet, I fell over again. I had broken my right leg in two places, both the tibia and the fibula. Two girls came over and sprayed Deep Heat on it. That didn’t help.

Luckily, this had all happened just before the start of the 2006 World Cup. I spent the summer in a huge cast, lying on my back at home, watching all the games. Once my leg had healed up enough for me to leave the sofa, I sat at our computer and wrote up match reports of each game, compiling them in a big Word document laid out like magazine pages. I picked out players to watch for the future, too, though I concluded that the hype around Luka Modric was “too much too soon” and called Lionel Messi to have fun

Luke Modric

Modric at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, just the 16 years before he reached the semi-finals in Qatar with Croatia (Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

I’d like to say that summer as a shut-in sparked a flame within me and set me on a path straight into sports journalism, but this is a job people are desperate to do. I did the usual work experience placements and shifts on local newspapers and radio stations, but even when you do all that, you need to get lucky, too.

In 2015, I won the Sports Journalists Association’s Student Sportswriter of the Year Award as a 24-year-old studying for a master’s in journalism — a bit like when Homer Simpson enters and wins the children’s competition to design a nuclear power plant. I was humbled and very happy to win it though, as little bits of recognition like that can help you get a foot in the door.

Now, in this role at The Athletic, I’ll be covering Manchester football. I grew up about half an hour outside the city and have called it home for the past five years.

Manchester City‘s 2017-18 side — the 100-point centurions — are simply the best team that I have had the privilege of watching, although I feel I might have to revise that opinion with every passing season at the Etihad. The arrival of Erling Haaland has taken their play to an entirely different level; one that could dominate European football for the next decade or more, but with enough teething problems to test the finest tactical mind of his generation. In my experience, you can trust Pep Guardiola to find the answers.

Manchester City

Manchester City’s 2017-18 side were a joy to watch (Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Manchester United, meanwhile, are one of the most engrossing stories in sport. Erik ten Hag’s first season in charge has been relatively stable results-wise, but this coming year could define the long-term future of the club off the pitch if the era of the Glazer family’s ownership finally comes to an end. The sense of cautious optimism around Old Trafford makes for a pleasant change, but there is still a lot of uncertainty about how it will all shake out.

There is never a dull time to be working as a football journalist in Manchester, but this is an especially interesting one.

I am hugely excited by the prospect of contributing to the brilliant work that all of The Athletic’s Manchester writers consistently produces.

I hope to offer you just as much insight, originality and good humor as they do in their writing, even if I half suspect mine peaked with that book review.

(Top photos: Shaun Botterill & Michael Regan/Getty Images)


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