Interview: Barry Glendenning

The Guardian sports journalist Barry Glendenning, 38, has just bought a pint in an “old-man shithole pub”, a.k.a his “Brixton office”. He’s talking about moving to London from Ireland 12 years ago.

“Sorry, have we started the interview now? Yes? Okay, I’ll just give you a quick history and you can take what you want from it,” he says and describes his story of being an English, Philosophy and the Classics – “or some bollocks like that” – student in Dublin back in the day; failing all his exams and “bumming around town on the dole”; getting a job at Irish magazine Hot Press after winning a competition by reviewing the Pope saying mass in the Philippines as if it was a rock concert; and going undercover as a comedian.

“At Hot Press I was given the job of doing stand-up comedy gigs and writing about what it was like to do it,” the man from Birr, County Offaly says. Without anyone knowing who he was, he went to perform at a comedy club, “and it actually went quite well. So I started doing stand-up and then I was making more money from that than from working for Hot Press.”

He went freelance to focus on his newfound passion and moved to the English capital to crack the London comedy circuit, “which was a total disaster. I wasn’t put into work, I was drinking too much,” he says.

Instead, he went back into journalism and worked his way up from web content uploader to deputy sports editor for the Guardian Unlimited website, which suited him perfectly. He’s always been a sports fan, he’ll watch any sport on TV and, according to Wikipedia, he particularly likes writing about football, horse racing and table tennis.

“I can say with the hand on my heart that I’ve never ever written a word about table tennis and I don’t know anything about it. I think it says I’m militantly strident to the Irish Countrywomen’s Association or something as well, which also isn’t true,” Glendenning laughs in the pub just around the corner from his home in “the Brix”.

“I always used to walk passed this pub but would never dream of coming in here. You would just see some git standing outside like, ‘what the fuck are you looking at?’. Then one day I came in to watch a match or something and it was absolutely fine. Now I know everyone by name, which is probably not a good reflection on me, but they’re all harmless once you get to know them.”

His voice brings the empty pub to life, and it’s also one of the tools that’s made him a household name in sports media through regularly featuring in the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast. Alongside the host James “Jimbo” Richardson, Glendenning and a rotating scheme of Guardian hacks add wit and sarcasm to the successful pundits of the round table format. Introduced in 2006, the pod now has about 150.000 listeners and regularly tops the iTunes charts. And through this forum he’s become a character of both loathe and love.

“Sometimes I don’t have a filter,” he says. “I think of something and then I say it or write it and then I go, ‘oooh no’. It could have been a bad thing if I was a big racist or something, but I’m not. I like to think I’m a pretty decent bloke who’s fairly easy to get on with. So most of the thoughts I have are inoffensive.

“Or they might just offend a fan of a football club if I say something derogatory about their team,” he says. Which is exactly what happened six months ago. Glendenning tweeted about Tottenham Hotspur being a big club with a small-club mentality, celebrating a fourth place in the Premier League as if they’ve won the Champions League. As a response, an anonymous Spurs fan wrote a 2000-word article, “making some valid points, but also attacking me for my appearance, and attacking my now ex-girlfriend who I’m not going out with anymore – not because of this I might add – and quite a lot of what they said was just not true…” he says, slightly irritated when thinking about it.

There’s a TV on in the background. Images from protests and riots in Dublin due to The Queen’s visit to Ireland distracts Glendenning, and he swears quietly over what’s going on in his home country before coming back in tune.

“…but again, it’s just my opinion, and I get accused of being anti-Spurs for saying that by people who wear Spurs replica shirts, go to Spurs games and cheer on Spurs, so who’s biased, me or them?” he says, taking a zip of his pint. “By all means, they can disagree with me, but there’s really no need for calling me a c**t.”

For such an effort to be made after 140 characters on a social network site shows the reach these new types of media have today. And maybe that’s why keen twitterer Glendenning, with more than 23.000 followers, describes himself as a “purveyor of ‘lazy journalism’ and ‘anti-[insert name of your favourite team here]’ bias”.

“I do bring a lot on myself because I find it difficult to resist winding people up,” he says. “If I’m bored I find it amusing to roll a grenade in and just see what happens. What I need on my laptop and my phone is a lock that kicks in after about 11.30 at night that keeps me away from it.”

But despite the odd episodes of harassment, he thinks the social aspect of the phenomenon is great. If you’re a fan of a particular footballer you can get a great insight into their lives. “And if you’re jealous of them like I am, you get to see that their lives are even more boring than mine,” he says. “They just seem to be living these deathly dull existences, sitting in watching the Eurovision. But I suppose that’s why they’re top players and I’m not, because they have discipline and they look after themselves and they don’t go out getting pissed every night.”

Alongside the popularity of Football Weekly, this new kind of exposure, however, has meant for pundits and journalist to become more high-profile, whether they like it or not. Being recognised on the street takes some getting used to, and Barry feels a bit uncomfortable when so happens.

“I was in a bar with a girl on a date once, and she went to the loo and this guy came up to me and said, ‘you’re Barry Glendenning aren’t you?’. I said, ‘yeah’, and I was slightly embarrassed because before he came over I’d been kind of snogging her in the pub,” he says with a big laugh.

“And I just thought, ‘oh my god, please, please don’t have taken a photo, please don’t mention this on the comment section [of the podcast]’.”

Despite the extra exposure, Barry doesn’t think sports writers are getting the attention they truly deserve. In a media environment where ex-footballers become pundits overnight, he doesn’t see any room for talented journalists like Paul Hayward or Jonathan Wilson being used on TV in the near future. “I would rather hear Paul Hayward’s opinion on football than Alan Shearer’s, or with the greatest respect, Robbie Savage’s,” he says. “I’m sure Robbie Savage is a great guy but he’s a terrible pundit and ditto for Shearer. He’s too afraid to offend anyone.

“But TV producers seems to cater for the lowest common denominator. ‘Alan Shearer was good at football; lets give him loads of money to be a pundit.’ But BBC would think that people don’t know who Paul Hayward is. You know, credit to people with enough intelligence to give them a chance and they will appreciate what he has to say.”

And in terms of his own future, it looks to be staying along the same lines. “I’m very content at the moment, the Guardian is good to me. In the perfect world I’ll go to live in my hometown and crank out a couple of articles a week and be handsomely paid for it without leaving the house, but that’s in 10-15 years. But I’m not married and I don’t have kids, so that’s not something I have to think about when I ponder my next move. Which is, sort of good… Is it? Or is it being sad, I don’t know…?” he chuckles.

It turns out that his next move isn’t very long at all. A cranky, old local comes into the pub. Barry realises we’re sitting in his seat. We get up, go over to the bar and order another round while the old man swears at us.

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