Congratulations to Lara Alsaid, Morgan Ofori and Dom Smith who are our three winners of the FWA Student Football Writer of the Year awards, run in conjunction with Football Manager.
Jim White, of the Telegraph and FWA National Executive Committee, was head of the judging panel and had this to say:
“This is the third year of the FWA Student Football Writer of the Year awards and the standard seems to be getting ever higher. This year we received over 500 submissions, the excellence of which suggests the future of the football writing business is bright indeed. After much deliberation, the judges have reached their decision. And it was not easy.
The FWA Vikki Orvice Student Football Writer of the Year is Lara Alsaid, 21, who is studying at De Montfort University, Leicester. Her piece about the struggles of the former Leicester player Matt Piper was reckoned by the judges to be an important story really well told. It delivered everything we look for in a prize piece: originality, research and style.
The FWA/Kick It Out Unheard Voices Football Writer of the Year is Morgan Ofori, who is 29 and studying for an MA in Journalism at Goldsmith College, University of London. His piece about the issues behind the Carabao Cup finalists was the outstanding work among some extremely strong contenders, offering a compelling argument, written with zest.
The FWA Hugh McIlvanney Student Football Writer of the Year is Dom Smith, 22, who is doing the post graduate journalism course at News Associates in London. The judges were almost unanimous in selecting his interview with a Christian evangelist who preaches outside all the big football matches in London; several of the judges admitted they would have loved to have done the piece themselves.
Thanks to the generosity of our partners at Football Manager each of the winners will receive a prize of £1000, plus copies of all six of the titles shortlisted for the FWA Football Book of the Year Award. And they will be presented with their trophies at the 75th anniversary FWA Footballer of the Year Awards dinner on Thursday 25 May in central London.
Here are the winning entries:
Lara Alsaid, De Montfort University Leicester:
It’s 8 am, a hungover Matt Piper, former Leicester City player, wakes up. He looks to the side and grabs the whiskey bottle on the table next to him and takes a shot. In joggers and a t-shirt, he walks into the kitchen and opens the pill cabinet, he takes a puff from the spliff he just rolled and finishes the whiskey with the mix of tablets in his hand. He walks out the door towards the graveyard near his house. With no socks or shoes, no keys or phone, he isn’t planning on returning. His mother finds Matt in a coma state on top of his grandad’s grave, that he has laid on ready to die.
Matt Piper, now 41, born and bred in Leicester, is currently living near Glenfield. He started at the Leicester Academy at eight years old and signed his first professional contract with Leicester City at 19 years old in year 2000. He had a promising career and was an impressive player with a bright future. He was 17 when he made his debut for the first team, they flew up to Newcastle on a private jet. “In that moment I knew that this is what I want to do.” he says, reminiscing about the experience.
In August 2002, City sold him to Sunderland for £3.5 million. “Imagine being at your hometown club since eight years old, you dream of playing for the first team, you get there and then you get sold,” Matt says. He packed his whole life and career at City in one black bag, he put the bag in the boot of his car and in that moment, he became a Sunderland player. Matt´s career was cut short when he suffered injuries that made him go through rehab and had in total 19 knee operations before he retired from football completely at the age of 26.
It was hard for him to go from having a job that he was passionate about and loved, to having a 9-5 job that he didn’t love. This is where life got difficult for Matt. He became addicted to alcohol, weed and coke 18 months after retiring. He consumed 1,5 litre Whisky a day, it made him forget about his issues. He continued to live lavishly even though he wasn’t a footballer anymore and blew £450,000 in 25 months.
Matt wanted to be an active dad that took his kids out to the playground, so he stopped the operations and retired. Retiring also affected his mental health. There came a point in his life where drinking was all he did and he wasn’t allowed to see his two children. One morning in 2009 Matt woke up hungover and depressed, feeling that he had lost everything he’s ever wanted: a football career and his kids. He wrapped a spliff, took a shot of whiskey and sank a cocktail of tablets. Barefoot in joggers and a t-shirt he walked out of his front door. He walked, with a knot in his stomach and heart palpitation, to the graveyard where his grandad was laid to rest. He laid on top of the grave and passed out, ready to die. His mother later found him in a coma state on top of the grave. His first memory when waking up at Leicester Royal Infirmary was of the two doctors arguing about sectioning him. Matt went to a rehab centre for athletes and lived there for eight weeks doing daily therapy sessions and seeing a councillor.
He grew up in Beaumont Leys, spending time with his friends, not caring about school, all they wanted to do was play football. “You become who you hang around with.” Matt says. When Matt was 16, he signed a contract with City, 12 of his friends didn’t receive a contract. “Ever since that age, I thought it would be important to have an academy that uses football as a carrot and focuses on education.” Matt says, explaining the concept of the Leicester based academy he built: Football and Sports diploma. Not having a purpose other than football was his biggest regret, that’s what he wants to provide for the kids at the academy.
Today, Matt has restored all his relationships, his four kids live with him 3,5 days a week. “It gives me comfort to be reliable to my kids, my wife, the kids at the academy, that’s the best thing about me now,” he says.
It is weird for Matt to look back at the time when he wanted to take his own life to being where he is now.
“What I feel about this story is that that guy was not me.” Matt rounds up, understanding that the lowest point in his life was just a part of an inspiring journey.
Morgan Ofori, Goldsmiths College, University of London:
Positivity tends to be the prevailing feeling around clubs before a cup final. There is plenty of it at Newcastle and Manchester United before Sunday’s Carabao Cup showdown. Eddie Howe’s “intensity is our identity” motto has won him admirers on Tyneside and beyond, and Erik ten Hag has overseen the reawakening of Old Trafford’s sleeping giant. But their trip to Wembley will be made against a backdrop of protest and discontent, too.
Ownership is the cause of that. Since October 2021 Newcastle have been majority-owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, making the club’s revival harder to swallow for some fans and many more outsiders. Unhappiness at the Glazer family’s stewardship of Manchester United is longstanding and now comes the possibility the club will end up in hands of a Qatari sheikh.
The protest group NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing delivered a letter to Howe’s office last weekend on behalf of the brother of a man at risk of torture and execution in Saudi Arabia. “If Eddie Howe, the fans and local politicians don’t say anything about human rights before the final, I think it’s a terrible look,” says the group member John Hird.
He points out that Newcastle fans have been singing “sack the board” on and off at St James’ Park since the 1970s, less than 10 years after the most recent trophy win of 1969 and believes this regime should get the same treatment. Hird condemns the hypocrisy of Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct Stadium and Wonga sponsorships being unpopular with supporters but there being less outrage over deals made by the current ownership, including with a Saudi e-commerce platform, “because of the implications” of what their wealth could bring.
Plenty of Newcastle fans hold a different view. The founder of the True Faith fanzine and podcast, Michael Martin, believes the club “has never been more united”. Martin points to investment in the club’s infrastructure and support for worthy causes such as food banks in the area as a catalyst.
Although he has sympathy for the view that ownership must be fan-centred, Martin, a former board member of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust, doubts it is a realistic option. He does not believe the club is being used by the Saudis to launder the country’s reputation. “Britain has historic links with Saudi Arabia,” he says. “I’m uneasy with the idea that Newcastle United, the least expensive thing on their portfolio, is a big sports washing vehicle.”
Martin says investment from the Gulf is something that we all need to get used to. “If you want your football club to compete at the top then you do have no choice but to have an owner with a public investment fund.”
At Manchester United questions over potential new ownership have sprung up since the Glazer family put the club up for sale last November. Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, the chairman of QIB, a Qatari bank, and Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the chairman of the petrochemicals company Ineos, have entered the bidding for the club.
The prospect of a Qatari buyer has sparked particular concern among some supporters. The LGBTQ+ fan club The Rainbow Devils raised “deep concern” regarding interest from a nation where same-sex relationships are criminalised, and the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) said in an open letter backed by 150 fan groups worldwide that any owner must respect “the rights of all people, particularly women and the LGBTQ+ community”.
MUST also argued there were questions of “sporting integrity” to be addressed given that Ratcliffe owns the Ligue 1 club Nice and Qatar Sports Investments owns Paris Saint-Germain. Thani is bidding as a private individual via his Nine Two Foundation.
MUST’s CEO, Duncan Drasdo, believes that at the heart of any bid must be collaboration with fans. “MUST’s vision has always been that supporters have a significant ownership stake in the club we love. So, our ask to any new owner is simple: have a clear plan to get United back to the top; invest in the team, the club, and the stadium; and work with fans as real partners and co-owners.” If only it were that simple.
Ratcliffe is the person of choice for Scott Saunders, a lifelong Manchester United fan and managing editor of the football news platform 90min.com. Saunders does not want the club to be in the conversation when questions over human rights are being asked and says: “I don’t think United need a wealthy benefactor. They need someone that will come in and not bleed the club dry like the current owners have. The Glazers have only been good for themselves. United in an ideal situation get an owner that clears the debt and uses revenue to operate.”
And what about the action that will take place at Wembley? “We’ve got a great chance of winning, but we are slight underdogs,” Martin says. “I take umbrage with the fact that six years [the length of Manchester United’s trophy drought] is a long time. Blink of an eye for me, that!” Saunders says the quiet confidence of Ten Hag could be enough to get United over the line.
Only one set of fans will end up celebrating but both will know that, at their club, what happens on the pitch is only part of the narrative.
Dom Smith, News Associates London:
Megaphone in hand and with his trouser legs tucked inside his jade socks, Ben Jones is as excitable as he is prompt.
“I arrived an hour early for our interview so I got the loudspeaker out and proclaimed the message for a bit,” he says jovially.
If you ever attend football matches in London, chances are you have stared curiously at the 47-year-old, preaching the Bible as you filtered past him towards the stadium. If John Motson was the voice of football, Ben Jones is the voice of God at the football.
Jones, who cuts an awkward figure, lives alone in his Finchley flat. He balances his days between preaching the Pentecostal faith, administering his late father’s estate in California, and studying a PhD in electrical engineering at Queen Mary University of London.
Jones has been football’s foremost evangelist for two decades, preaching at what he calls “the big four” stadiums: Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham.
“I have also been to Fulham in times past, but Craven Cottage is smaller so I’ve given up,” he admits, perking up when I tell him they’ve expanded the Riverside Stand. Fulham is suddenly back on the cards.
“Wembley is one of my favourite places to proclaim the message. As you come out of the tube station, on the left there is a good place for me to position myself.
“Waterloo Station too, but I have to be careful because the authorities can move me on. I don’t know the specifics of what the law says. I’m quite ignorant on that actually. Usually if they ask me to move, I go quiet for a while and then keep going.
“I studied mathematics and physics at Oxford University,” Jones says, a sternness clouding over his face. “It didn’t go well for me at all. Bad stuff happened in my life when I was a student there. I ended up getting involved in a lot of occult practices, like the Ouija board.
“I don’t have a lady friend or wife or children, but I did come back to a close spiritual relationship with Jesus in the year 1997. That helped me come away from the occult and towards God.”
Football fans don’t always act with a generosity of spirit, but Jones has developed a thick skin.
“At Arsenal I was once relating Jesus Christ’s message to being on the great football pitch of life — the need to be on his team,” Jones recounts. “Let Jesus be our personal team captain. And God is the referee: he gives us the yellow card, the warning in life.
“I had those cards in my hand and one Arsenal fan grabbed them and threw them all in the air. I had to pick them up. Someone near me started running after him. A few minutes later the police had him in a really uncomfortable headlock, and they said ‘he’s come to apologise.’
“Sometimes they yell some obscene things down [the megaphone]. I try to quickly switch it off. I’ve been nervous. You can sense whether the crowd are in a rowdy mood. It’s good that these events are quite heavily policed.
“It is important not to let it get to you,” he reflects. “I can put up with the insults and the heckling comments. I’ve taken the occasional slap or punch. I learned Kung-Fu moves as a child, but thankfully I never actually had to use them.”
While most opposition to Jones’s methods is purely born of alcoholic means, some dissent is slightly more fundamental.
“At West Ham there’s a Christian who goes to games. At least three times, he has said: ‘That’s the worst, most ineffective form of evangelism’ as he walks past. I accept quite a few Church people don’t agree with this style. I say there are different ways of getting the message across. This is a way.”
Does the football preacher actually like football?
“I have watched the World Cup but the past one in Qatar I didn’t,” he admits. “Part of the reason is I don’t have a TV in my flat. Well, there is a TV — but it would need a day to get it plugged in and I probably couldn’t even do it myself.”
Jones lives a simple, stripped-back life. It may feel apt to consider ways in which the football world could learn from his self-discipline. Instead, he ponders what he can learn from football fans.
“When you watch a football match you really see the passion. As Christians, we can challenge ourselves: are we as passionate about serving God as football fans are about their team?”
Perhaps in essence, football fans and theists like Jones are much the same. They have hopes and dreams and, to quote Clive Tyldesley (and the Bible), desires to “reach the Promised Land.”