By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
OLIVER HOLT believes the standard of British sports writing is higher than it has ever been.
The Daily Mirror writer recently won the Sports Journalists’ Association Sports Columnist of the Year award which, for once, left Holt almost speechless.
He said: “It really took me by surprise. I looked at the list of candidates – Martin Samuel (Daily Mail), Jim Lawton (Independent), Patrick Collins (Mail on Sunday), Simon Barnes and Mike Atherton (the Times). Every single one was a writer I looked up to. I was genuinely pleased to just be on the list. It was a wonderful feeling to win the award even though you must be aware that they are subjective things.
“I believe British sports journalism is of an incredibly high standard, better than it’s ever been. There are some outstanding writers who don’t even make the shortlist. I think Sam Wallace (Independent) is a brilliant journalist, one of my favourites. The fact that Sam wasn’t among the finalists shows how deep the writing talent runs.
“There are a number of excellent young journalists coming through…Laura Williamson, Sami Mokbel and Alex Kay (all Daily Mail), Ann Gripper at our paper, Rory Smith (the Times) plus Jonathan Liew (Daily Telegraph) who won the Ian Wooldridge trophy for Young Sports Writer.
“It’s a very competitive business and being given the opportunity to be a columnist is not easy, more so now with the industry under pressure. I think those people I’ve mentioned can do it because they are good enough.”
Holt grew up reading the fine prose of the late Donald Saunders who covered football and boxing for the Daily Telegraph for more than three decades.
He said: “When I lived at home my parents bought the Telegraph so I always read Donald Saunders. When I was older I liked Hugh McIlvanney and Jim Lawton. In many ways Jim is still my writing hero.’
Holt cut his journalistic teeth on the Liverpool Echo and Daily Post as a news reporter before joining the Times in 1993 as motor racing correspondent. “Instead of going to Birkenhead to an old people’s home, my first trip for the Times was to South Africa for the South African Grand Prix. Then to Surfers Paradise for Nigel Mansell’s first Indy race. I felt I’d arrived at that point.”
Apart from the more exotic locations and weather the contrast in covering F1 in the 1990’s and English football in 2012 is worlds apart.
Holt said: “In those days F1 was almost like a small family. There were five British drivers when I started – Martin Brundle, Mark Blundell, Johnny Herbert, Damon Hill and Derek Warwick. They were all easy to get on with while journalists such as Stan Piecha (Sun), Bob McKenzie (Daily Express) and Ray Matts (Daily Mail) became mentors of mine. I learned an awful lot from them.”
After a spell as the Times’ chief football writer, in 2000 Holt began covering more sports, attending the Sydney Olympics and was given his first chance as a columnist when he joined the Daily Mirror in 2002.
While a huge fan of football, inevitably his main port of call now, motor racing and tennis (the latter watching and playing), Holt’s favourite sport to cover is boxing. He said: “The intensity of the fight and the bravery of the people who get in the ring make boxing a wonderful sport to report. Also, many boxers tend to be very articulate and courteous. They are fantastic people to talk to.”
The change of style from writing for the Times to the Daily Mirror was helped by Holt’s time in journalism school and his early career on Merseyside where he paid tribute to Bob Burns – “the news editor at the Echo and a first-class journalist.”
Holt said: “I grew up writing tabloid style and though I was a little apprehensive about the switch, the Mirror have always been brilliant with me. I can pretty well write my column how I want to.”
He starts planning his Wednesday page as soon as soon as the previous one has been finalised. He said: “The column is always in my mind so if I see or hear something that could be used I make a note immediately. Ninety per cent of the time I go to the sports desk with ideas of what I’m going to do but I always talk things through with them.”
Holt has never stepped away from controversy which in many ways is the lifeblood of a columnist and has often written positively about sportsmen whose public image is less than popular – “I’m not unique in this respect by any stretch of the imagination.”
Like all top columnists Holt has the ability to make readers reconsider their own views on certain subjects. However, the person who probably had the biggest effect on Holt the journalist remains an icon in his sport.
“I’ve only interviewed Jonny Wilkinson once. I was incredibly impressed by him, I admire everything about him as a player in terms of his dedication and his approach to his sport. His openness was refreshing and he is someone I admire a huge amount.
“I also loved listening to Bernard Hopkins [the American boxer who defended his world middleweight title a record 20 times]. He was a fantastic talker.
“Every sports writer has people they like and I’m no different. In football it’s quite a long list…Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Gary and Phil Neville, Craig Bellamy, Kieron Dyer, John Terry, Frank Lampard…”
Football writers are inevitably accused of bias – in fact they tend to be more critical of any team they support – but Holt has no particular allegiance to any of the Barclays Premier League big guns.
“I grew up supporting Stockport County. My dad’s from Stockport and we lived five miles away. We used to watch Stockport on a Friday night while on Saturday I went to Manchester United or City. When I was a little older I used to follow Stockport at some away games, plus United and City, too. It was a mix of the three but Stockport were my team.”
It was a good weekend for Stockport who beat Bath City 4-0 on Saturday.