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More than just a game: the ageless art of the sports writer – The Guardian

Sport has been an indivisible part of the Guardian almost from day one. Six weeks after the paper was launched as a weekly in May 1821, its first sports report appeared: four paragraphs of horse racing, tucked away on page 3.

“Races this week have been very numerously attended,” the un-bylined reporter noted, putting this down to “the comfortable circumstances of the labouring classes, which have enabled them spare time for attendance, and also to appear in better clothes”.

Buried at the bottom of this we learn that a spectator was also killed after colliding with a horse called Lucinda. There is a feeling here of starting as you mean to go on. “Page 3 …? Yeah, it’s the subs’ desk here … Just a thought. But can we move the actual death to the top and shift the people dressing nicely a bit further down?”

In the two centuries since, sport has been a tenacious, expansionist presence, a journey from hot lead gobbets on a slow morning batting first at Aigburth to real-time live updates from the latest preening global circus for millions of readers following on three-inch screens.

And as the northern summer gets into its stride, our genuine World XI is taking to the field once again to report on an exciting flurry of events that hopefully will serve as an agreeable distraction from the horrors of the past 18 months: Euro 2020, the Olympics, Test cricket, Wimbledon, Formula One, right through to the Ryder Cup in September.

One thing that is startlingly unchanged through the years is the florid, waspish tone of Guardian sports writing, a style much beloved of readers who have always wanted far more than just results and action from their sports pages.

An early protagonist was Neville Cardus, tweed-suited doyen of the inter-war years and a regular in these pages from 1919 to 1975. Music critic, literary superstar, “arrogant sneering pom” (source: the Australian cricket press box), Cardus is the obvious place to start when comparing the experience of sports writing then and now.

His own story is well rehearsed, but still extraordinary. Cardus’s mother was a sex worker, his father a policeman who had to retire after being beaten with a crowbar by the local gangster. He left school aged 13 but was a brilliant autodidact, reading ravenously in Manchester’s public libraries. In 1917 he wrote to the editor of the Guardian, CP Scott, asking for advice on how to become a writer. Scott took him on as his assistant.
From there Cardus was asked to fill in on some cricket reporting. Under the byline “Cricketer” he went on to invent a way of seeing and describing sport that was drawn more out of his obsession with Charles Dickens than any great urge to record the dry nuts and bolts. Cardus was imaginative and creative. He favoured imagery, atmosphere – vibes – ahead of strict adherence to the strictest of facts.

He became sports writing’s first popular star, the original duke, his name above the masthead (“Neville Cardus reports on this match”) an early form of clickbait. He remains an enduring influence – whether by imitation or rejection – on all kinds of sports writing that aspire beyond the simple recording of scores and quotes.

Cardus would eventually go out like all great sports hacks, bemoaning the butchery of his copy by some barbaric new regime on the desk, but not before he had changed the game. At one point he even recruited the young Trinidadian CLR James to the Guardian sports desk, resulting in an extraordinary period when both Cardus and James – playwright, activist and a genuine literary heavyweight – were filing 300-word county cricket reports to the Manchester offices.

In the years since, Guardian sport has been home to a thrillingly mixed roster of voices. The great football writer Donny Davies (bylined as “An Old International”) met his end in the Munich plane crash disaster. Six years later the quietly brilliant David Lacey wrote his first Guardian report – Coventry v Crystal Palace in the old Second Division.

Lacey acted as football correspondent for 30 years, turning the job into an art form with his illuminating reports, usually filed down the phone from some rainswept corrugated stand. In the same period Frank Keating spent four decades as a kind of chief columnist figure, with a sunny, vigorous, intimate style that, as with Cardus, tended to paint sports people as grand, heroic protagonists.

Neville Cardus in a suit and tie, reclining in an armchair with an out of focus bookcase behind him
Neville Cardus in 1969. Photograph: Frank Martin/The Guardian

The sense of sport with a hinterland was embodied best by Richard Williams, who graduated from befriending Bob Marley as an Island Records A&R man and presenting The Old Grey Whistle Test to (no doubt his ultimate goal in all this) elegant and popular Guardian chief sports writer. More recently Marina Hyde has alternated between skewering the nation’s ruling elite to hoovering up sport’s top gongs with her effortlessly brilliant midweek columns.

Throughout all this the nature of the job has been violently transformed. The most distinctive part of Cardus’s writing was its sense of place. Sport reporting was born out of a need to be present simply to ensure these things were recorded. One summer, Cardus almost worked himself to death travelling across the north of England recording parsimonious bowling spells and stout opening partnerships.

These days everyone has access, everyone sees everything. Sport has become, as David Goldblatt has noted, the popular culture, every act of reporting just another strand in an unceasing public debate.

Sports desks have been through contortions of their own, most notably the boom times of the 1990s as the sections grew from two pages at the back to meaty supplements and magazines – writerly, decorative projects with a bulging, dedicated staff.

When this correspondent joined the Guardian sports website in 2008, it was just a single, unloved table hidden away at the top of the Farringdon offices. Since then digital coverage has grown beyond all recognition, a prodigious, prolific operation that publishes scores of articles every day.

The one constant, still, is that distinctive tone, carried down through these various forms. The Guardian sport website was the first to do live coverage, to send out viral emails, the first to do a podcast, first to adopt a distinctive tone in its coverage.

That intimate, wised-up, distinctly Guardian sports voice was honed in the early years of the century by the likes of Scott Murray, Rob Smyth, Sean Ingle, Barry Glendenning and a revolving cast of others, and has now found an echo in the tone and texture of so much internet sports writing.

This has been the real story of Guardian sport down those 200 years. From four paragraphs on racegoers’ fancy trousers to a Tuesday night minute-by-minute on a Premier League season-ender, that voice remains the same. If it’s a voice you value, enjoy and appreciate, you can sustain it into the next 200 years by making a contribution of as little as £1.