Here’s to investigative journalism’s anonymous genius

Matt Stead

Who’s this week’s hero, Johnny?
This week’s hero is one of the finest journalists working today; it is as simple as that. He’s written about football for The Guardian for the last 19 years and this week saw him hand in his final copy before moving onto pastures new. So now seemed like the right time to celebrate a man who has done so much to lift the veil on so many important issues in the game, doing so with a forensic eye and and an accessible literary elan which can unpack the most complex issues for the layperson and guide us towards the truth.

In an industry which seems increasingly dominated by factually dubious, vapid, hollow and witless attempts at driving clicks over and above creating content worthy of anyone’s time and intellect, he stands against even an iota of dumbing-down, but has never resorted to overly convoluted or pseudo-intellectual exposition. Like many of the best writers, the degree of research and investigation he does to create comprehensive pieces on important issues time and again is exemplary.

In March 2017 he won news reporter of the year and sports journalist of the year at The Press Awards for his pieces uncovering sexual abuse in British football, a topic to which he continues to return: his penultimate piece for the paper was reporting on Dario Grady’s retirement from Crewe after a three-year suspension. He also pulled back the curtain of the FA’s cover-up and failures in the Eniola Aluko/Mark Sampson case. If there’s a major story in British football, chances are he’ll have covered it in more detail than most.

On top of this he’s also done sterling work in his match reports. In June his final paragraph in a piece about Martin O’Neill departing Nottingham Forest was especially heartfelt:

‘As a player, O’Neill helped an unheralded club become the champions of Europe and described it as “like getting on a train and never getting off”. As their manager he lasted only 19 games and at the age of 67, it cannot be ruled out that this might end his long and, for the most part, distinguished career.’

He is one of what seems like an ever-expanding cabal of Nottingham Forest fans that work in football media and journalism, and wrote a book about the club, Deep into the Forest, published in 2011. In November 2015 he wrote I Believe in Miracles, on the rise of Forest under Brian Clough, to accompany the film of the same name. His other books include This is the One, a two-year diary of Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. He also ghost-wrote last year’s autobiography of Kevin Keegan.

One of the finest journalists in football? Chief Football Writer at The Guardian for seven years?  That’ll be Daniel Taylor, then.


What have they done to deserve this then?
Danny joined The Guardian in 1999 and over the years he’s one of the few people who we turn to for investigative journalism into some of the big issues of the day, as well as for comprehensive coverage of big games and big names. That he concluded his career for the paper with a brief report on Joey Barton’s appearance at Barnsley magistrates’ court to deny a charge of actual bodily harm was entirely typical, somehow.

He is admirably terrier-like in pulling out the facts from the obfuscation and lies. His tenacious pursuit of the paedophiles in football scandal, in the course of reporting on the Barry Bennell case and all of the other sulphurous characters associated and involved in it, continues to this date. He also holds officials at the FA to account for their inaction. It is such dedication that puts him head and shoulders above the grunt labour. Investigative journalism is the hardest to do simply because you are usually trying to draw out truths that your protagonists do not want dragged into the daylight. It takes persistence, an ability to form trustworthy relationships with witnesses and a skilled wordsmith to ensure the truth gets told while avoiding legal action or leaving yourself vulnerable to irrational bias.

And yet most of these talents remain invisible to us when the copy hits the paper or our screens. But what may apparently be a smooth, easy to read 3,000-word piece has a massive paper trail behind it, along with a huge degree of commitment and thought.

Yet while many more lacklustre journalists have much more of a household name and are forever on the radio and TV (some clearly love the limelight more than others), I doubt anyone knows what Danny looks like apart from what must surely be an ancient byline photo in the paper and on Twitter. In the great traditions of journalism, he is largely anonymous to the general public. One has no sense at all of his character, except as someone with a burning desire to see right done and truth known.

So it is neither possible nor necessary to pass judgement on him for anything other than his work and I’m sure that is how he likes it. It is a blessing in the 21st century. Most of us don’t know what he sounds like, whether he’s a stentorian orator or a mumbling rambler. And there is absolutely no reason why we should. In an era which seems to have assigned value to notoriety and celebrity over and above the knowledgeable and the cerebral, that a Chief Football Writer for a globally renowned newspaper can still be so anonymous is little short of wonderful.


Media reaction?
On Twitter, lots of other national newspaper writers and football media people had lots of nice things to say about our man. From Sid Lowe to Max Rushden, all wished him good luck.

‘Good luck Danny,’ Henry Winter wrote. ‘Great innings. See you on the road,’ like he’s on tour with Bob Dylan and they will run into each other when they both have a gig in Peoria.

Paul Howard took the Tour of Duty angle. ‘Best of luck, Danny. Was great soldiering with you back in the day.’


Anyone grumpy about it?
Those who don’t believe in high-quality writing being put behind paywalls.

People who buy The Guardian.

Other journos who haven’t been invited to join The Athletic but really want to be.


What the people say
Danny is a popular writer with a huge following and is well appreciated. Many of us look to him for definitive analysis of the modern game. There is some disappointment at his leaving the paper for The Athletic with many feeling that while it is perhaps an understandable financial move, it is a subscription too far for them.

‘Daniel’s Sunday columns were for a long time my only must-reads. He had a great handle on the Manchester teams and also wrote some fantastic comment pieces. A real gem of a journo.’

‘Decent. Sensible. All-round good egg.’

‘When I grow up I want to be like Daniel (it’s not going to happen but I can dream).’

‘Daniel is the new David Conn, a proper investigative journalist. He seems to show how (I believe) journalism should be done. He’ll be a huge miss for The Guardian and massive gain wherever he goes in the future.’

‘One of the few journalists whose articles I always look for. Good luck.’

‘Being at Joey Barton’s trial on his last day – when many of us would have mentally checked out weeks before – was the epitome of him as a journalist. Thank God he’s not leaving the game completely.’

‘The highest profile of the three football media alumni of our local comprehensive. His articles are always superb. Clearly respected within the game given how well-connected his sources seem to be. His handling of the Barry Bennell case (and others) was investigative journalism of the highest order. He was deservedly shortlisted for Private Eye’s Paul Foot Award for his work, only the third football story to do so.’

‘The Brian Clough of football criticism: fearless, driven, in the top one.’

‘Always look forward to his articles, and unlike many other newspaper journalists on here, never panders to anyone or gets involved in self-promotion.’

‘Another respected journalist lost to a paywall. I’ll stick by The Guardian however. You can’t watch any football these days (unless you pay extra for it) and now top sports journalism is going the same way. Can we the consumers afford and sustain all of this? Doubtful.’

‘Daniel Taylor and Phil Hay, who covered all things Leeds United, were my go-to journalists. But for the life of me I can’t see why anyone would pay to read sports news when there’s more than enough free to all.’

‘His Sunday columns were a must-read for me. He’s tackled issues (child abuse, racism) with consistency and integrity, and his writing style is to be admired for its simplicity. And a journalist without any ego or self-promotion. Top man.’

‘I don’t read The Grauniad (“pinko commie rag!”), but his work re peadophile abuse in football, and the Mark Sampson affair was excellent. (And thanks to F365 for directing us to those pieces)’


What does the future hold?
Danny has gone, like many others, to The Athletic which is backed by £10m and aiming to attract more than 100,000 subscribers in the UK. Whether or not this will be a success – or indeed what success looks like to them – is still a much-debated notion. I have to say £10m does not sound like much money unless it is an annual investment. It will only pay for 100 writers on £100k per year, or 200 on £50k, and 100,000 subs will only pull in £3m. Can that pay all those wages? It’s not obvious it will. But then one presumes they’ve crunched the numbers.

This is an issue with two distinct camps. On one side are people who feel it’s about time others coughed up money for a subscription to high-quality writing; on the other side are those who feel as long as there is plenty of free content, any subscription service is bound to fail. The underlying issue is whether the concept of subscription to anything online or on TV is an idea that has had its day conceptually and in principle.

We’re currently seeing the collapse of paywall football TV with beIN warning just this week that illegal streaming is, and I’m paraphrasing here, taking the piss out of rights holders who have paid so handsomely to broadcast that which is effectively given away for free all the time.

Ironically, The Guardian model, which is to keep all online content free whilst basically relying on advertising and the goodwill of readers to donate whatever they can afford, is finally beginning to pay off. There is an old-fashioned whiff in 2019 about the very concept of subscriptions. More progressive thinking is searching for solutions to fund content production outside of traditional paywall versions of revenue generation in the certain knowledge that digital paywalls diminish audiences markedly, partly due to cost but more because of the process and the principle. There are only so many things we want or can be arsed to sign up to.

As a subscriber to The Athletic myself since it launched in the UK, I have to report that while there is plenty of interesting writing by excellent writers, in a way, there is much too much. At times it feels like endlessly dining on fillet steak and cream cakes. As a result, I find myself reading less than I did when such content was on a variety of websites. This may merely speak of my butterfly mind, of course, but it has surprised me. The ‘more isn’t better, more is just more’ principle may apply here. Still, it is early days yet. I also may be wincing at the whiff of the ambition of monopoly that comes with The Athletic. The undermining of local newspaper reporting doesn’t thrill either.

However, Danny need not worry. If The Athletic doesn’t make the numbers and the money it needs to, his writing will always be in demand simply because of its quality and I’m sure that he will always find someone prepared to pay him to produce it. And I and many others will surely seek out his work long into the future. Put simply, it is just too good and too informative to ignore. Good luck to you, Danny.

John Nicholson