Writing any World Cup diary must be a tricky business. Most British journalists are assigned to cover England exclusively and so the pitfalls are obvious: that their observations will be largely the same and that, because of unrelenting focus on the games themselves, the author ends up rehashing a sequence of events which, at the time of publication, remain fresh in the mind.
Jonathan Northcroft avoids all of those potholes and his diary, Deadlines and Darts With Dele, is a real delight.
Originally, this took the form of a series of Facebook posts which ran throughout the tournament. The tone is informal, at ease. Really, this is a well-crafted, long-form blog and, actually, that suits the subject. Nobody quite has the appetite yet for an ultra-serious post mortem of World Cup 2018 and so Northcroft’s mix of sincere footballing beliefs, cultural observations and asides on the journalistic challenges of covering a tournament feels fresh, interesting and honest.
Many supporters will have preconceptions about what life is like for the travelling press pack and so, for those people, this really is essential reading. While they imagine an effortless float between the pressboxes, a bottomless expense account and a month-long jolly, the reality is very different. In that regard, one of the advantages of the book’s day-by-day chronology is that the cumulative fatigue seeps into the writing: as Northcroft describes the trudge onto endless flights and through the identikit media centres, the challenges of meeting deadlines and a sapping lack of sleep, the reader can really get a sense of the slog invovled. The balance is right: yes, he’s lucky to be there and writing about football for a living is a privilege, but it can seem less so at times and especially when it involves being away from family for such long periods.
Your reviewer has only very meagre tournament experience, at u21 level to boot, but even that involved articles being finished in the back of unlicensed Polish cabs and panicky editors demanding mixed zone interviews with reluctant players. It’s difficult at that level but, obviously, far, far more so when the subject is a World Cup and the journalist is on deadline at The Sunday Times. Northcroft does a really fine job of explaining those pressures and, at a time when journalists are regularly accused of being over-indulged, giving the other side of the argument. It’s really not a holiday.
Deadlines and Darts With Dele may not overly concern itself with the mechanics of the games themselves, but some of the footballing passages are actually truly excellent. The author’s recollection of watching the penalties at the end of England against Colombia will stay with you, so will the awe in his account of Lionel Messi’s fabulous take-and-hit against Nigeria. Both manage to combine valuable, first-hand insight with a highly original perspective, but they also deal with the aftermath too. Beneath-the-line remarks and Twitter interactions are increasingly relevant for anyone working within the media and Northcroft evidently isn’t someone who views himself as being above those kind of conversations. Here, he engages with them and his thoughts on the differences between live and televised football, while almost always shouted down by today’s armchair generation, should be compulsive reading for anyone who fails to recognise the sensory worth of live sport.
So this is a triumph. It’s not a forensic examination of the football, but that’s absolutely a good thing. Instead, it’s light-hearted but intelligent, easy to read but well-written, and balances self-deprecation and authority in a way which is always affecting. It’s that rare thing: a book which can be rattled through in a couple of days, but which will leave a strong impression along the way.