James McNicholas: The football writing/acting chameleon, and the back side of sports journalism

How a fan became one of the most prominent voices on everything Arsenal, and stories about Sir Alex Ferguson and how it all came down to the colour red.

James McNicholas’ story of how he became a successful football writer depicts the back side of journalism that contains freelance workers, as well as two passions which compete for his time and energy in two extremely ambitious occupations.

McNicholas is indeed an ambitious man, but also smart, and lucky. Ingredients necessary to get far in such a tentative and competitive industry like journalism.

The 32-year-old’s first passion is football writing, currently writing ESPN’s Arsenal blog and enjoying a seat in the press box at the Emirates. His second devotion is acting and writing for screen.

Like a chameleon changing its skin tone to suit the environment, McNicholas shifts between being a football writer and an actor. Even though writing about Arsenal does most of the pulling financially, he doesn’t want to, or have to, shed his secondary passion that is acting.

The Arsenal sphere, where he is most known, will recognise him by his social media pseudonym “Gunnerblog”. He uses his Twitter account as a megaphone to inform and entertain his following, which has cultivated to 171,000 followers, on his thoughts and the occasional joke on everything Arsenal. He also co-hosts the Arsenal podcast “Arsecast” with his friend and fellow blogger Andrew Mangan of Arseblog.

McNicholas has become one of the behemoths of “Arsenal Twitter” which he agrees has been a massive help in his way to become one of the top Arsenal correspondents around. But it’s a peculiar situation nonetheless.

“They’re kind of hiring me because they like my writing, but they’re also doing so because they know that there’s 100,000 people or whatever who might click on something I’ve written. Attract attention to their site.

“And I know that, and obviously I wish in some ways it was just, ‘Hey, you’re a good writer,’ but that’s not how media works now. You need to get hits and I provide a way into an audience. It’s kind of a weird trade-off,” he says.

His far-reaching audience is his leverage for jobs as a freelancer. Being educated or well-known or a good writer isn’t enough on itself to make a living in sports journalism today. Often you need a combination of two or all three to find success. McNicholas possesses two of these attributes to the fullest: education (his vast knowledge about Arsenal) and his celebrity within the Arsenal fan base.

This recipe has given him steady work at publications such as ESPN, Bleacher Report, Mirror Football, CNN and others, allowing him to earn enough to live in London, only a ten minute walk from the Emirates.

But other than his loyal following and expertise, why do people listen to him?

“On the podcast people always say that I always say that I don’t know (when asked questions). But I think maybe that is part of it. I think I try to be honest basically. I try to call it as I see it without prejudice, and sometimes that means I have to say I don’t know.

“Maybe people listen to me because… sometimes people say that I can be quite level-headed or rational, and I think that there’s a bit of a trend towards hyperbole.

“I’m thinking of the classic ArsenalFanTV kind of stuff. And I think maybe there’s a little bit of a reaction to that and people want something that expresses a kind of more moderate experience. And I think maybe I sit in that territory.”

We derailed from the original talking point at this time, as we did numerous times throughout the interview, and ended up talking about agendas and bias. McNicholas has been an Arsenal fan all his life, so bias is an issue. But he also tells me he does get emails accusing him of both working for the club and against Arsène Wenger. That he has a biased agenda on both sides of the spectrum.

McNicholas understands the issue, but is certain he is innocent of anything malicious.

“It’s (agenda) a big buzzword on social media, ‘Oh, you’ve got an agenda.’ I do have an agenda, yeah. My agenda is to express my opinion. But anything beyond that, there’s nothing weird going on.”

In fact, his connection to the club makes him more desirable for publishers because of his knowledge about it, but also to the Arsenal community for his credibility and him being one of them.

Through social media he can check the pulse on relevant topics and discussions within the Arsenal community and accurately describe it or work off of it, for for example ESPN. It’s telling of how important social media is nowadays for a sports writer.

His start into football writing was as innocent as any, by being active on an Arsenal forum (actually the Arseblog forum where he met Mangan), and eventually, after being inspired by Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ season fourteen years ago, he started a blog he named “Gunnerblog”.

He created his blog and Twitter account in 2004 and 2008 respectively. In a time when the blogosphere and Twitter-verse wasn’t as swollen as it is today. A time when it was easier to get noticed and grow an audience.

He explained, “I was young so I understood the technology and I was a student, so I had the time. I had the time to do it for free, and I didn’t get paid for anything that I did for a long time. Like six or seven years. And I didn’t care… I should say, I never planned to have this as a job. It’s sort of a bit of an accident to be honest. It was just the pure passion of it.

“Whereas if I started a site tomorrow or a Twitter account or a YouTube account I don’t know how I would stand out. It’s really hard.”

McNicholas was never much of a footballer himself though. In fact, he said he was terrible as a child. That all he could do was shoot really hard with his left foot, like Lukas Podolski. It wasn’t easy because his grandfather was a world champion boxer and he had a cousin who was a footballer.

“Sports is really important in my family, and I was a real disappointment in some ways because I was bad at sports.”

However, he compensated by soaking up information and statistics about the game, and eventually writing.

“This was my way to be involved in sports because I could write, and I found a way to be involved. But don’t get me wrong, I love it. But probably on some level, it’s about looking for acceptance,” he said.

In his teens, McNicholas discovered theatre and has been pursuing acting and writing stories and sketches since. He has been in several plays, TV shows, commercials and sketches, mostly comedy. And at the moment he’s working on an hour-long stand-up routine he’d like to tour some time next year.

He believes there are similarities between football and performing, and they both feed his hunger for instant gratification.

“Acting is a bit like sports in that, you know, you train, you rehearse, you have a match, you have a show, there’s adrenaline, there’s a crowd. People say scoring a goal is a great feeling, I’m sure that’s true, but making people laugh is a really good feeling as well.”

McNicholas embraces juggling football writing and acting. Although he is financially stable through his Arsenal writing, and in that sense his acting becomes redundant in a way, he doesn’t want to drop it because it’s something he really enjoys and he has the time for it.

“It’s great because in both I’m kind of self-employed, I have control. I don’t really have a boss. That’s the thing I’m most happy about, the control of my time.”

Writing has always been his biggest talent he added. And he attributes the opportunity to work as a writer to his parents, during his upbringing in Watford.

“I have to say I always felt very encouraged to do what I wanted to do. I felt very privileged. My parents never said, ‘You need to be an accountant or a lawyer.’ They were like, ‘Yeah, do what you want.’ And I really explored that. I was in bands, I was in plays, I was writing. And they have always supported my goals.

“I had a good childhood. And football was a big part of it, because my brother was crazy into Chelsea and I was crazy into Arsenal. We were always talking about it, always learning about it, always playing football out in the garden or playing in the streets with friends, or playing computer games. It was football football football,” he described.

McNicholas has been an avid spectator from Highbury in the mid 90’s as a fan to the Emirates era from the press box today. He has also travelled to several cup finals, and flew to Paris when the Gunners faced Barcelona in the Champions League final in 2006. He didn’t get a ticket for the match, but left proud despite the 2-1 loss and a great story that involved Sir Alex Ferguson.

“The atmosphere that day in Paris was the best. There was like parties in the streets. We were playing football in the street outside this pub, and a car went past and Alex Ferguson was in the back of the car. And someone kicked the ball and it hit his window.”

McNicholas laughed before he continuing.

“That was a great day. Even though Arsenal lost I was really like proud to be an Arsenal fan. It was the European cup final, it was a big deal. That’s why I really hope, I know it’s not the same, but if we get to the Europa League final I think it’s going to be a great occasion.”

His biggest sense of journalistic success was five years ago when he was for the first time allocated a seat in the press box at the Emirates. He didn’t remember what match was playing that day, perhaps he was in a haze of euphoria, but he recollected that he messaged Jack Pitt-Brooke, now a football writer for the Independent, about what to wear. But, although he is a familiar face to the other reporters at the ground now, he isn’t completely comfortable elsewhere.

“I’ve always found myself a bit out of place in the press room, because deep down I feel like a blogger. I feel like a blogger not a journalist, because I don’t have the training. I’m not staff, I’ve only been a freelancer.”

McNicholas learned a lot in his first visits to the press box, especially about his own insecurities as a blogger/journalist and the other journalists around him.

“Maybe it’s just my insecurity because I haven’t studied journalism. I can’t do short-hand, I don’t know the rules, I don’t know the etiquette, I don’t know what to wear. So I am insecure about it. But I do feel there’s a bit of snobbery. And suspicion and fear. Especially when I first came in it was like, ‘Oh my god, the bloggers are taking over.’ And it hasn’t work out like that, you know. It’s pretty cool.”

He gave an example of the dynamic between old and new media from one of his first matches from the press box.

“A very good journalist who’s a friend of mine now turned to me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I was like, ‘I’m being paid to be here, the same as you.’”

How exactly McNicholas became an Arsenal fan is rather funny too.

He recounts as he can’t help but laugh, “So my dad is a Chelsea fan, and I’ve told this story on the podcast before, but when we were like three or four my dad took us to buy football shirts. And he tried to buy me a Chelsea shirt, and I didn’t even know what that was but I said I want this red shirt. I pointed at it and was like, ‘I want this shirt,’ because red was my favourite colour. I was obsessed with red. And I was lucky it was an Arsenal shirt. I could have been Man U, Liverpool, Charlton, you know, anybody.”

McNicholas didn’t think he would be a football writer today if he had chosen a different shirt. Because he wouldn’t have been inspired by the “Invincibles” to make a blog, but also because he wouldn’t have met Mangan from Arseblog in the Arseblog forums, who has been by his side since the beginning.

The mysterious urge to pick an Arsenal shirt instead of a Chelsea shirt, or any other red shirt, in the shop that day is what made “Gunnerblog”, and paved the way for McNicholas to become what he is today. All because he was a stubborn kid who liked red.


(James and I)


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