Having cut his teeth as a music journalist, Nige Tassell began writing for sports publications such as FourFourTwo and When Saturday Comes in 2013, publishing his first book on football, The Bottom Corner, in 2016. A deep dive into the world of non-league football that coincided with the rise of Leicester's non-league poster boy Jamie Vardy and high-profile cup runs from clubs like Lincoln City, it was described by legendary commentator Barry Davies as "a wonderful journey through life in the lower reaches of the football pyramid".
Since then, he has published several more books on football, the latest being Field Of Dreams: 100 Years Of Wembley In 100 Matches, which tells the story of England's national stadium. As a freelancer, he has also written for publications such as The Guardian, The Sunday Times, GQ and The Blizzard. We caught up with Nige to find out more about his experiences as an author and freelance football writer.
When did you first start writing about football?
"I first wrote about football when I was ten. I did my primary school project on the North American Soccer League of the late 70s (yes, I’m that old). It was my first and only moment of academic dissent. I was supposed to do a project on the local police force instead, but writing about Detroit Express, Tampa Bay Rowdies and, of course, New York Cosmos seemed much more fun.
Then fast-forward more than 30 years to my first commission for FourFourTwo in 2013. My first book had just been published (a music one) but I wanted to switch across to writing sport books, which were then very buoyant commercially. After a couple of decades of writing about music, I had no background in sportswriting at all and so approaching FourFourTwo was a way of boosting my credibility with publishers. I pitched a couple of ideas, both of which the then editor, Hitesh Ratna, liked. My first piece for them? It was on the NASL. It had obviously just been gestating within me since primary school."
What was your first major professional break in journalism?
"I was a late starter and have never had any journalism training. I spent my twenties in anonymous office jobs, but in the evenings I started to freelance for Venue, the (now deceased) 'what’s on' magazine serving Bristol and Bath. I helped put together the gig listings and did some reviews etc. I’d been pestering the boss there for a job and then one came up: the role of editor! And remarkably (and because I was cheap/desperate enough) I got it. My first experience of journalism was therefore editing a fortnightly 140-page magazine. Baptism of fire! Later, I started writing for national titles.
Not because I knew anyone (living in the West Country, I was far removed from London where it largely all happened), but just because I was dogged and persistent. I kept coming up with ideas for features until the editors caved in. Being an editor myself, I did at least know what kind of approaches and what kind of features would press their buttons. I started writing for WORD magazine, then others would commission me – The Guardian, Sunday Times, New Statesman, Q, GQ, Esquire etc. Once you’ve got one or two of those titles on your CV, others follow much more easily."
How has your background in music journalism informed your approach to writing about football?
"Because I’ve never been a match reporter – which is, of course, the usual route into football writing – I’ve come at it from a different angle. Being a music journalist who largely wrote profiles and portraits of musicians has meant I’ve largely done the same as a sportswriter, just usually within the pages of books as opposed to newspapers and magazines.
People are always at the heart of what I write. Human stories are everything. It’s always about people – their hopes and fears, their ambitions and failures."
For several years, you've consistently written a new book each year. What's the key to this productivity?
"The key to this is feeding my family and paying the mortgage! This has been even more acute since the pandemic, which caused many newspapers and magazines to either downsize or fold. Since my days working on a fortnightly magazine (which then went weekly during my editorship), I’ve always been a quick worker, so doing a book a year is comfortably achievable. I’m of a generation raised in a time when a band would put out a new album every year. Anything more than that was seen as lazy and self-indulgent. At any given point, I’ll have three books on the go in various states.
For instance, one might be heading for the printers, I might be halfway through the interviews for the next one, and then I might have just been commissioned for a third one. I certainly start getting jittering about the bills not being paid if I haven’t at least got two books in some sort of progress. That said, it’s not all about the money. I’ll never write a cheap cash-in. I like to keep the quality high and will always go the extra mile to get all the interviewees I feel a book needs and deserves."
Your book 'The Bottom Corner' is a brilliant representation of the lower rungs of the English pyramid. What kickstarted your interest in non-league football?
"In my final year of university, Colchester United did the non-league double – winning both the Conference and the FA Trophy, so that was a terrific season, culminating in a triumphant trip to Wembley. Since then, I’d gone to the occasional match but was far from a non-league nut and had only a sketchy perception of how the pyramid below the sainted 92 league clubs fanned out.
I think that was probably an advantage when it came to researching and writing The Bottom Corner, which followed one particular season, from Tranmere in their first non-league campaign in 92 years to clubs further down struggling to even put 11 players on the pitch. Had I had more knowledge about the non-league world, I may have got bogged down with history, stats etc. As it was, I came to it with a clean slate, open and ready to immerse myself without prejudice."
What do you make of the increased popularity of the non-league game in the UK in recent years?
"It can only be a good thing. It is, obviously, the antithesis of what’s occurring at the very top of the football pyramid, with sports-washing owners, eye-watering amounts of money etc. Tonight I’m off to watch Cheddar take on Barnstaple in the Les Phillips Cup. My idea of heaven, that. A cup of tea for a quid and no VAR!"
For your books, you've interviewed a wide range of people working in different aspects of the football industry. What's the most unusual job you've come across?
"It’s not an unusual job as every club needs at least one, but for The Hard Yards, my book on the Championship, I interviewed Jon Pearce, Birmingham City’s kitman. That was a real eye-opener. Just a crazy logistical operation, with those washing machines on a constant spin. He gets through 30 litres of liquid detergent a week.
But he loves it. “I wasn’t a good enough footballer,” he told me, “so I became the next best thing.” I also find scouts to be fascinating creatures. I’ve interviewed a few of them over the course of my books. They never switch off. If they drive past a game anywhere, they have to pull over and have a look. Their next discovery might be there on that pitch. They are the star-seekers who never lower their telescopes."
'The Hard Yards' documents a season in the Championship, "football's toughest league". When it became clear that the 2020/21 campaign you were covering would be played behind closed doors, how did you feel, and how did it alter your vision for the book?
"I felt nervous as hell. There was a very strong chance of the season being abandoned halfway through, which would scupper the book. The publisher wouldn’t have wanted half a book and would have asked for the advance back. In the end, football pushed on and we made it through the season, with fans returning in earnest towards the end of the campaign.
The pandemic did mean the tenor of the book slightly changed. From being a chronicle of a typical Championship season, it became a portrait of a season that hopefully will never be repeated, and so is an extended snapshot of a very peculiar time. But I was very fortunate to be able to go to matches, to be able to persuade my way into press boxes across the country to observe this eerie period."
Your new book 'Field of Dreams' explores the history of Wembley Stadium through the lens of 100 matches. Which game was the most enjoyable to write about? And how difficult was it to select which matches to cover?
"I thought the earlier matches from between the wars might be quite tricky, and thus less enjoyable, to write, but I surprised myself by thoroughly immersing myself in the research for them and found some terrific stories. Again, it’s all about the people you’re shining the light on. Among these games was, obviously, the White Horse final from 1923.
For this chapter, it was a pleasure to retell the story of my grandad who, at the age of 13, was a ticket-holding member of the chaos that day. I was also delighted to track down one of the ballboys from the 1956 Cup Final, when Bert Trautmann broke his neck. That ballboy is in his eighties now but remembers the day as clear as a bell. "It was the noise,” he recalled. “I heard the crack.”
When it came to selecting the matches, I knew I had to have an equal selection from across the ages and couldn’t simply load it with memorable matches from my youth. Obviously everyone says “You didn’t include this game or that game? How could you miss it out?” But there was only space for 100 matches, so it could only be A history of Wembley, not THE history."
What's the most difficult aspect of your job?
"I’m at the whim and will of publishers. What I think would make a great book doesn’t always chime with what they think will. So to put a full proposal together, complete with a fully realised sample chapter or two, only to be met by indifference by commissioning editors is a little dispiriting. But I’m now at the stage where I understand more about what they’re after and how to press their buttons more successfully.
But it’s a ‘job’ that gives great satisfaction. To see a 90,000-word book on the shelves of the nation’s finer bookshops, one that was based on a sketchy idea you had on a dog walk 18 months earlier, is immensely gratifying. And these books will outlast me. I’m leaving a footprint on this life."
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to make a career out of writing about football?
"Don’t be overawed into thinking it’s something that only other people can do. Get your backside on the chair and write, write, write. Find your voice – one that is hopefully a little different to everyone else’s. And be proactive – keep coming up with ideas.
Editors love it if a writer has done some of their thinking for them. And be proactive. Don’t wait for the phone to ring. It won’t. What’s the worst that can happen? They ignore your email or they say no. But they just might say yes and your journey can begin. And, of course, never be afraid to turn that primary school project into a 2,000-word feature for an internationally renowned magazine…"