Hi Sam, thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you currently do?
I’m a freelance football journalist, writer, broadcaster, content creator…whatever you’d like to call it! The lines between these definitions are blurrier than ever — partially because you simply have to be able to do all of it in order to stick in the industry nowadays. I’ve been lucky enough to talk about my favourite sport for a little over 10 years.
You recently began freelancing earlier this year after stepping away from Ranks FC. Firstly, can you share with our readers what Ranks FC is and your involvement there before the move?
Ranks FC is a podcast about football, released three times a week — once on a Wednesday for free, and twice (Monday and Friday) on Patreon for subscribers. I was the co-founder of the podcast along with my two friends Jack and Dean and it originally began under a different name — B/R Football Ranks — when the three of us began recording together while we all worked at Bleacher Report. I departed the company over the summer but still hop back on occasionally to record with the boys, who I love to bits.
How have you found the transition into freelancing so far and what were the initial challenges or worries you faced?
I’ve really enjoyed this opening stretch of freelancing, which doesn’t surprise me, as I had pretty much figured out in May that this was the correct move to make. I loved working with Jack and Dean and deciding to step away from running a company with two close friends is an incredibly difficult decision to make — I spent most of June trying to emotionally process what I had done — but I had reached the point where I needed to freshen things up and I knew something had to change.
I’d been working with the same two people for 8 and 7 years respectively, stretching back into the B/R days, and I’d been presenting the same sort of content all that time. Sometimes you get to a point where you feel in your gut it’s time to switch things up, but often you don’t know exactly what it is that you want instead.
That’s where I figured freelancing could step in and solve the puzzle — even if it was just for 6–12 months. Branching out, working with a wider variety of people, taking on a wider variety of tasks, doing less work from home, reducing the amount of podcasting and then upping the amount of writing I was doing. I thought that if I could mix in some (or all) of these elements, I’d feel fresher and more motivated, then perhaps the next path might naturally open itself up.
It’s fair to say a large part of your career up to this point was with Bleacher Report. How did that come about and did you enjoy your time there?
B/R was amazing, I was lucky to be a part of that company’s journey.
I started out there in 2011, just writing for free, trying to steadily improve my craft while working full-time in a call centre in Bristol. I wrote articles on my lunch breaks and read football books between calls. I ended up publishing a piece every day and bombarding the editor, Will Tidey, with ideas via email until he offered me a first step: 5 articles a week (for not very much money at all). I took that and steadily progressed, going from 5 to 10 to 15 to a full-time job between May and November in 2012.
From that point I essentially hung on for dear life. B/R changed its MO roughly every 6 months, so I had to be ready for anything. 2012–2014 was mostly writing; 2015–2017 was mostly video, filmed in a studio; in 2018 the podcast was introduced; in 2020 I flew to Atlanta to be on a live Champions League broadcast, then COVID hit and I was suddenly interviewing Marcus Rashford and Bernardo Silva on Instagram live. Bernardo played the piano for me and I ended up on Portuguese TV — like, what the hell?
As you can probably tell, it was a blast. Unfortunately it came to an end shortly after COVID when B/R restructured and scaled down the UK office by about 90%.
Your clients include the likes of Sky Sports, ESPN and Tifo. Are there any standout projects or memories you wish to share?
Appearing on Sky Sports’ flagship evening Transfer Show was an incredible moment; I’d do it every day if they asked me to (sadly, as we know, that’s not how this works!). Tifo is fantastic fun and it had long been a goal of mine to get my mitts on that big tactics board, but rather annoyingly, I really struggled to use it initially as I was a bit nervous, my hands a bit clammy, and my fingers kept getting stuck on the screen!
I’ve only been working with ESPN for 3 months but I’m proud of a few moments already. I produced a big project on top Premier League clubs’ MVPs which sat front and centre in the app all day — a real screenshot moment. I’ve also recently published a piece on concerns over how many minutes teenagers now play and what the effect is, using a blend of statistics, an interview with Newcastle United’s former Head of Sports Science Callum Walsh and my own gut feeling. I’m really, really pleased with that one.
As someone who has experience in podcasting, can you share some tips for aspiring football podcasters and broadcasters looking to establish themselves in the industry?
You always have to find the balance between informative and engaging, but then depending on your platform, you have to change the tone.
Podcasting should have a fun and lighthearted tinge. It’s as much about the dynamic between podcasters as it is about the topics or information. One thing that has surprised me over the years is that big interviews with star athletes almost always perform much worse (in listens/interest) than a simple episode featuring the regular cast of three or four.
To give you an example: we (the Ranks podcast) went to America and interviewed Bastian Schweinsteiger and Divock Origi (he’d just scored in the Champions League final) and had great fun chatting to both, but looking back at the numbers…well, the episodes where the regular cast ranked the best defenders in the world football, or the players who needed a January transfer move the most, did better.
So if you have a podcast, value your dynamic above all else. It’s the reason why people listen in the first place.
Broadcasting naturally takes on a more professional tone, not just because you’re likely in a more formal setting, but because your relationship with the host/panel is less chummy. Make sure you don’t cross the line into chummy; keep things considered and slow the pace of your words down a touch.
Who are your favourite football writers/journalists/broadcasters at the moment and what do you think it is that makes them so brilliant?
I’ll read almost anything Jonathan Wilson, Seb Stafford-Bloor and Sid Lowe write down, while Dougie Critchley and his Football Daily colleagues are breaking down barriers with regard to who is chosen to talk about football on mainstream television. I still listen to Jack and Dean every week, while the podcast I consume the most is, oddly, Pride of Detroit — a show about my favourite NFL team. Perhaps that’s an escapism of sorts.
Can you share 3 useful tools or resources which you find helpful to fulfil your role?
I use WhoScored.com every single working day, a website that presents important football statistics in really manageable and easy-to-digest ways. I also use FBRef, which is a little more complex, but very useful once you figure it out. The Athletic’s club-to-club coverage is exceptional for the most part too.
Working in sport can be hectic, so what do you do to switch off outside of work?
In my circles at least, international breaks are seen as a fantastic chance to step away from football for 3–5 days and reset. You really do need that when there’s a game of note on almost every single day outside of those. Otherwise, I watch NFL, play football (yep, those are still sport-related), play PlayStation and, if it’s summer, read on my balcony from a hanging egg chair (very relaxing).
And finally, Sam, where can people find you on social media to connect?
I’m @stighefootball on X, Insta, Threads. Thanks for having me!
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