Sports Marketing Scotland caught up with Scottish Sun sports journalist, Kenny Millar, in the next of our interview series.

Kenny Millar

He shares his views on what’s holding the country back from producing top footballing talent, his advice for anyone looking to get into the sports journalism industry, his thoughts on what will improve Scottish football and much more. Have a read, share it if you want to, and let us know your thoughts on either Twitter or Facebook.

Just take a moment to introduce yourself and outline how you got into the Scottish sport industry?

I’m a sports journalist with The Scottish Sun, based in their Glasgow office but sent here, there and everywhere to cover Scottish football.

Helpfully (and rightly), my Dad pointed out when I was about 10 that I’d never make it as a player so I was obsessed with being a reporter from that point onwards – and would write dummy match reports or present a programme on my local radio station, Argyll FM.

I started out with The Sunday Post a month after turning 17. I was half-way through my last year at school in Campbeltown and had an unconditional offer to study journalism at Napier Uni but somehow talked my way into a full-time staff job after responding to an advertisement. I must have been the cheapest applicant!

I don’t think there’s one ‘right’ way into it, but personally I feel very fortunate to have been thrown in at the deep and been able to do my training on the job. I didn’t know anyone in the industry and made countless mistakes but was well looked after by some of the experienced pros on the scene who soon knock you into shape. People like Alison McConnell, Ewing Grahame, Kenny MacDonald and Ronnie Cully (to name four from a lengthy list) were a great help when they weren’t at all obliged to help out some daft teuchter. But they did and probably regret it now…

I was with DC Thomson for nine years and during that time did a lot of freelance work for the likes of Champions magazine and FourFourTwo and bits and bobs of broadcast stuff.

I co-wrote Football Manager Stole My Life for BackPage Press, which was an unbelievable experience and one I’ll forever be indebted to Martin Greig and Neil White for.

Then, in January 2013, I moved to The Scottish Sun, which came a lot earlier than I could have hoped for. I owe Andy Swinburne, Iain King, Roger Hannah and the person I replaced, Paul Hughes, in particular, a lot for that. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to properly pay them back.

I feel very, very lucky to be doing the job I’m doing. The novelty’s never worn off.

Tell us a bit about your day-to-day role at the Scottish Sun. 

The working day starts at about 10am and runs through until around 7.30pm. The bread and butter diary items take care of themselves – covering preview press conferences and games. Aside from that we have a lot of freedom to work away on features and news lines to fill the various spaces in what’s now a seven-day operation. Everyone probably has their own unofficial specialist areas and it all seems to come together more often than not. I don’t ever remember a blank page in the paper!

One of the things I always say to people is how tight everyone is in here. I’ve never seen a single argument between any of the sports guys and that must be a rarity. All of the guys muck in and the jobs are shared around. I like the variety of one day covering a European game, then going down to the divisions to ask a part-time player about their day job. They’ve done a great job of building a proper team spirit in here because that obviously doesn’t happen by accident.

The Sun recently dropped their paywall. What do you see being the impact of this to you as a reporter?

I liked the principle behind the paywall, that the bosses felt what we were doing was worth paying for. At the end of the day, they were investing in journalism. If you’re putting in the miles on a story, something has to pay for months and years of cultivating contacts and travel expenses. Most stories just don’t appear out of thin air. Selfishly, as an individual, you want as many people as possible to read your stuff – whether they agree or disagree with it. Everyone’s probably still looking for the perfect online newspaper model.

How have you, as a reporter, dealt with the shift from traditional media to the online, digital era we now live in?

It seems a long time ago that I was having to phone in the Lithuanian team-lines to The Sunday Post’s copy desk! That wasn’t much fun. I think a lot of it has been positive. You can break stories quicker and engage with people who might not ordinarily see your stuff. Some of the grief you get on Twitter can be tiresome but there’s no point in being thin-skinned. You also have to accept that stories will be ripped off by 8am in the morning but maybe that’s just the law of the jungle now.

The Sun is the bestselling newspaper in Scotland. Can you give a bit of an insight into how the paper has planned, or is planning, to combat it as readers continue to move away from traditional forms of media?

It’s probably an on-going process with a lot of trial and error. More and more now we’ll stick breaking stories online instead of trying to hold it for the paper the next day. We’re rights holders, having invested in a Scottish football highlights package. I think all of the writers are on Twitter now – even those who said that day would never come – too.

In terms of people moving away from traditional media, I’d argue newspaper still break most stories in Scottish football. However people consume their coverage, you still need the right people to find and then tell the tales. That won’t change.

It always feels to me like fans don’t like finding out what teams people working in the media support, do you feel like you have to change anything when reporting on the team you support? 

It’s a very personal thing. For me, every sports journalist has to have started out with a passion for a club. You shouldn’t have to apologise for that. It shapes the football supporter in you so I don’t see the point in trying to hide it. I’d accept it’s easier for me because I’m a Hibs man, and a different proposition altogether when it comes to Celtic or Rangers.

I’d take great offence at anyone who suggested it interfered with my work. I’ve never found it hard to separate the two. I covered a Scottish Cup Final I’d rather not mention, then spent seven hours the following day working at the victory parade. I’ve close friends at Hearts, who as a club have also given me some of my best memories in the job. At the same time, I’ve probably been as critical as anyone of the way Rod Petrie ran Hibs – even when it wasn’t a popular opinion.

If your name is on something you want it to something you can take pride in, so you can’t let your own preferences unduly influence your writing. There’s plenty of time to moan about Hibs with the family.

One of the things I really attribute to you, is promoting and getting young players (or coaches) names out there, making them common knowledge. Ryan Gauld and Ian Cathro are two examples of that that spring to mind. Is this something you focus on personally? What’s your reasoning behind this, if there is one?

Because I was only 17 when I started out it’s probably only natural that you’ll lean towards younger people within the game. It probably is something I focus on and the paper, and my bosses in particular, have been very supportive in that regard. In an age when budgets are tighter than ever they still make the commitment to backing my travel to various youth tournaments with Scotland’s Under-17s and 19s in particular.

As a sports journalist obviously there are benefits to building relationships with people you think will go on to do well in the game but I think more than anything it’s just nice to watch these guys at a crucial stage of their development. Everything’s ahead of them and it’s good to see them with a few of the rougher edges before they lose a lot of that individual flair and personality.

A lot of it is luck. I think I was the first person to interview Ian Cathro and he made a real impact on me. I remember telling my sports editor at The Sunday Post that he would go on to make a name for himself. That first night he put on a coaching session for me and Ryan Gauld was involved. He must have been 12 or 13 at the time but he stuck out like a sore thumb. Craig Sibbald was a similar age when I was introduced to him at Falkirk by their then Head of Football Development, Ross Wilson. Ross is now in a key role at Southampton and a massive loss to the game up here.

Andy Robertson was another I got to know at Queen’s Park. He hasn’t changed a bit. I probably shouldn’t admit to this but I tried to get him to Hibs when it was only Dundee United, Partick Thistle and St Johnstone who were really showing an interest. The Hibs manager at the time was less than enthusiastic and asked why he would need some Queen’s Park player when he had Ryan McGivern. That conversation will haunt me forever.

You’ve got a shelf life in dealing with young players like that, though, and I’m sure I’ll have to bow out soon enough. A Rangers rookie was waxing lyrical about Justin Bieber recently and it was the first time I’ve thought ‘I’ve become THAT old guy’. That’s not cool.

Just why aren’t we producing players like we used to? What’s preventing us?

Where do you want me to start? I refuse to accept we’re born with some sort of genetic football failing and that we should accept our place.

We don’t work hard enough on technique and too often we have a backwards approach to sports science (in terms of diet and athletic development). It’s all linked.

Sometimes I don’t think we want it badly enough either. Spend five minutes in the company of someone like Andy Robertson and you’ll see that burning desire and look where it’s taken him. I don’t see enough of that intensity.

How easy do you find working with clubs and the league when it comes to certain stories you’re looking into? Do clubs in Scotland give you sufficient access to players, and then are those players generally willing to collaborate with you?

I don’t think any sports journalist will ever be happy with the access we’re granted. It really is a mixed bag. A lot of the clubs are fine and will make a real effort to help you out – like Hearts and Partick Thistle. There are a couple who I don’t think could spell PR. I find the players are generally a decent lot. Maybe you subconsciously gravitate towards people you think you’d get on with, but there aren’t many I’ve thought badly of.

Reading some of your articles, and following your Tweets, it’s evidently clear you have a real passion for Scottish football, and want to get your views across in what needs to be done to raise the bar. Can you narrow down on one thing you think will improve our game for the better?

I love Scottish football. The English game leaves me cold, and I’ve always said I’d rather go and watch any Scottish fixture, at any level live than a glamour game on television. It’s impossible to narrow it down to one thing, but I do think the paying punter – and there’s a dwindling number of them – who actually makes the effort to go along on a match-day is often treated like an after-thought when they should be the priority. I’d like to see ticket prices capped across the board and clubs do more to support travelling away fans.

On a football front, I just want to see more young players get their chance. In May 2014 I was lucky enough to be in Malta covering the Under-17 European Championships. Portugal’s captain was a Porto midfielder called Ruben Neves, who this year became the youngest captain in Champion League history. When he achieved that feat he already had 43 competitive appearances to his name. From the Scotland team he played against, the combined appearances was 74 – and 49 of those came from Craig Wighton. If Porto can entrust an 18-year-old with that responsibility at the highest level, what’s our excuse?

Is there another league, club, country or organisation that you think Scottish football can look at, take, and tweak, what they’re doing to contribute to future success we have?

I like that the SFA aren’t afraid to look overseas for inspiration, even if Iceland seem to be the latest in a long line of countries we’ve tried to model ourselves on. Their success definitely merits scrutiny because of what they’ve achieved with a small population and harsh climate. There will be relevant lessons for us to take, not least in their determination to get as many qualified coaches working with their kids as possible.

You can look all over for initiatives and systems that we could put in place. The Bundesliga seem to get more right than wrong and there’s no doubt MLS market themselves well. Closer to home there are a lot of good people doing good things. Their ideas could do with being rolled out across the board. I’ve always had a lot of time for Falkirk because they had a plan, stuck to it and the successes of their academy speak for themselves. Keen an eye on Kevin O’Hara and Tony Gallagher in that regard. Partick Thistle are putting a lot of the right building blocks in place too and can’t be accused of not thinking outside the box.

The Premier League is ‘the best league in the world’, Germany is all about safe standing; do you think we need to carve out a niche for ourselves? And if so, what’s your opinion on what it should be?

Quite simply, we should become a talent factory. Adopt best practise, be brave enough to give younger players earlier opportunities and resist the urge to pad out squads for the sake of it. Unearth, develop, sell, reinvest and grow. Simple, eh?

I found a piece online by you from the start of 2015 with your hopes for the year. Your last wish was that draws were ditched, which leads nicely onto the new format for the League Cup. Are you a fan? Will the structure change in the Cup now pave the way for a league revamp? Do you think the league system should be restructured?

Draws infuriate me. Always have. Sport should be about winners and losers – not middle grounds! I’m not crazy about the changes to the League Cup. I’ve always enjoyed the competition and would have preferred to see them play it to a conclusion earlier than March instead. I think the novelty of the regionalised group stage will wear off pretty quickly. In terms of the leagues, I’d like an expanded top-flight but would keep the split. The introduction of relegation from the bottom tier and play-offs have at least been steps in the right direction.

The SPFL went without a sponsor for quite some time, and was quite rightly derided for it by fans and pundits alike. Ladbrokes came on board, and as part of the League Cup revamp, a new TV deal was secured with BT Sport. Both of these deals will bring more money into Scottish football, what would you like to see done with the ‘influx’ of cash?

Scottish football has, for too long, been starved of innovation – other than a few success stories dotted around the country. That doesn’t always come down to money and has a lot more to do with being imaginative. I’m not sure I trust all of the people involved to ensure any additional pennies are properly spent. Or that it’s worth further diluting the soul of football to cram in extra advertising on a team’s shirt, or jumping into bed with alcohol, betting, fast food and quick-fix loan businesses but that’s me being hopelessly idealistic.

On a very basic level, I’d like to see money invested to help grassroots programmes like Andy McLaren’s A&M Scotland. The SFA’s Performance plan is something I generally approve of, but it’s essential the general talent pool is widened so we don’t just focus on the elite. Increase the levels of PE in schools and launch a co-ordinated campaign – backed by the government and sporting authorities – to encourage every young person to find and play a sport they enjoy and we’ll start to produce by accident again. Fine-tune the most talented and we’ll achieve.

It gets the majority of the back pages, but Scotland isn’t just football. You actively report on other sports too, including basketball, and Tweet regularly about Andy Murray’s exploits in tennis. On basketball, how would you gauge the popularity of the sport in Scotland? Has the relocation and rebrand of the Rocks aided any growth off or on the court?

You can’t help but be enthused by the people behind the Rocks when you deal with them. They work so hard, and put a lot back into the community. Slowly but surely they’re building up a following that some top-flight Scottish Premiership teams would love to have on board. I’ve yet to meet someone who has been along to watch one of their games and come away with a bad word about the experience.

Andy Murray over the last couple of years, Chris Hoy from back in 2012, do you think as a nation, we celebrate and shout about our sporting achievements enough?

I think we’re fanatical about sport as a country but I don’t think we take it seriously enough. I bore colleagues on a great range of subjects but, to me, the concept of marginal gains should be a no-brainer. I don’t think we sacrifice enough to be successful in this country. The two you mention have achieved at the highest level and can look themselves in the mirror knowing they’ve pushed themselves as hard as they could.

What would you say is the ‘next big thing’ when it comes to sports journalism?

It’s hard to say. I’ve only been doing the job for 13 years and a lot has changed in that time. I still think the fundamentals are the same – build relationships and get stories. Whatever happens with the Internet, there will always be a need for proper journalism because you can only get so far by copying and pasting. The balance between trying to hold something for print and publishing it as soon as possible to claim ownership will only go one way and sports journalists will probably be more accessible than ever in terms of engaging with readers or Twitter audience. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

What advice would you give to anyone trying to break into the Scottish sports journalism industry?

Get as much practical experience as you can, whether it’s producing your own content or going on work experience placements. Don’t be afraid to pitch an idea for a news line or feature, because no-one’s going to turn their back on a good story. Be resilient as it can be a difficult industry to break into but it’s absolutely worth the effort. Be conscious of the way you represent yourself on social media. And be nice to sub-editors…