Alumni profile: Jason Burt – Scoring the headlines
Today’s the perfect day to share this fabulous alumni feature about Jason Burt, Chief Football Correspondent for the Telegraph– coinciding with National Writing Day, National School Sport Week and as England celebrate making it through to the last 16 of the Euros!
Jason always wanted to be a journalist. He really wanted to be a footballer but he wasn’t good enough. During his career, he has achieved the best of both worlds, appointed as the Executive Editor of The Independent, when he was just 30 years old, and becoming the Chief Football Correspondent for the Telegraph in 2016. We were delighted to catch up with Jason to find out how he was inspired and encouraged by his teachers at Richmond Sixth Form College, his time at Cambridge University, his early years at the Liverpool Echo and his career at the Independent and now at The Telegraph.
In my office at home there is a watercolour print of Richmond Market Place. It shows a lone figure on the steps of The Obelisk. I used to be that person. I remember standing there after school, waiting for the bus home, sometimes walking the four miles back to Colburn to save money or waste time. I would dream of what I wanted to do with my life.
And I always wanted to be a journalist. Actually that is not strictly true. I really wanted to be a footballer. Only there was one problem. I was not good enough. But I loved the game. I really, really, really loved it. It was my release, my escape, my obsession. Strangely though I did not want to be a football journalist. I enjoyed football too much and wanted to play and did not want it to be my work. Or so I reasoned.
Besides, journalism was more grown up. I wanted to write about serious stuff. I wanted to make a difference. I even knew the actual job I wanted: to be the News Editor of a newspaper that had just launched in October 1986, when I would have been standing on those stone steps, and which I fell in love with. It was The Independent.
I did not want to be a writer or a reporter but the one who ran the newsroom, who made the calls, who decided on the stories, who shouted “hold the front page!” And for some bizarre reason I set myself a crazy target: I had to do it by the age of 30. Why? Goodness knows. But when I took over as News Editor of The Independent in December 1998 I was 30 years and three months old.
But first, rewind.
I had done my O-levels – yes, that shows how old I am – at Risedale School in Hipswell. I went to Richmond School for its Sixth Form to study English, History and French and suddenly there were opportunities that I had never known before. Not just academic but extra-curricular stuff. I went on outward bound survival courses – in the Lake District, in January! – and a study week near Oxford University. Not just academic but extra-curricular stuff.
I was roped into raising money for charity – duck races on the River Swale and walking around in the sweltering heat at Masham fair in a giant’s costume. We even got into the Guinness Book of Records and on TV for playing Trivial Pursuit non-stop for almost a week although we packed up early because the pubs were closing. All in the name of charity. Thankfully such bizarre endurance records are now banned.
It is a cliché – and I don’t want to go all ‘Dead Poets Society’ here – but there were inspirational, interesting, enthused teachers. I will never forget the likes of Dorothy Clague and the passion and warmth she had for her subject, English, or how Austin Lynch – the head of Sixth Form – encouraged me. How he looked out for me. How he believed in me.
There was Mr Terry, Mr Deane and his bushy beard who taught me history as did Mrs Dunne, Miss Walker and Mr Mann who were my French teachers and Tim Culkin. I even won a national history essay prize for answering the question: why do revolutions occur? Answer: because people are fed up.
I was shy. I loved English but was petrified by the thought of acting (even if I secretly wished I could). One day it was announced we were going to do an improv version of Othello so I made sure I was busy (ie. was off) the day when the casting took place… only to later find out I had been given the lead role. That served me right. I was a bag of nerves but I did it. And I even enjoyed it.
I was encouraged to take myself off to France on my own to join an archaeological dig…only to get the dates wrong and turn up after it had finished – does archaeology have a deadline? – and so I worked as a labourer in the Pyrenees instead. I got to use dynamite! I still remember the French for chainsaw (tronconneuse). My language skills improved dramatically. After all no-one else spoke English.
Suddenly going somewhere like Cambridge University was a possibility. I won’t go into my background but it was not great. It was tough. A bit desperate, to be honest, although I had a wonderful, loving mother who never held me back. Nevertheless university, never mind Cambridge, seemed ridiculous when I was young – even if I always saw education as an escape route. I was bright at school and wanted to do well. It was my life raft.
I remember when the Cambridge offer letter dropped through the door. My mum had a heart attack. Literally. She was never well and died when I was 24. Her heart was always weak. But one minute we were shouting and celebrating and the next I was in the back of the ambulance taking her to hospital.
Anyway back to journalism. With some other sixth-formers I launched a magazine – ‘It’s a Kind of Mag’ (a lame play on an album by Queen that was out at that time called ‘It’s a Kind of Magic’). It carried the less than immortal line: “When was the last time you saw your Granny sweat?” I think we spent more time on a promo video than writing. Still it was experience and I got more with the Darlington & Stockton Times and the bug had bitten. I even got my name in print. It was such a thrill.
I was always, always encouraged by the teachers at Richmond. So I got the grades and I went to Cambridge and worked for the student newspaper, Varsity, and played even more football. In my final year I wrote to every newspaper in the country. Every one of them. And every one of them rejected me. Apart from one. I got an interview with The Liverpool Echo – I had never even been to Liverpool – and lucked out when I was taken on as a graduate trainee.
I worked on every kind of story. Murders, trials, sieges, terrorist attacks, flower shows. I was thrown in at the deep end but was well looked after and I stayed for almost three years before joining The Journal in Newcastle where I was briefly Business Editor – I knew nothing about business – but fortunately won a bunch of awards. I even got to edit a little. And so The Journal was the only newspaper in the UK to lead its edition with the death of the Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain. Not that the actual Editor was happy with me for that one the next day…
Suddenly newspapers were approaching me! I went to London and got four offers and joined The Daily Mail where I became the Home Affairs Correspondent. It was an amazing place to learn, a huge, sleek, buzzy newsroom but it turned out to be a mistake (to be honest I just didn’t like The Daily Mail). The only good thing was I met my future wife… but I walked out on the job.
I didn’t have anywhere to go. The Liverpool Echo heard and asked if I wanted to go back as Assistant Editor. That said everything about how good they were. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from The Independent. I could not believe it. Not just that but they wanted me to be Deputy News Editor! Within months I had the job of my dreams – News Editor – and things took off. We won some awards, the paper was being talked about again and then I was promoted to Executive Editor where I ran the whole news operation and got to edit the newspaper at least once a week! I was in charge of news the day the planes hit the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. I ran our General Election coverage. I put David Beckham’s broken metatarsal on the front page.
Except it was exhausting. By now I had a family, children and something was bugging me. Bizarrely it turned out I did want to write about football after all…so I asked if I could. My first game – while I was still Executive Editor – was Millwall v Grimsby. I can still remember it (Steve Claridge scored twice) and I was bitten.
So I took a big pay cut, a demotion and started again. Now I was a football writer at The Independent, not one of the editors, and this, I felt, is what mattered to me. This was what I was meant to do. I worked my way up and covered bigger and bigger games and bigger and bigger stories. I was there when Jose Mourinho told the world he was ‘A Special One’ and I had the time of my life at the 2006 World Cup in Germany whizzing around on the Deutsche Bahn and covering a game a day. The same in South Africa, Brazil, Russia.
Still now, after close to 2,000 matches, going to a game remains the greatest thrill of my job. The anticipation. The sight of the pitch. The players emerging. It is magical, a privilege and I have been fortunate.
It happened again when The Daily Telegraph came calling in 2009. Their sports department is the best in the country and, eventually, I was appointed Chief Football Correspondent in 2016. It has been an incredible adventure. An honour. It is stressful, competitive, consuming…but I still pinch myself that this is my job.
What does it mean? Yes, I can go to any football match I want to and I have travelled the world (to at least 60 countries just to watch a ball being kicked). Yes, I have been to Champions League Finals, World Cup Finals. Yes, I have met and interviewed big players and managers – Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard, Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford.
I have had a few decent scoops: from Fabio Capello becoming the England manager back in 2008 to being there when Kylian Mbappe signed his contract with Paris Saint-Germain after his £166million (!) transfer. I have been smuggled into hotel rooms such as when I interviewed Carlos Tevez who announced he was quitting Manchester United and was pushed in the face when I tried to speak to Roman Abramovich.
Oh, and I even got to play and score at Wembley Stadium (albeit in a media match).
I have made my own luck, to a degree, and I worked hard. I fret. Partly through a fear of someone tapping me on the shoulder one day and saying “we made a terrible mistake. You should not be here”. I remember when I went for my interview at Cambridge I hugged the building – actually hugged a wall – because I was so desperate to go. Even when I got in I was looking over my shoulder.
But I have been helped and encouraged and never more so than when I was a sixth-former at Richmond. And I will never forget that. I was allowed to dare to believe I could succeed. That I could do something. That I could give it a go. And, you know, most days I still glance at that watercolour print.