Students on the University of Huddersfield’s “Sports Broadcasting, Commentary & Writing” module were treated to an online masterclass from two of the best journalists in their field this week.

The one-hour Q&A sessions saw both Ian Dennis of the BBC and Phil Hay from the Athletic grilled on how to make the most of opportunities, how they prepare for matches and what their career highlights have been so far.

BBC Radio 5Live football commentator Ian Dennis was first up, talking about how he had started his career at BBC Radio York, via Leeds and Newcastle before joining the national station in 2002. He’s commentated on hundreds of matches here and abroad on radio and on TV for Match of the Day.

Persistence will pay off

He told the students how it all started when he was a teenager. He wanted to be a commentator and wrote letters to many reporters asking for advice, but it was a reply from the great John Motson that really inspired him.

“I’m now in the bizarre situation of people asking me for advice and I just give them the same words he wrote to me all those years ago: determination and enthusiasm, because you WILL get knockbacks. I still have a drawer full of letters knocking me back because that drove me on.”

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Thirty years after Motson sent him that letter spurring him on, he achieved the accolade of commentating on the World Cup Final in Russia in 2018.

Phil Hay may hail from just outside Edinburgh but he is inextricably linked with Leeds United, having reported on them for the Yorkshire Evening Post and now The Athletic for well over a decade.

How The Athletic has changed the game

He told the students how he feels the subscription service has changed the industry for the better: “I was really pleased about the model they were going for; the idea that you were going to back yourself and try to produce quality football writing, and hope that people will pay for it. I think a lot of people have been drawn in by that.”

He had advice for journalists who may think they have to be cautious to maintain good relationships with players, managers and club officials.

“It’s more balanced than cautious. Sometimes you do have to put the boot in a bit. I don’t think journalists can’t comment on tactics or specific elements of the game, but I always try to remind myself that it’s very difficult to understand it in the same way as a coach or a player.

“They understand the intricacies and you have to be careful not to draw conclusions about something you don’t know enough about…it pays in the long term to be a bit more measured.”

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