Meet Phil Hay, writer of The Athletic FC

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To coincide with the launch of our new newsletter, we asked its lead writer, Phil Hay, some questions about what he wants you to get out of The Athletic FC. Phil talks through the favourite stories he’s covered as well as his predictions for this summer’s international tournaments.

The Athletic FC ⚽ is The Athletic’s daily football (or soccer if you prefer) newsletter. Sign up here to receive it directly to your inbox.

What made you want to write TAFC?

When social media went boom and news became never-ending, I got into the habit of waking up in the morning and wondering what I’d find on my phone. That was especially true of writing about Leeds United because they’re a club who simply don’t sleep.

When Massimo Cellino was Leeds’ owner, I’d get random calls from him at 2am. He was like a 24-hour rolling news cycle and you got used to hanging on his next move. With TAFC, I liked the idea of it being the first stop for anyone who wanted to know what they were missing; what was hot in the football world, which stories were breaking, the best features they hadn’t read.

In a way, it’s like going back to the days of newspapers when you wrote to a fairly strict deadline. I like the pressure of it. TAFC also lets you have a bit of fun — and to my mind, football forgets to be fun too often.

What do you hope users will get out of TAFC?

I’d like to think TAFC will have something for everyone — the big news lines, coverage of the most prominent leagues and tournaments, but also some weird and wonderful stuff. If you’ve signed up so far, you’ll know we’re big on gifs; the more random the better.

One of the strengths of The Athletic is the depth of our feature writing and the obscure tales we like to tell. I get that supporters want to know about their clubs and we’re all over the Premier League title race but sometimes we’ll go off piste, like I did a while back with Vladimir Romanov, the former owner of Heart of Midlothian.

Spoiler: I’m a Hearts fan so apologies in advance if they turn up in TAFC from time to time. But hopefully articles like the Romanov one tell readers something they didn’t know. There’ll be plenty of that.

Your favourite story you’ve written for The Athletic?

Tough question. The piece I’m most proud of is the read I did on the 20th anniversary of the death of two Leeds fans in Istanbul in 2000. I don’t want to call it my favourite piece because that wouldn’t be appropriate given the content but it’s a story which, outside of Leeds, hasn’t been told anywhere near enough.

Marcelo Bielsa, the ex-Leeds manager, was a goldmine for a football writer. Our big piece on him getting the club promoted in 2020 was a treat to research and put together. Romanov was fun too. How many ex football club owners are on the run from the Lithuanian authorities? Or living in a refurbished submarine in Russia?

What’s your favourite footballing moment?

Leeds getting promoted under Bielsa mattered to me because by then, I was 14 seasons and hundreds of games deep with the club. It felt like it would never happen. The Bielsa era was a unique moment in time.

Personally though, it’s 2012 and Hearts annihilating Hibernian 5-1 in the final of the Scottish Cup. It was and still is the biggest Edinburgh derby of all time. I was 31 and I knew then that it was the most important win I’d ever see.

Predictions for Euros & COPA?

If England get it together and make the most of their attacking players at the Euros, I’d give them every chance. But I’m more inclined to go with France and Kylian Mbappe.

As for COPA, it’ll be Argentina or Brazil. But I can see why Uruguay are fairly short odds because Bielsa looks like he’s working some magic there. I’ll be tuning in for them.

What’s the biggest story you have been a part of breaking?

Probably the story late one evening that Bielsa had agreed a contract with Leeds and was on his way to sign the paperwork to become their head coach in 2018. The deal took forever to agree and it was never in the bag until he put his name to it.

Even now, it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why the buzz in the city about him was so intense from the moment he was first touted for the job. Granted, his reputation went before him and he had a genius streak — but Leeds were notorious for people going there and failing badly. With Bielsa, people just knew. It felt right and it was.

Best people you have interviewed

I tend to think of the best interviews as the ones you never forget. So it’s Cellino. I first went to meet him when I worked for the Yorkshire Evening Post newspaper, two days after he bought Leeds. He was already halfway into a bottle of whisky, the conversation went on for about two hours, everything in it was on the record and a lot of what he said was mad. Co-ordinated PR was invented for other people.

Most famous match you have attended

The thing with me is that between writing about Leeds every weekend and following Hearts in my spare time, I’ve not exactly been hunting glory or driving around the superstar circuit. Perhaps it’s for the best. I went to the 2003 Champions League final: AC Milan vs Juventus, the most ludicrous array of talent, all conspiring to deliver a 0-0 draw and penalties. Absolute dross.

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