Robert O'Connor's first book Blood and Circuses charts his journeys through the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, looking at how football culture is tied up with ideas of nationhood, history, and power. For the Artellus blog, Robert talks about how he went from rookie sports journalist in the UK to writing a book about footballing culture in remote corners of Eastern European. Blood and Circuses is out now on Biteback Publishing, and can be purchased here.
“I knew from the earliest days of my career as a football journalist that I wanted to write about more than just the domestic game in England.
It’s not easy as a young writer (relatively speaking – I was 25 when I first turned my hand to scribbling about football) starting out in this business. The sheer breadth of competition that you’re up against is daunting. Finding a unique angle on something like the Premier League in the Sky Sports age is next to impossible.
All the biggest news stories are being covered by the heavyweight personalities at the national newspapers, and getting access to big names for interviews can be hellishly hard, even for those blessed with initiative and the fearlessness to stick your neck out (of which I had neither).
My solution was to pack a bag and fly off to Eastern Europe to look for stories that hadn’t been told. Football behind the old Iron Curtain has been quite well documented if you know where to look, so I had to look between the cracks of the cracks and go where virtually no English football journalist had been.
So in March 2016, scraping together a couple of hundred pounds from my meager income as an ad hoc freelancer, I got on a bus from Sheffield to Heathrow and flew to Pristina – the capital city of the former Yugoslav republic of Kosovo. It was the first time I had left the country alone, and I had no idea what I would do when I arrived. A couple of emails placed to the local football authorities hooked me up with a few names to interview and matches to attend, and within a week I had the foundations for what eventually became Blood & Circuses.
I’d made the transition to writing full-time only about six months earlier. I’d gone back to university at 26 to train properly as a journalist and jump through the NCTJ’s educational hoops, which gave me a bit of breathing room to start doing my first paid writing, at FourFourTwo and VICE. My first proper break came when I was offered a freelance job with the Bleacher Report doing these huge in-depth, 4,000-word investigations, which enabled me to finally quit the myriad part-time jobs I had stayed on in after my studies.
Freelance jobs came and went over the next few years. I moved back to London but eschewed pursuing staff work as I needed the freedom to be able to disappear for weeks at a time to obscure outposts in Eastern Europe. But my travels meant I was able to get my first heavyweight bylines; The Times, the BBC, The Telegraph and The Independent all carried my reporting over the next few years, and I was finally able to articulate exactly where my work as a journalist was leading me. Currently I contribute ad hoc as a freelance reporter to the i, The Times and The Sun (if any of my editors there are reading this and would like to take me on full-time, you’ve got my number).
I continued to write from wherever my travels took me up until the end of 2019, which by then included each of Europe’s separatist statelets; Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and Donetsk – the principal subjects of Blood & Circuses.
I believe I got the green light that the book was going to be published whilst half asleep in a backpackers hostel in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. That night at a snow-swept Olympiskiy Stadium as I watched a drab Champions League game between Shakhtar Donetsk and Lyon, the perishing cold didn’t bother me at all.”
Words by Robert O’Connor, whose first book Blood and Circuses: A Football Journey Through Europe’s Rebel Republics is out now on Biteback Publishing. Thanks to Robert for writing for our blog and the ongoing pleasure of being his literary agents.