Putting the W in Watkins: ‘R’ Exclusive Interview with Andy Watkins #QPR

Interview by Ben Summer

I was lucky enough to chat with Andy Watkins, the club’s Social Media Manager. We got to talking about his life on the inside of the unpredictable world of football, QPR’s dressing room environment, and his advice for budding sports journalists.

‘R’ GENERATION: Hi Andy, thanks for talking to us. To start off, for those reading who might not know – could you give an introduction to what you do at the club?

ANDY WATKINS: I’m the social media manager at QPR – managing the club’s social media channels (primarily Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok which we’ve launched recently), as well as assisting with other media duties with the first team, Academy, Community Trust and Women’s team.

RGEN: And how does your role fit into the wider media team?

AW: We’ve got five full-time members in the media team: myself, Paul Morrissey (Head of Media & Communications), Matt Webb (Programme Editor), George Jones (Digital Content Manager), and Domenic Trimboli (Digital Content Producer), who’s sadly leaving to return to his native Australia.

We’ve also got Simon Cheshire (Digital Content Executive), who works part-time and helps me out on home matchdays, covering the game on Snapchat.

Then you’ve got Andy Sinton who’s our Club Ambassador – he’s been absolutely brilliant and does the commentary with Nick London. I know QPR fans enjoy Andy’s screeches and screams on a Saturday afternoon, which generally means it’s going well!

As a team we have a meeting every Monday morning to go through what’s coming up each week and what ideas people have for content. Generally during the season when you’ve got games, the content takes care of itself – but especially during lockdown it’s been key to have those meetings to come up with new ideas.

RGEN: It’s interesting you mention matchdays since I’m imagining that’s when your work is at its most visible. What does a working day look like for you when there’s a game?

AW: The morning content takes care of itself and I get as much planned as possible the day before. Up until midday for a 3pm Saturday game for instance, the content is usually fairly similar unless there’s specific events around that game.

I’ll get in around 11 o’clock and keep an eye on the social channels, trying to bring the matchday to life for fans following on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. Behind the scenes content is where my role comes into its own and helps to tell the story of the matchday across social media.

Then you’ve got the team news an hour before kick-off, which I know the fans are always eager to see! Paul goes down to the tunnel to get the teamsheet 15 minutes beforehand, he’ll message us and I’ll get on to editing the graphics. Generally we have an idea of what the team might be but there are occasionally some surprises. For the next few minutes our Twitter notifications go crazy with people commenting on the team, be it positively or negatively!

Then often I’ll go pitch-side and film some clips of the team warming up, although during lockdown we dedicated more time to promoting the QPR+ stream and ensuring fans were logged in and able to watch the games. 10 minutes before kick-off I’ll head down to the tunnel and film an Instagram Live of the team emerging from the dressing room and walking out on to the pitch. That’s probably one of my favourite moments on a matchday, it’s before the game’s started, there’s a real sense of excitement and anticipation and a buzz that you can’t quite replicate.

Then I’ll sprint up to the press box and cover the game on social media, constantly jumping between posting updates and cropping photos on Photoshop and uploading those to Instagram Stories and Twitter all whilst trying to watch the game. When there’s lots of goals and incidents, I’ll spend more time on my laptop than watching the game! That comes with the job, unfortunately.

What happens after the game is completely dependent on the result. In the event we win, I’ve got a busy evening with post-match content, celebration pictures and interviews. I keep an eye on what fans want to see, and if we win I’m the last one left in the office on Saturday evening.

If it’s a disappointing result, if we lose or concede a last-minute equaliser, that throws everything out the window. Then less is more – I’d only put out what I feel is necessary, if we’ve lost 3-0 I’m perfectly aware the fans don’t want to hear from us any more than they need to.

RGEN: I suppose especially when the result doesn’t go well, but also in general, “football twitter” is quite an intense place to be. You’ve managed to keep in touch with all its in-jokes (I’m thinking of the Wayne Rooney’s Derby County stuff), how have you managed to do this whilst not encouraging or engaging with the more unsavoury behaviour?

AW: It’s a fine line really. Ultimately we’re representing the club, so we have to be professional. But equally a lot of what I do is geared for QPR fans and I want to put things out that they’ll enjoy. So if there’s an opportunity to have a joke that’ll go down well without crossing the mark, I will.

That said, there wasn’t much subtlety in the Rooney one! When he started playing for them every time Derby were mentioned it was “Wayne Rooney’s Derby County” as much as it was “Frank Lampard’s Derby County” the season before. I had drafted the tweet beforehand in the event we won and, the fact that the winning goal came from Rooney’s inadvertent assist, it gave me all the ammunition I needed.

If you’re winning games you can get away with having a bit of fun, as long as the boss and the fans are happy.

RGEN: Your mentions must often be filled with people asking about specific things that are going on – how do you deal with putting out the content you’ve got planned when your mentions are all “is Nahki Wells being recalled,” “why haven’t we had an update on Bright”?

AW: Yeah it’s difficult. I always want to communicate where I can but ultimately there are times where that’s just not possible. I guess transfer speculation is the best example. We’re well aware that stuff gets reported elsewhere and fans want us to comment, but a lot of the time we’re not in a position to. Things get reported way in advance of them actually happening – if it’s been reported that we’re due to sign whoever, that might be the first that we’ve heard of it!

As soon as the fans hear that, they want it to be signed, sealed, delivered within five minutes but it might take another five days or even five weeks – as I’ve learned over the years, signings are far from straightforward! In any case, we won’t see the player until all the paperwork is sorted.

Another example was when Bright wasn’t in the squad for our last home game against Millwall and we were being inundated on Twitter for a response to all the speculation. It was matchday, though, and not the time to be making any comments on Bright – if he or any other player departs we’ll announce it, but we weren’t trying to hide anything as Bright was and still is our player. When the gaffer talked about it after the game, that made my job easier because we were at least able to address the issue and be transparent with the fans.

RGEN: You say that you don’t tend to hear about things until they’re happening – for instance with signings like George Thomas do you hear from the management in advance so you can get your content ready?

AW: It varies – generally we’ll get around a 24-hour heads-up, “George Thomas is coming in tomorrow for a medical” – once everything’s signed we’ll see the player for all our media bits.

With George Thomas it was slightly different because he was a free transfer – we weren’t having to liaise with another club. When we’re signing a player from a club, the selling club’s fans are equally as keen to announce the transfer so we might have an hour to turn everything around and agree a time with the other club for the announcement. It can be quite frantic but worth it if the transfer is well received!

 RGEN: The club put out some fantastic stuff during lockdown with the Rangers Rewinds and the quizzes. What was your role in this and did it change how you view the relationship between the media team and the fans?

AW: I remember the Friday when the league was suspended, thinking “what the hell are we gonna do?” You get into a routine with your content across the season, then you have the window between the end and mid-June when you’re trying to come up with different ideas.

As a team we had a Zoom call on the Monday morning to brainstorm ideas and come up with some kind of plan since we suspected lockdown would last longer than the initial three weeks.

As it happened, I’d never been busier than during lockdown! People might find that odd with no football but a lot of people were at home, furloughed or couldn’t go to school, college, university so there was a huge demand for content across all ages.

We wanted to come up with some fun ideas as a nice distraction from what’s going on in the real world. Certain things worked really well – the Rangers Rewinds for instance was a chance to reach out to both younger and older supporters who hadn’t seen certain games for quite a few years. The Kit World Cups too; if there’s one thing QPR fans love talking about, it’s the kits!

The quiz nights were great and just a bit of fun too, giving people a chance to take part at home on a Saturday night in the company of a QPR legend. We had Clint Hill in his tuxedo, Jamie Mackie in his TikTok gear, Gareth Ainsworth doing his “Wild Thing,” and the gaffer doing the first one was brilliant – he’s brilliant, really receptive to engaging with the fans.

RGEN: When you put out a message on social media saying “QPR fans, which former player do you want to hear from,” and they all come back and say Adel Taarabt… how do you go about sorting that?

AW: We had an idea that he might top that vote!

Luckily Paul Morrissey has a good rapport with Adel from his time at QPR and it worked out brilliantly. Adel was keen to do something with us and nobody had really heard from him since he’d left under a bit of a cloud. A lot of former players are more active on social media, fans might hear from them here and there, but QPR fans hadn’t heard Adel talk about his time at QPR and, in particular, that 2010-11 season.

When Adel came back and said “yeah, I’d love to,” it all fell into place. That Thursday, “#TaarabtThursday,” my day was mad. Our mentions were going crazy from first thing in the morning until the next day and it was trending on Twitter. I know the fans loved eulogising about his old goals and skills – there were only so many we could put out in one day!

RGEN: In interviews elsewhere, players and staff say the dressing room environment has been great this season with some of the signings, Lee Wallace for instance comes up a lot. Obviously you get quite up close and personal with the players and coaching staff – what’s your experience of that been?

AW: I definitely echo that – certainly the last couple of years, the squad we’ve had has been the best I’ve ever known in terms of dealing with them day-to-day. There’s a really good team spirit across the playing and coaching staff.

And while the players may not be so active on social media, I know they’re always on social media. Often if I go in the training ground on a Monday, they’ll comment on stuff we’ve put out – like with Nahki Wells’ handball goal when we tweeted about VAR, a certain player saw me and said “I see you’ve made a few friends in Leeds over the weekend!”

The players are often keen to be involved and it helps because if we do a funny Q&A with one player the others will see it and it makes them more comfortable; they see that we’re trying to build that connection between the fans and the players.

This season in particular they’ve been great – the likes of Jordan Hugill, Dom Ball, Ebere Eze and Àngel Rangel to name but a few. Àngel is probably one of the best players I’ve dealt with, he’s such a nice guy, does so much to support the club’s work in the community and is a great role model to the younger players. When we re-signed him he was genuinely delighted to be back which was really refreshing. Ebere’s a funny character and considering the profile he’s built for himself, he’s so down to earth and humble. It’s a great group of players, and it makes my job so much easier.

RGEN: What was your game of the season (either to cover, or to watch when you got a chance to look up from your laptop)?

AW: Both Stoke games spring to mind. This year we’ve had so many ridiculous games, scored so many goals – equally, conceded a few as well!

The Cardiff and Swansea games at New Year were mad, but the Stoke game on the opening day was probably my favourite of the season.

Everyone’s excited at the start of a new season, nobody knows how teams are going to perform. Stoke were one of the favourites for promotion and it felt like they expected to win comfortably, whilst we were tipped to struggle. After making 15 signings in the summer nobody quite knew how the players would adapt, but that performance was one of the best team performances I’ve seen in quite a few years. The football at QPR for a few years probably hasn’t been the most pleasing on the eye, but Mark has completely changed the philosophy. That game felt like a new dawn and Ebere’s winning goal – seeing the move build up, pass after pass after pass – just topped it off.

RGEN: Out of everything you’ve done at the club so far, what’s getting put front and centre on your CV?

AW: There’s been a lot of change at the club, the new crest was a real success in getting the fans to have their say. The stadium name change too; Mark Prince is such an inspirational man, how he’s turned such a personal tragedy into such a positive, and it’s been a real honour helping tell his story and promote the work of The Kiyan Prince Foundation. It’s always great when you can effect change outside of football – the Game for Grenfell too. Those things are what I’ve taken the most pride in working on.

RGEN: I’m conscious that a lot of ‘R’ Generation’s readers – and a lot of our writers – are younger QPR fans looking to go into sports media. What route did you take to get into your role, and what advice would you give to people looking to do the same?

AW: I studied Sports Journalism at the University of Brighton, and when I first joined QPR it was as Club Journalist – much more focused around writing feature articles for the website, whereas now I’m trying to write in as few characters as possible!

After uni I tried to get as much experience as I could. I worked for about a year at various places doing as much as I could to build my portfolio and get my foot in the door as it’s such a competitive industry.

I did some work at FourFourTwo magazine, a few months unpaid, then it got to the point where I needed to be earning some money to get by. I ended up doing temporary jobs, tried to stay in PR and communications which led me to working at Macmillan Cancer Support – not football or sport, but still in media.

On the back of the work at FourFourTwo, quite a few months later the magazine’s editor recommended me for a role at the London 2012 Olympics, covering the football games for the Olympic News Agency. That was an unbelievable experience, based at the Ricoh Arena covering the men’s and women’s football games which gave me the experience to apply for the QPR role. It all paid off in the end.

In terms of advice, if you’re looking to get into sport journalism specifically then write as much as you can. The great thing about the internet and social media is that it gives everyone a platform to showcase their work. It’s free too!

Also, try to get as much experience as you can, and don’t think that anything isn’t worthwhile. You might think “I’m not going to bother doing that because it won’t lead to anything” – someone there might have a contact and it could lead to something further down the line.

And finally… make the most of every opportunity. We often have students come down to the training ground – if they impress and a job was to come up further down the line I might recommend them rather than someone who didn’t look too interested or wasn’t professional.

It’s all about making an impression.

That, and making a good cup of tea always helps.

We thank Andy for his time and co-operation with us and thank him for all the hard work he’s been contributing to the QPR site over his time with the club and especially for keeping us entertained over this lockdown period!

For more exciting content, stay tuned @rgenerationnet!

Interview by Ben Summer

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