My old NME photographer colleague from the late 80s and 90s is incredulous when I tell him I can’t go to Brazil with him because I have a job editing a magazine for someone else again. “What, an actual job, with an office and staff and a boss?”
Yes, all of them, at Four Four Two. It’s the biggest football magazine in the world, has versions in 11 countries, half a million followers on social, an editorial team of eight and a new editor-in-chief – me.
Why indeed. Well, I love football and I love magazines and Future seems like a pretty happening company so I surprised myself by applying for it and they, equally surprised, gave me it.
As well as recently writing a best-selling football book, Above Head Height, I’ve spent most of the last decade creating digital content for brands like JD Sports division Scotts, T-Mobile, Topman, Puma and Enterprise Cars with Saatchis, Mother, BMB, Steak, as well as seeding Paddy Power’s most successful campaign ever, the Come On England rainforest stunt. So I knew there’d be no point going in if there wasn’t a strong digital and social offering. FFT has both. Most significantly the subject matter, football, explodes all over the formats Four Four Two exists on. The game is continuing to grow with successful new competitions like the Nations League and the rapid emergence of women’s professional football. The sooner the World Cup comes round every other year the better.
Why print led though? After quietly helping launch indie mag The Move and The New European, I simply caught the print bug again. I wanted to edit a magazine without having to do all the publishing myself and I also didn’t like what I saw happening to mainstream print, with titles closing, reducing frequency or sliding downhill fast. There are loads of exciting, new, beautifully designed independent magazines now but the publishing model has changed to an environment sell and they are closer in terms of sales to the amount I used to sell as a fanzine editor. Also looking into print from outside the industry I didn’t like seeing titles I knew in their heyday struggle to adapt to a new multi-platform era.
To me, the cross-platform delivery for FFT is straightforward. The monthly print mag will have more in-depth features by great writers who have the inside track on what is going on, and more great classic football photography designed by our award-winning designer Anth Moore, so that's in good hands. That will be our equivalent of the big Sunday paper. The website will be our punchy, newsy, entertaining daily offering, or our i-paper. And the social is as frequent and immediate as a half hourly radio bulletin but with more personality. The same strong, informed and authoritative voice across all.
Four Four Two has the respect of the football and sportswear industries. In the last week I’ve been invited to exclusive events and dinner with Pele, Kylian Mbappé, and our current cover star Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In just two days, four leading international players and one Premier League manager all agreed to be interviewed for our 300th anniversary issue just because we asked. The BBC Premier League Show have filmed me and the editors of Mundial, The Gaffer and United We Stand discussing the resurgence of football print magazines. The spotlight is once again turning to the authentic strength offered by football magazines driven by passion and not a desperate need for clicks.
From a broader business perspective, over the last year Four Four Two owner Future's share price has doubled and its recent acquisitions of Purch and Mobile Nations in the States have seen it repositioned as a digital company on the stock market. This speed of growth is the sort of ambition I feel comfortable with and in my first two weeks since I’ve given the digital team a new strategy we’ve seen an immediate uplift in website traffic week on week of over 30%, matching the annual high of the January transfer window.
The first two weeks have been fantastic and the first cover I published featured Solskjaer the week he was announced as Manchester United’s full time manager. Timing is everything. Our story reveals how often and where he meets with his old mentor Sir Alex Ferguson after a game.
If you’re too young to remember the last century, I used to be quite handy with a flatplan and a cover line. In the 80/90s, I helped rebuild the NME as features editor, writing over 50 cover stories and putting on 50,000 sales over four years.
Then I launched the first mass market men's magazine in the world, loaded, a mixture of football, music, clubbing, travel, humour and girls which won every publishing award going, defined an era of fun, excess and boisterous entertainment and in my time featured cover stars like Gary Oldman, Elle McPherson, Homer and Bart, Father Dougal, Vic and Bob, Gazza, Jack Dee, Uma Thurman, Suggs and Vic and Bob.
It was a male fanzine really. In my three years there we had three page three girls on the cover, Kathy Lloyd, Joe Guest and Rachel Garley. We were the first magazine to ever print photographs of them with clothes on. My last cover had pre-Saturday-night-ITV-fame era Harry Hill riding a stuffed badger which sold almost a third of a million copies.
I’ve been writing a book about the music stories and total mayhem of my early years in magazines and maybe that nudged me towards doing one last editing job too (the book is out spring 2020 on Quercus). Looking back now, loaded was a bit too gung-ho in its drug and alcohol indulgence and over-use of the word ‘bird’ but it was smarter and funnier than the rest. The Crisps World Cup was one of my celebrated editorial inventions.
Fast turnaround quality media creation is something I've spent my life working in and football is what I truly love, so it’s a joy to be back. Oh and before you ask why we don’t change the name to Four Three Three – we already did recently when a certain Lionel Messi guest edited an issue.
James Brown is the new editor-in-chief of Four Four Two. Follow him on Twitter @jamesjamesbrown