Making a Matchday – George Harbey

In the digital age of football media, it has become more important than ever for football clubs to imprint a high standard of quality within their media teams and the content they push out across their platforms.

One such example of a successful team of creators and the content they produce for their club is our very own Nottingham Forest, who entered the Premier League at the very bottom of the list of engagements across media platforms, upon the end of their 23-year hiatus from the top flight, but end the season three places higher after a season within which The Reds have gained over 2.2 million followers, 49.6 million engagements and 239.9 million views across all platforms for their media output this season.

At the helm of the social media operation at The City Ground is George Harbey. Known to Forest fans before his employment at Nottingham Forest as a journalist with SnackMedia providing fantastic reports on our club, especially through lockdown during behind-closed-doors fixtures.

With the club finalising its most successful season media-wise with George as a massive component behind that, I sat down with him to discuss life at the club, challenges, his career and his prospects in the very first instalment of the Making a Matchday series.

Who are you and what do you do?

“My names George Harbey, Forest social media manager. Used to do press officer stuff earlier this season, but now I am “admin” as they’d say.

“I’m in control of all club channels and websites, and my job is to drive Forest audiences up off the pitch online!”

And what is your career history? What came before that role?

“So, I finished sixth form, really didn’t fancy university. Don’t know why but in my gut, I just didn’t want to move away from Nottingham, really. So, I started off doing freelance journalism, which is basically just writing for loads of different sites and luckily one of them, SnackMedia, who run loads of different websites, took me on and I worked there for a number of years, and I went full-time during that time as well.

“One of their websites was a football league one, and obviously Forest were, at the time, in the football league so I covered them, as well as a bunch of midlands clubs, and I stuck with them as I wanted to build a following around one club, and obviously my local club as well.

“So yeah, I did that for about two years. I always wanted to move into club media. I was never good enough to play football but I always wanted to be a part of that football team environment. So once I’d been covering Forest for quite a while and grown to know a lot of the people at the club, I applied for a job here as a club journalist and didn’t get it, but it became available a month later again and I then thankfully got it.

“Nearly two years on, I’m still here! I’m loving it still, learning every day, experiencing new things every day that just blow me away sometimes. So yeah, that’s my career! I didn’t go down a “conventional” route as you might say, I know uni is good for some people and not so good for others, but I just went with my gut and here I am!”

Tell me more about your time, then, at SnackMedia, the sort of stuff you did?

“Yeah so at first it was just sort of writing 200-word articles, and then getting rewarded off of how many views you’d get. So say you got a hundred-thousand views over a month, you’d get paid off of the back of that.

“But then the company really progressed and it went from writing short, snappy articles to being a contracted person and editing your own work and doing a lot more in-depth stuff. So doing things like proper match reports when you go to games, etcetera, and that really taught me to improve my written journalism, what headlines to write, getting hits on your articles and all that. And then the accredited journalism stuff when I’m going to press boxes and writing my match reports and writing about football in-depth.

“So yeah, I think I’ve matured quite a bit, in terms of the journalism side, and then that turned into doing podcasting, presenting on YouTube and so on. And that sort of taught me all the sides of it, really, so I was well-prepped for when I joined Forest.”

What was the process of joining Forest like?

“I spent a lot of the lockdown season following them home and away, behind closed doors, which was really fun. Then at the start of the next season, I knew some people were leaving because I knew them from going to games. And I think after the third game of the season was when a role came up, and I thought “what’s the harm in applying”.

“At first, I got told I didn’t have enough experience, which was fair enough. I didn’t think I was qualified for it, to be fair, as there were people applying for it who had worked at football clubs before and had experience, but then it came up a month later and my dad said to me “just go for it, the worst they can do is say no again, it shows you’re keen”.

“So then they gave me an interview opportunity, so I went and spoke to my old boss and Dane Murphy of all people, which was very daunting. But that was that really, I went in and told my story and got the job, which was amazing. And like I said, two years later I’m still here!”

What was the transition like, going from a written journalist to club media?

“Well, it was tough at first!

“You’re in that mindset of covering a club rather than working for them, so you are the club now rather than just writing about them. I always used to write positively about Forest anyway, but it was tough. Especially when I went to my first game as a staff member, which I think was QPR away when Colback scored in the last minute. And even the little things, like getting access down the tunnel, recording bits for the socials and taking players for interviews after the game, it was really daunting to be fair, having to get players out the dressing room to do interviews when results don’t go to plan.

“But no, you learn that there’s way more than just writing stuff. You dedicate your whole life to working long hours and travelling up and down the country. Even the U21’s games, I’d be going to them for experience and travelling to the likes of Middlesbrough and so on. But you quickly learn that it takes over your life, but when football is your life you don’t really mind!”

And what was it like going from writing about the players to working directly alongside them day-to-day?

“Daunting, exciting, tough, everything really. I know I had to mature a bit and step up to be like, these aren’t players I’m watching as a fan, they are essentially my colleagues now. But you soon realise though that, despite everyone’s perceptions of footballers, how they get paid thousands and so on, I have never met a more down-to-earth bunch of players, between last season and this season as well, it hasn’t changed even though we have gone up. But yeah, you quickly realise that they are now your colleagues.

“When we went to Spain in pre-season at the start of this season, I had to do an initiation song! And I actually got up and sang “Just Can’t Get Enough”. I don’t know why! I didn’t expect to do one, but all the new players were doing them, so like Biancone and Niakhate and Henderson had just joined, and they all just pointed at me and said “you, stand up and sing”. I said, “I joined in October, why do I have to?”, and they just said “SING”. I was like “ah, okay, great”. So, I got up on my chair and sang “Just Can’t Get Enough” and got booed off, which was great.

“But this season, for instance, when the likes of Lingard and Navas arrived, they are real “pinch me” moments because I’ve been watching Lingard since I was, like, 12 and a diehard United fan. So, when they arrived and I was having to do interviews or having to take them somewhere, you’re thinking “I probably played with you on FIFA a couple of days ago, now I’m sat here introducing you to Forest.”

And then, of course, what’s it like working alongside Steve Cooper?

“Oh, he’s a dream. I think every Forest fan rightfully loves him, and I think the media loves him as well. The way he conducts himself after games and in interviews, you can tell that he just gets it all. Like you see some managers, not to name any names, you can tell that they just don’t treat the media too well. But Steve is there every single week.

“Even when results this season haven’t been the greatest, he comes out and conducts himself well every single week and says the right things win, lose or draw. And then, as well, he’s just a really nice guy to work with. I think he always does well to relay things as a group effort and a real one-club-mentality. I mean, every single day after training, he’d go out and sign autographs and chat to fans etcetera.

“So yeah, he’s a dream to work with. And then of course, like the players, it’s just surreal sometimes. For instance, sitting with him at the press conference after Wolves, and of course we’ve just lost and there’s all these questions to answer, it’s just surreal. But yeah, he’s just such a nice guy to work with. And you wouldn’t expect him to be the manager of such a big club because he’s just so down-to-earth. But he’s a top guy and I’m really looking forward to keeping on working with him.”

Out of all the players you have worked with since joining, who would you say your favourite to work with has been?

“Ooo, that’s tough. Last season it was Zinckernagel. I think it’s because, when I was at Snack, I always wanted Forest to sign him because he was like Beckham, just seemed a really cool player, and he was brilliant at Watford too. As soon as he joined Forest I made it clear that he was my favourite and spoke to him about how I like his hair and stuff. I was a bit of a creep at first to be honest!

“But I still talk to him now, to be fair. He’s one of the people from last season that I do keep in contact with, and he’s doing really well this season. And then, this season, I think there was this weird perception about the players at Forest that they just don’t get along because so many joined, and so our goal for the second half of the season, very much like England do with their players, is kind of connect the fans to the players and bring us all together. So doing stuff like “Matchday Pass” where you can see that the players clearly do get along, and we just wanted to really reinforce how nice the guys were. And they all are, they’ve all bought into the club. Like whether they’ve come from Brazil or France or wherever else, and there’s a lot to choose from, they all really get it at Forest and really respect everyone.

“They are all really nice but Taiwo Awoniyi and Niakhate really stick out for me, because we’ve seen them both pick up long-term injuries this season, but whenever you see them at the training ground they’re always smiling, same to be said for Biancone as well to be fair, they’re never not smiling, and always asking you how you are and not the other way around, even when they’re out with very frustrating injuries.

“But yeah, they’re just the nicest guys ever really. That isn’t to say the others aren’t, but they just really stood out to me. And then of course you see Taiwo scoring all the goals and Moussa doing really well, and having that bloody throw-in, it just makes you respect them so much more. But they are all top guys, they really are. And I’m not just saying that to keep my job!”

What were some of the challenges you faced in your time at the club?

“Well last season the challenge was just sort of adapting to the club and working for a club like I said before, but this season was really challenging in terms of logistics. We had one of the smallest media teams in the Championship last season, so adapting to that in the Premier League was really tough. It was worth the extra work, all the stepping up and grafting because it was the Premier League, but yeah, we had to hire new people and now we have a really good media team and a really good balance.

“Because we won the play-offs as well, we had less time to prepare, so for instance, I went away for a week and there was just no time to relax. We had to adapt the media facilities; the press box had to be expanded to accommodate everyone. And the Premier League needed access because every player had to do at least half an hour of green screen stuff, and that alone was at least nine hours of pure graft. It was my first day back from America where I’d been for the week, I was jetlagged and everything and that was my first day back. But thankfully it got a lot better this season with the extra space and once everyone knew what they were doing.

“That initial bit was tough, and then over the season obviously, as press officer, I had to sort all the accreditation for all the media. When I did Barnsley at home last season, for instance, no disrespect to them for this of course, they’d need about 30 press and 4 cameras at most, whereas this season every single game had media from around the world, like even the smaller games, say Brentford or whoever had Danish, German and more press and broadcasters that needed sorting, and setting up every game kind of felt like you were setting up a Champions League final.

“We all had to get used to it, and thankfully we soon did. And from a social role, the mission was to catch up with everyone’s followers. And we did really well to go from the bottom of the leader board in terms of followers across all channels this season, to about 16th or 17th now, and of course next season it’ll be more because of the teams coming up.

“Every little resource you get in the Premier League, like FPL and stuff like that, adapting to all of that and figuring out how to use it, I think going into next season it’s put us in a really good place because now the season gone has been a sort of dress rehearsal. But it didn’t feel like it at the time!”

Through all those challenges and ups and downs, what has been your best memory of working at Forest?

“Well, there is obviously two standouts. Obviously Wembley is one, and the two seasons have kind of contrasted because the first was a sort of “pinch me, I’m working at Forest” sort of thing, and every week the team were just winning, winning, winning so you’re thinking “wow, this run can’t get much better”, and it didn’t sink in until Wembley when I tweeted the full-time graphic, because the social media guy at the time was off ill so I was doing it, so I was doing press officer stuff and social stuff. So, I tweeted that, did a little cheer and ran down to the pitch, grabbed someone for an interview, I think it was Worrall, and then they went for the trophy.

“And when all that is happening around you, with all “Free’d From Desire” and everything, it eventually sunk in. There’s a picture of me where I’m just like “wow” because it all sunk in and actually felt real then. And then Market Square the day after and everything. And it was just everything, like, being in the dressing room for Coopers speech after and being on the pitch at Wembley, it was just amazing.

“And then this season was different, because of just the pure graft from minute one. We knew it was going to be difficult compared to last season, with all being in the Premier League and not winning as many games, you know that some weekends are just going to be so rubbish, without swearing. But that game against Arsenal just felt like a massive outpouring of relief, because all the hard work felt so much more rewarding after that, because you know everyone’s worked so hard to scrap little wins and get to these sorts of moments.

“But yeah, Wembley and then staying up were just two pinnacles of just hard work and graft in the seasons. I also loved Palace away, but yeah, them two for me.”

What’s the plan for the future, both in your development and for the clubs?

“Well, I’ve learnt that anything can happen really. I never thought three years ago that I’d be working here running the socials at Forest, so anything now is just adding on to the dream and all the unbelievable moments.

“Off the pitch next season, we just want to keep developing the channels and keep growing and getting bigger socially, keep introducing Forest to the world and tapping into all of these audiences, because as a fan point it makes for really interesting content. Now we are planning for pre-season and seeing what we can do with that, because there’s some really exciting ideas going on there. And without being biased and I hope everyone agrees, I know you agree, everything we’ve done, like video content and everything, is just growing and increasing and has been really good.

“If this club keeps doing well and keeps getting it right like we have done recently, you look at the likes of Brighton and it just makes me think that I would really love to work in Europe with Forest, that would be a dream. You just need a few good years and to recruit wisely and everything and we could be up there, anything is possible really.”

Is there anything you want to say back to fans after all their engagement this year?

“Yeah, one, we’ll try and get BenchCam back! Hopefully with a few more positive results we can get that back maybe.

“We ended on a high, but it’s been a really tough year with a lot of ups and downs, a real rollercoaster. I’m sure it’s unreal as a fan getting to go to all of these grounds every week, especially compared to the ones we went to in the Championship, but it’s still hard when we get beat and of course they spend a lot of money!

“But the engagements been brilliant, everyone’s really bought into what we’ve done and how we’ve transferred mindset from Championship to Premier League content, and of course it’s all a bit new and they have had to adapt to it, but we’ve just heard and seen really positive stuff. Our fanbase on socials is really strong and united and they always really stick together, but yeah, stay tuned for more! That’s our job now, making people happy with our content.

“When you win a game and you get to post a nice video with all the fans singing and people see themselves on it, and you get comments like “this has really made my day”, it really does make a difference, and that’s what it’s all about!”

“Keep saying nice things!”

*Article provided by Louis Wheeldon (Football Correspondent).

*Main image @NFFC the reds fans have played a huge part in the social media success at Forest.

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