The worlds of football and cartoon satire are ones that never seemed likely to collide.
Football in comic form has always felt more at home in the cosy, feel-good clutches of Roy of the Rovers, or the abstract imagination and intelligence of You are the Ref. However, look in the Guardian on a Tuesday morning and you will find football and cartoon married in a uniquely hilarious and thought-provoking way.
David Squires is the man who finds himself at the centre of this cultural supernova. For the past four years, he has amassed an army of cult followers, united by their love of his rudimentary yet chillingly accurate portrayals of football’s big personalities.
He has just published his third book in two years, Goalless Draws, a collection of his own favourite and most acclaimed strips. Squires maintains the niche he has carved for his work is borne from a lifetime of drawing, rather than any kind of epiphanic realisation.
“There wasn’t really a Eureka moment,” he says, “I just never stopped drawing from childhood. I liked the feeling of making my friends laugh with my drawings, and continued making cartoons for their amusement throughout secondary school, usually on the subject of the more psychotic teachers and bullies at our school.
“As recently as 2014, I was still only drawing them for myself and the small group of people who followed my work on Twitter. Things took off for me during the World Cup that year, when I decided to draw a cartoon for each day of the tournament. People responded to it well, and at the end of the competition, The Guardian asked me to do some work for them in the following season, and here we are.”
It’s a journey that has its origins in his Wiltshire childhood. “When I was 15, the team I support – Swindon Town – were demoted two divisions for financial irregularities. I thought, and continue to think, that this was the greatest miscarriage of justice in human history.
“The first cartoon I had published was for the Swindon fanzine, The 69er, but I didn’t ever think I would end up drawing cartoons as a profession. It was just an outlet for me to express the way I felt about the game.”
Squires’ weekly contributions to The Guardian are generally a wry, satirical look at the past week in football. They have made fun of everything from the Fifa corruption scandal to English football’s at times overboard obsession with the poppy appeal, from Arsene Wenger’s departure from Arsenal to the growing pressure on Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. For Squires, keeping up with the news is hugely important.
“I always keep a notepad to hand, mostly to jot down references to news stories that might make good subjects for cartoons, rather than jokes themselves; although sometimes I’ll experience a bolt of inspiration, usually at an inconvenient hour of the night.
“On a good week, there will be a big news story that makes an obvious subject for a whole cartoon, but some weeks I’m forced to scratch around a bit more.”
Like every cartoonist, Squires has his personal favourite characters. It just so happens that they are real people, real personalities — which for him makes them all the more enjoyable to draw.
“The best people to characterise are those who have distinctive features and big personalities: Mourinho, Klopp, Allardyce, Harry Redknapp, and so on. This season, I’ve really enjoyed drawing Mauricio Sarri, who is so scruffy he could be a freelancer.
“The hardest people to draw are the conventionally handsome or those who behave themselves. There can be no place for rounded personalities on my drawing board.
“For a while, I struggled to draw Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe, so eventually I decided to depict him with a massive head. I’ve continued to do so, and people just seem to accept it now.”
Squires is the kind of person to whom jokes come naturally. They swirl around his head like a swarm of bees, each one waiting for the opportune moment to escape. Even as he addresses my questions, his answers are littered with the kind of breezy quips and witticisms that define his work. Some of his jokes, he admits, are more abstract than others.
“I am aware that some of the cartoons contain fairly niche jokes and references,” he concedes. “I have been trying to make them less esoteric, or finding ways of explaining the reference within the text. However, there is usually someone in the online comments section who can point baffled readers in the right direction.
“My primary aim is to get the laughs”
“Last season, I based a cartoon on a Nike advert that it turned out only a handful of people had actually seen. But then, I’ve drawn parodies of Blade Runner and the John Lewis Christmas advert in the past and people have still complained that they don’t get it, which just goes to show that you can’t always please everyone.
“I usually start from the basis that the cartoons should be funny. Even if the topic is serious, I’ll try to use humour to draw attention to it. Naturally, not all subjects are appropriate for jokes, but on a regular week, if I’m just writing about the previous weekend’s football stories, my primary aim is to get the laughs.”
“In those two cases, I was – to a certain extent – able to draw upon my own personal feelings, as both Taylor and Regis were prominent football figures when I first fell in love with football in the 1980s. In the immediate aftermath of their deaths, I also read a lot about what they had done for other people, principally supporters.
“More recently, I drew a cartoon about the deaths of five people in the helicopter crash at Leicester; club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha being among those who lost their lives. I thought seriously about whether this was an appropriate subject for a cartoon, before concluding that it was the biggest news story of the week, and to ignore it, or mention it in passing would be wrong.”
Does he approach those kind of works differently? “Obviously you can’t pack those sort of cartoons with zingers, but at the same time it would be inappropriate and insincere to be too mawkish. There is a fine balance.
“With the Leicester one, I again tried to think about the impact Vichai had had on the local community, and reflected upon the club’s astonishing Premier League title in 2016 – the helicopter crash being a tragic coda to that story.”
For every finished cartoon, it’s easy to pass over the fact that hours of painstaking toil have gone into its inception. The process of creating one of Squires’ masterpieces is one that takes a great deal of dedication, as well as dependence and trust in his own creativity.
“I sit down on a Monday morning with the notes I’ve made over the previous 4-5 days and try to write a loose script with eight bullet points detailing what happens in each panel. Sometimes, I’ll have a clear idea about what will be in a panel, but more often, the bullet point will say something like: ‘joke about Mark Hughes.’”
“When I get to work on the cartoon itself, I’ll start with the panels I have the clearest vision of, and leave the vague ones to last. Over time, I’ve taught myself to trust my brain a bit more, and have faith that by the time I get to it, I’ll have thought of a joke about Mark Hughes, or dismissed it and come up with a better idea.
The challenge of producing content that is at once current, relevant and funny is one beset by a host of potential problems. Squires says that the news can be his worst enemy at times, as well as his best friend.
“There have been times when a big story breaks on a Monday night and I have to start from scratch. For example, when Cyrille Regis passed away earlier this year, I knew I’d have to bin what I’d drawn and start again. Not that I minded on that occasion, as Regis was a player who formed a big part of my childhood and I wanted to write about him.
“Monday night fixtures are a pain, and I sometimes think that Sky Sports and the Premier League don’t even think about cartoonists’ workloads when they are planning their broadcasting schedules.”
A fun job
Squires has been based in Australia since 2009. He says that living down under has presented its own set of challenges in writing and drawing about British football.
“I supposed I’m removed from the general noise about football that you experience in everyday life in England,” he says. “However, being over here means that I have to be more selective about what information I consume. There are only so many podcasts you can listen to and websites you can read.
“I often rely on social media to provide some direction as to the subjects people are talking about back home. Sometimes that can be a red herring, which is why the cartoons sometimes contain jokes that only make sense to a dozen people on Twitter.”
The Premier League is not the only footballing landscape Squires’ pencil has portrayed. He draws another weekly A-League cartoon for The Guardian Australia, and enjoys the role of the outlander.
“It is the feeling that I am able to use what I feel are my best skills”
“Despite living here for nearly a decade, I still feel like – and am probably seen as – an outsider. I definitely play on that when I’m working on those cartoons and readers generally seem to respond well to it. People like reading what an outsider thinks about them. Bill Bryson has done pretty well out of it.”
Over the course of four years working for The Guardian, and the painstaking ordeal of creating his first two books —a process Squires says left him feeling “like a Medieval monk who had dedicated his whole life to copying out long passages of scripture in a windswept cabin” — he will have produced hundreds of comic strips. Does he have a personal favourite?
“The first cartoon I drew for The Guardian is one that meant a lot to me. Typically, when it was first published, it contained a glaring typo, but I’m just about over that humiliation now. The cartoon that I most enjoyed drawing was the tribute to Johan Cruyff, in the days following his death in 2016.
“Spending a couple of days thinking about his impact and drawing images from his life story was one of the times where I stopped and allowed myself to think, ‘This is quite a fun job’.
It is from that point of truth that Squires appreciates how blessed he is to make a living doing something that he genuinely loves, and has a talent for.
“I suppose it is the feeling that I am able to use what I feel are my best skills. For years, I worked in jobs where that wasn’t the case, and I would often feel frustrated and depressed. I try to remind myself of this on the days when my shoulder hurts and I can’t think of any jokes about Mark Hughes.”