The world of the football cartoonist: The Guardian’s David Squires

Paul Hyland 3 May 2016

David Squires’ rise to prominence has been meteoric. An illustration graduate from Cardiff University, his weekly Guardian cartoon unpicking controversial footballing issues leaves none safe from his sharp, sardonic wit, from Galactic Emperor Sepp Blatter, to master-of-the-dark arts José Mourinho, to FA board members cartoonishly decked out in monocles and top hats.

Squires accepts that he’s found a niche within a medium that’s often looked down upon: “When you meet people and you’re studying illustration at uni, especially in the early 90s, you know the term ‘cartoon’ was something derogatory. If someone’s work was of the cartoon style it would be slightly sneered at. I don’t think comics had quite the same mainstream appeal that they do now, and even now I don’t think I have any comic fans, it’s mostly football fans.”

It was a spur-of-the-moment move Down Under in 2009 that saw the stars align in his favour: “When I wasn’t at the beach and doing all the things you’d expect of someone who’d just moved to Australia, I picked up the pencil again and started drawing, just writing and drawing about the things that made me angry or excited – I found that I could express myself much easier through that medium than through traditional illustration, and so I plugged away at that.”

“The break really came around the 2014 World Cup,” he continues, “When it started, I stuck a cartoon up on Twitter of Sepp Blatter arriving at the opening game dressed like the Emperor from Star Wars.”

“Then the next day I did another cartoon which was about Robin van Persie’s header against Spain, and suddenly it got hundreds and hundreds of retweets.” Van Persie’s incredible header against the tournament holders saw itself lampooned in a single panel with the Dutch striker soaring above defender Sergio Ramos, utterly terrified of just how high he’s managed to jump. Suddenly, football fans knew who Squires was.

“Living in Australia – that’s where the time zone worked in my favour,” he adds, “The games were being screened at 4am and 6am here, so I then had the whole day to think, ‘right, what was interesting about that, what was funny?’ and then I would be able to stick up a cartoon and put it online at a time when people in the UK were just getting up and going to work. It just went nuts. I couldn’t really explain why that was, but I think there’s an element of luck there.”

I point out that the job description of a cartoonist is primarily to make people laugh. How does he balance that with the task of having a serious point to make? “It’s not easy,” he admits, “Once I did one about the plan to close qualification for the European Cup. That was something I felt quite strongly about.”

“I suppose the trick is measuring that anger and that frustration, as any good football manager would say, channeling that aggression so you don’t end up like Steven Gerrard running onto the pitch and kicking someone up the arse and getting a red card straight away,” he laughs, half apologising for offending my Liverpudlian sensibilities.

I wonder whether Squires’ obvious talent for making light of the game makes cartoons a richer medium. Can they persuade in a manner that traditional print media can’t? He answers: “I think it’s clearly just a different way of presenting the same argument. Being able to present things visually, there’s that comedy element where you can use those slapstick jokes, obviously that you wouldn’t do in print media. Every week the lawyers look at what I do before it goes up. Occasionally they’ll tell me to change stuff so I don’t get sued!”

Though he admits that the cartoonist is prone to suffering the columnist's curse of the dreaded "slow week".  "On weeks when there’s nothing, I just try to make people laugh and have a joke around with it," he explains, "But it’s tough, some weeks there’s just nothing that’s happened, nothing funny, nothing controversial, and those weeks it is a struggle."

A struggle they may be, but uneventful weeks seem to bring the comedic best out of Squires.  As February ended without controversy, that week's panel wondered what the Oscars would be like if they were awarded to football players, compete with Sam Allardyce as a Roy Chubby-Brown styled compere whose borderline xenophobic jokes fall flat with the audience.

Our conversation is marked by all of the humour and wit that anyone who knows his work would come to expect. But one moment is particularly touching.  When Everton's legendary manager, Howard Kendall, passed away this October, Squires took the opportunity to pay homage to one of the finest English managers of his time. The brilliance of the piece was its ability to blend together humour – its first panel sardonically promised to cease "the relentless persecution of whichever team you support" and genuine reverence for a heavyweight of English football. 

The response to the piece left him seriously humbled. "It was fairly straightforward because I do remember his teams from the 80s, hey played some really exciting football and he seemed like a really nice man," he says. "After it went out, Howard Kendall's family got in touch and asked if they could have a copy of the original, so I was really proud to be able to do that for them." Of all of the cartoons he has drawn in his career, this is the one he considers his finest. His is a medium which, beyond its power to satirise the footballing world, has the power to genuinely move its audience. Squires takes pride in that more than any other aspect of his work.

He concludes: “Sometimes, I take a step back and think: ‘Bloody hell, you’re being paid to draw cartoons about football.’ I think it’s healthy not to think too much about that stuff, because these things can change very quickly. I’m just enjoying it all while it lasts.”