FWA Q&A: Barney ChiltonBarney Chilton, editor of Red News, on losing a Fortune...why we put up with the bad when the good can be so good...and avoiding Aussie verrucas
Have you ever worked in a profession other than football?
Many moons ago, when I had both hair and youth on my side, I worked in University bookshops. In theory, fun. In practice, nothing like it. This did, however, teach me two things: optometrists were the worst bunch for stealing their textbooks (then again, a couple of them were over £100 each) and that nothing in the world is more dull than a retail stock take which can still have me waking up at 4am with the shivers. On my first day I was told that the Dewey Decimal Classification of storing books would leave me in good stead for the rest of my life. On my second day I eyed how I could sell more fanzines and escaped. All these years on and poor old Dewey has done me no good whatsoever, not even one single pub quiz question on it, so I am still left wondering exactly when it’ll pop up so I can use it as a life saver.
Most memorable match?
So many to choose from, so little time. Have to go for the Champions League final in 99, but the semi-final victory before it in such circumstances against the fine Old Lady is right up there for the performance, which though wasn't replicated in the final, who cares? In an era of remarkable comebacks, the Nou Camp will never be topped. It still gives me goosebumps and makes me think 'did that really happen, has this all been a dream?' Don't wake me up then. Fergie just about summed it up afterwards: ‘football, bloody hell.’ Why we so love it. And put up with the bad when the good can be that good.
The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
Those last few minutes, ignoring the 89 or so before. The best team performance I've seen is probably fought out between United and Barcelona in a few battles, lopsided in their direction unfortunately, the scoundrels, from the 4-0 hammering which you couldn't help but admire in 94 to the cat pawing at an injured mouse pounding we got at Wembley last time. The 3-0 triumph over them in 84 was an occasion still fondly remembered - sadly typifying the era of false dawns as Juve knocked us out next round. But how often can a team with Graeme Hogg in it so intimidate one with Maradona in theirs? One solitary moment? Eric's pass to Denis Irwin [for Irwin’s goal against Spurs in Jan 1993], which he, himself, chose in Looking for Eric. The pass shaped everything. It is our dream move.
The Bernabeu, though both Real Madrid and Barca put away fans in the gods which never seems fair. Sitting in the home end is a totally and much more pleasurable experience. It’s for the aesthetics rather than the atmosphere though. It grates me to admit, but those conveyer belt produced replicakit stadiums in the States are great once inside. It's almost like Willy Wonka factory time - is there anything they don't offer, with 450 screens replaying all the action, more food that is both practical and logical, and that suffocating marketing that every second spent there is just, well ‘awesome’. But you are drawn in, nonetheless.
...and the worst?
Halifax and the Shay. The old romantic in me would like to glorify the old style allure of it all, but in truth it was an eyesore with an away end behind the goal that was just a uptight grassy hill. Add water to it, and slips galore, Gremlin like. And the floodlights didn’t even offer substantial bright light. Not helped by Jim Leighton slippery fingers when we played there, too.
Your personal new-tech disaster?
The usual incomprehensible failure to back up and be confronted with a dead screen and lost material plus articles typed, which are clearly your best ever, only to see them disappear near completion, gone for good, in circumstances still unknown. Then comes the - while cursing - rewrite which is never as good or as fun. We don’t have a good record with taped interviews. In the old days you can hear the audible gasps as I realise I’ve put the old stale tapes on short play instead of long and the whirring mid-interview is the last breath of the tape about to be spat out in disgust with only half the interview gone as I desperately scrambled for a spare and not look a tit. I decided to double up and always bring two (‘just in case’) but even then there seemed a curse. The amount of times one has gone wrong is comical. We digitally recorded Quinton Fortune in a one-to-one yet both recorders played up. Saying that, Quinton was so unforthcoming we could have put some blank pages in the mag and not missed out any of the interesting quotes from the interview, which we then had to rescue from shorthand and somehow try and make into a semi-interesting piece. Which from vague ‘yes, suppose so’s’ was pretty difficult.
Nothing too major, bar criticising the football of the man in his early days who went on to win us everything which didn’t go down too well at the time. Think he’s forgiven us now. For some reason mistakes with dates and years seems to wind up some readers more than any OTT opinion and actual controversial material. And woe betide a rushed misspelling. Do not mess with the grammar police.
Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
In a few letters I was addressed as ‘Barnie Clifton’ which is as close as I’ve got to stardom (cue that going over the heads of anyone under 50). I always dreamed the ‘Barnie’ would one day make it to the full on ‘Bernie’ but sadly not. In real life though, nobody, but we did pretend to be squad players on a pre-season tour of Scandinavia in the late 1980s, using clubcall promo cards as some bizarre confirmation as proof that we were first teamers even if we weren’t on the actual pictures. However, it worked and got us free drinks. And a mate a rather exotic dance.
Most media friendly manager?
Only dealt with the one, thankfully. We had a lot more contact in the early days when United wasn’t the Mr Potato indulged mammoth it is now. In our earliest days, on another pre-season tour of Sweden, we walked into the team hotel where there was no security or waiting fans outside and got a lengthy one-to-one interview about his plans for the 1987/88 season as he ate his breakfast and talked of changing the fortunes of the club. He has helped us on several occasions since, but like Carrington, the blockades are up and the dream of a second such chat, I fear, is some way off. In another world. We’re so big as a club now, everything we once were and how things were done, has gone for good.
Best ever player?
Not seen enough of Messi live, but up close with Ronaldo was a joy to watch. How both stay so fit is a marvel, as much as what they do when fit. For impact, Eric Cantona, though I hope Robin Van Persie will have a similar affect. It’s only when you see a player in the flesh, consistently, that you have a real indication and watching RVP regularly...his movement, his vision, his understanding and reading of the game...has been as big a delight as any I have had since we won the 19th title. Growing up, it was always Bryan Robson. I just wish he had been able to play - and peak - in this era.
Best ever teams (club and international)?
From a distance, AC Milan of the 90s - and that final of 94. Up close, Barcelona reaching a crescendo just at the right (wrong) time to deservedly make two Champions League finals pretty much non contests. Despite their lack of success, the Brazil side of 82 and what they did to capture the imagination of so many kids watching; studying, learning and falling a bit more in love with football which can still have me shouting out ‘SOCRATES’ to celebrate a goal as we all put our club allegiances to one side that summer and just wanted to score in a yellow kit.
Best pre-match grub?
Home made sarnies, flattened accidentally by putting mags on top of them, soggy from the inevitable rain, as you hold up the fanzines for hours and your mates all text you how good the pub is. The reality of all this! Better that, though, than the OT chicken balti pies which a mate is convinced is just Norovirus in a plastic dish.
Best meal had on your travels?
I’d like to come up with some extravagant dish from the hand of a non-speaking Monk using materials from the earth which only flower once a year, but though it sounds dull. It’s probably a pizza before the Champions League Final in Rome. The chef treated the pizza dough as if it were his instrument and with such care I felt guilty eating it - but it was incredible. The local wine helped, of course. Why is takeaway pizza nothing like the real thing...?
...and the worst?
The steak in some backwater bar in Kiev, which didn’t resemble cow and appeared to be more rodent based. I can’t even say it tasted nice. But it was cheap.
Best hotel stayed in?
Room wise, the Wynn in LA which a mate who ran a travel agency had sorted on the cheap and gave a rare insight into opulence so that for a few nights I really could dream I was the real Bernie Clifton. The room had two TV’s the size of concert screens. But for all round madness, the the Prince Park Tower Hotel in Tokyo for the Club World Cup. On arrival I was greeted by four receptionists who seemed so caring I thought they wanted to room with me. I didn’t even realise the hotel had its own massive shopping centre underneath with hundreds of people working until the last day. There were so many lifts you needed a compass to find your room, and I’m sure they were crying as I left. I have that effect.
...and the worst?
Some bunker in Kosice. So bad, the dreary, decaying living room-like reception saw a few of our party turn and get cabs to the team hotel to upgrade. Those of us on a fixed budget had to make do, though the communal showers - for men and women - which stank and had an obligatory Aussie backpacker advising he hoped his verrucas weren’t catching - won’t ever be beaten, for what I do not know. Thankfully the town itself was fantastic. So we spent as little time as possible back at HQ. A room with iron bars has that affect.
Favourite football writer?
Bias of home comforts allows me to select Daniel Taylor for his flair and Mark Ogden for his rhythm, Simon Stone of PA for his diligence, and Ian Herbert rid of his shackles makes me laugh when he’s on one. I like Martin Samuel, especially when his topics are those that surprise (though not that Joey Barton one...), and of course Richard Williams. I wouldn’t want to wake up every morning confronted with fans across the country accusing you of being a fan of this club or that, but each day across the board you can still find quality. I just don’t like the obsession for transfer speculation (though know it sells and gets the most hits) plus over-indulgence of particular headline stories when there are so many other good football stories out there, even on slow news days. Perhaps there is no market, but there are that many former professionals with grand stories to tell, I’m surprised we don’t read more on their thoughts in interviews.
Favourite radio/TV commentator?
In a minority I presume but I like Jonathan Pearce - volume down mind - because he clearly still loves the sport and doesn’t seem to let any cynicism burden his work.
If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
Build on trust. Develop trust. By starting again. If a journalist betrays that trust, then the club can let him have it, but I do think there has to be a better way than the at-arm’s-length approach we have now. Players should not only be put up for more interviews during the week, but also where there isn’t an edge to it - this or that isn’t off limits - where both are eyeing each other with suspicion. We’re adults after all and fans prefer grown up and meaningful discussion rather than bland insipid nothingness where we’re told such and such will ‘bounce back’ for the nth time and nothing gets said. With Di Law at United we were allowed one-on-ones with players and stuck to basic principles of copy approval, but were allowed to make the conversations more interesting without being treated like children. Now we have officials sat down watching what we say and what the players say, which is both pointless and unsettling. We’re not there to stitch the player up, we just want to hear them speak about more than they are used to, which is surely a good thing. Not probing for private information, but asking for views on broader subjects than the next game and standard platitudes. The modern machine seems scared of allowing anybody the right to open up.
On a tangent, I agree with Neil Custis about journalists giving their stories out for free on the net and it is of concern. We’re in that strange new world at the moment where people think everything online should be free, and as a consequence, I feel, papers have misjudged the mood by offering up everything online, for free, when it should be used to entice people to the content. Why buy a paper if we can read the paper online for free? Everyone also wants to be the first to reveal everything, be that bloggers, fans or those in the media when surely the idea is to tease so that people then go to the real thing (be it paper or virtual)? If I had a good story I’d provide tasters, but the material would go into the mag. Or I’d sit on it. If you show your hand straight away - here’s the story, in a tweet - why would people than take the extra step to read the greater insight? There will be a way to mix the two, as everyone is finding their feet, and so many people writing about football across the board can only be a good thing as you select those you want to read regularly.
It’s sad that so many fanzines have closed down as some think that era has now passed. I’d argue that fanzines are still valuable - and vocal - and provide an insight into their club which is necessary. We’re lucky at United that we still have all three, mainly down to the single mindedness and stubbornness of each editor. We’re all going digital, but we’re charging for content with occasional free material posted to showcase to readers because I believe this is the model that will flourish.
One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
The Ashes, in Australia. But before it became popular. Or a Test in Wellington, walking up that road right to the ground.
Last book read?
Hunter S Thompson ‘Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone’ - not perfect, but a good insight into his style with a toothpick into American history.
Favourite current TV programme?
A choice between Walking Dead which has re-invented the tired Zombie genre; Homeland which is now so implausible I fear for its future; and Boardwalk Empire which trots slow, slow, quick, quick, slow but is masked by the quality of the scenery and acting. And Gary Nev on a Monday night. If only all pundits were that good. Hopefully his work will see the end of a tired formula on MOTD who should be taking note with a shake up of the golfing club.
Your most prized football memorabilia?
A three page letter from SAF on his opinion on the role of fanzines at United and his opinion on the early Red News’s. Not for publication, its contents remain private, and fascinating (and not that rude).
Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?
Be yourself. Everyone wants to copy someone or other, when I still believe good, quality writing will rise to the top. Set your own sights and ambitions on where you want to go rather than what others suggest is the way you should head. The road less travelled can lead to a lifetime of unique and unforgettable experiences. Football reporting is at a drastic point, print IS decaying, sadly, and the internet has meant the demand for old style reports is irrelevant, unless it’s very, very good. This should provide an opportunity for more forensic and quality copy which will create demand because it is so good. We all know the score, so I enjoy as much about the game we didn’t see as the one we did and know about. I am not a journalist, I am just a Manchester United fan who had the opportunity to write about my club during an incredible period of its history. I am both fearful and excited for the future.
Red News is the first Manchester United fanzine which was started in 1987. It's been sold at over 800 United games in all conditions; the material is from the contributions of Manchester United supporters, of which several have gone on to become authors in their own right. It has interviewed over 60 former Manchester United players, with only Dimitar Berbatov and Roy Keane declining.