FWA Q&A: THE SECRET FOOTBALL WRITER
THE SECRET FOOTBALL WRITER on ZZ tops...an offal meal in Bordeaux...and expensive Russian wives
Have you ever worked in a profession other than football?
Stacking shelves at Sainsbury's helped to pay my way through school and university - a remarkably unremarkable job only made bearable by the freely available freshly squeezed orange juice in the chillers out the back which got many of us through the 7am Saturday/Sunday starts. Ownership of the reduction labels for soon to be out of date produce also provided family and friends with some amazing bargains.
Most memorable match?
The European Cup Final in 1999 was an unbelievable ending to what was an unbelievable season. Time will tell if the feat Manchester United achieved that year will be equalled, but the preceding months built up to the ultimate occasion. What the 90 minutes lacked in excitement it made up for in extra-time and particularly added time, providing some of the most memorable images and commentary of all time. There have been comebacks and last minute excitement since, but this was the original and still remains the best.
The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
An unusual one perhaps given the virtually infinite choices, but Zinedine Zidane's volley in the 2002 European Cup Final against Leverkusen was sensational. Given the nature of the game - club football's most important - to execute such a sublime piece of skill on such on occasion is truly memorable. The ball was dropping from the skies, he was outside the area, had to adjust his position, but the grace of his movement and the sweetness of the strike saw the ball arc into the top corner past a bewildered Hans-Jorg Butt. A goal that befitted the occasion and one I could happily watch on repeat all evening.
While not as modern as some of the outstanding newer grounds, Bayern's Allianz Arena and the surprisingly excellent Bucharest National Arena in particular, but Barcelona's Camp Nou has a magical feel to the place, the size, scale and history, the open bowl effect and is still my favourite stadium in the world even if in the press box you can shake hands with the man in the moon.
...and the worst?
There have been many over the years. Kenilworth Road, Fratton Park, Ninian Park spring to mind in the UK and further afield Porto's decrepit Estadio do Dragao was as bad as their new one is good. My vote for the worst goes to Chesterfield's old Saltergate stadium, an ageing stadium lacking in the most basic modern facilities. Fortunately it has since been replaced, as have a good number of the worst grounds in the country...whether that is entirely a good thing is another matter, with character-filled old grounds being replaced with identikit stadia rather than upgraded to maintain their historic feel.
Your personal new-tech disaster?
I pride myself as being on the leading edge of technology, always acquiring the latest and greatest gadgets. Fortunately I have never had a copy-related disaster, but I did manage to erase all of my painstakingly assembled electronic address book when I was a little gung-ho with my approach. The lesson learned after the event was to take a copy of important things on a regular basis.
Deciding to go for a stroll in Vienna during the afternoon of a Partizan Belgrade vs Rapid Vienna UEFA Cup tie. The 1,000 or so Belgrade fans on the trip appeared to have made spending time in prison and enjoying fighting pre-requisites to attendance and I found myself in the middle of a pitched battle between them and several hundred riot police. Fortunately I managed to avoid the many missiles being hurled, windows being smashed and the subsequent police charges and beat a hasty retreat to my hotel.
Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
Sadly not, although I am convinced I keep seeing Brad Pitt in the mirror...[That would be the Daily Mirror – Ed].
Most media friendly manager?
Arsene Wenger has consistently been graceful and open with the press and while he may not be as box office as a Mourinho or a Ferguson, his dealings with the media are a different class.
Best ever player?
The impossible question when trying to consider players over the generations. We are fortunate to have two of the best players of all time playing at their peaks right now in Messi and Ronaldo, but for a combination of ability and success, albeit combined with less attractive traits, Diego Maradona gets my vote. A player who almost single handedly won a World Cup for his country, he played at the highest club and international level seeing success of varying degrees wherever he went. There is plenty to dislike about Maradona off the pitch, and some on it (especially in 1986) but with the ball at his feet he was a genius who rarely failed to entertain.
Best ever teams (club and international)?
There are the same challenges trying to compare teams across eras as there is players. The current Spanish side took football to places it hadn't been before, with possession and guile; however for sheer expression of football as an art, the Brazil side of 1970 are my favourite international side of all time. They created so many moments of breathtaking skill, footballing history and set a benchmark that will perhaps never be beaten given the changing nature of the game. The Carlos Alberto goal, and the Pele dummy (almost made better by the fact he didn't score) are still footballing moments talked about over 40 years on and as ruthlessly efficient with possession the current Spanish side are, I prefer the openness and innocence of the 1970 Brazlians.
There are many club candidates over the years, Real Madrid in the 50/60's, the pioneering Celtic and Manchester United sides of the 60's, Liverpool's dominance in the 80's, the Italian sides in the 90's before the explosion into the Champions League. For all the strengths of these sides, my favourite of all is the 1970's Ajax team. They took the lead from Brazil but their Total Football with Johan Cryuff, Johan Neeskens, Gerrie Muhren and Johnny Rep among others took club football to a new level of dominance both at home and in Europe and their hat-trick of European Cups were emphatic. As with the Brazlians, modern football isn't and probably can't be played in the same way but this side left their mark on history.
Best pre-match grub?
There is something old school about picking up pie & mash on the way to the Boleyn Ground.
Best meal had on your travels?
Lunch at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai - the hotel is a shrine to opulence - overlooking the Palm takes some beating. As will the eye-watering cost of the meal, which as a result was washed down by a bottle of Libya's finest rose. At £50 a bottle it wasn't cheap, nor would it qualify for any fine wine awards, but it was by far and away the cheapest bottle in the 200-page wine list and provided for a somewhat ridiculous dichotomy of fine food and terrible wine.
...and the worst?
I like to sample the local food wherever we find ourselves and this tactic has brought both great success and horrific failure. My worst meal is a surprising one given the location - Bordeaux. We found what we thought was a nice rustic local French bistro, and were enjoying some not unpleasant vin de table while we surveyed the entirely French menu. We had enough French between us to translate the gist of what was being ordered and asked for a number of specials to be shared around. What arrived was both unexpected, and for me at least, horrendous. Fish soup with what looked like very rotten fish-heads, but the piece de resistance was a huge salad platter, covered with uncooked slices of assorted offal, tripe, kidney, liver, and other entrails we couldn't recognise. After eating several baskets of bread, and finishing the carafes of wine, we paid the bill and left rather sheepishly...and hungry!
Best hotel stayed in?
The wonderfully named Hotel F**k in Leverkusen. It was not 5-star accommodation, nor was it especially convenient for a very busy Leverkusen in Champions League week, but as a conversation piece it was fabulous. The owner was a hugely friendly German man who spoke better English than any native, and loved the obvious humour associated with the name of his hotel. He happily handed out Hotel F**k branded pens, notepads and postcards and encouraged us to recommend him to everyone we knew. Which we duly did.
...and the worst?
A combination of the Champions League and the Oktoberfest is a match made in heaven for many fans, but it is not for those wanting to secure reasonable hotel accommodation. With just three weeks between the draw and Matchday 1, it was a case of the sports desk/travel agent securing whichever hotel was available and in my case it turned out to be a run down glorified guest house not far from the train station, with shared bathroom facilities that made the toilet in Trainspotting look clean. Suffice to say I resorted to using the facilities in a colleague’s hotel on the second morning.
The Hotel Rus in Kiev also deserves a mention for the dedicated Russian Wives department in the basement, and its policy of encouraging ladies of the night to frequent the hotel bar looking to relieve you of several hundred dollars for an evening’s entertainment. I appreciate this may not been seen as a negative by all parties.
Do you have a hobby?
I try to spoil a good walk whenever I get the chance and have been fortunate enough to play a number of England's premier golf courses. Generally quite badly.
Favourite football writer?
I always enjoy reading Paul Hayward, insightful and thoughtful journalism.
Favourite radio/TV commentator?
Jonathan Pearce's infectious and obvious enthusiasm adds to his deep understanding of the game. Gary Neville has set new standards with first class analysis and balanced comment based on 15 years playing at the very top level. Monday Night Football has become a must-watch.
If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
There's no magic answer, but breaking the cloak of mistrust would lay the groundwork for everything - football writers are not looking to stitch up players and managers, quite the opposite more often than not. Providing better access would enable the fans and public to feel closer to the people they currently perceive to be off-limits.
One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
I would love to attend Augusta and the Masters, not purely for the golf but also for the history and intrigue that surrounds the venue.
Favourite non-football sportsman/sports woman?
I have always admired Roger Federer - a player who dominated his sport for a sustained period, and did so with grace both on and off the court. For such a high profile sports superstar, he is never in the news for the wrong reasons, has a settled family life and has been humble in both victory and defeat. His star has been waning in recent years with the emergence of Djokovic and Nadal but he led his field for many years and will rightly be regarded as one of if not the greatest player in history despite his early Wimbledon exit this year.
Last book read?
A Life Too Short which was an incredibly powerful and eye-opening account of depression.
Favourite current TV programme?
I enjoyed The Fall with Gillian Anderson recently and am looking forward to the next season to see what happens.
TV show you always switch off?
I have never been much of a soaps fan, aside from a brief dalliance with Eastenders, and always turn off Corrie, Emmerdale and the like.
If you could bring one TV series back which would it be?
I can't split Lost or the Sopranos and while both series ended brilliantly, I would love to see either of them reprised for different reasons. The recent passing of James Gandolfini was very sad news indeed, Tony Soprano being one of the greatest TV characters ever created.
I am a big fan of Ross Noble for his totally off the wall brand of humour, and Tim Minchin for his very incisive musical comedy.
I'm a guitar / indie rock man and have loved the recent comeback of the Stone Roses who have proved as good live as their albums were good on vinyl (which shows my age a little).
What really, really annoys you?
People who appear completely surprised to be asked for money to pay for something when they have just stood in a queue to buy said item. You've just stood and queued in Sainsbury's for 10 minutes, you've watched someone scan your items and put them in a bag, they tell you how much it costs...why do they then have to spend two minutes hunting around in their bag or wallet to find a means to pay for everything?!
Your most prized football memorabilia?
I have a full collection of Manchester United's 1968 European Cup-winning side along with an original programme and ticket. As some of that side are no longer with us, it is a prized possession.
Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?
Work hard, build your network and treat everyone else as you'd wish to be treated yourself. You might not always be treated how you'd like, but hard work and manners cost nothing and go a long way.
The Secret Football Writer is a well known football journalist who appears regularly on television and radio. On this occasion he preferred to keep his identity secret. He will return during the forthcoming season.