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CONFESSIONS OF THE FOOTBALL WRITERS

www.footballwriters.co.uk is one year old next week. We take a look back at some of the revelations in the popular Q&A section.

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

THE IDEA was to learn more about the football writers who spend their lives searching for stories that players, clubs and administrators would rather not be made public.

We have tried to lift the veil a little on those whose duty it is, lap-top and wi-fi permitting, to give readers their daily fix of news, match reports and columns.

Her Majesty’s working press, as we are called (by ourselves) are, of course, strictly neutral when it comes to reporting. To the extent many members of the Football Writers’ Association use their journalistic skills to disguise which team they support. John Cross of the Daily Mirror was giving nothing away, as four answers from his Q&A confirm:

Most media friendly manager?
Arsene Wenger. Never dodges a question, has always been respectful. A special mention for Sammy Lee and the late, great George Armstrong. Two gems. George Armstrong would give me a lift home after Arsenal reserve games!

Best ever player?
Thierry Henry gets my vote as player seen/covered live. We also forget how good Cesc Fabregas is.

Best ever teams (club and international)?
Arsenal – Invincibles; Spain – glorious to watch

Best pre-match grub?
Arsenal – fantastic food!

Laura Williamson of the Daily Mail gave us a clue about her allegiance with the one moment she would put on a DVD. She said: “Kevin Donovan’s goal for Grimsby Town against Northampton Town at Wembley in 1998, which took the Mariners back up to the old Division One. I had a dismal haircut and my face painted in black and white stripes, but they were certainly good times.”

They would be even better, Laura, if you were to send me a photo of your dodgy barnet and stripey face, which I promise would not be put on the site – you know you can trust me.

Laura’s Daily Mail colleague, football news correspondent Neil Ashton, gave footballwriters.co.uk an exclusive about his finest playing achievement. Ashton revealed: “It was when Steve Coppell turned to me and said: ‘You’re on’ in Geoff Thomas’s benefit game at the Colosseum between Crystal Palace and Manchester United in 2006.

“To play in the same team as my boyhood heroes – Geoff, Mark Bright, Ian Wright and Andy Gray and to play centre-half against Mark Hughes – was something I didn’t imagine could ever happen.

“Shaun Custis from the Sun was on the phone the next day and he said: ‘Right, you’ve got two minutes to tell me everything and then I never want to hear another word about it again.’

“Somehow I forgot to tell him I had clapped the Palace supporters in the Holmesdale Road when I walked off the pitch – unfortunately for me it has now become part of Matt Lawton’s entertaining dinner party stories.”

OK Matt, table for eight next Sunday evening? The after-dinner speaker taken care of.

Like Ashton, there is every reason to suspect The Guardian’s Dominic Fifield is also a Crystal Palace supporter. In Fifield’s view “Zinedine Zidane just edges out Vince Hilaire” as the best player he’s ever seen. Who’s third, Dom? Gerry Queen or Lionel Messi?

Football writers appear regularly on television these days and have become mini (in some cases mega or micro) celebrities. Yet as freelance Sam Pilger, who wrote the book Manchester United’s Best XI revealed, we can still be mistaken for someone else. In Pilger’s case it was Ryan Giggs and he got his retaliation in first when he told us: “As ridiculous as it sounds, I took part in a penalty shootout challenge against Peter Shilton on Hackney Marshes several years ago. I overheard someone say: ‘Is that Ryan Giggs?’

“As I said, ridiculous. More realistically, someone once asked if I was the former Leicester and Spurs American goalkeeper Kasey Keller.”

Daniel Taylor, The Guardian’s football correspondent, went one better and inadvertently mistook himself for a Manchester City goalscorer.

Taylor confessed: “I’d like to think the copytakers were to blame but, freelancing in pre-Guardian days, my match report of a Manchester City game for The Sun began with the words ‘Daniel Taylor scored a last-minute winner . . .’

“Clearly, it should have been Gareth Taylor. Though I’d argue that we had a similar first touch.”

You may struggle to find a seconder for that, Danny.

The Sun’s Neil Custis has built up a reputation as one of the best news reporters in Manchester and rarely gets a story wrong. But in the FWA confessional box, Custis came clean about the mother of all mistaken identities.

He said: “I thought I was talking to Kevin Francis from the Daily Star on the phone when in fact it was Kevin Francis, a man mountain of a striker for Stockport County. It is fair to say their builds and lifestyle are contrasting (No problem with a seconder there, Neil – Ed) so when Kevin told me the delay of two months in ringing me back was because he had been teaching kids football in the Caribbean, you can imagine my response.

“It was: ‘F*** off, you’re having a laugh, aren’t you? How the hell can you teach kids football?’

“This continued for some time before the penny finally dropped on my side. I don’t think we ever spoke again.”

Rob Shepherd rarely does things by halves so it was no surprise that he said he has been a serial victim of mistaken identities. Shepherd said he has “frequently” been mistaken for other people. Are you sitting comfortably?

Start copy: “Morrisey, Quentin Tarantino (at a poolside bar in Antigua….and I strung the guy along for an hour), James May (once), Jeremy Clarkson (often), Bert Millichip (by a limo driver in Las Vegas), Eric Joyce MP (the other day) and Desperate Dan (even by my two sons).”

Shep may not shave with a blow-torch, but the hair dryer treatment was given to Shaun Custis, now The Sun’s chief football writer, when he “excitedly” told Sir Alex Ferguson that “I was a new football reporter on The People and looked forward to working with him.”

The feeling did not appear to be mutual. Custis, whose excitement soon turned to trepidation, said: “He replied that he hated the paper and everybody on it and that he would get me a job in Glasgow where his mate was the sports editor. He said if I didn’t take the job he would have nothing more to do with me and he’s pretty much stuck to his word.”

FWA members have been fortunate enough to dine in some of the world’s finest restaurants and Oliver Kay, The Times’ football correspondent, added a rare moment of romance to the site when he said: “The best meal on a work trip was probably at the River Café in Brooklyn. Fantastic food, but probably above all because I’d flown my wife out to join me in New York at the end of a pre-season trip. If I’d gone there with a group of journalists, we would only have ended up talking shop.”

Eat your heart out George Clooney.

But it is not all caviar and champagne, especially in parts of Eastern Europe. David Lacey, the former football correspondent of The Guardian, remembers a meal in Albania “where the steak came last in the 3.30 at Tirana.”

Ian Ridley, author and chairman of high-riding St Albans City (fifth in the Evo-Stik League Southern), said his worst ever meal was: “Probably in Poland. Glenn Hoddle said he had picked a team there because it was ‘horses for courses.’ David Lacey pointed out that in Poland, it was horses for main courses.”

Philippe Auclair, France Football’s correspondent in England, claimed the belief that you can never have a bad meal in his homeland is wide of the mark. “Try Auxerre’s sandwiches,” he said, making it sound more like a challenge than a recommendation. “They might change your views on French cuisine.”

FWA life member James Mossop probably wins the prize for the most unusual meal which surprisingly was also the best meal he’s had on his travels. He said: “The late Bobby Keetch once ordered peacock’s tongues for me in Paris. At least, he said that’s what they were.”
Auxerre’s dodgy sarnies suddenly appear more attractive.

Of course, it is not just the food that makes for a memorable meal – the company and table chat are as important. Cathal Dervan, sports editor of the Irish Sun, will never forget an evening in Holland with two English colleagues not known for holding back with their views.

Dervan said: “My most memorable meal is a visit to an Argentinean steak-house in Amsterdam before an England game against Holland when Rob Shepherd and Joe Lovejoy discussed the Falklands War at length. I was waiting for the chef to carve them up any minute.”

While football writers are paid to do what other people pay to do, most started with more humble jobs. Dave Kidd, The People’s chief sports writer, began his working career by “stacking shelves in Superdrug as a student.”

But Kidd was too good to be left on the shelves. He said he “rose through the ranks to be in charge of loo roll, nappies and sanitary products…power probably went to my head.”

The Sunday Mirror’s Matt Law was involved in newspapers from a young age. “I was a paperboy,” he said and with an eye for easy money “also once volunteered to clean the school for extra cash, but I was sacked for mopping the ceiling.”

James Ducker, the northern football correspondent of The Times, is unlikely to give up his day job. And if he does Robbie Williams has little to worry about. Recounting his most embarrassing moment, Ducker said: “I was working at the MEN [Manchester Evening News] when the news editor suggested I should ‘audition’ for Pop Stars, one of the predecessors to X-Factor, and write a story on it for the next day’s paper.

“I’ve the worst voice imaginable, so I was torn between trying to sing a notoriously tough ballad while giving the impression that I thought I was really good like a lot of lunatics on those shows do, or just doing something silly. In the end I did a chicken dance while singing Jingle Bells in front of Pete Waterman and Geri Halliwell. She didn’t even laugh. She just looked at me with complete contempt.”

Taxi for Ducker…

He added: “They later rang me up to request permission to use the ‘footage’ on the highlights package but, regrettably or thankfully, I’m not sure which, my one shot at stardom never aired.”

James, the vote was a unanimous “thankfully.”

Daily Mirror columnist Steve Anglesey also had a brush with the music world which ensured he was destined never to become Gordon Ramsay II. Anglesey said: “I worked as a chef in Manchester’s (in)famous Hacienda nightclub in the mid-1980s.

“I walked out one megabusy Saturday night when, after the manageress had left me alone for two hours so she could go dancing with her mates, she returned to tell me that Spear Of Destiny had complained their chips weren’t brown enough.”

The passion Lee Clayton, the Daily Mail’s head of sport, has for his job and profession came over in his Q&A when he remembered how he learned from one of the industry’s doyens during his early days. Talking about his favourite football writer, Clayton said: “Alex Montgomery was my chief football writer on The Sun and he wrote match reports that were about the football.

“It was a pleasure to sit next to him in press boxes and listen to him dictating live reports to copytakers with his soft Scottish voice. He taught a young and very raw junior a lot on those nights. He also had a dignity and a presence that all football correspondents should have (and many do).

“I do think there are some brilliant writers around now. And they all work for the Daily Mail. Well, most of them do. I’m very lucky to have an amazing team who can write with intelligence, insight and authority. There is an art to good match reporting on tight deadlines.”

Exciting as the job is, it is not without its dangers. We all have tales of lap-tops malfunctioning (and why is it ALWAYS on deadline?) but the Daily Telegraph’s Mark Ogden had a more sinister problem.

The one moment in football Oggie would like to have on a DVD would have been at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He explained: “The guy who nicked my lap-top bag – lap-top still in it – outside a bar in Cape Town during the World Cup. Strictly speaking, not football, but he left me without a lap-top for the World Cup quarter-final between Germany and Argentina, so thanks for that.”

Guillem Balague, who does such a fine job on Sky Sports’ coverage of Spanish football, was the intended victim of two lap-top thieves in the middle of a radio broadcast, but forever the professional he stayed calm and carried on talking.

Balague said: “I was in Soho doing a live interview for Spanish radio, a show called El Larguero which has 1.3 million listeners. I was chatting to the presenter and the chairman of Real Madrid. I was on the phone referring to notes that were in my computer when two guys tried to snatch my lap-top. I ran away from them and was almost out of breath, still on air. I didn’t want to explain what was going on…”

And finally, Nigel Clarke of the Daily Express, a football writer who has multi-tasked by covering tennis, told of his biggest mistake. And in all honesty, they don’t really come much bigger.

The man known as Fonz tried to convince us that he did not have a happy day when he “walked into the ladies locker room at Wimbledon.”

Clarke’s intentions were entirely honourable and professional, of course. He said: “I was assisting an injured player who had turned her ankle, only to be confronted with about 10 naked tennis players, who stood their ground. Averted eyes and exited left very quickly.”

Hands up all who believe he (a) averted his eyes and (b) exited left very quickly.

I see no hands…

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