IT IS fair to say that until last week there was a glaring omission in my CV despite 42 years of writing about football since I first cut my teeth reporting on Finchley at Summers Lane in the Athenian League.
I must admit I had never covered a match in which the half-time refreshments were served on silver platters by tail-coated footmen – and it’s also a pretty fair assumption to say I will never do so again.
Last week’s match between Civil Service and Polytechnic FC on the lawns of Buckingham Palace, normally used for royal garden parties and diplomatic receptions, was a complete and unique one-off, the brainchild of Prince William, the Football Association’s president who persuaded, as Greg Dyke memorably said on the day “his granny to let us use her back lawn for a football match – though woe betide anyone who broke a window.”
Why was I there? Well, I had a call from the FA a few days earlier asking me if I would be interested in being the sole match reporter, doing a pool report for the world and assigned to one of two Royal Rotas covering the game. None of the other reporters there would be covering the match, they would be writing about presentations by the Prince to the 150 volunteers chosen by the FA to celebrate grassroots football.
The Palace wanted a lot of security details and advised me a suit and tie was the standard attire. That was another first. I don’t think I have ever covered a match in a suit and tie before. There would be no wifi at the Palace, and no internet because the press work room was being refurbished, but could I file 800 words as soon as possible after the game?
The match was to celebrate the grassroots of English soccer in this, the year of the FA’s 150th anniversary. Civil Service were chosen as the “home” side as they are also 150 years old this year and are the lone surviving founder member of the 11 clubs that formed the FA on October 26, 1863 at the Freemasons Tavern in Covent Garden.
Civil Service selected Polytechnic as the opposition because they are their local Chiswick rivals, were formed in 1875 and the two clubs have been playing each other since 1893. But this was no kickabout on the lawn .. it was a highly competitive Southern Amateur League First Division match, refereed by Barclays Premier League official Howard Webb and the outcome mattered. Polytechnic won 2-1 and went second in the table. Civil Service were left floundering one off the bottom.
But how to report a match in which, through no fault of one’s own, you know none of the players, have little background , no press box, no seat, no electricity and no connections ? Easy, you just think to yourself, this is where I came in covering pretty much grassroots matches, not much above this level and you talk to people. I found the respective chairmen of the two clubs – ian Hunter of Civil Service in his tartan trousers, and Barry Madigan of Polytechnic in the crowd and was given some good reliable background. I also acquired one of only 25 special edition programmes printed for the occasion.
I filed a first, quick story of 250 words off my blackberry …. letter by letter … and then returned to something approaching normality with a round of post-match interviews. Then it was more business as usual as I left Buckingham Palace, found an internet connection and filed 800 words for the FA plus another story for Reuters’ global subscribers.
As Howard Webb told me after it finished: “When I got the call to referee a match at the Palace, I thought I was going to Selhurst Park.”
Me too, mate, but look at this way … we can all say we added a new ground to the list … one that doesn’t even exist any more.
*Mike Collett started his career at the Hendon and Finchley Times in 1972 and has been Reuters soccer editor since 1996. He is a member of the FWA’s national committee. Among other things, he has covered nine World Cups, 30 European Cup finals – and one match at Buckingham Palace.
Members of the FWA usually report the news. Watch how @robshepherd5 MADE the news 20 years ago…