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My Week: Nick Szczepanik

NICK SZCZEPANIK on playing with Pele…fish on the field…and trying to be banned by a club (and failing)

Monday April 2
The Guardian asked me for a 700-word obituary of Giorgio Chinaglia, the former Lazio and New York Cosmos goalscorer, for their website. Before long, I was asking if I could go up to 1,000 words – with reasonable optimism as, let’s face it, you’re in trouble if a website tells you they’re short of space – after delving into Chinaglia’s fascinating character and career. He went from Tuscany to the USA via Swansea and Lazio, and ended up playing with Pele. Or, as he put it with characteristic modesty, Pele played with him.

He was arguably the first European star to move to the US at the height of his powers rather than when past his best, and he had the arrogance and self-belief to succeed anywhere. I remembered that I’d once seen him play and, being a sad statto who never throws anything away, even managed to dig out the programme: California Surf v New York Cosmos at the Anaheim Stadium, May 1980. The Cosmos won 4-1 without breaking sweat, if I remember correctly, and the teamsheet makes it clear why – alongside Chinaglia in their team were Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Neeskens, while the Surf were a collection of former Crystal Palace and Charlton reserves.

Needless to say, the Chinaglia piece had to be turned round quickly, but I’m also usually working at a more leisurely pace on some obits in advance so that they’re ready to go when the subject sees the grim reaper holding up his number on the touchline. In football terms, that means older or retired managers and ex-players. I read an uncredited obituary of Sir Bobby Robson that seemed familiar and eventually realised that it was because I’d written most of it, back in the 1990s.

What makes the process easier and more interesting these days is the availability of video of a subject on YouTube, either in action or being interviewed. Somewhere out there in cyberspace I found a clip of Bert Williams MBE, the former Wolverhampton Wanderers and England goalkeeper, delivering an anecdote about a man and his son approaching him in the street a few years ago, when he was well into his 70s. The man said: “Look son, it’s Bert Williams, goalie for the Wolves.” The son looked him up and down and replied: “No wonder they’re bottom of the league.”

The daughter of a distinguished former manager is the friend of a friend, and I needed some information about her dad for a stock obit, so I called her up. I thought I was being very subtle, explaining that I was doing ‘a profile’ of him, but she caught on immediately. “An obituary, is it?” she said. She was fine about it. As she said at the time, it’s better to get it right while a relative is still alive and kicking than open the paper after their death and find that an obituary contains factual errors.

Being young and fit doesn’t make you invulnerable, of course, as the cases of Fabrice Muamba and, tragically, Gary Speed, have shown. Nobody saw Speed’s death coming, but obituaries are sometimes prepared of current athletes when they experience health scares. The majority of them will probably recover fully and outlive me by many years, but although I won’t get to see the obit in print, at least the money is paid up front. I began working on one of those last week – the story of a 31-year-old international with a major foreign club who is in hospital for the second time in a year.

Tuesday April 3
Man cannot live by football alone, especially if he’s freelance. As some people know, I’m a fan of some American sports, and the baseball season got under way in earnest on Wednesday when my team, the Miami Marlins, hosted the World Series champion St Louis Cardinals in the first regular season game in their new ballpark (UK English in future – Ed).

A paper was interested in the story, but the angle they liked was not the team’s name change (from Florida to Miami), their new uniforms (no longer an elegant teal, silver and black but a hideous blend of orange, lemon and blue) or their acquisitions of shortstop Jose Reyes, pitchers Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell and colourful manager Ozzie Guillen. No, it was the two 20-foot-long fish tanks behind home plate in the new $515m stadium. Animal rights protesters are worried that the hundred or so tropical fish will be disturbed by vibrations from a cheering capacity crowd (not previously much of a danger at Marlins home games) reacting to the team hitting a home run (ditto).

A 97mph fastball is no problem, according to the manufacturers, who have tested the tanks to destruction, but that didn’t stop a player revealing that the pros’ concern, as ever, is more with optimum field conditions than animal welfare After a pre-season friendly, Nick Swisher of the visiting New York Yankees said: “If those things broke, it would be the worst thing ever. Can you imagine all those fish on the field?”

Wed Apr 4
A friend from Spain, a blogger and broadcaster, was in town for a few days’ holiday so I took him along to Gus Poyet’s press conference ahead of Brighton’s Good Friday trip to Burnley. He’s also been a good source of knowledge of football in Madrid as well as a help if I need some translation from Marca or ABC that’s more accurate than my somewhat basic Spanish. He wanted a few words about Vicente, Brighton’s ex-Valencia playmaker, for a radio piece, and I was sure it would be okay.

Gus and Paul Camillin, the press officer, were as helpful as always and the tea and bacon rolls were as welcome as ever first thing in the morning. Brighton have followed the trend of early-morning press calls set originally, I think, by Iain Dowie at Crystal Palace, although few clubs have gone to his extreme of beginning at 8am. These are fine for local journos, but can be inconvenient for those coming from farther afield.

A few years ago Gordon Strachan held a Southampton pre-FA Cup semi-final presser at 9am at their training ground on the edge of the New Forest. That was bad enough for me, meaning as it did a 6am start so that I could negotiate the 20-plus roundabouts along the A27, one of the worst roads in England, but even worse for colleagues who lived north of London. And if anyone wonders why Norwich stories in the dailies are few and far between, their 9am sessions at the far end of the A11 could be something to do with it.

Thursday Apr 5
I’ll be spending part of this year’s close season guest-editing a free magazine called Sussex Sport while regular editor Mike Donovan finishes off a couple of books. On Thursday we had a meeting at the design studio where everything is put together, discussing feature ideas for the pre-Olympics edition and the August issue.

At this level, editing seems to involve writing a lot of stuff yourself rather than commissioning copy from various minions, and before long I seemed to have agreed to interview Hastings-born Gareth Barry ahead of the European Championship, Brighton fan Norman [Fatboy Slim] Cook in advance of his summer gigs at the club’s Amex Stadium, and one of the Olympic torch carriers who will be pounding the streets of Worthing carrying a burning metal brassiere. Sorry, brazier.

After that the ideas took on an Alan Partridgesque air. Not exactly monkey tennis, but I may have suggested interviewing a statue of Steve Ovett in case we couldn’t get the man himself. Ovett statue “no comment” on Seb Coe’s handling of the Olympics – Sussex Sport exclusive!

The August issue might be more problematical. Golf course reviews are a regular feature of the magazine, but I confess to having little interest in an activity that requires the wearing of alarmingly-patterned trousers. I tentatively offered the Brighton seafront Crazy Golf, or Roedean pitch and putt – chiefly for its 19th hole, the Roedean cafe, which does a very fine toms on toast, with clifftop views of the English Channel thrown in for nothing.

Friday Apr 6
Reading v Leeds – with refreshments in the Madejski Stadium press room supplied by Waitrose, the club’s shirt sponsor. I wonder if they do requests? There are quite few of their products I’d quite like to try without paying some of the highest prices on the high street, so maybe if I phone ahead next time I’m working there, the club can arrange to have some tortigli with spicy pork ragu waiting alongside the pasties. That said, the goat’s cheese and roasted tomato pasta salad on Friday went down a treat.

Reading had to work hard to win despite the fact that Leeds played all but 13 minutes of the game with ten men – and it could have been nine, with Danny Pugh lucky to stay on after two extremely robust challenges. Afterwards Neil Warnock came in and made the extraordinary suggestion that Leeds would have to make Elland Road as intimidating as the MadStad. Well, of course: supporters, players and officials visiting Reading tremble at the very thought of that bearpit by the M4, going in terror of rampaging Royals fans baying for blood. I thought about requesting an escort of security guards to get me back safely to my car, which I fully expected to find a burnt-out shell up on piles of bricks. I think the point he was trying to make was that Reading players put pressure on referees, which, coming from a Leeds manager, will cause older readers of this site to ponder a redefinition of the concept of irony.

Colin, as he’s known, may not be the most popular manager with all of his his peers, but most of us like him because his press conferences are usually better than the matches. However, I had an uncomfortable moment with him at the Indy sports desk Christmas lunch in 2010, when we were on the same quiz team. “Competitive” doesn’t really do him justice, and although we won, I got a question wrong that put our victory in the balance. The look he gave me suggested that I’d come pretty close to doing laps of the QPR training ground the next morning.

Saturday April 7
It felt weird not to be at a game on a Saturday, but the movement of fixtures to other days left only two games in the Barclays Premier League and Championship in the south. It was actually quite a pleasant change to miss a Southampton v Portsmouth game. I must have seen every battle between the Scummers and Skates since Portsmouth reached the Barclays Premier League in 2003, and I’ve already made my feelings about the A27 abundantly clear.

Even from a distance of 64 miles – I know exactly how far it is because I’ve written it on so many expenses forms – I learned that Southampton had refused a press pass request from Neil Allen, the chief football writer of The News in Portsmouth, although his colleagues Jordan Cross and Steve Wilson were allowed in. I heard that the reason given was that the press box was full – something I don’t think I’ve ever seen at St Mary’s.

Neil tweeted about it, and was met with a storm of abuse from Saints fans, which was uncalled-for. Like any good football writer on a local paper, Neil has a close working relationship with the club he covers, but he’s not a Portsmouth fan, and has been banned by the club on more than one occasion. As he tweeted, it’s the first time he’s been banned by an away club. But since the Daily Echo, the Southampton local paper, has been banned from St Mary’s and the Saints’ training ground for many months, perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised.

Confession time: I once tried to get banned by a club that I felt I’d covered more than enough, and began a match report with an intro that was honest and accurate but which I was sure would get up the nose of its famously touchy chairman. I opened the paper the next day to find that, to my horror, the intro had been re-written. Apparently the sub-editor had thought he was doing me a favour and keeping me out of trouble. Thanks for nothing …

Sport’s approach to press relations in the UK can be a strange one. I told some American friends about the arcane dispute that led writers from national papers to be refused press facilities at grounds in the first week of this season and they were incredulous. Apart from the rights and wrongs of any situation, why, they wondered, would any business turn away all that free publicity?

Sunday April 8
An unusually relaxing start to a Sunday with no Monday report to write. Brighton v Reading on Tuesday is my next assignment. Two different papers asked me to cover it. First come, first served and I’m working for the Independent. I’m selfishly hoping that one, if not both, of these teams are promoted to increase the quota of southern clubs in the Barclays Premier League, and that QPR can somehow cling onto their status – although decisions such as the penalty and red card in their defeat by Manchester United won’t help.

Whatever Fergie says, that was an Old Trafford decision, but even on lesser stages than the Library of Dreams, it’s true that, as the pundits say, all the breaks go against you when you’re struggling. That was brought home to me on Sunday morning during my weekly attempt to play the beautiful game rather than write about it. Despite my team’s scintillating performance, we lost to a cruel deflection and a bad decision. And a defensive lapse. And another cruel deflection. And then some poor marking. But generally we were robbed.

Nick Szczepanik

Follow me on Twitter @NickSzczepanik

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