My Week: Sam Wallace

Sam Wallace, football correspondent of the Independent, on a banned electronic cigarette…punny man Shaun Custis…and writing a column sitting on the floor of a crowded train…

The week really began yesterday, at Wembley for the Chelsea v Tottenham FA Cup semi-final. Sunday is always a big day for live action. On Monday, I talk to my sports editor Matt Gatward about the week ahead and Saturday’s paper, which is important. We talk a lot over the course of any normal day, which I am sure is the best thing about the job for Matt.
Matt and his deputy Marc Padgett run the department with considerable grace under pressure. The sports desk staff produces the Independent and the i newspaper sports pages, every day. Occasionally they are permitted a day off.

That evening is Wigan against Arsenal at the Emirates. Eight minutes in, Arsenal are two goals down and this has become a big story. I mention on Twitter that Arsenal have confirmed Wigan’s away support is the smallest-ever at the Emirates. Usually, making a comment perceived as criticising a club’s support would be to invite torrents of abuse. There is barely a reaction. I mention this to my press box counterparts. “It’s a victimless crime,” observes The Times’ Rory Smith.

Arsenal lose. Arsene Wenger announces that Jack Wilshere is out of Euro 2012. It is a busy night.

Under Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea’s Champions League pre-match press conferences have been moved back to 6.45pm. Given that our newspaper’s first edition deadline is 7.30pm at the absolute latest, this presents problems. It gives me little time for the 1,000-word inside piece and the 800-back page lead. But getting it done in time is all part of the fun.

Matt Lawton of the Daily Mail asks Pep Guardiola the big question about whether he could see himself managing Chelsea one day. Unfortunately it’s a bit of an anti-climax because Guardiola misunderstands the question, which is a surprise because Lawton’s Catalan is excellent.

The format for official Uefa press conferences is terrible. You have to wait for a microphone to ask a question, then there is a translation and then the answer and then more translation and then a Uefa official grabs the microphone off you. It’s like trying to have a conversation with someone on a time-lapse telephone line.
Both pieces have to be tinkered with for the second edition. As I leave Stamford Bridge I walk past the old wooden matchday sign on the Fulham Broadway. It announces “Next opponents: Barcelona”. It really is a privilege to cover these games.

There should be some respite during the day because the paper will ultimately be full of the live action from the night’s game. My last option for a Saturday interview falls through. My colleague Ian Herbert comes to the rescue. He is going to see Shaun Derry, which works out to be an excellent piece.

The Stamford Bridge press room is packed. Roy Keane, an ITV pundit, is eating a slice of pizza with the same intense expression he once confronted opponents. Michael Regan, the award-winning (so he tells me) Getty photographer, mentions that some of his fellow snappers began queuing for their pitchside places at 2pm.

My colleague James Lawton is told by a Chelsea steward that smoking is prohibited in the stadium. Jim points out that after years of loyalty to Marlboro he is actually smoking an electronic cigarette. The steward is still insistent. It has to go. Jim shakes his head in disbelief. When he started covering football, the players smoked more than the reporters.
The game that night lives up to all expectations. I think Chelsea are excellent. It is an engrossing match.

As the final whistle goes I can hear Shaun Custis of the Sun shouting at me from across the press box. I don’t need to look up from my laptop to know what he’s on about. He’s telling me he’s going to write another match report intro punning on Didier Drogba’s name. Shaun has written more Drogba puns than any person in the English-speaking world. I just hope he doesn’t make a Drog’s dinner of this one.

The big games these days get three days of coverage in the newspaper. There is more to follow-up from the game. Drogba’s contract, for instance. He is a free agent at the end of the season.

That evening, I notice a tweet from the BBC reporter Rob Bonnet including quotes from Phil Gartside, the Bolton Wanderers chairman and Football Association board member, who has been interviewed for the following day’s Today programme. Gartside has endorsed Harry Redknapp as England manager. He is the first FA board member to do so. We manage to get a story into our final edition that goes at about 12.30am.

No decent reporter would ever rely on Twitter wholesale, but it can be an excellent way of monitoring what the opposition are up to.

Off to Arsenal’s training ground for Arsene Wenger’s weekly press conference. It is also the time of the week when I start to think about my Monday column which has to be written at some point over the weekend, but before the game I am covering on the Sunday.

A decent column has to have a coherent argument. Failing that, an incoherent argument. But it has to say something. Some weeks it is obvious what the column should be, others less so. It occurs to me that I have more ideas for the ‘My Week’ feature requested of me by Chris Davies at the FWA than I have for my column. This is a worry.

Wenger speaks to television and radio reporters first and then separately to the newspaper reporters. He is the kind of man who is always supposed to be in a rush but who answers questions as if he could talk all day. My bet is that he relishes the fierce intellectual jousts he has with us. Or perhaps we just amuse him.

My deadly rival John Cross, from the Daily Mirror, asks Wenger who he is going to vote for in the French presidential elections. I make a mental note that Crossy is probably working on a major, in-depth piece on French politics – in all likelihood, for the New Yorker magazine or something similar.

It surprises people when I tell them that Saturday is my day off. As a general rule, I do not work for the Independent on Sunday so this is my one free day. I unwind by drawing the blinds and working my way through a stack of DVDs of games from Germany’s lower leagues that I borrowed from Wenger. That is untrue. I spend the day with my family.

I get the 8.20am Virgin train from Euston to Manchester for United’s home game with Everton. I would much rather drive but I have yet to write my Monday column. The train is packed. Like many other passengers, I spend the journey sat on the floor. All of us agree this is outrageous. The ticket inspector arrives. No-one makes a complaint.

The game is another low-key affair: a 4-4 draw with two late goals for Everton that re-ignite the title race. On the return trip I decide to explore the generosity of the Independent expenses department by getting a £15 first class upgrade.

The first-class carriage is full of people who have been on corporate junkets at Old Trafford. One of them, an American, complains that half-time was not long enough for him to get a beer. Why is it not half an hour, he asks?

It should be said that the vast majority of football fans who email me or get in touch on Twitter are so knowledgeable about the game that they pick me up on the smallest mistake, and occasionally in a good-natured fashion.

The following day involves an early flight to Barcelona for the return leg. I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to attend these games. But, as with all my fellow reporters, it is all about the quality of the work produced. Most of all, I want to do a good job.

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