By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
FOOTBALL WRITERS are used to working to deadlines. However many words may be needed for the match report, whatever the deadline…even if the WiFi goes down or the lap-top waves its ignominious magic wand and makes the copy disappear into the ether…words will be filed on time. Somehow.
Yet, as Shaun Custis of the Sun observed, trying to arrange for four reporters to meet in a hotel lobby at 8pm is a meeting of the indecisive society. So as Paul McCarthy puts the finishing touches to Sunday’s Football Writers’ Association gala tribute evening at the Savoy to honour Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, which will be attended by around 400 guests, he has found it rather more testing that a lobby quorum.
As chairman of the FWA, McCarthy chose Alan Shearer, George Best and Graham Taylor as the recipients for a dinner to mark their contribution to English football. Now executive secretary and the man responsible for just about everything connected with the dinner, McCarthy said the difference between the two roles means he now needs “a degree in applied statistics.”
Andy Dunn, in his first term as FWA chairman, chose Gerrard last August. There is then an anxious wait until the Sky Sports televised games from the Barclays Premier League for January are announced, a sigh of relief when Liverpool’s match against Norwich remained a Saturday afternoon kick-off. Sunday games involving the recipient involve inevitable nail-biting.
McCarthy said: “Andy and I had our first meeting with the Savoy at the beginning of September. We were given a selection of menus from different price ranges. We find one which is not to extreme in terms of content, something that is modern but not too flamboyant as to put people off, and at a reasonable price.”
The evening is organised on a break-even basis to give members and guests the lowest ticket price.
McCarthy said: “It’s helped that Andy and I have worked together for 13 years on the People and News of the World. We know the way each other works, even if he thinks my organisational capacity is bordering on OCD. Andy’s more laid back and it’s a good balance.”
Inevitably there will be the odd last minute change or problem, some unavoidable and others with little appreciation of the scale of the request. McCarthy said: “Dealing with journalists who are used to working on the tightest of deadlines is great fun. But when someone comes to you eight working days before the dinner and asks if his table can be moved, which of course means then moving someone else’s…you say you’ll do your best, but in the back of your mind you know it’s a no-go.
“Most people would not realise the amount of work the Savoy put in. Alexandra Packman has been absolutely brilliant and has made my life a lot easier than it might have been. Much has been left in place by my predecessors Paul Hetherington and Ken Montgomery, so it’s a case of picking it up and running with it. I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s taxing.”
Dietary requirements will always be an issue with food allergies or personal choices. McCarthy said: “Other than girls who may be pregnant…we’re asked for no rich sauces, no yeast, gluten-free, soya milk only, no salmon, the vegetarian option…but dealing with the Savoy, one of the great hotels in the world, is an education.”
McCarthy will arrive at the Savoy around lunch-time. “Most things are done by then,” he said. “But you have to oversee the branding of the evening which, thanks to our sponsors, Barclays, is always done very professionally. I’ll check that everything is all right with the band and that they have meals, something I never thought about until I took this job. Andy and I will practise our speeches, we’ll watch the video which Sky Sports put together and just make sure everything in the room is in place, which it invariably is.”
Kenny Dalglish and Jamie Carragher will give tributes to Gerrard, a former Footballer of the Year. McCarthy said: “It’s fallen nicely for us given that he’s just won his 100th cap for England, a testament to any footballer to win 100 caps for his country. Steven’s been a great leader for Liverpool and England, he’s the type of captain we’ve needed for a few years. He has the respect of everyone in football plus our side of the industry, too.”
The dinner will see the continuation of the question-and-answer session, which has been well received, particularly by football writers who leave the Savoy with a good Monday-for-Tuesday article on Gerrard. Sunday’s Q&A will be conducted by the Daily Telegraph’s Henry Winter who, with Paul Joyce of the Daily Express, wrote Gerrard’s autobiography. “Henry’s one of the most respected football writers who has been with the Telegraph for almost 20 years. He knows Steven well and is an ideal choice.
“Ben Shepherd [of Sky Sports] did an excellent job last year when he hosted the evening for Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, but we have the talent within our ranks to handle the Q&A. We are fortunate in our industry to have had a grounding in broadcasting thanks to Sky, Five Live and talkSPORT. Henry is particularly comfortable doing this type of thing.
“It was the idea of Lee Clayton, the Daily Mail’s head of sport, who said to me last year we should be able to find someone in the FWA to supervise the Q&A. Henry chatting to Steven fits the bill perfectly.”
Female guests will again receive a wonderful table gift, but FWA lips are sealed to the content.