FWA Q&A: Patrick Barclay

PATRICK BARCLAY on the joys of staying at Broadmoor…Messi’s divine retribution…a free Star Trek poppadum in Carlisle…and a desperate own Cole…

Have you ever worked in a profession other than football?
As a teenager I used to heave boxes around a grocery warehouse during school holidays. Not only did you develop rippling muscles – you were allowed to take home the stuff that was past its sell-by date, which, in those less pernickety days, entailed the appearance of rust or mould or packaging that turned to dust upon being touched. Powdered doughnut mixture – just add water and sprinkle with sugar and bake until your patience expires. Yum!

Later I did a bit of journalism. I used to be a sub-editor on The Guardian and the best years were spent in charge of – okay, I was the only person working on – the Parliamentary pages. Debates were covered in some detail by this newspaper in the 1970s and the job was to edit them so they were fairly reflected as well as easily readable. I loved it and became acutely interested in politics. The most memorable occurrence was the Irish republican Bernadette Devlin’s maiden speech, which had even some Conservative hearts pounding with excitement. I enjoyed seeing stars rise. Brian Walden, later to be a superb television performer, was one. Others were to encounter falls, Jeffrey Archer among them.

Most memorable match?
It was always going to take something special to knock Milan 4 Barcelona 0 in 1994 off its f***ing perch and another Champions League final was to do the trick: Barcelona 3 Manchester United 1 at Wembley in 2011. Both of those matches were one-sided and yet majestic and to receive from Barcelona confirmation that the football played in their 5-0 win over Real Madrid earlier in the season had been no fluke…well, I make no apology for saying that it was like a dream come true.

The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
Lionel Messi’s solo destruction of Jose Mourinho’s cynical Real Madrid in the Champions League semi at the Bernabeu. That’s what football should be about – divine retribution.

Best stadium?

Camp Nou.

…and the worst?
Any that lack an element of symmetry bring out the OCD in me. I find myself mentally completing them, rounding them off, instead of concentrating on the match. The old Leicester ground used to drive me mad. Even St James’ Park in Newcastle, a marvellous ground in every other way, is a hazardous place to visit for this reason.

Your personal new-tech disaster?
The first still makes me retch. I spent a week or thereabouts boiling down Bruce Grobbelaar’s autobiograpy – as told to Bob ”Bomber” Harris, the Boswell to many a footballing Johnson – into four sections of 2,000 words each for the purpose of serialisation during the first week of Today newspaper in 1986. I did what seemed a brilliant job. And then pressed the wrong button and lost the lot and had to do it all over again in one day.

[I don’t know why this subject makes journalists laugh. I bet Chris Davies only puts it in the FWA Q & A in the hope of a giggle. But what’s funny about having inadequate tools for the job? Say if a surgeon was given, instead of a scalpel, a stick of liquorice? Would that be funny?]

I was three years on The Times and should have spotted the danger signals when the laptop they gave me was not only a hand-me-down but still warm, with – and this is no syllable of a lie – sandwich crumbs stuck between the keys. A succession of machines in the late autumn of their years followed and it was only after parting company with News International and buying my own computer that I was reminded that manufacturers purveyed new ones that worked.

Biggest mistake?
Awarding a goal to Andy Cole when Brian McClair had scored it. Okay, they were physically similar but still…

And not just that. I built my whole piece around it, forecasting that the breaking of Cole’s eight-match drought (now nine matches, of course, and much remarked upon in other newspapers) would cause the dam to burst so woe betide Liverpool or whoever United were facing in their next match. The subs caught the error before it reached London and Manchester but I prefer not to picture the bewilderment of the good folk of Cornwall and Cumbria, to which the early editions had been despatched.

Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
Only Andy Cole. Just joking – Patrick Stewart, the actor. He’s even older than me but in damn good shape so I take it as a huge compliment. The benefits of occasionally neglecting to destroy the illusion have included large haddock for the price of small in my local chippy and free poppadum with a curry in Carlisle. But the best is experienced on visits to the West End theatre: the demurely respectful smiles of passing damsels, which it is only polite to return.

Most media friendly manager?
Add me to the list of Roberto Martinez’s admirers. He is a man of old-fashioned courtesy, extended to one and all. Personally, I used to find Alex Ferguson generous and like David Moyes.

Best ever player?
Diego Maradona. Without a split-second of hesitation. What he did in the face of wild tackling was suffer for his art. When I heard people call him a cheat, it used to make me so angry. Lionel Messi does even more than Maradona did to light up our lives, it’s true, but he doesn’t have to put up with the brutality of an earlier age. Not nearly as much, anyway. I know you are not supposed to give FIFA credit for anything, but Sepp Blatter in his earlier incarnation put in place the adjustments in refereeing that have helped Messi to flourish and become not just the greatest entertainer in the history of the game but the best example to youth.

Best ever teams (club and international)?
Barcelona under Rijkaard, Guardiola and Vilanova. And Brazil 1970 – the highlight of my journalistic career so far was sitting down one day in Rio de Janeiro with Carlos Alberto, the captain of that team, and being told that he had as much time to talk as I wanted. It may have been the lowest point of his life – you’d have to ask him – but his second-by-second description of the fourth goal in the final was magical. It was like being in the presence of history. By the time I’d let him go, he’d grown a long beard and become eligible for a state pension.

Best pre-match grub?
I’d love to be present at a play-off for that title between Arsenal and Manchester City. They are very different spreads – one looks as if it has been prepared under the supervision of Arsene Wenger, the other by Frannie Lee – yet equally impressive. I haven’t been to Leicester recently but their excellent offering used to be none the worse for a small charge that was given to charity.

Best meal had on your travels?
From an introduction to Italian food while visiting Liam Brady in his Juventus days to a tapas place near the Bernabeu now, treat has just kept piling on treat. The salads in Skopje may surprise you, but they are not mentioned for purely alliterative reasons. Nor is the ”cognac” in Kishinev – some of the best brandy I’ve ever tasted. But I suppose I’ll have to go for the eight-hour lunch laid on by the mayor of Tblisi and his burly henchmen in a candlelit barn in the middle of a field. Don’t ask me when it was. Don’t ask me what we ate. All I can remember was that the theme was ”culture”, which amounted to the offering of toast after toast to the respective merits of Georgia and England and each time promptly downing an entire glass of the local farmers’ wine. It was so good that no hangover ensued. Did some local busybodies thereafter argue that the council-tax revenue of the citizens of Tblisi might have been better spent? I often wonder, but I hope not.

…and the worst?
In Barcelona, funnily enough. My friends and I have found what may well be the only bad restaurant in Catalunya – and yet it’s irresistible, being so close to Camp Nou that your hands are still tingling from the applause when you pick up the laminated menu. It’s not that bad. I genuinely can’t remember having a bad meal anywhere. The only thing I don’t like is restaurants that fancy themselves and make a living out of the customers’ snobbery. Once in Dusseldorf everyone else had enjoyed the half-mouthfuls that constituted their first courses and I asked the waiter when mine – ”medallions of turbot” – would arrive. He pointed at my plate. I’d assumed those three little circles were part of the pattern.

Best hotel stayed in?
A place called Broadmoor near Colorado Springs. A vast, traditional place in magnificent countryside where we stayed with Bobby Robson’s England squad before the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. In those days it was not unusual to mingle with the players beside the pool. Peter Reid admired my music – a Velvet Underground tape was exercising the Walkman at that time – and not only borrowed it but (and this, bear in mind, was a footballer) later gave it back.

…and the worst?
In Liverpool. I can’t remember the name, but it was a conversion of a century-old commercial building. The worst example of a genre that blights Manchester and Glasgow as well. What makes them think we’ll not notice the principal drawback of high ceilings? You want to climb into the mini-bar to get warm – except that there’s not a mini-bar. Give me a Premier Inn any day of the week.

Favourite football writer?
Brian Glanville. Only David Lacey gets close in terms of erudition, but Glanville’s bravery sets him apart. It’s the quality that I wish more of the current galacticos would embrace. Straying from the herd doesn’t do Martin Samuel any harm, does it? Another must-read in my opinion is Ian Chadband when he covers football.

Favourite radio/TV commentator?
Alan Green and Mike Ingham. And, if you ask me to choose, I’ll throw in the bright young Darren Fletcher to complicate matters. He doesn’t mind telling you what he thinks either.

If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
Media activities every day, as in Germany. That way the arguments can be settled earlier and information channelled more as the clubs would wish. I’m amazed that Manchester City, with a clean sheet of paper and an obvious weakness in the opposition’s armoury to exploit, haven’t done it already.

One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
A Test in the West Indies when they were kings of cricket.

Last book read?
Martin Kelner’s Stand Up and Cheer – a very funny and educative history of sport on television.

Favourite current TV programme?
Question Time.

Your most prized football memorabilia?
The team sheet for the World Cup final of 1998 with Edmundo’s name on it. It was withdrawn and replaced after Ronaldo was persuaded to play at the 11th hour.

Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?
Only do it if you must. And, if you truly must, diversify. Football writing is now one of those things, like photography, which everyone thinks he or she can do. You have to give yourself an edge by being imaginative and innovative across the media. Oh, and cheap.

PATRICK BARCLAY is a columnist for the Sunday Independent and Evening Standard.

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