The Guardian’s Digger and self-confessed Gooner on Sammy, Crossie, Steve McMahon’s finger and being Paolo Rossi in his garden
Your first ever newspaper?
The Daily Star. I was sent there to be Howard Wheatcroft’s Gooner nemesis.
Have you ever worked in a profession other than journalism?
No: I came straight into it from university.
What was your finest achievement playing football?
You mean apart from only letting two goals in for Burnham Ramblers U-11s in the South-East Essex Cup final in the full-size goals at Chelmsford City (we won 3-2)? Well then, that has to be the second-minute Reducer I put on the Russian Press left-winger while representing England Press in Moscow. It is for others to judge whether it set the positive tone for our first half. But when I was taken off after 65 minutes we were only 2-1 down in a game we lost 7-2.
Most memorable match covered?
It has to be an Arsenal game, for obvious reasons. And it was probably Real Madrid 0 Arsenal 1 at the Bernabéu in February 2006. They went into the game 25 points off Chelsea’s lead and four points off Tottenham Hotspur in fourth place. And even when they had dominated the English game, that great Arsenal team had been extremely inconsistent in Europe. The expectations were very, very low as Arsenal took on a team who three seasons before had won the European Cup for the ninth time, but they absolutely dominated Madrid. I remember after the final whistle and exchanging conspiratorial my-God-did-that-really-just-happen glances with Crossie. It felt like something special, and it was – Arsenal were en route to a first ever European Cup final.
The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
Sorry but it’s Arsenal again. I’d take those few minutes of that game at Anfield in 1989 between the moment when a snarling Steve McMahon goes around the Liverpool team cajoling them with his index finger and saying: “One minute left” to when Michael Thomas gives Grobelaar the nuts and Arsenal the title. The greatest dénouement of any season ever.
Camp Nou with Celtic in it. I still have the tinnitus to show for the atmosphere.
…and the worst?
The much-lamented Layer Road, where I used to stand to watch Colchester United on a Friday night. Like so many football supporters in the 1980s I was unwittingly risking my life in a wooden stand among the crisp packets, polystyrene cups and discarded fag-ends beneath. God rest those poor souls at Bradford City.
Your best ever scoop?
My best-ever journalism was not a single story but the series of exclusives I did on the so-called billionaire Middle Eastern consortium at Notts County led by Russell King. I was on to this conman straight away and my work forced him and his cronies out of the club, preventing them from taking over BMW Sauber’s F1 franchise and from launching a dubious stockmarket float of a “mining company” that could have cost investors millions on the way. It was not the sort of stuff I expected to be uncovering when I set out in football reporting but it was thrilling to know I had achieved something meaningful. Even though it was a rocky road with a lot of the Notts fans at times.
Your personal new-tech disaster?
I like to think I’m New School enough to get the technology to work but I confess to having got annoyed when the Wifi and dongle connections have both dropped out shortly before the second-half runner is due over.
Trusting someone who said he’d seen a famous unmarried sportsman booted out of the Wimbledon press box while canoodling with his latest squeeze. His tip became the basis of a 50-word diary-payoff item that the local bugle where he was from ripped off. He sued us for a few thousands. It was probably true but there were no pictures to demonstrate it, no way of tracking the stewards who ejected him and so I couldn’t prove it. I was young and impressionable.
Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
Lots of people. Funny question.
Most media friendly manager?
In my experience, Mark McGhee at Millwall. He was always great in press conferences after matches and I later bumped into him in Brighton when he was managing there and in Edinburgh when he was at Motherwell. He was always an absolute gent.
Best ever player?
Lionel Messi. Already.
Best ever teams (club and international)?
I loved that 1982 Italy side and used to play at being Paolo Rossi in the garden. The Milan team that won the European Cup in 1989 and 1990 with Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten would have taken some beating in any era.
Best pre-match grub?
Oh dear. Arsenal.
Best meal had on your travels?
When we went to see Alisher Usmanov in Moscow at the Kempinsky he certainly lavished us with a meal I wouldn’t have got through on exes.
…and the worst?
Nothing that really sticks in the mind. Can’t say I’ve ever really experienced any upsets.
Best hotel stayed in?
The city-centre apartment-hotel in Vienna for Euro 2008. I was able to take my wife and my eldest, who was then one, while working out there. A rare treat to be travelling and not having to leave the family at home.
…and the worst?
The Soviet-era block in Minsk when I went there with Scotland. Not a place I’d return to in a hurry.
Favourite football writer?
Sammy. I don’t always agree with him (in fact I once found something he wrote downright offensive) but it’s always well researched and well argued.
Favourite radio/TV commentator?
Martin Tyler. Stood the test of time.
If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
I’d personally take a sledgehammer to all the fences around football-club training grounds and let us mingle with the players again. We, like them, are human beings.
One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
Watching England at the MCG in the Boxing Day Test with my best man who’s emigrated out there.
Last book read?
Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World by Nicholas Shaxson. Breathtaking.
Favourite current TV programme?
Your most prized football memorabilia?
The t-shirt and jetsam from the streamer-machines from the last-ever match at Highbury. How could I possibly end with anything else?