FWA Q&A: Barry Flatman

BARRY FLATMAN, taking a trip along memory lane, on being called Colin…Chairman Ken going down…and a Big Apple hair-dryer from Fergie

Your first ever job in journalism?
Covering Hayes in the Isthmian League for the Middlesex Advertiser and Gazette. I started on the Monday and the following evening went to pre-season training. An extremely tall and muscular teenager in a woolly hat, who appeared to have been working on a building site all day, turned up to sign. His name was Cyrille Regis.

Have you ever worked in a profession other than journalism?
In between leaving school and going to college, I worked in a builders’ merchants. I realised it probably wasn’t my true vocation in life when somebody told me to go to stock-take the gravel.

Most memorable match?
It does rather date me, but the 1975 FA Cup Final. Being a Fulham man the memories are not particularly joyful and, unfairly I think now, a picture always forms in my mind of goalkeeper Peter Mellor almost waving the West Ham forwards through like a policeman directing traffic.

The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
The night I was as Luton v Millwall [in 1985] when the rioting away fans ran onto the pitch and started hurling turf and anything else they could rip up at the press box where I and several other intrepid reporters were desperately trying to file copy down telephones. Perhaps it might have elicited a medal for bravery whilst under fire. Either that, or a moment in the Stamford Bridge foyer. Chelsea had just been relegated and their then chairman, Ken Bates, fancied purging a bit of malice on the gathered press corps. “Going back to your council houses then?,” asked Chairman Ken as he got into the lift. “Going down, Ken?” replied Joe Lovejoy, then of the Mail on Sunday just before the lift doors closed.

Best stadium?
Having primarily covered tennis for the last couple of decades, I have never experienced the luxury of the Emirates or the Etihad. Thinking back to my football writing days, for atmosphere it was hard to beat a big European night at White Hart Lane, but for sheer magnitude the Nou Camp (or Camp Nou if you like) is some place.

…and the worst?
These days I figure well down the pecking order of the Sunday Times’ match-list when there is no tennis and I am sent to football. I always cringe when I’m told the destination is Crystal Palace. Has that press box been updated since the days of Big Mal? Birmingham City is also pretty awful and so is Portsmouth, but of course they are skint.

Your personal new-tech disaster?
It was back in the days of the Tandy and those two muffler connections we had to strap to a telephone receiver. In a fit of temper, when I could not get the things to work, I wound the elastic fastener so tight it snapped and was made to pay for a new pair by then Express sports editor Ken Lawrence.

Biggest mistake?
It happened just the other week during the US Open when Sir Alex Ferguson gate-crashed Andy Murray’s press conference with Sir Sean Connery. I could be wrong, but he appeared to have had a glass or two of red wine and was very convivial. So I chanced a joke to him that it was the longest he’d spent talking to the press in years. At first he laughed but five minutes later in the corridor outside growled: “I’ll remember you.”

Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
For a while Graham Taylor always used to call me Colin. “How are you Colin? Nice to see you Colin. No, you cannot talk to that player Colin.” When I later pointed out the error to him, thinking he was having a Trigger-like problem from Only Fools and Horses (Rodney always being called Dave) he admitted to mixing me up with Colin Gibson [ex-Daily Telegraph football correspondent].

Most media friendly manager?
Tough one this because two stand out. Back in the day, you just couldn’t beat Jim Smith. Always helpful, regularly comical and more often than not an invitation into his office afterwards for a glass of something. The late Ray Harford was also a top bloke; he didn’t suffer fools but was always totally honest which couldn’t be said for some of his contemporaries.

Best ever player?
As a kid I used to love watching Rodney Marsh play, George Best was somebody really special and nobody, but nobody had the class of Bobby Moore. In a working capacity, the most naturally talented player I have regularly written about would have to be Gazza.

Best ever teams (club and international)?
Barcelona of the current day, and Brazil of 1970.

Best pre-match grub?
I don’t know about pre-match but you couldn’t beat the scones with jam and occasionally cream they used to serve during half-time at Craven Cottage.

Best meal had on your travels?
In terms of magnificent setting then it’s Doyles On The Beach, across the harbour from Sydney. But for great food then I make it a tie between Santopadres in Rome and Smith and Wollensky in New York.

…and the worst?
Now I like Chinese food in Britain. But in the Press Restaurant in Shanghai a few years back they served up things I wouldn’t feed to the dog that always used to chase me on my paper round.

Best hotel stayed in?
The Park Hyatt in Dubai. I walked into the suite I had been given and felt a compunction to ring reception to ask if there had been some kind of mistake…but I managed to fight off the urge.

…and the worst?

The Shinjuku Washington Hotel in Tokyo. Some might call the ability to touch all four walls whilst laying in bed – homely but I drew the line at pillows that seemed to be filled with pebbles.

Favourite football writer?
In terms of dedication to duty and being well informed then I don’t think you can beat Henry Winter of the Daily Telegraph. Of the younger breed I go for Tim Rich of The Guardian or Sam Wallace on The Independent.

Favourite radio/TV commentator?
Mike Ingham (radio) and Martin Tyler (TV). Both consummate professionals and very nice blokes in the bargain.

If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
In tennis the press are still regarded as part of the sport rather than aliens. We are allowed to mix with the players and are therefore on first name terms with megastars like Nadal, Federer and Murray. I appreciate it is asking the impossible in today’s football but it would be a reversion to the way things were back in my days of football scuffling. I don’t expect perpetually open doors to the press at training grounds or players’ lounges but football writers should be not be regarded as a huge threat.

One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
Being at the Ryder Cup when Europe made that astonishing comeback or watching Usain Bolt win gold.

Last book read?
Reelin’ In The Years by Mark Radcliffe…a thoroughly entertaining read for somebody of my advanced age who has always liked music but admits to being completely non-plussed when somebody called Example entered the Fulham press room.

Favourite current TV programme?
Much to my family’s dismay, whenever at home I tend to get engrossed with Sunday Supplement. Then I get annoyed at Sky Sports for not having a tennis chat programme so I could pick up the same fees.

Your most prized football memorabilia?
The match programme from Aston Villa beating Bayern Munich in the 1982 European Cup final signed by all the players. They were the good old days when the press were allowed to go out and celebrate with those who did it on the pitch.

Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?

Honestly, I would struggle to advise any youngster wanting to come into the football media world on the ground floor when I see so many hugely talented and experienced writers being thrown out of the top storey because newspapers are trying to save money and see such professionals as dispensable.

Barry Flatman is the Sunday Times’ Tennis Correspondent and has been on the tennis tour for 20 years. Before that he was a football scuffler for the Daily Express. He decided to give up front-line football reporting because “I got pissed off with George Graham being so unhelpful and the likes of Eric Hall and Jerome Anderson telling me I couldn’t speak to their players because the Sun paid them more money.”

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