FWA Q&A: Brian Scovell

Former Daily Mail sports writer BRIAN SCOVELL on the Wembley bung bag…being sick at Brighton…and mistaken for Bobby Charlton

Your first ever newspaper?
The defunct Isle of Wight Mercury. My mother wanted me to be a banker – ugh! – but when I spent two years in hospitals after a German bombing raid I read the work of Tom Phillips, the chief sports writer of the Daily Herald, and I vowed I would be another Phillips. I started writing pieces about matches broadcast from a portable radio in the childrens’ ward and when I returned home, I was a regular at Ventnor FC and wrote reports. My mother found one and took it to the editor and said: “My son is a better football writer than your man.” I’d just had a letter published the week before on dogs fouling pavements which upset a lot of angry dog owners but impressed Roy Wearing, the editor. He signed me up and paid me 40p for every report on the second team. I was 14.

Have you ever worked in a profession other than journalism?

I had to leave school at 15 and despite my football cuttings, there was no opening in the four newspapers in the IOW so I spent two years in the Licence Department of the IOW Council. It worked to my advantage because I had to shout out the names of those who were collecting their road fund licences and talk things through with them and it cured my early shyness.

What was your finest achievement playing football?
Actually getting out there to play with a right leg that only bent by five degrees. I ran the Daily Sketch and Daily Mail teams for almost 30 years and I played my farewell game against the Arsenal staff at Highbury on my 50th birthday (I was then a goalkeeper). We lost 6-2. But the highlight was when Bert Head, who managed Crystal Palace at the time, said “if you had two good legs you could been a pro” after he saw me scoring a hat trick in 12 minutes in a game at the National Recreation Centre. I think he was joking.

Most memorable match covered?
So many but England 4,West Germany 2 at Wembley in 1966 has so many happy memories for me. The Sketch signed Billy Liddell to put his name to a column – to everyone’s astonishment but Bob Findlay, the sports editor, was a fellow Scot – and they gave him two tickets in the main stand. Billy didn’t want the other ticket so my wife Audrey took it and we’d just had our honeymoon on an air cruise around the Greek islands. She was my inspiration and still is after she died from cancer on Christmas Day 2000.

The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
Again, thousands but this one could have been the tackle by Vinnie Jones to end the career of Gary Stevens at White Hart Lane. Because the press box is so ridiculously low few of us saw it but it should be shown at every FA disciplinary meeting to highlight how not to tackle. I still see players diving in like human missiles, both feet up and screaming “I got the ball.” They should get a brain.

Best stadium?
I’ve been lucky to be able to help a lot of clubs about press facilities on behalf of the FWA and last month I visited The Emirates for the first time. So it’s my number one. I had to sit in the front row and hardly saw any of the play in that astonishing 5-2 demolition of Spurs. Some nasty people kept standing up and shouting abuse and the clubs, the PFA, the FA and others all need to bring in regulations to curb this abhorrence. Take their season tickets away after the first warning.

…and the worst?

In terms of watching a game, it was Carrick Rangers v Southampton in a ECWC Cup tie in 1976. We were shown to a small boxlike room suspended above a corner flag facing the sun and an official said: “This is the press box.” I said: “But you can’t see anything. We’ll be blinded by the sun.” He said: “That’s the idea. The team are so bad we don’t want to see them being thrashed.”

Your ever best scoop?

It was England v Cameroon in 1991 at Wembley. The Cameron players were still fuming about not being been paid in the 1990 World Cup and I was told that the game wouldn’t go ahead until their match fees of £2,000 a man were paid, in cash, on arrival at Wembley. The banks were closed and the FA had to ask a Thomas Cook manager to cash a cheque which he did. David Barber, the FA archivist, took the bung bag to Wembley with a police escort and the Cameroon coach left at 6 pm, well behind schedule. It arrived only 45 minutes from the kick-off. My deep throat filled me in with all the details and the rest of the newspapers were left stranded. Next morning, the players flew off at 7.45am and it was impossible to interview any of them. It was the closest to a Wembley match being called off for not providing bungs. The moral is to have a reporter following the visiting team. You can get better stories from the opposition than England.

Your personal new-tech disaster?

Luckily I retired from the Daily Mail when new-tech took over but my greatest cock-up concerned an AC Milan v Spurs match at San Siro. The noise was so deafening that every time I phoned over ad libbed pieces, I couldn’t hear the copy telephonist at the other end so I ploughed on. Near the end I managed to get through to someone on the Mail sports desk and he said: “Your copy has gone to the wrong newspaper. The Express have just passed it on to us.”

Biggest mistake?
I was down for a Brighton match on a freezing day at Withdean and on the morning I felt groggy. I should have stayed in bed but I staggered up to the open air press box and just before the start, I suddenly vomited all over Tony Millard, the radio commentator and his mate sitting below. It was acutely embarrassing but very funny. The St. John’s Ambulance helped me down to the side of the pitch and took me to the portakabin behind the goal, masquerading as a treatment room. By this time the game was in progress and as I lay on a treatment table, I heard lots of gasps: Charlie Oatway, the Brighton captain, had broken a leg. The medics left me and spent the next 20 minutes treating Charlie behind the curtain. A doctor arrived to speak to me and I said: “I don’t think I’ll be sick again.” As I said it, I threw up again, just missing him. “You’ve had a viral infection,” he said. At least I came off better than poor Charlie.

Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
On an England trip in Budapest a flunkey held the door open and said: “Good afternoon Bobby.” He meant Bobby Charlton. We both had a Ralph Coates hair style at the time.

Most media friendly manager?
They start from Walter Winterbottom right up Harry Redknapp but it would be very unfair to pick out one.

Best ever player?
The Best – George Best.

Best ever teams (club and international)?
The Spurs side under Bill Nicholson in the early Sixties. And Brazil when Pele was king.

Best pre-match grub?
Norwich. I love Delia’s concoctions.

Best meal had on your travels?
It was on a barge in Besancon in France on the day Eric Cantona played against an England U21 side. The bill was £50 a head and that was a long time ago. As one of the very few teetotallers I think I might have subsidised some of the others.

Best hotel stayed in?
The Oberoi in Mumbai.

…and the worst?
A toss up between one in Magdeburg and one in Tbilisi, the names of which I erased on the spot.

Favourite football writer?
David Lacey of The Guardian.

Favourite radio/TV commentator
Bryon Butler

If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
I put an idea to the Football League called Operation Goodwill some years ago which wouldn’t have cost any money. If they welcomed us in the proper manner they would find us more sympathetic to their needs. I said they should say each day “what story are we giving to the press today?” – not keep stories out. It would require being honest and I’m afraid that is a rare commodity in our game. Chairmen who should face media questions hide away. Some of them don’t even live here. The Football League didn’t even reply yet most of their clubs are almost bust.

One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
Luckily I’ve been at many of the most eventful cricket matches in the past 50 years and I’ve had a terrific double life. I’m probably the only person who has reported both major sports.

Last book read?
I’m trying to read six books at the same time. I’m on the FWA Books Panel and we select the Best Football Book in the Sports Books Awards. But a book I have re-read to freshen up my anecdotes (like in this piece) is “Thank You Hermann Goering – The Life of a Sports Writer” which I can recommend. If Hermann hadn’t ordered that Luftwaffe raid in 1944 I would have worked in a bank, picking up huge bonuses.

Favourite current TV programme?
Question Time.

Your most prized football memorabilia?
A framed picture of Audrey and Bill Nicholson holding the UEFA Cup.For

What advice would you give any would-be football writer?
I speak at a lot of universities and I say to the students – most of whom don’t seem to read newspapers – be determined, be enthusiastic, be cheeky, cancel your Facebook, give up Twitter and get out to meet people who will help their careers. Look outwards, not inwards. And give up the booze. It’s a rough, tough world out there and they need to make every sacrifice to make the grade. Not many will succeed.

Thank You Hermann Goering – The Life of a Sports Writer is written by Brian Scovell (Amberley Publishing). Brian is a former chairman of the FWA and is a member of the national committee.

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