FWA Q&A

FWA Q&A: JOHN LEY

JOHN LEY of the Daily Telegraph on a numb right arm..a Faroe time eating puffin….and missing out on the world’s largest brandy

Have you ever worked in a profession other than football?
No, apart from a paper round. I started in the profession at 15, while still at school, working part-time for the Hayters Sports Reporting Agency, plugging in telephones (the ones that weren’t mobile) and reading copy over for journalists to copy-takers. Although now as a production journalist at the Telegraph, I handle all sports.

Most memorable match?
Played in or watched? I once took part in a game between Speedway Writers and Speedway Riders at Oxford United’s old Manor Ground, when I was a sports reporter on the Oxford Mail. A lot of the top riders were on show that day and I remember I had a one-on-one with their goalkeeper, the former world champion Ole Olsen. I was just about to shoot and another top rider, Simon Wigg, pulled my shorts down in front of around 3,000 fans. Mind you, I did win the ‘Knobbliest Knees’ competition at half-time.

As for game covered, I have two. Covering the Milk Cup Final, between Oxford and QPR was special because ‘little’ Oxford were punching so above their weight at the time it was incredible. To win 3-0 at the old Wembley was just a remarkable achievement and for me to be covering it for the Oxford Mail was very special.

Another game that really sticks in the memory was the World Cup tie between Argentina and Serbia & Montenegro in 2006 in Gelsenkirchen. Diego Maradona was working as a radio pundit just behind me and we watched in awe as they took the Serbs apart, winning 6-0. I described in my Telegraph report as ‘a gift to the world wrapped in blue’. I remember being particularly impressed by one of the goalscorers, an 18-year-old called Lionel Messi.

The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
The moment James Corden, he of Gavin & Stacey and A League Of Their Own, approached a group of journalists waiting for an England press conference at The Grove in Watford. He touched my arm, said ever-so politely, ‘excuse me sir’ then went up to one of my colleagues, Henry Winter, and said, ‘Excuse me Mr Winter, but I just wanted to say how much I admire your writing.’ Henry just smiled as Henry does and the rest turned away for fear of exploding. A classic moment.

Best stadium?
I love the Amsterdam ArenA but while so many great stadiums are being built, the charm has gone. I used to enjoy going to Deepdale, Preston’s ground. I don’t know why.

…and the worst?
At least most grounds are modern now. I can remember some real old dives, like Wigan’s old Springfield Park when the winds blew panes of glass out of the side of the main stand. Today Health & Safety may have had a word, but they just swept up the bits of glass and played on.

Your personal new-tech disaster?
I turned up at a game without my lap-top so, with the day of the copy-taker long gone, I had to write a 600-word report on my Blackberry. My right thumb has never recovered.

Biggest mistake?
Not accepting an offer to join a web site in the very early days, when I was offered the chance to go in at the bottom creating football stats. The website was bought out for millions and all those involved are, I believe, still on a beach in Barbados with the world’s largest brandy.

Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
When I was covering Oxford, I travelled with the team and so I was forever asked for my autograph. More recently, somebody thought I was Kenny Sansom. Not, I should add, the Kenny of old who was Arsenal’s greatest left-back, but the Kenny of now who, like us all, has put on a little poundage.

Most media friendly manager?
So many good managers over the years, particularly in the days when there was a far greater bond and trust between football types and the media. Harry Redknapp has always been very good to me, but I have to say Sir Bobby Robson.

He once threatened to put me in a skip and have me taken back to Ipswich when I went into the team’s dressing room at a reserve game before the FA Cup final in 1978. His reserve manager Bobby Ferguson said I could go in to interview Trevor Whymark, but then said he thought I was a ‘friend!’

Robson gave me both barrels, asking me if I’d pay the player’s wages if he was fined for talking to me. He then winked at this very scared 18-year-old reporter, patted me on the back and always spoke to me after that.

And I cannot forget John Lyall. I was still at school when I interviewed him for the school magazine; he went to the same school – Ilford County High – as me and granted an interview the day before a game. He said then he would always ‘open doors’ as even at 15 I was sure I wanted to be a reporter – and he kept to his word right up until he passed away.

Best ever player?
Denis Law. A genius and a gentleman. Simple as that.

Best ever teams (club and international)?
From a personal note, the Arsenal double-winning side of 1971. Not the most skilful, but a great achievement on a very impressionable 11-year-old.

And I have not seen a better performance than Argentina in 2006.

Best pre-match grub?
Luton Town when they were in the old First Division. Long before good food – or any for that matter – was expected, Luton pushed the boat out and the choice was stunning. I remember nibbling on prawns bigger than the press box.

Best meal had on your travels?
Puffin and chips in the main hotel in Torshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands. Daft choice but it was stunning. Those with me swear they saw a small bird kept flying past the window crying, ‘mummy, where’s my mummy..?’

…and the worst?
A Chicken Kiev in Kiev. It wasn’t chicken – and I had to check I was still in Kiev. Something actually moved on the plate.

Best hotel stayed in?
For pure history, the National in Moscow. I was in room 106 and outside 107 was a plaque claiming Lenin had stayed there [there should be a John Lenin gag there somewhere – Ed]. Incredibly ornate and old charm. Great memories.

…and the worst?
Can’t remember the name, but it was in Kishishev (or Chisinau depending on where you’re from), the capital of Moldova. Wales were playing a World Cup qualifier and we were put in the ‘second best’ hotel. The water in the shower was brown (when it wasn’t grey), the bed had blood stains, the food was non existent and each floor had a people watcher. When you went to your room you got a phone call asking if you required any ‘company’.

On hearing about the lack of food, the Wales management invited us to their hotel for a meal. They had taken their own chefs, who were granted use of the kitchens. We arrived late and just as we ordered four soldiers with machine guns marched, literarily, into the kitchens and turned off the gas. I went hungry.

Do you have a hobby?
I am fascinated by history so like delving into my family tree when I can. I have also taken up bowls (the lawn green variety). But football stats are what I live for.

Favourite football writer?
There are few as good and consistent as Henry Winter, but Martin Samuel is outstanding and Patrick Barclay is still one of the best.

Favourite radio/TV commentator?
Peter Drury, to me, is the ultimate professional. But I still miss Bryon Butler, whose dulcet tones could make a shopping list sound sexy.

If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
Be more trusting and realise that we are all in this together.

One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
The Augusta Masters. It just looks stunning and the atmosphere is remarkable.

Favourite non-football sportsman/sports woman?
Muhammad Ali. The Greatest.

Last book read?
Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson. Fascinating tale about Sir Isaac and his battle to protect the Royal Mint.

Favourite current TV programme?
Anything on the History Channel.

TV show you always switch off?
Any Soap. They all look the same.

If you could bring one TV series back which would it be?
Frasier. Comedy writing at its very best. There were 264 episodes. I would kill for a 265th.

Favourite comedian?
Tommy Cooper. Glass, bottle; bottle glass.

Favourite singer/group?
Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Saw the Blockheads perform before Christmas. Made an old man very happy.

What really, really annoys you?
People emailing me asking me to fill in a Q&A.  And lorry drivers.

Your most prized football memorabilia?
Two: One is a pair of signed boots from Ryan Giggs. I was working on behalf of a charity at the hospital, St Mary’s in London, where my daughter had been looked after. I asked Ryan to sign a Manchester United shirt and when I told him what it was for he offered me a pair of his signed boots. At the subsequent auction I attempted to boost the bidding my joining in. I ended up with a very large hole in my bank account – but I do have his boots.

The other is the programme from the night Arsenal won the old First Division at White Hart Lane in 1971. It is special not only because I was there, as an 11-year-old, but that the great Eusebio was sitting behind me and I have his autograph on it.

Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?
Don’t ask me, I’m an old hack.

Seriously, I do get asked many times about how to get into the business, and I also lecture occasionally at Harlow College, home to the oldest journalism course in the country.

My advice is simple: show incredible enthusiasm. Too many people I speak to talk a good game, but when it comes to it, they don’t really have their heart in it.

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