FWA Q&A: Neil Custis

NEIL CUSTIS of The Sun on a dodgy leek…falling out of a shopping trolly…and being mistaken for Lee Westwood…

Your first ever newspaper?
It was called the Alnwick Advertiser in Northumberland. The circulation was 3,000 and falling and it’s now a pizza restaurant. I did everything from darts to country shows. I remember covering two country shows and 11 leek shows in one day. There was real controversy at one of the leek shows as someone was found out for using tippex on the base of his leek to smooth out a scratch. They left the leek out on the table with the word ‘disqualified’ next to it to shame the bloke.

Have you ever worked in a profession other than journalism?
Between finishing my A levels and going to Journalism College I worked in a BT call centre. I have to say it is singularly most mind-numbing experience of my life. People were only allowed to do four-hour shifts in a day for fear of their sanity. You had to ask these questions and the person had to say the exact words ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in reply. Even if they said ‘oh of course’ you had to ask the question again to get them to say the word ‘yes’. I am starting to twitch now just writing about it

What was your finest achievement playing football?
At Darlington Journalism College I captained our class B against class A in a five-a-side tournament. We led eight games to four in a first-to-nine but they pegged it back to eight-all. The tension was incredible going into the final game and both classes blanked each other in the build up. I was in goal and came up with a masterplan for the final to starve their star player of the ball. Others involved that day included Graeme Anderson (Sunderland Echo), Paul Robinson (former Editor of the Newcastle Chronicle) and Simon Oxley who worked for the BBC and Luton Town. It was some night afterwards round Darlington, I think I’ve still got the cup at home.

Most memorable match covered?
It would be easy to say Nou Camp ’99 but the match itself was awful even if the finish was unforgettable. The 4-3 Manchester derby when Michael Owen scored in stoppage time was undoubtedly the most dramatic and breathlessly exciting game I have ever been at. After that I will go for South Korea beating Italy with a golden goal in the World Cup in 2002. I was there covering Ireland but when they went out I stayed to report on South Korea’s progress to the semi-finals. It was an incredible time to be in such a football mad country.

The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
The night Greece reached the Euro 2004 final. A crowd of about 30 of us descended on this bar in the old part of Lisbon as most of us were off home and more notably it was doubled up as Martin Lipton’s stag night. I would love a DVD of the last hour and then separate takes of people getting home. Myself and a colleague’s entrance into the Sheraton was particularly spectacular.

Best stadium? …and the worst?
Going up the steps the players would have walked up into the Maracana Stadium in Brazil was something special. We were there for the 2000 Club World Cup which caused such a furore because Manchester United pulled out the FA Cup. The other one which really took my breath away was Benfica’s old Stadium of Light in Lisbon. I was there on a Geordie boys golf holiday about 20 years ago and we just went to have a look around, truly immense. Unfortunately I have a black eye in the pictures as I had fallen out a shopping trolly the night before we flew out…long story.
The Daknamstadion home of Sporting Lokeren takes some beating for the worst. The press box was a double decker bus parked next to one corner flag. Rotherham’s old Millmoor Ground is pretty memorable too. I covered a game there for the Lincolnshire Echo and the press box was like an old burger van on stilts that you accessed via a ladder and my seat was a broken old bus seat

Your best ever scoop?
I had a really good run of stories on David Beckham in the lead up to him leaving Manchester United most notably when he was hit in the head with a boot – another man at the heart of the Sun was big behind that tale. I am also proud of revealing Alex Ferguson’s u-turn on his retirement when the club’s former chief executive sent a message to me to say it was ‘100 per cent not true’ – I went ahead with it and 48 hours later they announced it. I also had the Mark Hughes sacking at City and quite embrassingly Dave Bassett’s at Nottingham Forest, when unbeknown to me the first he heard of it was when my paper hit his doormat. I predicted Cristiano Ronaldo’s sale to Real and most recently I revealed Paul Scholes was coming out of retirement.

Your personal new-tech disaster?
It’s old tech really. I was faxing a comic strip from Viz called ‘Fruity Bun The Master Baker’ to someone in my office. It was absolutely double-up hilarious about a baker who would cook life-size gingerbread women then prop them up outside his bakers, drive round the block and then chat them up. Anyway I set the fax going but couldn’t find the piece when I came back, it had disappeared. Little did I know it had wrapped itself round the tube inside. So the next time I used it and sent a letter to a solicitor the phone call I had back was one of bemusement as this bloke with a double barreled name had received this comic strip interspersed with my letter.

Biggest mistake?
Undoubtedly when I thought I was talking to Kevin Francis from the Daily Star on the phone when in fact it was Kevin Francis a man mountain of a striker for Stockport County. It is fair to say their builds and lifestyle are contrasting so when Kevin told me the delay of two months in ringing me back was because he had been teaching kids football in the Caribbean you can imagine my response. ‘F*** off, you, you’re having a laugh aren’t you? How the hell can you teach kids football?’ This continued for some time before the penny finally dropped on my side. I don’t think we spoke again.

Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
I was walking up the steps at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground with a cup of coffee when someone shouted at me ‘You should drink some ale Lee you’d hit the ball further.’ They thought I was Lee Westwood, who was a Forest fan. My grandma thought I looked like Stephen Hendry and before losing four stones recently my Manchester colleagues were giggling round a computer after calling up a picture of snooker player Stephen Lee and pointing at me.

Most media friendly manager?

I covered Norwich City for the Eastern Daily Press and Mike Walker was an absolute dream, you could not shut him up. Later when I worked in the Midlands John Gregory was fantastic copy and always very accommodating. More recently Sam Allardyce has always been brilliant with the press. Gordon Strachan was undoubtedly the rudest, although a decent enough bloke when you turned the tape recorder off.

Best ever player?
The best one I have seen is Roy Keane. People go on about Cantona but without Keane, United would not have won half of what they did. He was an immense presence, motivator and player. His performance for Ireland in the victory over Holland to qualify for the 2002 World Cup play-off against Iran was breathtaking.

Best ever teams (club and international)?
I will go on what I have witnessed live and the best club side was Manchester United’s from 1999 to 2001; they should really have won the Champions League three times on the spin. Internationally I was mesmerised the first time I saw Brazil play back in 1998 in the World Cup Finals.

Best pre-match grub?
My southern colleagues rave about Arsenal but for me Manchester City have taken things to another level. The food is fabulous, from the soup, to the carvery and then the ice creams. They even put out pick and mix, wine for afters and bring a pie to your work place at half-time if you can’t get down the press room. You can hardly walk when you leave there. They win the media hospitality award every year.

Best meal had on your travels?…and the worst?
The best and worst for different reasons was encapsulated in Oporto the night before a Manchester United CL game About 12 of us went to this restaurant that laid out an impressive spread of local dishes. We arrived late and in a rush I just told the waiter to give us a few bottles of the local wine, thinking that would be cheap. The waiter chose the local wine that was £100 a bottle and 10 bottles later the bill arrived and shortly afterwards some riot police…

Best hotel stayed in?…and the worst?
The best outside of work was The Nacional in Havana which is stuck in the 1930s and an incredible experience. With work it was The Westin just of Time Square in New York and the Shangri La in Singapore where myself and Matt Lawton calved up the grounds as we decided to extend the pitch and putt course into something more challenging. The worst came this season in Lisbon. Everywhere was booked up because of some medical conference and I ended up in a place which was described by one person on Trip Advisor as ‘a good place to commit suicide’. It was like that hotel Tom Hanks walks into towards the end of Saving Private Ryan. I was up two hours early on the last morning to go and sit in the airport.

Favourite football writer?
I think Steve Howard gets to the heart of things in my paper. Tim Rich is undoubtedly the most underrated writer out there, intelligent and funny. Dave Kidd’s column in the People is very good and always has something in it to make me laugh. But Martin Samuel is fantastic, his columns have the three big ingredients for me – they make you think, they tell you something you don’t know, and they make you laugh.

Favourite radio/TV commentator?
I don’t know who the people are but there is a radio station my 11-year-old son and I try to pick up when we are in the car called Oldham Community Radio. It’s not always easy to get as we live in South Manchester but when we do an excitement ripples through the car. It’s hilarious although I’m sure not intentionally. It’s like eavesdropping on an old folks’ coach trip to Blackpool. There are lines like ‘And don’t forget cream tea afternoon sponsored by Oldham Community Radio in Library from 3 til 5’…or a bloke will be presenting and his female sidekick will say something like ‘oohh not like days down old dance hall, I could still do a mean gay gordons, me’.

If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
When I first started clubs were completely open to the press and as such the players became friends and a trust was built up. I still speak now to players who I met 20 years ago. The clubs argue that greater access will lead to more negative stories- in fact it would be quite the opposite, access is treasured by reporters. Clubs have created a ‘them and us’ environment. Everyone needs to relax and remember this is football.

One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
My big love is golf. I have covered a few Opens but would dearly love to go to Augusta one day to experience the Masters. My favourite TV sporting memory is watching Jack Nicklaus win the 1986 Masters aged 46 and supposedly finished. I still watch the closing holes now on YouTube. Going back in time I would have loved to have been at the bottom of the hill in Innsbruck in 1976 when Franz Klammer won the most dramatic downhill gold ever.

Last book read?
It’s a courtroom drama by Michael Connolly called The Fifth Witness. Nothing I’ll ever to able to quote in an article or mention with my nose in the air over pre-dinner drinks I know, but I have always liked these tense, court drama books.

Favourite current TV programme?
Spooks is undoubtedly my favourite of all time, physically gripping. But right now it has to be Homeland. We are coming up to the final episode next Sunday. Although it was slightly off putting last Sunday when after watching the main character Brodie make final preparations to blow himself up with a suicide vest I switched over and saw him presenting Have I Got News For You. There was just that split second when you are still not back in reality where I thought Noooooooo!

Your most prized football memorabilia?
I have a lot of photographs up in my office of people I have met over my 18 years on The Sun. My favourite is one with Paolo Maldini from 1997 at Italy’s training ground in Florence. I was down there four days on the trot before Italy took on England in Rome in that final World Cup qualifier. He was captain, his dad was manager, there was big pressure and he had the whole of the Italian media to deal with. Yet he still had time to speak to me on more than one occasion in perfect English and help me out. Truly one of nicest, most accommodating people I have ever met in my job.

Advice to any would-be football writer?
Never think you have cracked it because the moment you do you make a mistake. I remember back on the Alnwick Advertiser when I was 20 I would drink with a 60-year-old veteran reporter from the Newcastle Journal called Ken. He told me one night ‘I’ve been doing this job for 40 years and what I don’t know about journalism you could fill a library with’. I always think of that whenever I wonder if there is anything else to learn.

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