NEIL HARMAN on chatting with Sir Matt…Contemplation Point…and wonderful Fox pies
Have you ever worked in a profession other than football?
If you count marking up the newspapers for delivery as a 14-year-old in Leigh-on-Sea and then doing shifts before and after school behind the counter in the same local newsagents, I suppose that’s my only other profession. I left school at 16 and joining the Evening Echo, based in Basildon as a junior sports reporter and from there it has been journalism all the way.
Most memorable match?
Undoubtedly, Liverpool 4, Newcastle United 3 at Anfield on April 3, 1996 Absolutely the most remarkable match, full of adventure whose climax, the stunner by Stan Collymore, who wheeled away towards the Kop, was symptomatic of the match as a whole, a one-touch, two-touch passing move of the rarest quality.
The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
My conversation with Sir Matt Busby at Billy McNeill’s home in Manchester in 1990. I’d been invited to Billy’s 50th birthday and was second to arrive. Billy introduced me to Sir Matt and we had 15 minutes seated on the sofa together talking football before the room started filling up. I was a little awestruck and managed to keep the conversation going. He said ‘nice to talk to you Neil’ when it was over.
For atmosphere, intimacy, the closeness of the press box to the pitch, the people and the thrill, it has to be Anfield. A real football stadium. It never disappointed.
…and the worst?
It’s probably the Southendian in me, but I loathed Layer Road, Colchester.
Your personal new-tech disaster?
Actually, I survived all right (even sheltering under my desk in Izmir, Turkey in 1991, trying to keep the couplers attached to the to ends of the phone so that my Tandy would operate) but sitting next to Steve Curry of the Express in the back row of the press box at Elland Road after the famous Kevin Keegan outburst in 1996 took some beating. It was a night of high emotion, we were all re-writing quickly and Martin Lipton, now the Mirror chief football writer and then of the Press Association, raced up to the box, tripped over Steve’s electricity cables, which were dragged out of the socket and all of his words disappeared from the screen just as he was about to press ‘Send’. It is safe to say that Mr Curry was not a happy bunny. If memory serves me write he had to ad-lib (I hope younger journalists know what that means).
Thinking that I could keep doing the job the way I had always believed it should be done when a certain regime took over at the Daily Mail in the late 1990s – and hoping that some of my colleagues on the paper at that time would stand up for what was right, rather than what was expedient. I left.
Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
I was a 17-year-old junior reporter attending a primary school in Billericay to write a story on Mervyn Day, the former West Ham and Orient goalkeeper meeting the kids and when I arrived before he did, most of them thought I was him.
Most media friendly manager?
Best ever player?
My parents used to be season ticket holders at Upton Park and when they took me along, I idolised Bobby Moore. Getting to know him was one of the greatest satisfactions of my life.
Best ever teams (club and international)?
Real Madrid of the early 1960s and the Brazilians who won the 1970 World Cup.
Best pre-match grub?
It was all much of a muchness in my day, but I do recall that Bill Fox, when he was Blackburn chairman, allowed the press into the boardroom before matches at the old Ewood Park and their pies were bloody wonderful.
Best meal had on your travels?
During the 1992 European Championship in Sweden; Colin Gibson of the Daily Telegraph, Steve Curry of the Express, Harry Harris of the Mirror, and I stayed at a hotel in the middle of nowhere away from the rest of the England media throng, which had its own lake and we ate the fish they caught from it every night. Stunning cuisine. They had a wooden boat which we used to take in turns to row to the middle of the lake in the evening. We called it Contemplation Point.
…and the worst?
One motorway greasy spoon is hard to differentiate from another, but I’ve had my fair share of those on late, late match nights
Best hotel stayed in?
I loved the Stenungsbaden Yacht Club just outside Gothenburg, for the aforementioned 1992 Europeans (another Gibson triumph). It happened to be the same hotel that the Danish team was in before the final and we made great friends with their manager, Richard Moller-Nielsen, much to the chagrin of the Denmark press corps.
…and the worst?
The hotel wasn’t the worst but sharing with Alan Thompson of the Express on a Cup-Winners’ Cup trip with Bangor City to Madrid in 1985 was an unforgettably awful experience. He sat up most of the night smoking Capstan Full Strength and sipping brandy. I didn’t get a wink of sleep. I loved Tommo though, what a character.
Favourite football writer?
Across the years, Geoffrey Green of The Times, Alan Hoby of the Sunday Express, Jeff Powell (the best match reporter of all) Jeff Farmer and Peter Johnson of the Daily Mail, David Lacey and Daniel Taylor on the Guardian.
Favourite radio/TV commentator?
Difficult to pick one, I loved the velvety tones of Peter Jones and Bryon Butler on BBC Radio and Mike Ingham continues that tradition; David Coleman and John Motson on the television. So many voices today sound exactly the same to me.
If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
I don’t cover that much football these days, but it strikes me that a loosening of the PR strings is what is required. We could mix and mingle with the players in my day and I know that’s tough with the 24-hour Sky Sports News types to cater for, but only when the press and the players develop a sense of trust and mutual appreciation can the real stories be told. Otherwise, it’s simply PR dross.
One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
The Masters in Augusta.
Last book read?
The Seven Deadly Sins, My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh of the Sunday Times on the doping in cycling. A page turner. Brilliant work by a brilliant writer.
Favourite current TV programme?
I’m a bit of an old sentimentalist. I love Call The Midwife
Your most prized football memorabilia?
I have a menu from the Anglo-American Sporting Club which must have been circa 1970-71, signed by Bobby Moore, Alan Mullery, Terry Venables and Colin Bell among others. A treasure for a 13 year old kid.
Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?
Try to remain true to yourself, write with honesty, have an opinion, forge relationships, maintain your enthusiasm even in the most trying or circumstances. Never let the bastards grind you down.
Neil Harman was the Daily Mail chief football writer from 1990-97 and also wrote on football in the Mail’s Manchester office in the early 80s having started on the Southend Evening Echo and moving to the Birmingham Evening Mail. He was the Mail’s tennis correspondent from 1986-90 and has been in the same position at the Sunday Telegraph and at The Times, since 2002.