NICK SZCZEPANIK on a wee problem at Portsmouth…a chilly Big Apple reception for mustard…and feeling dicky in Bucharest
Have you ever worked in a profession other than football?
Quite a few, most recently arts publicity. Best football-related memory of that is spending a day while a Brighton Festival press officer with the late, great Brian Glover, Mr Sugden from Kes. And a Barnsley fan.
Most memorable match?
On TV, Arsenal’s 2-0 win at Anfield to take the title in 1989. As a fan, Brighton’s 7-0 win against Walsall in October 1976, all the goals coming in the second-half, four from Peter Ward and three from Ian Mellor after Walsall had been the better side in the first 45 minutes. As a writer, either Wimbledon coming back from 3-0 down to beat West Ham 4-3 at Upton Park, or a 4-4 draw between Charlton and West Ham at The Valley. When I started the intro to the runner, it was 3-2.
The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
It’s already on loads of DVDs – Brazil’s fourth goal in the 1970 World Cup final. Clodoaldo, the midfield workhorse, decided it was time finally to show he could play a bit. He beat three Italians to begin the move, which took in Rivelino, Jairzinho and Pele before Carlos Alberto nearly broke the net. Most British right-backs would have hit it into row Z.
Probably because I don’t get to them as often as some people based further north, I love going to Anfield, Goodison and St James’’ Park, great football grounds (not “stadiums”) in interesting cities. But the best is the Amex, not because it’’s beautiful and comfortable (which it is) or because I’m a Brighton fan (which I am) but because so many people fought so hard to make it happen. As Brighton’s Life President Dick Knight has said, it had a history before it was even built.
…and the worst?
Fratton Park on a hot day. People talk about the atmosphere, but the press box is uncomfortable and cramped and in some seats there are pillars blocking the view of both goals. The hot day thing is to do with its position vertically above the gents. That’s the sort of atmosphere you can do without.
Your personal new-tech disaster?
While working for The Times, my antiquated laptop failed completely – an experience that News International employees of the time probably understand all too well – during a Chelsea v Burnley League Cup tie at Stamford Bridge. The outsourced copy-takers were hopeless. I couldn’t even make the one I was speaking to understand my byline (which, to be fair, does present something of a challenge), let alone a Chelsea team full of other foreign names. And of course, Sod’s Law enured that the game was never going to end up as a straightforward 2-0 home win worth about 350 words. It went to extra-time, then penalties, Chelsea lost at home to a Championship side and Didier Drogba had something thrown at him and unwisely threw it back. So there’d be a back-page write-off as well as a page lead inside.
Fortunately, when I realised that I was up against it and called the desk, I’d heard the words : “Let me put you on to Keith Pike.”” Many FWA members will know Keith and that there was no surer guarantee that all would be well. Between us we managed to produce a coherent report, a rewrite and a back-page lead on the missile-throwing incident.
I repeated an allegation made previously by a colleague about a player without checking that he had his facts right. Fortunately the player settled for a retraction from the paper.
Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
Alan Pardew, in front of witnesses. The mistaken person was a rather attractive woman. I should have played along and seen what developed, but with my luck she’’d have turned out to be a disgruntled West Ham fan ….
Most media friendly manager?
In common with many colleagues, I like Arsene Wenger. He has the gift of making you feel that he’s talking to you personally in a room full of other journos. And having Gus Poyet working just up the road for three and a half years meant that there was often a story to be had even in a quiet week.
Best ever player?
Brian Horton. Peter Ward got all the glory in Alan Mullery’s 1977-81 Brighton team, but Horton was the main man – a tough, skilful leader. Close seconds would be Marcel Desailly and Normen Hunter (see below).
Best ever teams (club and international)?
My mother was from Leeds, so whenever we visited, my cousins took me along to Elland Road to see the Revie team of Giles, Gray, Hunter, Lorimer at al. People remember the ‘dirty Leeds’ tag, but some of the football was sublime, and Eddie Gray was an artist. The goal he scored against Burnley in 1970 when he dribbled past four or five defenders (maybe he went past one of them twice) is justly famous but see if you can find a clip showing his other goal in the same game.
Internationally, Poland 1974 -– lucky to eliminate England at Wembley the previous year, but Lato, Deyna, Gadocha and company made the most of it in the World Cup finals in West Germany and should have gone all the way.
Best pre-match grub?
Chelsea have raised their game, but Arsenal still shade it for me in the south and Man City in the north. And Tottenham are improving.
Best meal had on your travels?
With most meals, it’s the company that makes it, and any bunch of football writers round a table usually results in a good occasion. Great food is a bonus. But I remember a Sky/NFL trip that took in Peter Luger’s Steak House in Brooklyn where the food is so good that a request for mustard (not by me, I hasten to add) was rightly regarded as an insult.
…and the worst?
A lot of us went out in Bucharest one night and found a restaurant down a side street serving traditional Romanian food. We were persuaded to have the platter of local delicacies. There was one dish that nobody liked and when we asked the waiter what it was, he conveyed through the medium of mime that it was the reproductive organs of a sheep.
Best hotel stayed in?
The Intercontinental in Istanbul when I was on a Champions League trip with Rangers. Because I flew direct from London rather than joining the official trip from Glasgow, I arrived late and all they had left was a suite with incredible views over the Bosphorus. And meals at their award-winning rooftop restaurant thrown in. Tragic.
…and the worst?
The EasyHotel at Harlington, near Heathrow and the QPR training ground. My room was a converted garage with no windows and a hospital-style bathroom attached. After that I even looked forward to spending eight hours in a cramped economy class seat.
Favourite football writer?
Where do you start? Paul Hayward makes it seem so effortless, Martin Samuel for his breadth of inspiration, Ian Herbert keeps getting better, and there are many, many others. But none has ever matched Dave Kidd’’s moment of genius when he wrote that a crowd “accused Robbie Savage of one-in-a-bed sex romps.”
Favourite radio/TV commentator?
I grew up listening to Brian Moore on The Big Match and I’m pleased to say that I got to interview him once for Total Football and he was exactly what you’d expect – a football enthusiast and one of the nicest blokes you could hope to meet. Of those still alive, Simon Brotherton did a fantastic job with the Polish names in the Euros. And in America, Jim Brockmire (look him up on YouTube) was unique – “Look how they massacred my boy …”
If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
Send chief executives and press officers to the United States to see how clubs, coaches, players and journalists can work together. We’’re part of the machine that helps make football such a big part of the fabric of British life, we’re not the enemy. Well, most of us aren’’t.
One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
I’’ve reported on Super Bowls and a World Series, so I think I’’m sorted, thanks.
Last book read?
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – none of this JK Rowling nonsense for me. Wait, what …? Seriously, I recently re-read the first few James Bond novels. Most of the films are nonsense, but Ian Fleming could write.
Favourite current TV programme?
The Americans, Dexter or Lilyhammer. I was disappointed that Lie To Me was cancelled after series three.
Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?
Never turn any work down, you never know where even the most unpromising assignment might lead. And never, ever throw a contact number away. Most importantly, keep in mind that the hard work you put in at the beginning may all be worth it one day. With luck, you’ll end up doing a job that most people would kill (or maim) for. Sitting through the worst goalless draw imaginable is better than the best 90 minutes of almost anyone else’’s working week. And you’ll meet some great people.
Nick Szczepanik covers matches for the Independent and the Independent On Sunday.