FWA Q&A: Oliver Kay

Oliver Kay of the Times on a garlic bread factory, a nightmare in Naples and a load of rubbish in Braga…

Your first ever newspaper?
The first to employ me full-time was the Nottingham Evening Post, which I joined as a trainee sports reporter, but I’d done a lot of work experience before that, starting on the Crewe/Nantwich Chronicle and then spending several months on the Evening Sentinel in Stoke. I learned a lot at the Sentinel, including that one of the few ways to stop the press – literally – is to put a foil-wrapped pasty in a microwave so that it catches fire, setting off the alarms and automatically bringing the fire engines round. “Who is responsible for this?” “The work experience kid on sport.”

Have you ever worked in a profession other than journalism?
I worked in a pub while trying to break into journalism, but my best answer to this has to be working in a garlic bread factory one summer. Twelve-hour shifts in a garlic bread factory. I was absolutely useless. I would slow the whole conveyor belt down. I was to Primebake what Dimitar Berbatov is to Manchester United – but without the good bits. I didn’t last long.

What was your finest achievement playing football?
My playing career peaked when I scored a hat-trick aged in my one of my first matches for primary school, aged eight. I was or am genuinely two-footed and can hit a decent pass, but essentially I’m lazy, slow and my mind wanders, so there was no danger of becoming a footballer. I’m so out of practice now that, on the rare occasions my back will withstand a kickaround, I’m an embarrassment.

Most memorable match covered?
A few stand out for different reasons. For unpredictability combined with high quality Manchester United v Real Madrid in 2003. For best performance by one team then possibly Argentina v Serbia & Montenegro in the 2006 World Cup and the Cambiasso goal. For atmosphere, Liverpool v Chelsea Champions League semi-final second leg in 2005. I don’t think my ears have been the same since.

Best stadium?
You can’t beat a ground with atmosphere and soul. The ones that come to mind are Villa Park, Anfield, Goodison, Old Trafford, Celtic Park, Ibrox, all of which are fantastic when — and I must stress this — they’re at their best. Of the great European grounds, Camp Nou and the Bernabeu are great, but the atmosphere often feels a little sedate. I love San Siro. At least when it’s full, there’s a fervour there that you don’t get in Spain. Shame about the wifi.

…and the worst?
When I went to Braga in Euro 2004, I looked around the ground, which is built into a rockface, and I thought “Wow.” Before too long I’d changed my mind to “Actually, this is just rubbish.”

Your best ever scoop?
I’ll follow what Neil Ashton said. My best scoop is my next one (although you’ll probably have longer to wait for mine than Ash’s.)

Your personal new-tech disaster?
Napoli v Manchester City a few months ago was one of the worst. My laptop failed all night. I couldn’t get on the internet through the wifi or my dongle. I’m always happy to do it the old-fashioned way, talking to a copytaker, but I couldn’t get a phone line out either. It was a stressful night, which might be why, having got to Naples airport afterwards, I left my phone on the bus. Nice work.

Biggest mistake?
Trusting the word of people when instinct tells you they’re chancers and liars. You learn from things like that.

Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
I used to look a lot like Muzzy Izzet when he was at Leicester and I was slimmer. But in terms of actually being mistaken, a lot of people on Twitter mistake me for Ollie Holt — mostly when they’re angry. There was another occasion when I was driving to a match when I heard on the radio “We’re joined now by Oliver Kay from The Times.” Ever professional, Ollie somehow continued without putting right that slur on his character.

Most media friendly manager?
There are the obvious ones like Harry Redknapp, Neil Warnock and Sam Allardyce who are always available and always willing. It does surprise me slightly that there is such a public backlash against those who are willing to communicate rather than those who don’t. The majority are accommodating both publicly and privately. One I really like is Roberto Martinez.

Best ever player?
The best of my lifetime are Maradona and Messi. I loved Maradona even when we were all supposed to hate him in 1986. I never had chance to watch Maradona play live, but watching Messi is a huge privilege. He’s a genius.

Best ever teams (club and international)?
This Barcelona team are the best club side I’ve witnessed. To dominate Europe in the Champions League era is incredible, never mind to do so in the style they have. Some of their antics can be off-putting, but they only seem to resort that in matches against Real Madrid. International? As well as Spain, I’ve had soft spots for France of 1984, Holland of 1988, West Germany of 1990 and France of 2000, but the Brazil team of 1982 – Zico, Socrates, Junior, Eder, Falcao – was the one that opened my eyes to the world beyond my League Ladders.

Best pre-match grub?
Arsenal and Chelsea are good – Chelsea let themselves down with plastic plates and cutlery – but the carvery at Manchester City is the best. It’s best not to eat for a couple of days beforehand if going to City.

Best meal had on your travels?
Why have we moved on to food? The best meal on a work trip was probably at the River Café in Brooklyn. Fantastic food, but probably above all because I’d flown my wife out to join me in New York at the end of a pre-season trip. If I’d gone there with a group of journalists, we would only have ended up talking shop.

…and the worst?
I’ll try anything that’s different – from bear sausages in Warsaw to whale steaks in Oslo. One thing I’ll never try again is the range of delicacies I sampled from a street hawker in Beijing on a pre-season tour: a few beetles, a scorpion and a silkworm. The beetles and the scorpion were tolerable, but the silkworm was stomach-churning. I paid for it for about a week afterwards … .

Best hotel stayed in?
I’m less fussed about home comforts than about location. Put me in a hotel near Las Ramblas or Broadway or Ipanema and I’ll be happy as long as the bed is comfortable.

…and the worst?
Is there a bad hotel in Monaco? Yes. And our travel company managed to find it. I’m not one to complain about this kind of thing, but it’s tough being on a business trip in a hotel room that doesn’t have a plug socket. I also spent a fortnight of the 2006 World Cup in a grim place on an industrial park in Dortmund, where the seat of the desk chair as high as the desk. Again, not great working conditions.

Favourite football writer?
There are some brilliant ones in this country. I would happily reel off dozens who I admire. If pushed for one, I’d say my ex-colleague Martin Samuel. Sometimes I disagree violently with his columns – a few times recently, in fact – but I always enjoy them. For a columnist to entertain, provoke AND inform takes some doing and in my opinion Martin is the best at it.

Favourite radio/TV commentator?
I always liked Barry Davies, even if there was always the suspicion that he’d rather be commentating on the pommel horse, Wimbledon or the Trooping of the Colour. TV-wise these days, I’d say Martin Tyler or Clive Tyldesley – Tyler’s reaction to Sunderland’s stoppage-time winner the other week really caught the moment – but I always enjoy radio commentaries more. If you listen to a match on 5 Live, you know you’re going to get a really good commentary. (Or at least you’re more likely to take their word for it … .)

If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
Just one? It’s a poor state of affairs that we don’t have post-match and even pre-match mixed zones, where reporters have the opportunity to speak to players as they pass. But we’re a million miles from that when Manchester United don’t even hold a post-match press conference. That is a ridiculous situation, which neither the Premier League nor we as a football-writing community should have allowed to take hold. And do print that.

One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
Outside football? Pah. I would have loved to be at the Rugby World Cup final in 2003 or to have been ringside at one of the all-time great fights, but I’ve always been about football. What am I looking forward to most at the Olympics? The football.

Last book read?
Currently reading “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen. The last sport book I read was Ronny Reng’s “A Life Too Short”, about Robert Enke, which is a stunning, brilliantly researched and extremely important work. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Favourite current TV programme?
Not sure you’d class either as current, but I’ve just been catching up with the latest series of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Thick Of It, both of which are brilliant.

Your most prized football memorabilia?
I’ve got programmes and ticket stubs going back way before I was born, but I’ve not really gone out of my way to get things signed. There are plenty of things I treasure – programmes, shirts, old photos – but no particular stand-out item.

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