Paul Lennon of the Irish Daily Star on a smelly Stafa…taking the Pierce…and why Jack is all right
Have you ever worked in a profession other than football?
In weekly newspapers, The Drogheda Local News and Meath Weekender in Navan, I covered news, features, music and many sports. While football featured prominently, so too did gaelic football and, to a lesser extent, hurling. When I began to work in Dublin, I initially combined football with the two gaelic codes.
Most memorable match?
That’s a tough one. For sheer drama on the big occasion, it’s hard to surpass Manchester United’s 2-1 Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich in 1999. Considering that Alex Ferguson selected a lob-sided midfield, was without the suspended Roy Keane and Paul Scholes and that United were outplayed for lengthy spells, the last gasp double was truly extraordinary.
From an Irish perspective, I was amongst the Green Army behind Peter Shilton’s goal in the Neckarstadion in Stuttgart in June, 1988 when my Irish Daily Star columnist colleague Ray Houghton headed the ball into the English net. Ireland’s first ever appearance at a major tournament celebrated by a win over the auld enemy in the opening game. ‘Razor’ repeated the feat against Italy in Ireland’s opening match of the 1994 World Cup finals in Giants Stadium. By now, I was amongst the press corps so a degree of decorum was called for – but not too much – when the final whistle sounded.
As in politics, all football is local so when my home town club Drogheda United won its first ever FAI Cup crown in 2005 and then a first league championship two years later, being present each time meant everything to me.
The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
Should it be Diego Maradona’s wonderful solo goal against England (no, not that one) in the 1986 World Cup finals? Maybe Marco van Basten’s volleyed goal for the Netherlands in the Euro 88 final? Or Don Givens’ hat-trick for Ireland against the USSR at a heaving Dalymount Park in a Euro ‘76 qualifier in 1974 (I know, that’s three but they had an inspirational effect on an 11-year-old listening to the late Philip Greene’s commentary on RTE Radio)?
Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion lives up to its awesome reputation with its four towering stands – that creep almost up to the side of the pitch – rising into the heavens and must make the vast arena really intimidating to any visiting player of a nervous disposition. PSV’s industrial sized electric heaters on the underside of the roof make the Phillips Stadium the finest on the globe on a freezing Dutch night.
…and the worst?
Tirana’s Qemal Stafa stands out for its filthy and smelly state but it’s only right to point out that in 1993 Albania was just emerging from its laugh-a-minute decades of life under Enver Hoxha’s particularly punishing brand of Communism. Cleanliness of sports’ arenas probably wasn’t too high on anybody’s agenda.
Your personal new-tech disaster?
The advent of WIFI and broadband have improved our lot on the road and relieved the pressure to a large degree. But when these two modes of connection and your fall back GPS system decide to collectively mount an imaginary picket on your laptop then you’re in trouble as happened in November, 2011 when Ireland had beaten Estonia 4-0 in Tallinn in their first leg of the Euro 2012 play-off.
With a tight deadline and Giovanni Trapattoni’s post-match press conference running late, the perfect storm was starting to rage. But as always happens on such occasions, a colleague rides to the rescue with Neil O’Riordan of The Irish Sun the knight in shining armour with a working WIFI link.
In my early days, sitting on a story to secure complete proof it was true instead of trusting my instinct and running with it. It happened a few times.
Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
Robert Redford, Pierce Brosnan………Actually, snooker wizard Steve Davis.
Most media friendly manager?
Jack Charlton could have his spats with hacks covering the Ireland team, could be coy enough on the record about team and injury news but he was amazingly frank and open with journalists off the record over a pint or cup of tea. Big Jack trusted you not to break his confidence when he revealed key information on players and tactics and you respected that when you wrote about the team.
Best ever player?
Lionel Messi gets the vote because his consistency of performance despite the defensive strategies in today’s game, the fitness levels of opponents and his refusal to be cowed by thuggish treatment at the hands of some players. And that’s before we consider his goals, passing, dribbling, work-rate…
Best ever teams (club and international)?
The current Spain team whose three consecutive tournament wins between 2008 and 2012 will probably never be equalled. Brazil (1970, 1982 and 2002), Netherlands (1974), France (1982, 1986 and 1998-2000) and Argentina (1978) weren’t bad either. Barcelona of recent seasons are hard to beat but Liverpool of the late seventies and early eighties, Ajax of the early 1970’s, Celtic in 1967 and Juventus of the seventies go close.
Best pre-match grub?
Ireland sponsors 3 serve up a very tasty and welcome meal at Dublin’s Dylan Hotel prior to home international games at the Aviva Stadium.
Best meal had on your travels?
During France 98, colleagues Peter Byrne, George Hamilton and Billy George directed Philip Quinn and I to a fine restaurant Le Petit Canard in Paris that lived up to their Irish patrons’ recommendations.
…and the worst?
The long suffering citizens of the states behind the Iron Curtain had, not surprisingly, little interest or the financial ability to serve up top nosh n the early 1990’s following independence from the USSR so Mars bars and bottles of Coke featured highly on more than a few journos’ menus during those days.
Best hotel stayed in?
Due to a mix-up by a travel agent – who had failed to book the hotel designated – I had to be upgraded on arrival at Euro 2008 in Zurich to the Alden Hotel. For a few days, football never felt so good.
…and the worst?
The one in Skopje, Macedonia in 1997 when Mick McCarthy’s 3-5-2 formation made its last ever appearance, Jason McAteer was sent-off for his Bruce Lee kung-fu kick and Ireland lost 3-2 in a World Cup qualifier. The aging kip brought minimalism to extreme, not bothering with curtains in the room and serving coffee and bread but nothing else for breakfast. When I started travelling to cover international and club matches in the early 1990’s eastern Europe was still emerging from the yoke of Communism so the food in various establishments in Bucharest, Sofia and Vilnius was fairly hideous. But as with Skopje, we were probably getting superior grub than most of the locals could afford.
Favourite football writer?
Love the rhythm of the words of Hugh McIlvanney, Patrick Collins, Peter Byrne, James Lawton and the late Con Houlihan.
Favourite radio/TV commentator?
The depth of verbal and online abuse of TV and radio commentators from some fans never ceases to amaze me. It’s a tough job when it’s done correctly and that’s the case in the overwhelming majority of cases in Ireland and Britain. George Hamilton, Martin Tyler, John Motson, Alan Green, Gabriel Egan and Greg Allen are all top class. There are very few who are not.
If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
Relations between Irish clubs and the media are quite good.
One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
NBA play-off final.
Last book read?
‘Boomerang’ by Michael Lewis.
Favourite current TV programme?
‘Match of the Day’ must be the all-timer while ‘Father Ted’ and ‘Fawlty Towers’ almost deliver even if I know every line at this stage.
Your most prized football memorabilia?
The match tickets and programmes from various World Cup finals I have covered are the physical treasures but it’s the memories of goals, games, players and colleagues’ company that are cherished most.
Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?
Work hard, listen to older colleagues’ advice, never refuse a marking and never be afraid to ask a question no matter how hard it may be with some managers and players taking great delight in trying to belittle a new kid on the block.