FWA Q&A: Philippe Auclair

In this week’s FWA Q&A, we chat with Philippe Auclair of France Football about the Flintstones, Richard E Grant and having Thierry Henry’s coathanger at home…

Your first ever newspaper?
France Football, as it happens, if it’s football we’re talking about. Otherwise, Le Courrier Cauchois, a minuscule weekly from my native Normandy, for which I wrote ‘colour pieces’ about local history while still at school.

Have you ever worked in a profession other than journalism?
Let’s see: chef (in Brussels); musician (everywhere); mushroom collector; I also invented a board-game and still do a few voiceovers (highlight: dubbing The Flintstones in French).

What was your finest achievement playing football?
Being picked to play for my university when I’d gone something like six years not scoring a goal. I was supposed to be a left-sided destroyer. Really.

Most memorable match covered?
In terms of emotion, Arsenal’s 1-0 at the Bernabeu in 2006. In terms of action, the 4-4 between Chelsea and Liverpool in the second leg of the 2009 Champions League quarter-final. I was commentating the game for French radio, adrenalin pumping in my veins for hours afterwards.

The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
Either Dennis Bergkamp’s pirouette and goal against Newcastle (you know the one)…or Alain Giresse scoring France’s third goal against West Germany in Sevilla, 1982. Could someone stop the tape at this point, please?

Best stadium?
Highbury. Cue tightening of the throat and flood of beautiful memories…

…and the worst?
The Stadio delle Alpi [Juventus] was cold, nasty, atmosphere-less, a nightmare to work in. Good

Your best ever scoop?
The one I never used: a detailed count of the votes for the attribution of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, two weeks before the ‘decision’ was made. I couldn’t name my source, nobody believed me (including the guys at England 2018), and that was that. It still rankles.

Your personal new-tech disaster? A classic: checking my MP3 recorder was working…yes it does…doing a splendid one-to-one with Wenger…arriving home to find out I’d erased the interview instead of saving it to the hard disk. I was too embarrassed to call Arsène, so wrote the whole thing from memory, in a panicked trance-like state. I feel much better now I’ve confessed.

Biggest mistake?
A very funny one, at the 1991 Copa America. I was commentating for TV Sport – from London, of course, without proper team sheets, on a very small screen. Chile were playing Venezuela…who were playing in a different shirt from the one I was expecting. For a full five minutes, I believed one team was the other, and was waxing lyrical at how the minnows were outplaying the favourites. Then, I realised. I Froze. My co-commentator took over as I hyperventilated. From then on, I was the ‘analyst’ for that tournament. We didn’t get a single letter of complaint. Perhaps TV Sport didn’t have much of an audience then.

Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
Richard E. Grant, on a number of occasions, including at the Wimbledon dog track, where I was asked if there’d be a sequel to Withnail & I by a bookie. I dared not disappoint him.

Most media friendly manager?
Guus Hiddink. Media-friendliness is not just about being friendly, which can lead to cronyism, but more about answering questions without trying to spin them, and showing respect to the questioner. Guus never failed me – never failed us.

Best ever player?
Alfredo di Stefano, judging by what people I admire have told me of him. Among the ones I’ve seen in the flesh, Diego Maradona, who won a scudetto, a UEFA Cup and a World Cup on his own.

Best ever teams (club and international)?
Brazil 1970 will never be equalled, I’m convinced of that. As a club side, a purely personal choice: Valeri Lobanovsky’s 1980s Dinamo Kyiv team, which truly was poetry in motion.

Best pre-match grub?
Dead-heat between Chelsea and Arsenal.

Best meal had on your travels?
A stupendous barbecue organised by the Wadi Degla club in Egypt. This was during ramadan. Tough during the day (especially as we’d played six-a-side against their academy in the afternoon), but when Cairotes break their fast, oh boy…The finest lamb I’ve ever tasted.

…and the worst?
Try Auxerre’s sandwiches. They might change your views on French cuisine.

Best hotel stayed in?
The Ciragan Palace in Istanbul. A magical place in a magical city, right by the Bosphorus.

…and the worst?
The Britannia in Manchester. I don’t know where to start. A party of half-drunk sales reps had put on a blue movie on the bar video. It went downwards from then on. I actually got a refund.

Favourite football writer?
Brian Glanville is my master; prodigiously cultured, sharp, witty and brave. But I also think that David Lacey remains the greatest football reporter, which is not quite the same thing.

Favourite radio/TV commentator?
Martin Tyler. As a compere, Jeff Stelling. Who else?

If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
Simply enforce the regulations, and make sure that players do stop in the mixed zone or tunnel after the games. The current situation is disgraceful.

One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
The Cresta Run? No. Boxing Day test cricket down under, with Ian Bell approaching his triple century. By tea.

Last book read?
Ronnie Reng’s biography of Robert Enke, which is simply magnificent.

Favourite current TV programme?
I do not watch television unless there’s football, cricket or (at a pinch) rugby union on. I much prefer the company of books; and of people, naturally.

Your most prized football memorabilia?
The coathanger on which Thierry Henry placed his shirt after scoring a hat-trick against Wigan, on the day Arsenal played for the last time at Highbury. This coathanger is reserved for the tuxedo I wear at the FWA’s Gala Tribute Night. Why that is I couldn’t say.

Philippe Auclair has been France Football’s England correspondent for over a decade, and regularly contributes to Champions and The Blizzard. He can also be heard on talkSPORT and various BBC station and is a regular guest on the Guardian Football Weekly podcast.

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