RORY SMITH of The Times on being mistaken for a drugs trafficker in Chile…why Ian Herbert grew a beard in 17 minutes…and Joycey’s two-foot long loaf
Have you ever worked in a profession other than journalism?
Regulars at several pubs in west Yorkshire will bear witness to the fact that I’m a better barman than a journalist. I was a Christmas card salesman for a while, too – in an office, not door-to-door, like some sort of festive tinker – but the best job I ever had was with a landscape gardener. My boss was a raging alcoholic. We’d do a bit of weeding and go for a fry-up, then he’d be off into the night. Or afternoon. Or the morning.
Most memorable match?
A toss-up between the 4-4 between Liverpool and Arsenal in 2009 – the one where Andrei Arshavin used up his lifetime’s supply of talent to hand Manchester United the title – and Tottenham beating Reading 6-4 in (I think) 2007 [it was 2007 but only just, Dec 29 – Ed]. Chelsea against Barcelona in the Champions League semi at the Nou Camp would be up there, too. That was just a ridiculous game of football.
The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
Of the ones that aren’t already on DVDs, Benitez’s press conference after Liverpool beat United 4-1 at Old Trafford was pretty special. Martin Blackburn walking down the steps of the Stadium of Light in Lisbon declaring that he “just wants to know everything about” Angel di Maria, like a love-sick teenager.
The Stadium of Light. You’re right in the gods, so the view is brilliant, and any ground where they release a bird of prey before a match is alright by me. The Allianz Arena is superb, too. The atmosphere at the San Paolo in Naples is unique, but there is a chance you’ll be stabbed by ultras before you’re allowed to experience it.
…and the worst?
Layer Road in Colchester was horrible. That takes it from Turf Moor on a Wednesday night in January during an FA Cup third round replay. The wind, whipping off the Pennines, cuts to your bones, but the smell of 10,000 Lancastrians lighting up at one end of the Main Stand at half-time just saves it. Also, on a side note: the press box at White Hart Lane. Really? Is that really the best you can do?
Your personal new-tech disaster?
I’m not sure it was my fault, to be honest, but the wifi at the Artemio Franchi in Florence is abysmal. We were there for the beginning of the end of Benitez’s Liverpool, and there was some intricate financial story breaking at the same time. None of us had any phone signal, any wifi, or any understanding of what a share issue was. That’s probably the single most stressful hour of my life, alleviated only by watching Ian Herbert’s face melt with the pain of it all. He used to look quite young, did Herbie. That night did for him. He grew a beard in 17 minutes.
Many and various. Asking Steven Gerrard after the 2012 FA Cup final what the mood was like in the dressing room. Mistaking Cristian Rodriguez for Mariano Gonzalez – or vice versa, I’m still not sure – after boasting that I could get us a Porto line in an Old Trafford mixed zone was pretty embarrassing. My favourite is suggesting, in the spirit of Garth Crooks, that Jonny Evans’s form was so good that it was a mystery why Fabio Capello wasn’t picking him for England. Mark Ogden still asks me when I think he’ll get the call up.
Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
I was once mistaken for a drug trafficker by a border guard in Chile. That may not be what you meant.
Most media friendly manager?
I’m contractually bound to say Rafa Benitez, but very few would agree with me. Roberto Martinez is brilliant to talk to, and David Moyes if the mood takes him. The most interesting – this sounds deliberately offbeat – was Ralf Rangnick, who used to be at Hoffenheim and Schalke. Perfect English – obviously – and really engaging on stuff like training methods and his playing philosophy.
Best ever player?
Messi, Maradona or Pele, depending on what floats your boat, I suppose. That’s quite boring, isn’t it? The ones that I loved watching when I was younger were Juan Roman Riquelme and Rui Costa. That laconic style, the effortless grace, the impression that they’ll stroll to the side of the pitch and have a smoke in a few minutes. That’s what football’s all about. I also spent much of my teens nursing an unhealthy obsession with Patrik Berger.
Best ever teams (club and international)?
I suspect I’ll tell my grandkids that I saw this Spain and this Barcelona play. The best teams are the ones that change the game, that leave the sport different. Both of those teams fall into that category, with Holland in the 70s, Brazil from 1958 to 1970, and Sacchi’s Milan.
Best pre-match grub?
Manchester City. The pick and mix puts them ahead of Arsenal’s ice cream. I have fond memories of the buffet at Watford when Boothroyd was there. It was like going to a children’s party (as in, that’s how I remember children’s parties being, not that I go to a lot of children’s parties now). Nothing’s a patch on when QPR had their catering done by Marco Pierre White, though. That was incredible.
Best meal had on your travels?
Henry Winter and Matt Lawton insisted on trying one of the little home-kitchen things in Lyon when Liverpool played there, and the food was magnificent. More magnificent was the fact that the usually reserved Paul Joyce managed to put away an entire loaf of bread during the course of the evening. Not like a Warburton’s Toastie loaf, either: a big, two foot long ciabatta. He loves bread, Joycey.
…and the worst?
Czech garlic bread in Ostrava. Just a loaf – an actual loaf – with whole cloves of garlic stuck in it. It hadn’t even been cooked.
Best hotel stayed in?
The Westin Palace in Madrid is pretty good: we had to swap with the Liverpool players for some reason, so they stayed in a Novotel or whatever, and we got their rooms at the best hotel in the city. Payback, that’s what that is.
…and the worst?
Er, the Stadium Apartments in Donetsk. I say “er” because it’s not really a hotel. It was a one-bed flat in a proper old Stalinist block on the outskirts, in an estate filled with mangy dogs and endemic sorrow. There were no towels, no hot water, no pillows and no duvet, though the latter two weren’t really relevant because there was no bed. There was no wifi and no plug sockets. It cost, I think, £500 for two nights. Slap on the back for Commodore.
Favourite football writer?
There are far too many to mention. There are loads of journalists who you read and think either you wish you could write like that or you wish you could get stories like that. The two who maybe don’t get the credit they deserve are The Times’ George Caulkin and Dion Fanning, at the Irish Sunday Independent. Both are genuinely different, which is a rare skill.
Favourite radio/TV commentator?
Ian Dennis [senior football reporter for Radio 5 Live], because of his famous love of wine gums. He carries two “grab-bags” wherever he goes, dishing them out to strangers and friends alike. He has the “there’s a moose, loose, aboot this hoose” advertising campaign of the mid-90s as his ringtone on his Nokia 8210. He has a dog called Maynard: that’s how much he loves them. That’s a little-known fact, but it is very much a fact.
If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
Something the FWA could help with, actually: I think we should get a compulsory mixed zone after Barclays Premier League games. Not a press officer going into the dressing room and asking “do you want to do the press?” in the same tone of voice as someone might ask if you want to attach electrodes to your genitals or lick a tramp, but a roped-off area where the players actually have to walk past the press, and decide if they want to talk to them or not. Make them front up, as they say in east London and films.
One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
Live, no holds barred, man on man Kabbadi. I reckon a Super Bowl would be pretty good, and it has built-in breaks for snacks, too.
Last book read?
*Desperately tries to think of something pretentious* My girlfriend’s got me into William Boyd – he gives good story – and before that Inverting the Pyramid. On a point of principle, I don’t buy Jonathan Wilson’s books, because I don’t want to contribute to his debauched, Bacchanalian lifestyle. But I saw that one in a bargain bin in Books Etc, so figured he wouldn’t be able to buy too much speed with my money.
Favourite current TV programme?
I quite liked The Newsroom. Especially the bit where all these producers in America are sitting around watching stories develop and they say: “Does anyone have a contact in the Jordanian militia?” And then two put their hands up and say: “Oh, I was at college with the man who does the catering for Hezbollah. He’s staying at my house at the moment.” Oh, and the Bundesliga highlights on ITV4. I love the commentary. “That’s a second goal for Aaron Hunt – and don’t forget, his Mum’s an Englishman.”
Your most prized football memorabilia?
I don’t really have any, to be honest. My Dad was 70 this year and Coventry City very kindly provided pictures of the 1935 and 1936 teams of which my Grandad, noted left-back Bernard Smith, was a member. He cost £1,000, did Bernard, in 1932. He was described as “young” at the age of 28, and his half-time routine consisted of a coffee and a fag. Anyway, I thought it was a really thoughtful gift. He hasn’t put them up yet.
Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?
Bring fingerless gloves, and always go back for seconds.