By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
Patrick Barclay is to leave the Times next month after two and a half years as the newspaper’s chief football commentator.
His departure is by mutual consent, a phrase that raises cynical eyebrows when related to a managerial exit but Barclay, one of the most experienced and respected football writers in what older hacks still call Fleet Street, insists it is true.
He told footballwriters.co.uk: ‘It was the Times’s decision not mine but I fully support it given my salary, relatively short time there and the need for cost cutting. In the shoes of whoever made the decision I’d have done the same.
‘I spoke to a senior executive and I was told they had a serious cost cutting exercise and a few days later I became part of it. I’m not being replaced as the title of chief football commentator, which must be the most pretentious ever devised, is being made redundant.’
Barclay has some meetings lined up and is anxious to continue working – ‘if someone wants me to join their staff in some capacity…I’ll see what comes along.’
Like most football writers, Barclay has known only one profession. He said: ‘That’s what I want to continue to do. I’ve written two biographies and there are an unlimited number of great men and women about whom you can write books.’
The love affair with what Pele called the beautiful game still burns strong with Barclay who is counting the days before the next Clásico between Real Madrid and Barcelona on Saturday. It is the sort of game where a football fan buys his wife or girlfriend a present, tries to explain Bill Shankly’s famous quote and watches the best two teams on the planet in a game that you can guarantee will not be dull.
‘I am certainly addicted to football,’ said Barclay who has no plans to seek counselling. ‘This series between Real and Barcelona is the greatest thing I have ever come across in club football. Even Spain’s version of the Community Shield last August between them was absolutely riveting.
‘I remember last year when Wayne Rooney was watching Barcelona’s 5-0 win last season on television, his wife came running in to the sitting-room because Wayne was up on his feet applauding in am empty room. Football of the quality we saw that night unites the Rooneys, journalists, fans and everyone in a wonderful spectacle.’
As Europe’s elite prepare for the final group ties in the Champions League spread over two days, it is difficult to remember how newspapers managed to cover the European Cup, Cup-winners’ Cup and UEFA Cup whose games were all played on the same day, even allowing for the fact there were fewer matches.
In the 70s and 80s there were no sports supplements and none of the blanket coverage football enjoys now.
Barclay said: ‘I remember the 1984 European Championship in France and England did not qualify. It was the Platini finals, nine goals in five games, and England toured South America instead, John Barnes scoring his famous Maracanã goal. English newspapers did not bother too much about Euro 84 and I covered the tournament travelling in a car with Brian Woolnough and Clive White. We were virtually the entire English media contingent, writing about 300 words a day but spending more time with a Michelin guide looking for places to eat.
‘That sort of thing is inconceivable today even if England didn’t qualify. They didn’t reach the finals of Euro 2008 but it was still a huge event in every newspaper.’
While he is unsure who he may be working for next summer, Barclay has already made plans to be in Poland and Ukraine for Euro 2012.
He said: ‘I spent a day last week negotiating my way through a budget airline’s timetables to book myself tickets. I’m not missing it or the 2014 World Cup.
‘At the 2010 World Cup the Times made an economic decision after England were eliminated so I had to pay to go to the semi-final in Durban between Spain and Germany. I certainly wasn’t going to miss one of the best games of the World Cup even if I had to finance it myself. Football is about experiencing the great moments, being able to relate to them as something you have experienced. I also went to one of the Clásicos last season at my own expense. It’s important to be there and not just watching teams on TV.
‘Even being turned away by a jobsworth is all part of the fun – well, after it’s over.’
Barclay is not the only football writer affected by News International’s belt tightening. He said: ‘When I came into the business I used to love reading David Lacey of the Guardian who is still writing brilliantly. My all-time favourite is Brian Glanville who is still working aged 80.
‘During their time other great writers have come through and in this context I must mention Ian Hawkey who has been a victim of the Sunday Times’s cost cutting. Ian is a writer of quality who gave a new aspect on European football and beyond.’