The real-life tales of a football writer
It’s been another week of interviewing footballers – and more besides...
– Watched Lionel Messi FC destroy Stuttgart. After the game, another British journalist and I waited with the understandably downbeat German media for an hour in their mixed zone. There are now two mixed zones at Barça, one for each team.
Virtually every media-savvy Stuttgart player stopped to talk, but we wanted to speak to Jens Lehmann and Alexsandr Hleb. We later discovered that Lehmann, 40, had been the first on the team bus and we’d missed him. Hleb was the last player to come out. His English is OK and he was friendly enough, though still seething that his side had given Messi too much space.
– Had a few beers with Thomas Helmer, the former Bayern Munich captain and 68 times German international. He works as a sports journalist for TV and is very down to earth.
He played 191 games for Bayern Munich and was on the bench in the 1999 Champions League final. I got him to talk me through Sheringham and Solskjaer’s goals, bit by bit. He shook his head as he spoke. There’s still pain there. He was much happier reminiscing about winning Euro 96 at Wembley.
He had a great career, which included an unhappy spell at Sunderland. As Bayern club captain, he was often the peacemaker between the warring factions of Lothar Matthaeus and Jurgen Klinsmann. Franz Beckenbauer would summon Thomas and his actress wife to his house in Austria for summit meetings to discuss the egos in the Bayern dressing room.
– Flew to Manchester the next day. United had a game against Liverpool - a team who used to win the league in the '70s and '80s. Before that, I was invited to be a guest on the BBC World Service on Saturday afternoon to discuss the protests at Manchester United. The BBC really did their homework and had some top quality opinions from around the globe, including one NFL franchise owner who stuck up for the Glazers.
Most United fans don’t feel the same. I stood with a couple of the grafters before the game and watched them sell out of green and gold scarves. The protest has been the biggest shot in the arm for the Manchester swag industry – and it’s helped that the club can hardly sell official green and gold scarves.
– Met Andrew Cole in Manchester for a three-hour discussion. He’s up for doing an autobiography, but it has to be warts and all. His chapter in my last book really surprised people and he gets better with every conversation. Some of his stories are absolutely scandalous. Andrew is also extremely reliable. We do a column once a week and he’s on the phone if I’m late calling him. I like that.
He’d been at Cheltenham the day before for the races; drunks still come up to him, point at his head and sing the "he gets the ball and scores a goal" song. I think they want him to join in and bounce around with them.
– Went to City vs Everton. Put a cap and scarf on (not a green and gold one) and went with two City mates. I’ll be writing a lot about both teams and wanted to get up to date on the Baines and Bellamys. You see far more at the game – on and off the field - in comparison with television.
My ticket was in the Everton end so I couldn’t really speak, what with my Man-ches-tor accent. I sat there as everyone around me sang "Manchester is full of sh*t." “It’s not!” I didn’t stand up and shout. “You should give it a chance and stop being so uncharitable.”
Everton were very impressive, especially in their gameplan: they smothered City in the middle and didn’t let them play. They can also call upon excellent flair players like Arteta, Saha and Pienaar.
– Went to that London because that’s where all the cockney media live and meetings take place. First stop was the lively Exmouth Market, which was full of Nathan Barley types who have never been north of Buckinghamshire.
One who's definitely not like that is Mark Ellingham, the founder of the Rough Guides, who is a United fan. We’ve done several books together and talked about future ideas.
– Went to meet Luke Bainbridge in a nearby café. Luke was editor of City Life magazine in Manchester and until recently on the now-defunct Observer Music Magazine. It’s a shame that closed, but then the Guardian Media Group give everything away for free online these days and – perish the thought – you had to pay for The Observer to get its music magazine.
I waited for Luke by a lady in a wheelchair, who was very chirpy. She was a Scouser from Anfield and, despite not liking football, gave me loads of abuse for being a United fan!
– Met James Scowcroft, who's still playing at Leyton Orient. Great lad. He’s been buying UWS for years and is really into fan culture. It’s heartwarming when a footballer is so interested in the fans and he had endless questions about ticket allocations and atmospheres. He’s read loads of books on football and is full of stories about playing against all the big names.
Top-of-the-table Norwich City are coming to Leyton Orient soon and he’s expecting loads of abuse because he played in the best Ipswich team since the '70s. “I’ll have 3,000 people slaughtering me,” he said. “So I’ll just look right into the eyes of one of them and watch them freak out. Then I’ll be focused.”
– Finally, interviewed a lad called Paul Scholes for United We Stand. He hates interviews and was better off the record than on it. We invited readers to send questions in and got this belter: “Why didn’t your only son, Jesus Christ, inherit your ginger hair?”
He laughed at that one and shook his head.
Confessions of a Correspondent
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