Andy Hunter Interview

A better one was a chimp with a typewriter but that seemed last

We are absolutely delighted that the consistently outstanding football writer, and probably most trusted voice there is in the media when it comes to Everton, Andy Hunter of the Guardian, could take a break from hacking phones and bribing coppers to give us a bit of a genuine insight into his profession.

How did you get to be where you are now, the Guardian’s Merseyside football correspondent?

Not through any grand plan. I wanted to become an architect until I saw how much work it took and so I studied English and Politics at university in Belfast instead. When I was over there my uncle encouraged me to give journalism a go. Instead of leaving university and applying for one of those 21 grand a year jobs that they used to tell you graduates were almost guaranteed I started writing to the Daily Post, the Echo, all the weekly papers on Merseyside and some nationals asking could I get some work experience. I actually got knocked back from the lot of them at first and it was only once I’d been back home for a month that the Crosby Herald and Bootle Times rang me and asked me to come in for a week.

That week turned into two, and then three, until eventually they offered me a YTS where I would work for them for four days a week and do a journalism course at Liverpool Community College on the other day, and they paid for that. After that I started working for the weekly sports group that included Crosby Herald and the Southport Visiter and I covered Marine, following them home and away when Roly Howard was there, which was one of the best groundings in football journalism you could have. I remember coming back from a great lads’ holiday in Magaluf and getting straight on a bus at eight o’clock to head up to Bishop Auckland – I’ve never been more depressed in my whole life!

I did that for a couple of years and then moved to the Echo and then to the Daily Post, then the Independent and eventually the Guardian, which is where I am now.

Who were the biggest influences on your career?

To be honest, because I never realised journalism was something I wanted to pursue until pretty late on I can’t say I ever studied any particular football writers or wanted to emulate them.

However, just working for the Echo felt like I’d achieved my ambition and I’ve worked under some outstanding sports editors who have all been a massive help. I always admired Ian Ross when he was at the Guardian – he was the one I would always want to read, and of course Frank McConville in When Skies Are Grey, he was the first person I read who made football writing mean something.

What are biggest differences between working for the local and national papers?

When you work for a local paper you have to be more willing to give the clubs the benefit of the doubt. You rely on them to fill the paper – for instance, every Friday you will ideally want to feature a double-page interview with a player ahead of the weekend game and so you need access to what is a pretty limited pool. On a national there isn’t the same sort of pressure because you have 20 Premier League clubs to choose from every week.

On a local there has to be a bit more give and take, because both sides need each other that little bit more. On a national you can probably get away with being more critical with your opinions.

When I was on the Daily Post, for instance, I ran into trouble with Walter Smith because of something I didn’t even write. After the Tranmere game I obviously caned Everton in my match report but then I had the following Friday off before covering the league game at Manchester United, which Everton lost 1-0. I got on well with Walter, who was a great bloke despite what the public perception might be, and so I got a bit of a shock when he cornered me in the Old Trafford press room and said, ‘Are you trying to get me fucking sacked?’

At that time you may recall that you used to write a column called Blue Watch for the Daily Post that didn’t actually have a by-line on it. He assumed it was an editorial piece written by me and was livid. I got on to Ian Doyle who had sub-edited it and asked him what the score was. He told me that he had been really uncertain about using the piece, although that didn’t really explain why he gave it the headline: SMITH MUST GO!

I had to go into Bellefield on Monday and have a meeting with Walter where he said that, because he understood how difficult my job would be without any cooperation from him, I wasn’t going to be banned from the training ground or press conferences but I was to never ask him a question ever again. Great!

That’s how it was for the rest of that season and so in the summer I went to Everton’s pre-season training camp in Italy in the hope of trying to mend some bridges. Me and the Echo’s Dave Prentice took Walter and his staff out for a meal, we put the cones out for training, anything. Thankfully, Walter called me over near the end of the week and just said; ‘Do you want to do that interview with me now then?’ He gave me over an hour of his time and nothing was ever said about the previous season again. He is a top bloke. Put ‘THAT Walter Smith interview’ into YouTube for a better idea of what he is really like.

Supporters have certain preconceptions about football journalists, and one is that they just make things up. How accurate is that?

I know people will read this and say ‘the lying bastard, he would say that’, but I can honestly say I have never made a story up. I’ve got plenty wrong, and that can come from being fed a line from an agent who wants to get his client a move, or even a club that is trying to move someone on, for instance, but in terms of just inventing stuff, it doesn’t pay for journalists to do that.

I can’t see why any journalist would, because what you want is to be trusted and to have a good reputation, and for your publication to be trusted too. If you start making stuff up you put all that in jeopardy. After a while people would cotton on if you were just inventing stories.

I think a lot of the suspicion surrounds transfers, and you do report deals that don’t come off. However, there will always be some basis of truth there. It could be the club approaching an agent and making an enquiry but then backing off when they find out what sort of wages the player is after. That happens all the time.

Everton might ask about some teenager from PSG reserves or somewhere but not follow it up for whatever reason. For me that’s still a story that supporters will be interested in because it gives an indication of what sort of players they are after in terms of strengthening the squad and maybe where they are financially.

What does an average working week look like for a regional football correspondent?

The good thing about the job is that every week is different, although you have to be prepared to work unsociable hours. You will be making calls and trying to see people at any time but there is a loose structure to the job as well.

If we take this week as an example, on Monday you would be doing follow up stuff on any big issues from the weekend. So this week it was all about Marouane Fellaini – you would be on the phone to the FA to see what the referee’s match report said and what possible consequences there could be. They have a press department and the people there primed with information concerning the major talking points we are going to be onto them about. If it’s too early for them to tell us what we need we would then maybe explore the precedents, like could he be done for three separate incidents or can it only be one?

You would check with the club as well to see if he is going to be punished internally. He might get a fine off the club or one of David Moyes’s preferred punishments is to tell them to stay away from training. They are on a
fortune so the fines don’t really have that much effect – his take on it is that they all really want to play football and so the best sanction is to tell them that they can’t for a while.

In midweek you would usually have matches to cover, press conferences before those matches and sometimes travelling to European games. Then in the build-up to the weekend Liverpool usually have their press conference on Thursday and Everton’s is on Friday. They are my main focus although I also cover Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers. The only time I’ve reported on Blackburn this year though was when Steve Kean was sacked and they appointed Henning Berg. When you are in the Championship it takes something like that to get national coverage.

How does covering the actual games work?

For a midweek or Sunday game you are writing what’s called a live report that’s going straight into the first edition of the next morning’s paper. You have to file your runner, which is literally a run through of the action in the match, five minutes before the final whistle. Then you have about an hour to do the press conferences, get the manager’s quotes and then rewrite for the main edition of the paper.

The problem you have now though is that your runner goes online straight away and you start getting slaughtered instantly in the comments for even the slightest mistake you’ve made. It’s only an hour later that what I would regard as the proper report replaces it.

If you are covering a Saturday game for a Monday paper the club will provide the whole of the press pack with one or two passes to go down to a mixed zone. At Anfield you stand on the corner of the Anfield Road and Main Stand, where the ambulance is, because all the players have to walk past there. It’s a question of shouting out to them and asking them to stop and give their reflections on the game or thoughts on any controversial incidents.

At Everton it’s slightly different. Two journalists go down near the players’ tunnel, but they give the Everton press officers a list of the three preferred players they want to speak to. They in turn will go into the dressing room and ask them for a yes or a no – normally a no – but hopefully they will come and give you a few minutes. On Saturday for instance Fellaini would be the one you want, because he was the story. If the journalists get any quotes they then come back and share them with the rest.

If the story is that someone has fucked up, how do you approach that, do you just come right out with it and ask them about it?

Absolutely, that’s your job, to ask the questions that everyone is asking. They can choose not to answer you, but you have to ask the question.

It can often depend on who it is and even what sort of mood they are in on the day. Sometimes they will just blank you but there are times when they want to try and explain why they’ve made a mistake, or defend themselves, and I always think fair play to them when they do that. Human nature being what it is, perhaps those players who do that might get a fairer hearing from the press at times than others. It’s a similar thing with managers. A manager who speaks to the press after a defeat, say, is able to have a greater influence on the match report than a manager who says nothing, even if it is just a case of getting his argument across in a critical article.

How has the industry changed since you have been involved?

I started 18 years ago and the industry, and in turn the job, have been transformed beyond all recognition by the internet. You hear the accusation of ‘lazy journalism’ all the time, but the demands on the journalists who are still lucky enough to be in a job are far greater than ever. As well as your match reports and daily news stories there are live blogs, and interacting with people who are criticising your blog in the comments section underneath, Twitter, and there are no hard and fast deadlines now. You don’t get to spend all day perfecting a story for the next morning’s paper. You need to keep the website up-to-date.

Another recent development is the staff reporter at a Saturday game having to write match reports for both the Sunday and Monday papers, in my case the Observer and the Guardian. This is a result of the cut-backs that are taking place throughout the industry and the freelance budget being slashed. Not only is it that awkward just in terms of not wanting to repeat yourself, but while you are writing the report for the Observer the Monday journalists are going to the mixed zone to get the quotes and you are cut out of that because you are not in a position to speak to a player yourself.

That seems a bit harsh, seeing as only two go and do the interviewing anyway, why can’t they share them with you as well?

Just say Fellaini had made his apology to one of the reporters on Saturday right after the game. That would have been a hard, fresh news line for Monday’s paper and everyone would have led on that. If those Monday lads shared those quotes with someone who was writing for both days’ papers though, they would risk them being used on the Sunday and undermining their own stories.

We get on, and I spend more time working alongside my ‘rivals’ than I do anyone from the Guardian, but there’s still always an element of competitiveness and a need to protect your story.

What’s it like being so more accessible to readers now?

Some journalists absolutely love it and are obsessed with Twitter – you can’t have a normal conversation with them because they are glued to their phone. Others can do without it because, let’s be honest, it’s football we’re covering and not many people go out of their way to contact you to say they value your opinion. I was called a prick on there the other week because there was a mistake in a Guardian match report. I wasn’t even at the game. If you’ve made a cock-up then people have every right to have a go, that’s fair enough, but I think the importance of Twitter itself has been massively overblown. I think inter-acting with the comments section on your paper’s website is more interesting. The problem I have there is that, by the time my match report or blog goes on-line, I’m probably in the car on the way home from a game, on my way to a press conference or on the phone trying to chase a story up, and in my opinion those things are still more important.

David Moyes doesn’t have a reputation as being particularly accommodating to the good men and women of the fourth estate; how do you find him?

Moyes is absolutely great to deal with. He is not old-fashioned in his methods or as a man, but in terms of how he is with us he has become sort of what you think of as old school, and that’s in a good way. He answers every question no matter how difficult it is, he has time for you and if he trusts you it’s no problem to have his number and put a call in to him if you need to.

You can see him socially too and he will speak to you off the record and be very straight with you. All that comes from being in the job 10 years I think; he feels really comfortable at Everton and with us now. He has always spoken to us, from day one, but he has definitely mellowed and opened up a lot, and I think he would admit that himself. If you speak to older journalists about dealing with managers in previous generations the relationships they had were quite similar to how Moyes is with us now.

He’s not the only one, there are some other managers still like that, but a lot more of them seem a bit wary of saying too much or being too close to journalists. I think that’s because of the demands of the job to a large extent – up until the mid to late 90’s there would only be a handful of radio and newspaper journalists at the press conferences, but now it’s massive with people there from the television, radio, websites, daily papers and the
Sunday papers.

So now you see someone like Brendan Rodgers, who is a new manager, looking around the room trying to find a familiar face and if he sees one he will probably latch on to them and be more friendly towards them. It will take him time to work out who he can trust, who he can speak to openly off the record at times and be confident that they won’t splash his comments all over the internet.

What’s your opinion on the celebrity football writers you see on The Sunday Supplement?

I’m of the opinion there is no such thing as a celebrity football writer, but a few who imagine they are. In terms of the Sunday Supplement, most of the journalists on there are at the top of the profession and worth listening to because they do have excellent contacts and opinions on the game. That doesn’t make them a celebrity, however, just someone who, like me, is fortunate enough to cover football for living. You can never lose sight of that.

Neville Southall Interview

Many thanks to James Corbett for setting up this interview with Everton legend and genuinely decent fella Neville Southall. The book they wrote together, The Binman Chronicles, is in the shops now.

How did you find writing the book?

In some ways it was really easy, and in some times it was really hard. Sometimes it was really funny and other times it was actually quite sad. Over all it was good, but I have to admit that I wasn’t great at remembering when things happened, because it all goes by so quick. I’d say something happened at a certain time and it would turn out that it was actually three years before, so James had to check a lot of things out. In fact we’ve still got a bit of an argument going on, because I’m sure Jeff Hopkins came on against Brazil, but he keeps telling me it was Iceland.

You say early on that you did the book to show there’s more to your personality than perhaps the caricature – do you think you succeeded in that?

I think so, because a lot of people who know me who have read it say ‘That is you, that’s how you speak’ and they can picture me saying the stuff in the book, and that’s what I wanted. As a fan you only see the fella standing there in goal, sometimes doing a lot, other times not so much, but I like to think there’s more to me than just a footballer. I wanted people to know that I worked for a living before football and I work for a living now.

I also wanted to show how it wasn’t easy to progress through the ranks to the first team – it rarely is for anyone.

A lot of people perceive a sort of gravy train for ex-players now, in coaching and media, but you took another route, working in education.

I couldn’t live on the money that I had when I finished playing for the rest of my life and I also need to be doing something all the time. I thought about it recently when I had a week off – I couldn’t just do nothing, even if I won the lottery, I’ve got to have something to do that I believe in.

Reading the book, it’s clear that as a brilliant player you get a certain amount of latitude in terms of doing your own thing – you have something that the club wants – but to make the transition into coaching and management that relationship changes and perhaps you struggled a bit with that.

You have to get involved with the politics, and I really don’t do politics. Even working in schools I see a lot of it, and although I’m getting better at dealing with it I just think people should use their common sense instead of spending too long playing games.

The way I look at it, if you employ me then you want to hear my opinion – I think that’s healthy – otherwise why bother having me there? In footballing though that’s often not really the case. I remember arguing with Steve Bruce in front of all the players because he said the keeper should stand in the middle of the goal for free-kicks, and I said ‘No, I don’t think so’. He disagreed, said the lad was at fault for the goal on the Saturday, and I insisted he wasn’t. I didn’t think it was a problem but he didn’t like it.

If you are that afraid of hearing someone else’s opinion then firstly why have him there, and secondly, you’re probably not that good at your job.

Football’s got worse and worse for this. You look at certain people and you wonder: what does he give you exactly? And often I think they are just there to protect the manager. Again, if you need protecting then you are probably not that good at your job.

When I did a bit of managing with the Wales team I would tell all the coaches what I wanted and ask them for their opinions and whether they agreed. I’d listen, and based on what they said I might change my mind or I might not, but we would have an open discussion, because if they were just ‘yes men’ they were no good to me.

I try to do the same with the kids I work with now – you listen to everyone because they might help you look at things in a different way.

There are definitely fellas in the game now though who have got jobs because they are good at watching the manager’s back, not because they are decent coaches, and that’s not for me.

I always remember a book you did when you were playing, a diary of a season, and in it you said that the older players who a manager is loyal to can often be the ones who end up getting him sacked. Do you still believe that?

Yes, I think you definitely have to be ruthless. I learned that much from Howard. I think there is a right way of doing things though. You should go in from day one, be blatantly honest and say ‘You are not my cup of tea and I’m not going to play you much, so if you want to move on, that’s fine.’

Whenever I’ve managed at club level I go in the changing room, leave the door open and say to everyone, ‘If you don’t want to play for me then no problem, there’s the door, see you later.’

No one ever walks out, but you quickly find out the ones who should have, as they start to try and play politics.

Sometimes the older players can be great, if you can get them to share your frame of mind and especially if they are prepared to help the younger lads. If they are not willing to do that then I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t want them at my club. You can’t have someone who is sulking if he has to play a couple of games in the reserves – they have to get in there and be role models. I learnt that from seeing how Howard would play for the reserves, he took it really seriously, and then I’ve seen other fellas more or less just mess about.

It seems increasingly fashionable nowadays for players to say that they don’t even like football, that it’s just a job. Was that the case when you were playing?

No, not really, not until the Premier League started and Sky got involved anyway, you started to notice some attitudes changing a bit then. Some players maybe do have a bit of plan of where they want to be, and football is a means to an end, but fellas like me and Rushy never really thought beyond football.

Players are different now, and I think that’s one of the reasons why fans get a bit fed up with it. Even when I played, we weren’t much different from the sorts of lads who were supporters, but they seem so far removed now, a lot of them.

Things have been watered down to an extent in English football, because of the number of foreign players chiefly. I have no problem with them, especially the good ones, but I hate it, for instance, when they come over and then complain about the weather. What did they expect? Or when they start rubbishing different parts of the country – they only want to live in London being a favourite one.

Loads of them are good lads but the ones who come over and start moaning I find disrespectful. We were always lucky at Everton, they were all decent lads we signed from abroad. Stefan Rehn was a great lad, so was Preki – it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t play eleven-a-side. I actually didn’t realise how big a star he was in the States until I read Pete Cormack’s book – he said that Preki was the big outstanding talent over there. He really struggled to adapt here though, although I think maybe if he had gone to West Ham or Norwich, somewhere where he could get away with the occasional bit of magic, he might have done alright. Not at Everton though, the fans are ruthless, and rightly so.

Obviously you loved it when Everton were great, going out expecting to batter teams every week, and you were flattered by the interest of, say, Manchester United, so weren’t you ever tempted to leave instead of playing for some terrible Everton teams?

When I went to Bury I liked it straight away, it way my sort of environment, I liked it at Winsford as well, and then Everton. Torquay was alright as well.

When I left Everton for Stoke though I walked in and I didn’t like it at all. It just felt wrong. Southend was no good either.

So it was important to me that I felt happy and comfortable in the environment at Everton, so I never really thought about leaving. I was in a good position where I could do whatever I wanted to do and they would just live with me. I also thought that if you sign a contract then you have a duty to honour that, even though it might be easier in some ways to just jump ship.

When it comes to the quality of the team as well, I really didn’t mind as long as the lads were giving everything, and they did. I always had a good comparison with Wales as well. They were nowhere near as good as Everton in the 80s, and the facilities and the kit weren’t as good, but the lads were all grafters, there was a good atmosphere.

So for me, there was never any real reason to leave Everton.

Do you feel that you played in teams who didn’t really try?

No, not really. It’s very rare that players don’t. Sometimes when they are lacking in confidence they might try and hide a bit, and not make runs to help each other like they should. Another one you see is keepers who stay rooted to their lines, or nowadays at corners you see some of them actually behind the line instead of being out there commanding the area.

You see players slowing down going into tackles as well, making sure that they come second, and that shows that maybe they lack confidence – it might be because they know that the manager doesn’t really believe in them and doesn’t really want to pick them. So there are all sorts of little things that go on that add up to their performance. It’s rare that they are not really physically trying though.

Take Peter Beardsley when he came to us, he was playing balls that he expected people to run onto because they were on his wavelength. But often they weren’t and it was making him look bad and he ended up getting a bit of stick when he was easily our best player.

In the book you say that the League Cup Final against Liverpool when you matched them at Wembley was the point where you started to believe in what the team was capable of. Was there a similar point when you thought ‘it’s over for this side’?

To be honest, when you are playing it just sort of creeps up on you. Colin came in and started changing personnel and we did alright at first, but it’s difficult when you have been in a team as good as we had not to just judge all new players against the great ones they are replacing. You have to adjust how you are playing ever-so-slightly for every new player, and that has a knock-on effect, but you see that they are trying and running their bollocks off and so you get on with it, but over two or three years there were so many new faces that things had changed an awful lot without you really realising.

I don’t know whether Colin would have done anything different with hindsight, I’ve never asked him, but I think he wanted it to be his team from the start and I can understand that.

Similarly I spoke to Sparky a while ago, about QPR buying so many new players, and he just said that they had to because the ones they had just weren’t good enough. It’s a matter of them gelling now, but I think we saw against Everton last week that when they do they should be a decent side. I think they need another forward though, because you have to score a lot of goals in the Premier League now, the way the game is. That’s why I think Jelavic has been so important for Everton – you can see the team has a belief that he will score if they make the chances. He’s not quite as good as Rushy in some ways, but he still reminds me of him in terms of the ratio of goals he gets compared to the chances. They are very similar in that.

Did you really enjoy playing against Rush?

He scored a lot of goals against me, and gave me the most injuries, but I always wanted to play against the best players, and he was certainly one of them. That’s what you get into the game for, to compete against the best and test how good you are.

I always enjoyed playing against the biggest teams too, the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United. In Europe though we never really played the very top sides, so that’s why the Bayern Munich game meant so much. I can certainly see why the Champions League is so big and so special now, playing those big games all the time. It takes some doing to go and win it.

With hindsight we all know the damaging effect that the European ban had on Everton – as a player, did it feel like that at the time though?

I’m just one of them fellas who thinks ‘Well, we can’t play in Europe so there’s no point in worrying about it.’ I did feel we were cheated, but we had to keep going, there were other things to be getting on with.

I think these days we would put up a challenge, but we didn’t at the time because the British government were happy for the clubs to be banned. Could you imagine them trying to do it now though, with all the money at stake and all the lawyers involved? They would struggle.

What do you think of the recent racial incidents and the refusal by some black players to wear the Kick It Out t-shirts?

I can understand the players’ frustrations to be honest. Racism was terrible in football when you go back to the 1970s, so there has been at least 40 years for rules to have been put in place to deal with this sort of thing, but these recent events have shown that the FA are totally unprepared.

It shouldn’t take the black players to highlight it now to get some proper rules in place, it’s ridiculous. The best thing that could happen would be for the FA to put a rule in place that just says that anyone found using racist language, be it a player or supporter, is banned for life, simple as that. As it stands, it looks as if the punishment depends on who you play for and how you are perceived, when it should just be the same for everyone. You hear people defend themselves by saying it’s said in the heat of the moment, but you don’t use that sort of language in any circumstance unless it’s the way you think. It’s no excuse.

All the books by players from your era at Everton always say, ‘Howard, great man manager’ and that’s it. Your relationship with him seems to have been a bit more complicated than that though.

I don’t know about complicated so much. I didn’t actually have that much to do with him, to be fair. He was an authority figure and I don’t deal with them that well, so Colin was always my link; he was the one I dealt with most because he was more like one of us where there was always that distance with Howard. When I did deal with him though it was always pretty straightforward.

Where you disappointed with how it all ended though? It’s one of the saddest and yet funniest parts of the book when you go into his hotel before the Leeds game and his bollocks are hanging out of his dressing gown.

One of the reasons why it took me so long to do the book is because if I had written it immediately after leaving Everton I probably would have called him all the names under the sun, and that wouldn’t have been right. I was upset, and looking back I think it was a really hard one for him, but one he believed to be right, so that’s fine. Without time to reflect though I would have probably slaughtered him and spoiled everything, and there would be no point in that, because I had far more good times than bad times under him, and overall he treated me with respect. I would have handled the situation at the end a bit differently, but we are two different people, and I think he is a bit more ruthless than me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though.

I actually think it affected him more than it did me. I had no control over it where he had to take the decision and live with it.

I get on alright with him now when I meet him, but I still find it really difficult to separate the man from the position as boss. He’s still an authority figure and I don’t think I’ll ever get past that.

Your respect for Colin Harvey comes over really clearly in the book.

He’s a great fella. A proper Scouser. Whenever I think of Scousers and the city of Liverpool I just think of him because he has all the things that you associate with the place: the determination, he won’t back down and he’s got a great sense of humour.

Your obsession with training is also a major part of the book. Do you think you had to train with that level of dedication to be as good as you where, or could you not have got by on natural talent to an extent?

It’s simple – if you don’t put the effort in you won’t get anything out of the game. I’ve seen so many players waste their careers because they weren’t prepared to go the extra mile.

It’s a bit like a boxer who gets up and trains hard because he knows that the other fella will be. If you want to get in the first team at a top club and stay there, not just be around for one or two seasons and then go and play for Walsall or someone, you have to train as hard or harder than all those lads who are dying to take your place.

You have to keep pushing and get as much out of yourself as you can. There’s plenty of time to rest once you stop playing.

You talk about Duncan Ferguson as someone who perhaps never achieved all he could because of his attitude to training.

He just never became as good as he could have been and I think he will realise that even more now he’s training the kids at Everton. He will see how it’s important to produce, week in, week out, not just when you feel like it.

He wasn’t a good self-motivator and that’s why he only seemed to do it in the big games.

I think he suffered from quite a few knocks off other people in some ways too, because he is actually a really shy fella. Going to prison could have affected him and having his own FA turn their back on him. If it was me I would have had their picture on my wall and thought ‘Fuck you, I’m going to show you by being the best player in the world and you will have to come and beg me to come and play for you’.

I actually used to tell him he should have carried on playing for Scotland because it was him who was suffering. I think he will regret not being able to have a real international career to reflect on with his kids. I do understand his decision though.

I also think he will end up being a top class coach, because he’s been through so many things that most other player’s haven’t, and he will be able to draw on all that. He’s a clever fella, not this sort of fearsome lad who doesn’t care about anything that a lot people think. He’s another where the perception is all wrong. The only problem I see for him is that he’s like me and won’t put up with the politics, so he will need to be somewhere where he is comfortable, which is why he’s so happy with the rest of the Jock clan at Everton at the moment.

Being a down to earth fella yourself, have you ever got used to being recognised by people?

It’s good sometimes and it’s crap sometimes.

I did a five-a-side thing at the London School of Economics and I came out at midnight and I didn’t have a clue where I was going. An Indian taxi driver pulled up out of nowhere, recognised me and asked me where I was going. I told him the M4 and he said no problem, follow me, and led me the right way – things like that are great.

On the other hand, I was on the train at Chelsea and someone just walks past the window and gives me the wanker sign. I’ve also been at Euston and had all sorts of pissed Jocks telling me that they remember me playing for Scotland. I get all sorts, but mostly people are great with me.

Mudhutter Interview

A game against Wigan Athletic can mean only one thing: a short chat with Martin Tarbuck, one of the multimedia moguls behind the frankly brilliant Mudhutter fanzine. Funny, intelligent and proudly parochial in the best possible way, it’s never anything less than a great read. As with all the little interviews we have had on here, it never ceases to amaze us how normal match-going chaps across the country keep producing stuff with so much originality and wit. All in their spare time as well.

After you’ve read the interview, feel free to check out their website here.

 I have always had the Mudhutter down as early adopters in terms what you have done with your fanzine on the web and with podcasts, etc. Can you tell us a bit about how it all began and where you are now?

Andrew Vaughan and I set up the Mudhutter after we both moved off the Cockney Latic which we’d been running for a while – since the eighties in the case of Vaughanie. It had been getting a bit too glossy and corporate and there were lots of problems behind the scenes. As you found with When Skies Are Grey, the Rivals network became less friendly bedfellows the longer it went on.

Just as our team was rising through the divisions we made a concerted attempt to keep things underground, actually charge a little bit more and cut the print run.

For a small town, we’re lucky to have some really talented lads writing for us even now and football is usually the last thing we write about to fill pages. The podcasts have dried up but they were never about football, just a couple of lads talking about all the daft shit that happens growing up on a council estate in Wigan. We get as many plaudits and readers outside Wigan as we do in it which is always pleasant. We do have a small, dedicated following who buy it and love it but I suspect like most clubs these days they are outnumbered by the 90% who will never get a fanzine (in any sense of the word).

We plug away and do four or five print mags a season. We’ve all drifted, got family commitments and moved on to other projects but we still manage to cobble together the Mudhutter a few times a year and run a few events and what have you. We’ve got a few younger lads helping and writing now as well. I’m hoping to delegate all the work to them soon just as the crafty Mr Vaughan did a decade or so ago when the enthusiastic younger version of myself expressed an interest in writing for the fanzine.

You seem to spend quite a bit of time defending Roberto Martinez to other Wigan fans. What are the main criticisms of him?

He’s split the fan base like no other manager and even after three years and six games the knives are sharpening. I’m firmly in the ‘pro’ camp and it’s easy to insult those who oppose him and badge them all as a bunch of rugby loving Johnny Come Latelys who think tiki taka are those funny coloured little mints, but plenty of real diehards don’t like him either and would prefer to see a more direct game.

The criticisms are his formation, slow build-up play, one up front, refusal to change shape, no plan B, continually picking his love child Jordi Gomez, refusing to give players who have done so well in the cups a chance in the league, and basically being very, very lucky not to have got us relegated. The ‘anti’ camp credit survival for the last three years purely to Charles N’Zogbia and latterly Victor Moses and Shaun Maloney while waving something about 8-0 and 9-1 reversals on big neon signs above their heads.

I think part of it is this obsession with tactics and formations brought on by the blanket media coverage and the fact we all sit high up in our plush seats these days and it’s easy to criticise. Plus, there’s general malaise that we’ve not kicked on even though it’s a miracle that we even stay afloat for a club our size. Personally I think Martinez is the best manager we’ve ever had, who has given us amazing wins against all of the biggest names in the game – except Everton, I think I’m right in saying – and the way he is revolutionising the club will serve us well for many years, as those lucky incoming Swansea managers keep finding out.

Plus, it’s our Bob, adopted Wiganer.

We’ll miss him when he’s gone, even if some of us don’t quite realise that right now.

The enmity between Wigan football and rugby fans is always quite surprising too. Is that a uniquely Wigan thing?

It’s really bad. Really, really bad. Utterly pathetic. But it’s gone on so long that neither side will ever back down. For a town so small there is almost no crossover and whereas it’s hardly North Belfast the two groups of fans tend to stay firmly out of each other’s way. I tried to do a piece explaining how the animosity began a while back: who is at fault and the key incidents which drive it, and I rattled off 9,000 words so it’s really difficult to summarise. Nevertheless, here goes:

Rugby league is popular in Wigan; it’s probably more popular than it is in any other town, save maybe St. Helens, Warrington or Leigh, but football is still more popular and always has been. Us football fans will never shake off that rugby town jibe as we know it deep down even though more people watch Wigan Athletic than Wigan Rugby and that’s before you count the thousands of Manchester United, City, Liverpool and Everton season ticket holders who live here.

Personally I can take it or leave it now but the stuff their infamous chairman Maurice Lindsay did in the eighties when the rugby were winning everything and the football club were in the third division and skint has caused a rift that lasts to this day and is in fact getting worse. The rugby club, their fans, the council, local media and police force were determined to get rid of a football club which wasn’t doing any harm simply for existing in a ‘rugby town’ and it’s been passed down by generation so that now we have tens of thousands of football ‘fans’ in Wigan who will support anyone but their home town team, because all rugby fans support a football team as well but actively hate the one in their own town. This I don’t get and never will.

All we ever asked for was their support although I concede that we’ve probably given them plenty of stick back since we’ve thrived and prospered in spite of their efforts.

I feel sorry for them; they’ve missed out on one of the great football stories of the modern game purely due to their own bigotry. That’s enough, I’ll pipe down.

Dave Whelan always seems quite a complicated character. How do Wigan Athletic fans generally view him?

I know he’s an egocentric megalomaniac but at the end of the day he’s our egocentric megalomaniac. It’s quite evident that Sky Sports have got him on speed dial filed under ‘opinionated, jingoistic, geriatric old buffoon’ but he’s played the game (and I don’t know if you’ve heard but he once broke his leg in an FA Cup final) so I suppose he’s earned his right to have his say. Frequently.

So essentially it’s ok for us to take the piss out of him but woe betide anyone else who does it. We used to be quite merciless with him and his constant rhetoric about £40m war chests and not employing foreign managers or signing anyone over 30 but since we bothered to actually look at the accounts properly, we’ve had to acknowledge that without him we’d be nowhere. You only have to read the news this week to realise that once he’s gone we will probably be on the fast track to oblivion like many of his previous ventures. It just makes him look all the more the philanthropist. Having said that, his grandson seems bang into the football club.

Whelan has given us one hell of a journey and delivered on his promise to get us to the Premier League. The problem is, now what?

You are probably the least disliked side in the Premier League. Do you enjoy that or find it a bit patronising?

Really? I thought everyone hated us because even though our crowds are bigger than QPRs we have several thousand empty seats every home game and EVERY OTHER TEAM IN THE COUNTRY SELLS OUT EVERY WEEK of course.

I suppose we’ve no rivals apart from the above-mentioned egg chasing infidels. Bolton hate United, Blackburn hate Burnley and they’ve both been relegated and even Preston laugh at us in comparison to their true rivals, Blackpool. Our traditional hated rivals are Chorley and Altrincham and cup draws permitting it will hopefully be a long time before we play either of them again.

We’ve got pretty football and a likeable manager but to be honest apart from that I though everyone loathed us because we didn’t follow the script, did we? We were meant to come up from the Championship in a fairy tale promotion, travel in large numbers all giddy-eyed to all these Premier League grounds (and we did that first, selling nearly 1,000 away season tickets) shock a few decent sides, get off to a flyer, stay up on the last day of the season and then get relegated with a record low points total the season after, never to be seen again.

It’s a shame a few more people in our town could see fit to like us a bit more instead of pursuing this distant love affair with United and Liverpool via the big screen down their local. The wankers. Oops, cut that bit.

Have you been at all surprised by how well Leighton Baines has done at Everton?

I suppose I should be really given he’s the only player we’ve brought through for a couple of decades since we regularly supplied top flight players to many clubs including the likes of Joe Parkinson, Kevin Langley and Warren Aspinall to Everton. I just re-arranged the way I wrote that for a perfect good, bad and ugly by the way.

There are players who move for the money who we hate or are indifferent towards and there are players who have served their time and we understand they move to progress their careers. Bainesy definitely falls into the latter category and most Wiganers are proud as punch to see him playing for Everton and even England. I just wish he’d stop scoring those obligatory penalties against us.

Who are the current Wigan players to look out for?

Nobody is really standing out so far this year and looking like next summer’s transfer out. We’ve signed an African forward called Arouna Kone whose first touch goes further than I can kick a ball. Mauro Boselli, the £6m flop, is finally scoring goals for fun in the cup and the reserves and must be due a start. In midfield the two James’s, McCarthy and McArthur, will do their best to contain your big chap in midfield. But as ever, like all shit teams, our best player is our goalie.

You have supported your club at just about every level – is the Premier League all it’s cracked up to be?

That rampant, hedonistic first year of unbridled ecstasy and passion died off a long time ago and now we’re just still together because we can’t imagine life without it. It’s pretty soulless, forking out for a season ticket knowing that we’ll be lucky to see five home wins a season while paying through the nose to go away from home just to get stiffed by refs – and we do get stiffed more so than any other club, you’ll never convinced me otherwise.

We ended up telling ourselves when deep in the mire last year: ‘Hey the Championship won’t be so bad – new grounds! Cheaper tickets! More young players actually getting a game! Actually having a chance of winning most matches!” The fallout of relegation however, prior to that, could see us collapse completely and I don’t doubt that a large portion of our support would piss off to wherever it was they came from when we got into the Premier League, sadly.

Looking at Bolton and Blackburn they seem pretty resilient but then their football teams have been around a lot longer than ours. The journey down is never going to be as much fun as the journey on the way up, is it?

We have to remind ourselves how fantastic it is and how lucky we are to be where we are. A lot of clubs would love to swap places with us and, to be fair, in the last few years, when it comes to the – please forgive me – ‘business end’ of the season, we’ve had as good a time as any set of fans. It’s like winning a trophy every single year and there’s a little bit of me that is immensely proud that we’re sticking around in the Premier League when so many people – many of them in our town – want to see the back of the pesky little upstarts.

Or ‘The sooner they piss off back to the Cheshire League the better’ as a bloke in my local said the other week. Shortly before I knocked his head clean off.

True Faith Interview

Ahead of Monday night’s game against Newcastle United – one of those fixtures that always feels like a ‘proper’, traditional English game in the best sense – we had a few words with Michael Martin, head man at the consistently excellent True Faith fanzine.

If you are interested in having a look at their fanzine, and it really wouldn’t do you any harm at all, then have a little butcher’s at their website.

Anyway, let’s get this thing rolling.

 You lot used to be shite. What happened?

And before we were shite, we were quite good. So let’s take it from the top.

Sir Bobby Robson had done a great job with us (we’ve played loads of Champions League games) but was in his last stages of management and we needed a succession plan. Remember when Liverpool invited Gerard Houllier into the boardroom, gave him a big glass of brandy and thanked him for his efforts and sent him on his way with Benitez in the wings? Well, you might not like me saying it, but that was good management of the type they were known for.

Freddie Shepherd made some kind of crack about not wanting to be the man who shot Bambi and instead treated a good man appallingly. He signed players behind Robson’s back and made a nonsense bid for Wayne Rooney – something I have my own libellous opinion about. He then sacked him with all the decent managers taken.

Despite being only two bad results away from the sack at Blackburn Rovers, Graeme Souness was appointed as Newcastle United manager. There is some competition, but he is probably the worst manager in the club’s history. His man-management of players was desperate and his signings were a scandalous waste of mone. Celestine Babayaro, Jean-Alain Boumsong, Amdy Faye – all utter shite.

Just ask the average sentient Mag what they think of the Boumsong signing: a free transfer to Rangers from Auxerre in the summer and £8.5m to United in the January. Hmm.

He probably had no say in it but we also signed Michael Owen on his watch, and he is the biggest cunt we have ever had on our books. I could go on but I’ll stop here. Souness had to go. Shepherd tried to get Martin O’Neill, who is apparently a notorious ditherer but probably made the right call in not taking over at St James’ Park.

Shepherd then turned to Glenn Roeder, a managerial failure at West Ham but ex-club capo who was well liked and had led us to a never forgotten romp at the Stadium of Shite when, despite playing poorly from start to finish, we managed to beat the Mackems 4-1. And that is just about the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

Inevitably, Roeder didn’t deliver and Shepherd’s parting gift to us ahead of the Mike Ashley takeover was to appoint Sam Allardyce as manager. His football philosophy was never going to win friends on Tyneside but in one mad summer Ashley allowed him to sign shite players on huge salaries. Mark Viduka, Alan Smith, Geremi, Claudio Cacapa, Joey Barton (he had one decent season in four), David Rozehnal – all on top dollar and all absolutely rotten.

Allardyce only lasted to Christmas before he went out the door. And then the really mad stuff started.

Back came Kevin Keegan, a good manager – don’t believe the shite from snide journalists – who is loved on Tyneside for his exploits as a captain and his previously spell in charge. However, Ashley had a different role for him and it wasn’t one that was at least clear to our ex-number seven, as was proven in a court of arbitration for sport.

In came the odious Dennis Wise as Director of Football and it was time to light the blue touch paper and retire.

A staggering relegation followed that should never have happened with the players we had on the books but there you go, it did. Following that, having failed to sell the club, Ashley hasn’t got many of his decisions wrong. I was flabbergasted when he sacked Chris Hughton but Alan Pardew is much the better manager.

Likewise I was heartbroken when he sold Andy  Carroll but now that looks like a staggeringly good piece of business. I was also gutted when Kevin Nolan left but Yohan Cabaye is better and Cheik Tiote, Demba Ba, Pappis Cisse, Hatem Ben Arfa and SylvainMarveaux are massive improvements on the players they replaced.

By common consensus the relegation actually did us the world of good. The real shitty arses like Damien Duff, Owen, Viduka and Obafemi Martins did the off and the squad that remained had a good spirit and that has continued to be the case. We were top of the old Division Two for all of the season, got used to winning again and came back up with a good bond between the players, manager and supporters.

It won’t last.

Not so long ago there was a lot of militant anti-Ashley feeling – what’s the mood like now?

I think people are still suspicious. I know I certainly am. But there isn’t the outright hatred that was prevalent in 2008/9, and that’s healthy. There is also a grudging respect for some of his achievements.

We aren’t the financial basket case we were becoming under Shepherd and Sir John Hall and but for his interest-free loan of over £100m we would be in the box marked Portsmouth FC.

He has a plan, which is a novelty at Newcastle United. I support it but at times it is unduly inflexible and so the last window saw us with a net spend of less than £3m and I doubt all the Carroll money has been spent yet. That’s fine, but the squad is thin in vital areas.

Fair play to Ashley, United is more affordable now than it ever was under Shepherd and Hall and he has done some good deals, rewarding loyalty for longstanding season ticket holders.

 Similarly Alan Pardew didn’t seem a popular appointment. Has he proven people wrong?

He has. He does have an image problem in that people presume him to be a cockney wide-boy type which didn’t endear him in these parts, but his backstory is one where he’s had to scrap for everything he’s got.

He did the non-league thing into his mid-20s, and though he may have made a few mistakes at West Ham but here, where the grapevine is on steroids, he has the respect of people who have been around the club for years and who recognise a very hardworking manager with a good eye for detail and an astute tactical brain.

Putting in Sir Bobby’s first-team coach, a Geordie, John Carver, as his number two was a really wise move.

Who knows if we’ll have the same success this season as we did last, although that seem unlikely given the strains of Europa League football and not strengthening the squad in the summer.

My own view is that if we finish in the top ten we’ll have done well.

Graham Carr is portrayed in the media as an almost mythical, genius figure. Is that overplayed slightly?

Of course it is. When we signed Tiote from FC Twente he was genuinely an unknown player but Cabaye certainly wasn’t, he played Champions League football for Lille, the French Champions, and should have been well known to pundits and those in the game.

That the Match Of The Day lot said ‘no one knew anything about him’ says more about them than Carr’s genius. That said, he did spot Ben Arfa’s talent and recognise that he’d be perfect for us. Likewise Marveaux, David Santon and Cisse.

United is run to the Moneyball concept it seems, and Carr has done really well, but he’s hardly the Obi Wan Kenobi of scouting.

I said in When Saturday Comes that Newcastle are almost an inspiration to everyone – in that they have shown that even when things look totally bleak they can still turn around almost in an instant. Is that fair?

Well, it could be but never forget, Newcastle United has incredible support and that helped the club’s recovery beyond description. We are the club with the record highest gate to be relegated and the highest to be promoted. The support never abandoned the club to any great degree.

Newcastle United is a just and righteous cause: a big regional club with possibly the strongest identity of any in the country and that unity helped the club massively.

That and Ashley underwriting our losses in the tens of millions.

Cisse grabbed almost all the headlines last season – who are some of the other players who deserve credit for how you performed?

The most important player at Newcastle United is Fabricio Coloccini. The best central defender I’ve seen in a black and white shirt in 40 years. Granted, that’s damning with faint praise but no mugs get called up to the Argentina national squad.

Tiote is also great. He bullied the Manchester United midfield to such a degree last season that I was resigned to Sir Alex Ferguson signing him for daft money in the summer.

Cabaye is a lovely footballer and Ben Arfa is a good enough reason to buy a season ticket.

Really though, the whole first team squad has a tremendous spirit and that’s down to the manager and his staff.
On a slightly different note, Alan Shearer is rightly a massive hero in Newcastle in terms of what he did as a player. How is he viewed in terms of what he’s done since?

Well, it’s painful to watch his punditry and I’m probably now relieved that he didn’t get the United job as his view of games is so one-dimensional. Then again, Souness is a great pundit and he was an appalling manager. And prick.

Shearer does an incredible amount of work for charity, e.g. the NSPCC and the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and he’s just launched his own Alan Shearer Foundation that supports children with disabilities in the North East.

He’s very prominent supporting good causes and his benefit game saw every penny donated to charities that have done some good things locally.

I’ve met him a few times and he’s a good bloke once you get over his whole Alan Shearerness.
Finally, how is the fanzine doing?

Very well. We were on a shortlist of six for the FSF’s Fanzine of the Year which was encouraging as we’ve never bothered with that stuff previously.

Sales are steady and they have gone up every season we’ve been running. We seem to have our own niche.

We’ve just given the website a lick of paint which seems to have gone down well and we are doing a podcast and a video blog now as well as the whole Twitter, Facebook and forum things. We also  run transport to away matches.

The main thing however is the printed fanzine. We will publish our 100th issue this season, just before Christmas, and I’m amazed where we are now from where we started in 1999. We really shouldn’t exist as everyone told me to start a website instead at the start, as the printed word was finished.

They were wrong.

I did miss the first flush of the fanzine boom in the late 1980s because my own circumstances didn’t allow me to get stuck in, but instead of seeing the number of United fanzines folding throughout the ‘90s as a sign they were finished I preferred to see it as an opportunity and happily we’ve stood the test of time.

Newcastle United could and does easily support two fanzines which are regularly published. We have a great bunch around True Faith who seem extraordinarily committed to what it’s about and nothing is ever too much for them, and that’s particularly true of our designer Glenn and web lad Sean.

We also seem to be the fanzine Sunderland fans hate the most and I really can’t tell you how enormously satisfied that makes me.