7) Nobody, except the squad themselves and Clive Tyldesley, seriously believes England can win the World Cup in South Africa. The best the nation can hope for is one really convincing group stage victory and an heroic penalty shoot-out defeat against the first decent team they come across. In the end, England get the World Cup campaign all Scotland fans were hoping for.
The most significant moment isn’t Rob Green’s fumble or Frank Lampard’s goal-that-wasn’t-well-it-was-oh-this-is-payback-for-1966-how-intolerable-I-must-write-to-my-local-MP. It’s Wayne Rooney’s soliloquy to camera seconds after the 0-0 draw against Algeria, the night ITV cock up big time by showing the entire 90 minutes instead of cutting away to a series of adverts.
Looking into the lens as he walks off the pitch, Rooney utters something along the lines of: “Smithers, the workers are getting restless. Unleash the hounds!” His entire goal tally for the rest of 2010 consists of two penalties against West Ham and Rangers. Comically, both goals are greeted as signs of a return to form. Even more comically, Rooney slaps in a transfer request during this period and ends up with a fat five-year contract.
Manchester United come out of that tricky October much better than Rooney.In the midst of it all, Sir Alex Ferguson gives the press conference performance of his life, and public opinion quickly turns against the striker. Meanwhile, United shell out £188,200 to buy Nobby Stiles’ World Cup winner’s medal, helping to pay for his retirement. It’s a sign that top-class football hasn’t completely lost the plot between 1966 and 2010.
England, though, lose the plot long before they reach South Africa, it would appear. The team’s commercial interests are handled by a company called 1966 Entertainment who, if my dealings with them in April are anything to go by, seem to think that footballers should be as inaccessible as A-list film stars, world leaders and the Loch Ness Monster.
I’m contacted by a representative of 1966 Entertainment just after Easter, and asked if I want to carry out a newspaper interview with Gareth Barry at Chorlton Street Bus Station in central Manchester. He’s a decent lad, Barry, modest and down-to-earth. When he left Aston Villa for Manchester City in 2009, he was so determined to do it on good terms that he wrote an open letter to the local paper, the Birmingham Mail, explaining his reasons for moving on. The interview farce that follows is no fault of Barry’s.
1966 tell me that I can speak to Barry. As long as I don’t ask him any questions about Manchester City. (OK.) And refer to the coach company sponsoring England, who have helped set up the interview. (Fine.) And publish the article when 1966 tell me to. (Hmm.) And send 1966 the article and headline before publication so they can approve it. (Copy approval? I don’t think so.) Oh, and send it to them at least 24 hours before publication. (Why? Are you slow readers at 1966 or something?)
The paper I’m freelancing for doesn’t allow copy approval. Most newspapers don’t. The interview doesn’t happen. I’d have liked to have spoken to Barry, but given all the hoops I would have had to jump through, I’m pretty relieved when the sports editor rings to tell me it’s off. If 1966 deal with everyone like this, it’s a miracle they’re still in business. And if those in charge of the England set-up think this is acceptable conduct, it’s little wonder the team is in such a mess.
8) As it turns out, I do get to interview Barry in much less fraught circumstances later in the year. He’s happy to give up a Friday afternoon in November to have a look around the Wood Street Mission in central Manchester.
The Mission has been doing an astonishing job of providing help to Manchester’s less fortunate for 141 years. Manchester City, whose outstanding community work often gets lost amid the hoo-hah over what Mancini said about Tevez or what Garry Cook said about anything (and I’m at least as guilty of that as any other reporter), have adopted the Mission as one of their charities for the season. Barry is there to publicise the charity’s Christmas toy appeal.
He poses happily in a Santa hat, holding a couple of teddy bears and what looks like a Mr Potato Head game, as a photographer directs him into place for exactly the right shot. Pictures taken, and tour of the Mission’s headquarters complete, Barry is ready for interviews.
There’s some stuff for the local TV news to do, and then it’s our turn. There are four of us huddled round Barry, our recording equipment thrust into his face. Juliette Ferrington from Five Live goes first. Ferrington, a very sharp journalist, has an uncanny knack of putting interviewees at their ease while asking probing questions, and she has no trouble broaching the subject of Barry’s trip to Scotland.
With a few City team-mates, Barry had travelled up to St Andrew’s for a golfing break after a defeat against Arsenal, had bumped into some students in a local pub and somehow ended up getting invited back to a house party. A cameraphone video of Barry, Adam Johnson and Joe Hart in varying states at the party was then sold to The Sun. Mancini (sample quote: “I tell my players it is better they go with a woman than drink”) once again declared his bafflement at British drinking culture.
Barry takes the questioning in his stride: “People want to know your business. We’ve just got to be careful and, sadly, you’ve got to look over your shoulder.” The interview moves on to football matters as each reporter takes their turn.
Before it’s my go, Barry takes questions from a couple of local radio reporters. The two guys in question are brothers, and quite obviously brothers – they look very alike. Maybe that throws Barry. Or maybe they – and subsequently I – are not as good at putting the City midfielder at ease.
Our questions are relatively tame, but Barry’s answers become gradually more hesitant. It comes as a surprise, somehow. I always expect Premier League footballers to be as confident off the pitch as they are on it. Maybe they’re just human like the rest of us.
Interview over, us four reporters convene to agree which bits the radio people can put out immediately, which bits they will play out later that evening, and which bits I can hold back for my newspaper article, to come out the following morning.
By the time I get back to my car, Ferrington has already posted the key points from her section of the interview on Twitter. (As agreed, she steers clear of all the quotes the rest of us are holding back.) Left floundering in the trail of someone so industrious, I find myself wondering if she ever switches off. As Alan Hansen might say, you probably can’t afford to at that level.