Tracing my dislike of VAR back to a childhood lesson

The World Cup has started and, just as happens every four years, I feel like a ten-year-old boy again, just without the sticker album these days on the grounds of cost.

Russia v Saudi Arabia was the opening game – a clash between two of the world’s great democracies* – and I noted that the Saudis had a player called Salman Al-Faraj. With a chuckle, I nicknamed him ‘Nigel,’ then had a look at Twitter and realised hundreds, if not thousands, had got there before me.

I’ve been braced for the first significant intervention by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and didn’t have to wait too long because in the fifth match of the tournament France won a penalty against Australia thanks to the technology.

We’re told VAR is always watching, like a jobsworth CCTV, but we only ever hear about it when the referee is advised to review an incident on the pitch-side telly.

I’m really not interested in the debate about whether or not Griezmann was fouled (even though I became embroiled in just such a debate on Twitter after unwisely commenting) because I can feel my shoulders slump and the air involuntarily leaving my lungs. A sort of grey sadness washes over me while we wait for the referee to watch on the telly and give us permission to cheer or remonstrate.

I think back to when I was ten and just beginning to play ‘proper’ organised 11-a-side football at primary school. One afternoon we fidgeted with excitement in the classroom because we knew we were going to play a match at the end of the school day.

The referee was our headmaster, Mr Blake, who in my mind’s eye was seven-feet tall and wore for the occasion grey flannel shorts and a green, woollen fisherman’s jumper with patches on the shoulders.

At one point he gave a throw in the wrong way. The decision went against my team so we all protested.

‘Sir, that came off Nathan,’ we said.

‘Blue throw-in,’ said Mr Blake.

‘But Sir, it came off Nathan. It should be a red throw-in.’

He blew his whistle sharply and, it seemed, more loudly.

‘No arguing. Blue throw-in. Play on.’

The sense of injustice burned to start with. Some of us sulked, others showed renewed determination.

When the game was over, Mr Blake asked both teams to sit round in a circle.

‘Red team,’ he said, ‘that should have been your throw-in but sometimes in life a decision will go against you and it will be obvious to everyone except the person making the decision that it’s wrong. It is up to you to decide how to deal with that, just as it is up to you to decide how to react when you see an obvious case of injustice.’

I couldn’t say for certain whether Mr Blake gave the throw-in the wrong way deliberately so he could impart this bit of wisdom but I wouldn’t put it past him. In a way, it’s not important.

But it did leave a mark on me, although I am still conflicted about what I’ve taken from it.

In my darker moods I’d be tempted to think he was preparing us to settle into line and unquestioningly accept authority, although that wouldn’t fit with my other memories of his teaching style. I prefer to think he was using the opportunity to show us, via the medium of sport, what the world is like. You win some, you lose some and life is not always fair.

Back to modern football then. The laws of the game are there to be interpreted by the officials, who are reacting in real-time to a fast-moving game. VAR reduces a game of split-second decisions to a sort of line-by-line examination of the small print. It’s as if the chartered surveyors have been put in charge – no offence to chartered surveyors.

And I say all this as a Watford supporter who is still raw from the injustice of Steve Sherwood being fouled by Andy Gray for the second goal in the 1984 FA Cup final and by Ian Rush’s dive in the penalty area in a quarter-final two years later.

Those in favour of VAR say that although the system might not get every decision right it will be more ‘right’ than ‘wrong’ over time. That may well be so, but I struggle to see why that’s even important in the grand scheme of things.

I can hear the arguments already.

‘If the technology exists to help the referee then…’

And with that the tide of grey sadness washes in over me, covering my mouth and nose and sending me to sleep again. Give me the human error, the injustice and the emotion every time because we’re talking about sport, not conducting an audit of events.

(For the avoidance of misunderstanding, and at the risk of sounding contradictory – I do think that having the technology to determine whether the ball has crossed the line is a good idea, because it either has or it hasn’t. Everything else, even contact in the penalty area, is a matter of interpretation, whether viewed in real time or on a screen afterwards).

Twenty years working in cycling

Twenty years ago I took the train into London for a job interview at Cycling Weekly. I had seen an advertisement for a sub-editor in The Guardian’s media supplement a few weeks earlier, had sent off my CV with a covering letter and then received a phone call inviting me for an interview.

Back then, there used to be a race among the staff at the Watford Observer to get the copies of The Guardian’s weekly media supplement, which was in the G2 section of Monday’s paper, and the industry magazine Press Gazette, to have a look at the job ads in the back before everyone else.

It wasn’t that people were desperate to leave the Watford Observer – I wasn’t, at least – but there were a lot of young, ambitious people among the reporters and subs who all felt there was a bigger world beyond the windows of 124 Rickmansworth Road.

I was 22, with a reasonable amount of experience at local newspaper level and I was getting a little impatient to move on. However, if I was going to move it had to be the right move.

A couple of years before this, I’d been interviewed for a job as press officer and programme editor at Watford Football Club and not got it, which in hindsight was a blessing in disguise, not because it was a bad job but because I’d have been terrible at it. I’d applied for a couple of jobs in America, one at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, and one in Sydney, partly because I thought that if I was going to move I should make it a big move.

I realised that I had probably been applying for the wrong jobs – doing the equivalent of the people on that BBC daytime programme Wanted Down Under, who are dissatisfied with life in a two-up, two-down semi in Coventry but can’t understand why their budget doesn’t stretch to a detached bungalow with a swimming pool and a view of the Sydney opera house.

As an aside, local papers have declined so much, and offer so little opportunity for young journalists now, that I feel the need to explain what the Watford Observer was like in those days. It was a respected two-section weekly broadsheet paper with a decent circulation and a large editorial team. The same team also produced two weekly free newspapers, a monthly lifestyle magazine and a whole host of supplements that were distributed with the papers, so we were always busy. We worked three long days from Monday to Wednesday, press day was Thursday, and on Friday we came in late, sat around drinking tea, and then went to the pub at lunchtime and often came back only to turn off the our computers. In many ways, it was the end of the old days.

  One of the first (if not the first) issues of  Cycling Weekly  I worked on.

One of the first (if not the first) issues of Cycling Weekly I worked on.

In the mid-1990s the first of a series of hatchet men had swept through the place making many of the older, more experienced (and more expensive) staff redundant. That had given me and my contemporaries some fantastic opportunities although we’d had to learn fast, often by making mistakes on the way. I’d gone from junior reporter to junior sub-editor in one step simply because I’d shown an interest in page design and typography and because there was no one else to fill the role. It was an exciting time working in a vibrant, energetic newsroom and it’s quite sad that so many newspapers like that have scaled back dramatically. It was a place where the reporters could be writing about a couple’s golden wedding anniversary one minute and heading to Crown Court to cover a murder case the next.

I’d been subbing for about three years when I saw the advert for a job at Cycling Weekly. It seemed to have been written for me. I’d been a regular reader of the magazine since I was a kid and, looking at the criteria, I had more or less all the skills they were looking for. The interview seemed to go okay and I felt pretty confident I’d done well in the subbing test. I have no idea how many other people went for the job and I didn’t know at that time that the magazine was actually looking for three new sub-editors but when I got the call to say they were offering me a job I was delighted.

It’s fair to say some of my colleagues at the paper were surprised.

‘A magazine about cycling? And it’s weekly?’

I’d explain that the magazine covered the Tour de France.

‘And what’s in it the other 48 weeks of the year?’

Most people had heard of Chris Boardman because he’d won a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics on a bike made by a racing car designer and he wore a ‘funny helmet’, but cycling was not part of the nation’s sporting lexicon then.

I gave the newspaper my notice, took two weeks’ holiday to watch the World Cup group stages, and returned to see out my final few weeks while the Tour de France was on. This was the Tour that was shaped by the Festina affair, police raids and protests by the riders. At once point it looked like the race might not even make it to Paris. During stage 17 to Aix-les-Bains the peloton stopped several times and when they finally reached the finish hours late the TVM team came to the front of the bunch and led the way over the line. Several of TVM’s riders had been questioned by police and had their hotel rooms searched the previous day.

That afternoon, I was at my desk when one of the paper’s photographers came in from a job. He’d been listening to the radio while he’d been out.

‘Have you heard what’s going on in the Tour de France?’ he said. ‘At this rate there might not be a Tour de France next year. It’s not too late to cancel your notice, you know.’

At my leaving do, one of my ‘gifts’ was a box with a label stuck on it that read ‘DRUGS FOR CYCLING’.

Back then, Cycling Weekly was based on the sixth floor of King’s Reach Tower on London’s South Bank in the same building as a host of lifestyle, TV and women’s magazines, among them Marie Claire, Loaded, Country Life, Woman’s Weekly and the NME. I’m not sure what this says about the magazine’s position within the company’s pecking order but Cycling Weekly shared a floor with Cage and Aviary Birds back then.

What I didn’t know until I’d accepted the job was that there had been a mass exodus of writers and subs from Cycling Weekly and its sister magazine Cycle Sport because they’d all left to set up Procycling magazine. Procycling, of course, has outlasted Cycle Sport, the title it was established to rival.

When I started at Cycling Weekly, I was part of the sub-editing team correcting and rewriting copy, cutting stuff to fit the gaps drawn up by the designers, writing headlines and captions and proof-reading the pages. The diet of copy was the same most weeks – extensive race reports from home and abroad, news, bike and product reviews, features on performance and coaching, interviews, plus a hefty section on mountain biking, which I must confess I didn’t enjoy as much as the rest of the work.

There were also despatches from correspondents dotted all over the country and the Scottish racing scene was covered by someone called Richard Moore. I wonder whatever became of him?

The homemade World Cup wallchart

I’ve put my back out, which is incredibly irritating but has at least given me the time to jump-start this blog, which had puttered and stalled a month ago.

On Saturday I took a load of junk to the tip then went for a two-hour bike ride. Late in the evening I felt something was not quite right in my lower back and the following morning I was unable to get out of bed without enduring quite a bit of pain.

The past couple of days I’ve been laid up and my physical discomfort has not been eased by the task of going through The Cycling Podcast’s end of year accounts. I now have a strained back and strained eyesight. One thing I can confirm is that no one starts a media business dreaming of sifting through bank statements, receipts and spreadsheets.

The rest of the time I’ve been mostly watching the official FIFA World Cup films on the History Channel.

One of the things that signals you’re getting older is when events from 20 years ago suddenly feel like they were yesterday. I’d watched the films from 1982, 1986 and 1990 – the World Cups of my childhood – with a nostalgic eye. Wasn’t the Admiral kit England wore in 1982 a design classic? Ditto Denmark’s Hummel strip four years later. I remember worrying that my mock GCSEs would interfere with the 1990 World Cup (rather than the other way round).

But watching the film of the 1998 World Cup and realising with shock that not only was it narrated by Sean Bean (why?!) but that it was 20 years ago this summer pulled me up short. It feels like yesterday because I can remember whole days in their entirety.

I was working as a sub-editor at the Watford Observer at the time and I took two weeks’ holiday so I would not miss a single group game. Yes, yes, I know.

A week or so before my holiday, which commenced at lunchtime on the day of the Brazil v Scotland match, one of the reporters put The Sun’s World Cup wallchart up on the office wall. It was a really sorry-looking thing. Cheap, grainy newsprint, terrible fonts, awful cartoons of the top players and barely enough room to write in the scores let alone fill in the knockout stages coherently. Even the offerings from the quality newspapers were poor and my quest for the perfect wallchart went on.

One evening I stayed late in the office to start work on something which was later described by others as ‘a masterpiece’. I set about designing a huge World Cup wallchart. I’d not intended for it to be so big but it ended up the size of four A2 sheets of paper which I spray-mounted on some board. Another part of our newspaper group had produced some kind of World Cup supplement that was going to be given away with all the titles and that featured its own terrible wallchart but it did mean I had access to high-resolution photographs of Zinedine Zidane, Alan Shearer, Ronaldo, Dennis Bergkamp and, er, David Batty, as well as a cracking image of the World Cup trophy, which were stored on the servers somewhere.

I’d not intended for it to be such a huge project but it ended up taking me a few evenings, not least because it proved tricky to print out. I was using the fancy printer in the advertising department which was used to produce high-quality proofs for big-paying clients. It used some sort of luxurious ink that left a pleasant raised surface on the paper.

Those of us in editorial were strictly banned from using this printer without permission. I assume because the ink was expensive.

Anyway, it took me several attempts to print out the four quarters of the wallchart so they lined up seamlessly. One night I had a bit of a shock because the printer ran dry. The next morning I overheard a conversation in the canteen. The fancy printer was absolutely burning through ink, apparently, and no one could work out why.

By this time, a few colleagues had cottoned on to what I was doing and had ordered copies for themselves so there was a couple of days of black marketeering as I printed out and delivered copies in various sizes to them.

And then, the game was up. The editor called me into his office.

‘What time did you leave last night?’ he asked.

‘Er, about quarter to nine, I think.’

‘Why so late? What are you working on?’

‘Oh, er, just making sure I’m up to date with everything.’

‘So it’s nothing to do with these World Cup wallcharts you’ve been making?’

Damn. Rumbled!

‘Er… Yes, it might be. How did you find out?’

‘The advertising department are wondering why they’ve gone through two hundred quid’s worth of ink in less than a week.’

‘Ah. Right. Sorry.’

‘So…’ He paused for dramatic effect while I pondered whether the cost of the ink was about to be deducted from my wages.

‘Can you do me one?’

The editor’s copy was the last one to come off the production line.

And what happened to my copy? It hung on the wall of our flat and was filled in after every match until England’s penalty shoot-out defeat to Argentina in the second round, after which it was left symbolically blank.

Flying to Tel Aviv

This blog has been a bit quiet lately, partly because I was busy prepping for a two-week stint at the Giro d’Italia and now because I’m at the Giro d’Italia.

I had considered keeping a diary at the Giro but we’re in the early stages of planning a second volume of The Cycling Podcast’s book and, although we’ve not settled on the format yet, the first critically-acclaimed edition featured diaries from the three grand tours. Just in case we do something similar again, I don’t want to use all my best (!) material online now and have nothing left later in the year.

Instead of writing an account of life on the road at the Giro, or documenting the meals and incidents concerning the race, I’ve decided to just write a few things as they occur to me. There’s not a lot of time to spare at the grand tours, so these may be sporadic posts. ‘What do you mean, there’s not a lot of time to spare?’ I hear you ask, ‘Surely all you’ve got to do each day is jabber on about cycling for half an hour or so. What do you do the rest of the time?’

Well, it’s surprising how quickly the day whizzes from breakfast at eight to dinner at nine, or sometimes ten.

Anyway, here goes.

* * *

A few years ago now I went on one of those courses to overcome a fear of flying. My anxiety about being strapped into a long tin tube propelled into the sky by means of passing thousands of litres of extremely flammable liquid through a jet engine had worsened over the years and my natural tendency to over-visualise and fear the worst combined to the point that I found it impossible to get on a flight without being a quivvering wreck.

Several unfortunate experiences had led to this point. On a flight to New York once we overshot the runway slightly, ended up on the grass and because they couldn’t get the stairs to the door, or move the plane, we had to use the emergency slide to disembark. On a flight home from New York on another trip we turned round after about an hour in the air because a passenger was being very aggressive and had been shouting unpleasant things about the US government.

We made an unscheduled stop at Bangor in Maine to the sight of a dozen police cars with their lights flashing on the runway and the sound of armed officers rushing onto the plane shouting at everyone to remain calm and not move. Then there was the flight to Marseille when the Mistral wind played havoc with the landing and the man next to me gripped my arm and said, ‘I do this flight once a week and it’s never been this bad. We’re going down this time!’

There there was a flight to Poland which was supposed to be on a British Airways plane but was switched at short notice to one of their ‘partner’ carriers. We got onto a rattling old plane with worn seats and strange noises coming from every direction. As we thundered down the runway about four of the overhead lockers sprung open and bags and cases flew out. I thought the whole thing was going to shake apart before we’d got off the ground.

Then there was the late night landing that was aborted when we were (it seemed to me at least) within touching distance of the tarmac. Without warning we suddenly accelerated and climbed steeply into the black away from the lovely reassuring earth to do another lap of nowhere in particular before having another go. As we got off the plane, the captain or first officer was standing outside his cabin saying a cheery goodnight to everyone. ‘What happened there?’ said my travelling companion.

‘Oh, there was a plane on the runway a liddle too close for comfort so I thought we’d bedder go round again. Bedder to be safe than sorry. It was nothing out of the ordinary though. Quite roudine.’ He spoke in that peculiar accent all British pilots seem to have. It’s posh but all the Ts are substituted with Ds and words run into each other as if to suggest that the whole business of having to converse with anyone who can’t fly a plane themselves is a lot of unnecessary bother for them. In a way, it’s quite reassuring.

Over the years, I’d tried all sorts of things to rid myself of the jitters – hypnotheraphy, acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine – and each thing was effective for a while. I had a hypnotherapy session before a flight to southern Spain once and it worked a treat on the way out. Unfortunately, the spell had worn off by the time I was ready to fly home and I ended up taking five trains home instead.

In the end, my partner booked me a place on a Flying With Confidence course run by British Airways. It consisted of a series of lectures and demonstrations from pilots and cabin crew followed by a flight from Heathrow round the Isle of Wight and back.

When I arrived I could sense the anxiety in the room as everyone made small talk over coffee. You could almost hear the cups and saucers clattering in nervous hands.

I had a chat with a few people and more or less everyone said, ‘I don’t know why I’m here. I’m not going to get on a plane.’ There was one man who was almost in tears at the idea of even setting foot inside a plane. He explained that his son now lived in Italy and he wanted to visit more often but each trip meant spending as much time driving as with his son.

Being a slightly sceptical type, I initially wondered if some of the most extreme cases were actually actors put in the room to make the rest of us feel less anxious but I don’t think that was the case.

At the end of the day, everyone on the course got on the flight – including the man who had been on the verge of tears in the morning.

All this came to mind midway through my flight to Tel Aviv. After a couple of hours, with three still to go, one of the cabin staff made an announcement.

‘There’s a problem with the flight.’

It perhaps wasn’t the most sensitive choice of wording and there were a few craned necks and nervous glances.

‘The toilet waste tank is almost full. We think they forgot to empty it in Luton. So, we have two choices – we either stop using the toilet at the current rate or we divert somewhere to empty it.’

I spent the last hour of the flight gripping the arm rests, although not for the reason I would have done in the past.

Snooker and The Crucible in our dining room

On a swelteringly hot Saturday morning I found myself glued to the World Championship snooker on BBC for longer than I’d like to admit. I justified this decision to myself by saying that I was just waiting for the chickens’ house to dry after I’d cleaned it out.

These days, I’m the same every year when the snooker comes round.

Day one: Urrrgh, snooker. I hate snooker. It’s so boring and I don’t know any of the players.

Day eleven: I can’t believe he missed that red but if he can get among the balls again he can stil win this. I’ll stay up for one more frame.

I am a member of the ‘Black Ball Final’ generation, in that I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch the 1985 World Championship final between Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis. Not late enough to see it reach its conclusion, admittedly, because it was school the next morning.

I got up early to check the result on Ceefax [which was a bit like a website on your telly, only the pages changed when you weren’t ready unless you pressed the ‘hold’ button – basically the opposite of clicking on a link]. Then I saw the brief highlights on breakfast telly – Davis’s under-cut shot followed by Taylor’s long winning pot, his victorious grin under the upturned glasses and the now legendary fingerwag at the trophy.

Such was the grip ‘the Embassy’ had on me each April it’s a wonder I’m not a 40-a-day chainsmoker now.

I then spent years hoping Jimmy White would win the title just the once. More recently it’s become one of those sporting events I get sucked into when it’s on although I don’t really identify with the players as much as I used to. I know the defending champion Mark Selby is nicknamed the Jester From Leicester, but I’ve never seen him do anything remotely funny.

Snooker is not cool these days. They’ve tried to cater for the attention-free generation by introducing a shot clock system at some tournaments but what I like about the World Championships is the sheer relentlessness of it all, especially when it gets into the latter stages and the matches last days.

These early days are just as good, though. The arena is split in two by a screen and when you’re watching one match you can hear the clicking and clacking of balls and sporadic applause from the other side. It always seems like they are watching the better match.

It’s the BBC at its best and worst. Everyone is a credit to their sport. The atmosphere at The Crucible is electric – which seems strange to me when it’s basically just silence and coughing. And it all ends with a three-minute montage of the best bits, which involves a clip of every time the cue ball bounced off three cushions and into a pocket and that time Ronnie O’Sullivan puffed out his cheeks a bit when a red clipped the pink and ran safe.

There’s something incredibly captivating about those evening sessions when everyone’s gone home and Peter Ebdon is taking 90 seconds between shots as he grinds his way to a gritty 43.

I Tweeted something similar earlier today and to my delight someone called Jack Billyard liked it. As I said in response to that, all I need now is for Colin Baize, Jane Chalk and Ron Screwbackbehindthegreen to see my original Tweet.

If you’ve read The Cycling Podcast’s book or listened to our Friends of the Podcast Road Trip episode from last year’s Tour de France you may be familiar with the fact that when I was a child I used to organise my own stage races during the school holidays. It is how the Sex Shop Time Trial was born. (You’ll have to buy the book or listen to the episode if you don’t get that reference).

Well, around the same time, perhaps a bit earlier, Simon the Photographer and I held our own snooker tournament in Simon’s dining room on his miniature 3ft x 2ft table. I say tournament but there were only two entrants which meant we could do away with the tedious early rounds and get straight to the final.

As I remember it, we made posters and tickets and forced our parents to attend, making sure that they upheld the very best of order and didn’t put off the players by tutting and looking at their watches.

Just as we were preparing for the electric atmosphere of a suburban 1980s dining room on finals night, Simon’s dad gave us each a ludicrous velvet bow tie, which we clipped on round the necks of our white school shirts.

Once in the auditorium, we each poured ourselves a glass of water from a jug, tossed a coin and then one of us or other broke off for the best of 19 frames match.

The tiny balls were incredibly reluctant to go in the pockets and so the first frame lasted about 20 minutes. Our parents, confronted with the prospect of this match finishing even later than the famous 1985 Black Ball final, insisted we reduce proceedings to best of three and Simon won 2-0 with a maximum break of about nine.

Football and drugs part two

The Telegraph today published a revealing interview with the former Southampton and Norway defender Claus Lundekvam, who talks about how he depended on alcohol and cocaine to replace the adrenaline rush of playing football once he’d retired.

That chain of events took him to some dark places – a heart attack, drug overdoses and a long road to recovery. Now 45, he is working to help others with drug, alcohol and mental health problems. The interview, by Jeremy Wilson, is well worth a read.

But the thing that jumped out at me was a good two-thirds of the way down the article. ‘He seldom played injury-free,’ writes Wilson of Lundekvam, before Lundekvam says: ‘I was using quite a lot of painkillers and cortisone in some parts of the body to numb the pain. A normal week was being exposed to opioids and pain-killers. It was to perform in training and to be ready for the game. I didn’t think much of it. I was young, quite naïve. For me it turned out badly. I built a tolerance and acceptance for opioids and painkillers.’

I wrote a month or so ago about how reluctant the sport is to have a conversation about the way players are prepared so they can step onto the pitch and get through 90 minutes, especially considering the way drug-taking is covered and perceived in other sports. Football, it seems, gets a free pass. In cycling, operating in the grey areas between legal and illegal medication is seen as simply the last step before the rules are inevitably broken – and with good historical reason, I should say. In football, the attitude seems to be, if it’s not banned what’s the problem. It is an article of faith that no one would cross the line, despite the clear abuse of legal (but nevertheless dubious) substances to the detriment of the individual’s long-term health.

Stories like Lundekvam’s tale come round every now and then and it’s impossible not to feel for the depths of despair.

But it seems to me that the emotive aspects of the story, the dramatic spiralling out of control, the emptiness, the excess, is used as a masking agent for a bigger issue. Focus on the cocaine and booze benders, don’t look at the journey that led there.

Football subscribes to the ‘bad apple’ theory. I am not describing Lundekvam as a bad apple, here, to be clear. But a case presented in isolation is seen as just that. There doesn’t seem to be an appetite for the follow-up.

Among Lundekvam’s team-mates at Southampton were Mark Hughes, the current Saints manager, and Matt Le Tissier, a pundit on Sky’s football coverage.

I wonder if questions will be directed towards either of them this weekend. In his press conference before Southampton’s FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea, will Hughes be asked if he knew Lundekvam was given cortisone as a matter of routine? Were painkillers given to other players? What were Hughes’s experiences? Is cortisone still a drug that is given to footballers? Which players have been treated this week, and with what? Can we see some paperwork to show the medical need? What protocols are in place to ensure the drug isn’t abused? And where does the medical treatment at football clubs end, who draws the line and where precisely is that line?

That is what would happen in cycling, and you’d possibly think that the journalists who cover both sports would be leading the questioning because, whenever I hear the line relating to cycling, ‘We’ve seen this movie before,’ I wonder why people don’t notice the similar plot points in football.

Perhaps it’s because people assume that drugs can’t help all that much in a skill-based sport. I hear this all the time too – ‘You could give me every drug under the sun and I’d not be as good as Lionel Messi.’

Of course that is true, but it also misses the point by a country mile. If a player cannot run without a substance but then can get through 90 minutes is that performance-enhancing or merely levelling the playing field?

The nature of professional sport is to fix people up and get them on the pitch or the start line. The importance of their physical welfare in the present far outweighs the importance of their physical and mental welfare in the future. Once they’re off the wage bill they’re more or less on their own.

The football media operates in the present too. Today’s press conferences will all be about Arsène Wenger leaving Arsenal at the end of the season, and understandably so, it's a big story.

But football news is ubiquitous and when there isn’t any a story will be generated by someone saying something. A feature writer will have the opportunity to tell the story of the next Claus Lundekvam at some point in the near future and in the meantime everyone can carry on looking the other way.

48 hours (or so) in Belgium

I can’t say too much about the purpose of my two-day visit to Belgium at the moment because it would reveal the subject of my forthcoming Friends of the Podcast special episode but it was a fun – and at times surreal – trip. I’ll write more about the actual work I was doing when the episode is released in a couple of weeks’ time.

My trip took me to Ghent, a monastery in the Flandrian countryside, and the Belgian capital and it was strange to realise that I was in the same country the whole time so different were the three places.

Ghent is a great town. I love the trams and the canals, the students on bikes, the cobbled streets and the ancient architecture. It’s got an historic authenticity to it that Bruges, though equally attractive, lacks somehow. I think it’s probably because the tourism has been overdone a bit in Bruges, whereas Ghent feels like a real place that lives and works perfectly well without the weekend trippers.

  Ghent at night.

Ghent at night.

I had a beer in each of my two favourite bars. First was De Trollekelder – a dimly-lit place decorated with hideously ugly trolls that sit on the window sill and above the bar and hang from the walls, although don’t let that put you off. Then it was on to Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, a cosy place that overlooks the water and which has a big menu of beers.

* * *

After criss-crossing the Flandrian fields as part of my assignment, I headed to my hotel for the night. As I approached Het Godshuis I feared the worst. It looked austere and unwelcoming from the front, perhaps because the building was casting a shadow on itself, but the sight of a few guests enjoying an early evening drink in the sunshine at the back eased my fears a bit.

It didn’t take a genius to realise that Het Godshuis was an old monastery but what I couldn’t work out was whether it was operating as a religious-themed retreat now.

I went to the bistro for dinner where they told me that in order to have a meal from the buffet I needed to make a reservation at reception. I looked across at the dining area where two people were eating in silence surrounded by empty tables. I asked if it was really necessary to make a reservation but the waitress was insistent, so I walked back to reception.

‘What time would you like a table?’ asked the receptionist.

‘Now please.’

  Monastery.

Monastery.

‘Now?’

‘Well, in five minutes, then.’

‘Okay, I have booked you a table for 7.40.’

Buffet for one would be 29 euros 50, she said, which made me wonder if I was being charged the non-believer’s tariff.

I’d been away maybe 90 seconds – two minutes at a push – and when I returned to the dining room it was almost full, giving the impression that a coach load of pensioners had just arrived. They were making their way through the buffet the way a combine harvester goes through a field of wheat. With each passing second I was in danger of getting less and less value for my 29.50.

I was shown to a table in a roped-off area (the non-believer’s table, I presume), sharpened my elbows and jostled my way to the front of the buffet.

* * *

Whenever I’ve visited Brussels, I’ve never felt like I’ve seen the best of it. The Tour de France went there in 2010 and all I remember is a long, tiring walk up the hill towards the King Badouin stadium (previously Heysel) where the stage finished, followed by a strange meal at a place that had the ambience of a kebab shop.

On my way into the city this time I stopped at a petrol station to fill up the hire car and had a contretemps with the lady behind the desk. It was pre-pay, she told me, but as I wanted to fill the tank up to the top I couldn’t give her a cash figure. Guess too low and I risked leaving the tank below what the hire car company would consider ‘full’. Guess too high and I’d be paying for fuel I couldn’t fit in the tank. She insisted I leave my credit card with her while I put petrol in the car. Having recently had some data compromised I was reluctant to do that but I relented in the end, albeit without much grace.

The areas immediately around many major railway stations in Europe tend to be pretty depressing places but Brussels Midi beats even the Gare du Nord in Paris. After dropping off the car, I walked round the side of the building and there was a constant and overwhelming smell of dried urine in the air. I was heading to a hotel where I thought I might get lunch while waiting for my Eurostar home.

Just as the hotel came into view, I saw a group of people sitting around on benches drinking from cans of lager. All of a sudden, one of the men in the group shoved a women firmly with both hands, sending her flying. She hit the ground with the resignation of someone who was used to being treated appallingly one way or another, although she seemed more concerned by the amount of liquid that had spilled from her can than anything else. A number of the other men surrounded the pusher angrily. A few bystanders rushed over to see if the woman was okay.

It was a depressing scene, especially when contrasted with the hotel's menu, which looked preposterous to me. The prices weren’t horrendous but the pretension was daft. Maybe some people want foie gras and fancy sauces at lunchtime but I’d have been happy with a burger or club sandwich so I dragged my wheely case round the obstacle course of dog mess to the Mercure, where I was told that the only thing available was salmon. This gave me the excuse to go round the corner where I found a square with a couple of reasonable looking café-restaurants.

  Calling Captain Birdseye.

Calling Captain Birdseye.

I ordered l’Americain, thinking it would be a burger. I was told it came sans bun, which was fine by me. What arrived was a meat patty that managed to be greasy and dry at the same time, topped with crispy onion fragments possibly scraped from the fryer and all swimming in a brown gravy. The first bite of burger made me think we’d all been defrosted and transported back to 1985 by Captain Birdseye.

Back at the hotel, I watched Flèche Wallonne on my laptop and earwigged the conversation of a group of British people at a nearby table. One of the gems I picked up was this. ‘The thing is, our nanny has quite a strong accent and Archie is starting to pick it up. That’s genuinely the only reason we want a British nanny next.’

Finding the tricky balance between editorial and advertising

Up early to get the 8.31 Eurostar to Brussels because I was off to make an episode for friends of The Cycling Podcast. For those who don’t know, the Friends of the Podcast episodes are behind a paywall and are available only to our subscribers and, if all goes well, this project should be released at the end of the month, just before the Giro d’Italia.

The Friends of the Podcast episodes are a mix of things – in-depth explorations of a subject, documentary-style pieces, exclusive interviews, recordings of live events (which sometimes include things we perhaps wouldn’t want to release to our much larger free-to-air audience), and other odds and ends that we haven’t had room for in the regular show. I’ve enjoyed the freedom to take an idea and see what direction it takes me in and the episodes of mine I think turned out the best were Ventoux: Heat, Wind and Fear from the 2016 collection and last year’s Lionel of Flanders series. Hopefully this one will go well too, although you can never be sure.

We charge £15 for a guaranteed 11 episodes (although we aim to over-deliver on that – the hope being that people will notice that each episode is theirs for much less than a pound). In terms of value, we hope people see that we charge for a year’s content the equivalent of about a week’s worth of coffees from a high street chain, or the cost of a couple of magazines, or a trip to the cinema.

Although we offer episodes in exchange for that £15, the revenue generated pays for so much more than just the specials. Without that income, we’d not be able to produce weekly episodes that are free to listen to, or our free coverage of the three grand tours. We are very grateful to our major sponsors – Rapha and Science In Sport – too, because we rely just as much on that income. The fact is, no single source of funding comes close to covering the costs of producing The Cycling Podcast. I was going to qualify that by referencing the modern, fractured media landscape but the more I thought about it the more I realised that no single source of income has ever sustained the media on its own. The bottom line is that without the financial support of sponsors, advertisers and listeners we would not be able to produce hundreds of hours of free shows over the course of the year.

* * *

A few days ago, I saw a review of The Cycling Podcast on iTunes which was criticising the amount of advertising in the shows of late and it made me want to address the issue of funding and the fine balance between editorial and advertising.

Generally, my attitude to reviews is that people can say more or less what they like about my work because everyone is entitled to an opinion. But unless they had access to my head space while I was making whatever it was, they cannot know which factors influenced the creative process. All that matters to the reader, or listener, is what is on the page, or in the episode – and rightly so. They’re not interested that an interview I’d planned fell down at the last minute or that an idea I’d had led down a cul-de-sac and had to be scrapped. They’re not interested in the financial or time constraints – and why should they be? All that matters is whether they thought it was any good and they (you) are are free to judge because I have put it in the public domain to be read or heard. I am not saying I don’t care what people think of my work because I do, often deeply, but once something is done, it’s done. I can’t go back and change it, and explaining or justifying why something is the way it is usually constitutes a waste of energy that could go towards the next thing. So I tend not to pay too much attention to reviews that critique the work.

Criticism of our business model is different to me, particularly when it seems little thought has gone into a comment. It makes me question whether we have communicated clearly enough why something has been available to listen to for free in the first place.

I am aware it may sound defensive writing this, and also that I may be drawing the issue of advertising to the attention of people who had not previously been bothered by it, but I spend so much time thinking (and worrying) about how we fund the podcast that I wanted to tackle it.

There’s no right of reply on iTunes, but I felt it was worth reiterating that just because something is free to consume does not mean it has been free to produce.

* * *

I understand there is an issue of perception here. People may assume that we have the backing and support of a large media company. We don’t. The Cycling Podcast is owned solely by Richard, Daniel and me. Every penny we have spent we have raised one way or other. That is both a tremendous strength and a weakness. The strength is that we have the editorial and strategic freedom to develop as we want; the weakness being we have to fund everything we do somehow. In the early days that often came out of our own pockets. I covered my own expenses at Paris-Nice in 2014 and 2015 because I wanted to produce content for The Cycling Podcast but knew the company could not afford to cover it. I know Richard and Daniel have made similar contributions or sacrifices over the years too. People may wonder about our association with the Telegraph, but that is a mutually-beneficial media partnership and has never included a financial arrangement.

We have been very fortunate to attract two medium-term sponsors – Rapha and Science In Sport – and the strength of these associations is that they are brands likely to be of very strong interest to most of our listeners, because they are associated with cycling.

This year, we have added one additional advertising slot to our regular free-to-air episodes, and the brands being promoted have not been related to cycling.

The reason for this additional slot is straightforward. Early last year the company that hosts all our audio told us that they would soon have to start charging for that storage space and server capacity. Since we started in June 2013, they had hosted us for free but we knew that could not last for ever.

If you think about it, every episode is in excess of 40MB and during the grand tours there can be hundreds of thousands of downloads a week, sometimes rising above a million. In five years, I cannot remember a single glitch when we have been offline because, I assume, Audioboom has servers and back-up servers and servers that back-up the back-up servers to ensure that reliability. I am not a technical wizard but it strikes me that’s some serious server capacity and it costs them money.

We entered into negotiations that went on for the best part of a year and in the end they offered us a choice – either we pay a five-figure annual subscription fee or we make one ‘live read’ slot of approximately two minutes’ duration available in each episode. The advertising would be sold on a revenue-share basis. The choice – pay out a large sum or money, or generate some revenue – was, on the face of it, not a difficult one to make, but it was not something we took lightly either because we wanted to make sure that we struck the right balance.

That has led to us advertising beer, a current affairs magazine, razors and mattresses so far, and it has given me something to wrestle with because, until now, I’ve managed to sail through my career in journalism without having to handle the grubby advertising dollars myself.

* * *

I think back to when I worked for a newspaper. The journalists pretended to themselves that the paper’s 30 pence cover price was paying for all their work. It wasn’t, of course. It was the pages and pages of classified ads, the property and motoring sections filled with adverts for estate agents and motor dealers. We looked down our noses slightly at the freesheet – the sister paper which shared our office space – because we thought our editorial was pure in a way theirs was not. Ludicrous, really. The demarcation of editorial and advertising was as clear in their paper as it was in ours.

However, back in those days there was an iron curtain between the editorial and advertising departments themselves. I can remember an ad rep coming into the newsroom to ask me what I was planning to write about a second-hand car dealership, which happened to be a big advertiser, and he was more or less marched back to his side of the ‘wall’ by the news editor and told it was none of his business.

Whenever there was friction between editorial and advertising staff they’d tell us they paid our wages and we’d tell them they’d not get their bonuses if it wasn’t for the quality editorial their adverts appeared among.

The iron curtain was dishonest really because the relationship between editorial and advertising was symbiotic. Although we were independent of one another we were also entirely dependent on the other.

* * *

  Don't let anyone tell you that life on the road is all glamour...

Don't let anyone tell you that life on the road is all glamour...

On the journey to Brussels, I started thinking about what my episode would cost to produce… The trip would involve a two-night stay in Belgium, so there was a taxi to the train station and a train to London; a return trip on the Eurostar (with departure times chosen for maximum cost efficiency, hence the red-eye start), a couple of coffees on the way, a hire car (the smallest car that was available with unlimited mileage), lunches, evening meals, fuel for the hire car, a budget Ibis in Ghent and a cheap B&B in the Flemish countryside, a return train from St Pancras and a taxi back home. Then there were other costs such as batteries for my recording equipment, a fee for some translation we would need doing and a producer to edit the whole episode, possibly also a fee to allow us to use some music. And, lastly, a fee for me for making it.

Without getting too deeply into the figures, I calculated that it would cost the fat end of 100 Friends of the Podcast subscriptions (remembering we have to deduct VAT and transaction fees from the £15, plus pay for our servers and paywall, because they are hosted separately from Audioboom, before we could put what was left into the editorial piggybank) to make this one episode.

Of course, there is no advertising in the Friends of the Podcast episodes, but I use it as an example because the content we produce for the regular episodes costs money too. It is not cheap to travel to the grand tours and while I may post pictures of beautiful vistas and lovely meals on Twitter and Instagram I can assure you that we work to a strict budget knowing that if we exceed it we are only eating into the pool of money we can use to pay ourselves. Every time I blow the budget on three delicious courses, I am literally biting the hand that feeds me.

* * *

It has been encouraging that companies have wanted to advertise in The Cycling Podcast because they know we have a large, smart audience who might like to buy their things. But it would be wrong to think that we have no say in the advertising we carry, because we have the final say on everything. We can say no, if we wish but, so far, have not had reason to do so.

Each time a new proposal is made, we speak to someone from the company to get an idea of the message they want to get across. We also want to ensure they know about us, what we stand for, and what we will and won’t do, so the lines are clear.

In terms of delivering the messages, we are always treading a fine line but we certainly can’t be accused of pretending advertising is editorial. We are also clear about why we appreciate the support of all the companies who have sponsored or advertised with us – because their backing keeps the podcast going.

In terms of how the adverts have been received by the listeners, we’ve had a handful of comments, and I usually make the assumption that if someone is voicing an opinion there will be others who feel the same.

The number of ad slots has increased from two per episode to three this year. However, the average running time of our episodes has also crept up, so it’s not like the adverts are taking up time that could have been used for editorial. The ads are not replacing anything. And, taken as a percentage of our overall output, I don’t feel it’s an unreasonable amount of time to spare.

After all, you wouldn’t want old Napalm to have to cut down to only two courses, would you?

An evening at the library

The majestic Signet Library in Edinburgh was the perfect place to finish The Cycling Podcast’s Grand Tour of (parts of) Britain. It wasn’t until Richard mentioned it that I realised it was the success of our event there back in December 2016 that had given us the confidence to attempt a tour like this.

When we were first invited by Vincent Guérin of the WS Society we were unsure there’d be enough demand to fill the room but he had been confident, he worked hard to promote the event and it was a great evening.

Returning lived up to expectations. The building itself is stunning. Beautiful and grand but warm and welcoming too, which is a tricky balancing act for buildings to strike, although it has to be said buildings aren’t conscious of such things, they just stand there.

  Photograph by Orla Chennaoui

Photograph by Orla Chennaoui

As we sat in one of the rooms overlooked by paintings of 18th and 19th century legal eagles in their wigs and shelves groaning with old law books, we were told the room was haunted. I don’t believe in ghosts but I did notice that of the dozen or so chairs at the long table, all but one of them was tucked in neatly. The other was at a jaunty angle, as if a ghostly occupant had left in a hurry when it heard us coming. Or perhaps that was the joke.

Minutes before we went on, Richard spilled water on his jeans – the result of an over-enthusiastic tap and a small hand basin. We all chortled a bit, not appreciating Richard’s anxiety.

‘Does it look bad?’ he said.

‘No, it doesn’t look too bad,’ I said.

‘Are you sure it doesn’t look like I’ve wet myself?’ he said.

‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘It definitely looks like you’ve wet yourself.’

Orla came to the rescue by suggesting Richard call his brother, who was in the audience, and swap jeans. Problem solved.

  Photograph by Albie Clark

Photograph by Albie Clark

The event went well. A photographer called Albie Clark took some great photos that really captured the atmosphere, even if I look like Dr Bunsen Honeydew from The Muppets in almost all of them. You’ll have to Google that reference, I’m not doing the work for you.

At some point, I told the story of when I played golf with two-time Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon at Hampton Court Palace. Fignon had agreed to be interviewed by Edward Pickering, who edited the magazine I wrote for at the time, only on the condition that he could play golf at a decent  course. A four-ball was hastily assembled and I found myself walking up the fairway behind one of my childhood sporting heroes.

He was not in the most talkative mood – he took his golf too seriously and perhaps was a bit grumpy to be in the company of some hacker who was on course to shoot about 105 after the first two holes. (Me, if that's not clear). I nearly took his head off midway down the first fairway when I shanked an iron shot that flew off at close to right-angles in his direction. He ducked just in time and shot me a well-practiced look of contempt.

But I had some reasonable moments. On the front nine there was a par five and I stuck it on the green in three and then bagged a putt from about 20 feet to make birdie. Fignon, who had been swearing and thumping his sand wedge into the turf on the previous hole after taking three to get out of a bunker, skidded his approach shot through the green and into the trees. I don’t think he appreciated me enjoying my birdie as much as I did.

On the back nine there was another par five and I had such a nightmare I picked up with about 150 yards still to go to the green. Fignon, who was finishing strongly, rolled his eagle putt up to the lip of the hole and tapped in for a birdie. He came hopping over to the edge of the green, where I was standing, arms folded, watching the others putt out. ’No birdie for you zis time, eh?’ he said, smiling broadly. It was just about the only English he spoke all day.

After the event, we signed some books and someone presented me with a bottle of Kwaremont beer – named after the Oude Kwaremont climb that features in so many of the Flandrian classics – which was incredibly thoughtful and much appreciated.

Afterwards we headed to a restaurant Vincent had booked. When I’d arrived earlier in the evening he said, ‘We will be going for some cheese, ham and wine afterwards. I hope that is okay?’ I must admit I feared cheese and ham might not be substantial enough but my worries were unfounded. If you’re ever in Edinburgh and have a chance to go to L’Escargot Blanc in Queensferry Street, do because it was really good.

We ate downstairs in the bar and the food was simple buffet-style stuff but it was done so well. There was a fabulous selection of cheeses, ham, saucisson; a jar of crunchy, vinegary cornichons; some raclette with boiled potatoes; some pâte en croute and a really good black pudding pie; plus some tinned sardines and other gems. The food hadn’t been prepared so much as curated and it was a real joy. My concern that I was stuck at the end of the table a fair distance from some of the delights was eased by the fact Vincent and François were reassuringly assertive in making sure everything got passed round.

François revealed that it would be his birthday the following day but implored us not to sing Happy Birthday on the basis that it would be bad luck. So we waited until the clock passed midnight and gave him a stirring rendition – although it was nothing compared to his Flower of Scotland on stage at the Signet Library a few hours earlier.

Orla headed off a bit before us as she had to be up at silly o’clock to fly back to London. Richard went to stay at his brother’s place. François, David Luxton (our literary agent) and I took a taxi back to our hotel and as we said our goodbyes in the corridor I suddenly felt sad that it was over.

All being well, though, we will go back on the road at the end of the year, and we hope to make it to some of the places we were unable to reach this time.

  Photograph by Albie Clark

Photograph by Albie Clark

A warm welcome to Glasgow

It was time to head to Glasgow by train for the first of two re-arranged stages of The Cycling Podcast’s tour of Britain. We’d originally been scheduled to appear at Òran Mór at the start of March but the snow put paid to that. Our tour organisers were unable to re-book Òran Mór but The Trades Hall was a glorious alternative venue and the crowd filled the room and gave the grand setting plenty of warmth.

2018-04-12-PHOTO-00008270.jpg

We mixed things up a bit and this time, we each read a bit of our own work from The Cycling Podcast book, A Journey Through the Cycling Year. I went first and I found it trickier than when I’d read an excerpt of one of Richard’s chapters during the previous events because my inner monologue was asking, ‘Who on earth wrote this?’ There’s a time for critical analysis of your own work but perhaps while reading it to an audience is not that time.

The question and answer session in the second half was great fun with some excellent questions. The first was from someone whose son was moving from Glasgow to Marseille to study. He wanted to know from François how he could be sure his son wouldn’t turn a bit fancy after moving to France. François talked a bit about how Glasgow and Marseille had quite a bit in common, being misunderstood by outsiders, but nevertheless glorious cities with great character. Orla wanted to know what the questioner meant by ‘a bit fancy,’ to which he replied, ‘Will he start dressing like Lionel?’

I wasn’t quite sure how to take that, so I decided to take it as a compliment. We decided that the presence of a spotted handkerchief in the breastpocket of a jacket must be seen as a bit fancy by some Glaswegians. In any case, it gave Richard, Orla and François a good laugh over dinner.

We went for a very fine curry at a place called Obsession of India in the Merchant City area of town. The slightly sticky table might have been off putting if the food hadn’t been so good. James, from our tour organisers Penguin Live, ordered a madras and dismissed the warnings from the staff that it would be a pretty spicy with the sort of London-based nonchalence I’ve paid the price for in the past.

It reminded me of a few years ago, when Ellis Bacon and I had just published one of the volumes of The Cycling Anthology and, together with my sister, ran a book stall at The Cycle Show at the NEC in Birmingham. We stayed in a cheap, no-frills hotel on a dual carriageway and restaurant choices within walking distance were restricted to an absolutely terrible pub where (as my memory has it) Ellis had sausage, chips and beans for £1.99, and a curry house that looked unpromising inside and out but was actually pretty good. We ended up in the curry house three nights out of four.

The first night I ordered a madras and was a bit disappointed that it was quite mild. The second night I went for something else that was described as medium-hot but that didn’t pack much of a punch either. So on the final night I picked something hot and said to the waiter, ‘Is this actually a hot dish?’

‘It can be, yes. How hot would you like it?’

‘Well, only as hot as it comes. I don’t want anything ridiculous but something with a bit more spice would be good.’

  Photographs by James Robinson.

Photographs by James Robinson.

Within a couple of mouthfuls my eyes were watering and my forehead was sweating and although I managed to battle on through, it was a bit of a trial.

As the waiter cleared the plates away he asked how it had been. I put a brave face on things and said, ‘It was certainly a lot hotter than the other two dishes I’ve had here.’

The waiter replied, ‘Well, we figured you were from down south so we thought we’d better go easy on you.’

Back in Glasgow, James polished off his madras, finely-chopped chillis and all, but he did look like he was in need of my handkerchief to mop his brow by the end.

Going running

In terms of the weather, it has been one of the worst winters I can remember. We’re approaching mid-April and it’s still cold and wet and it’s starting to feel like it’s been this way since records began, as the weather forecasters on television like to say. There was the excitement of the snow in early December, and the novelty of surprise snow in early March, but the rest of the winter has seemed relentlessly dark and cold. I can’t remember such a sustained spell of unbroken greyness. Usually winter is punctuated by occasional bright, dry days and by now we’ve had at least one warm spell.

The weather, and the grey skies in particular, undoubtedly affect my mood. It’s not that I crave blazing sunshine and warmth all year round, because I do think there’s something pleasing about the changing seasons, but there has been a distinct lack of signs that brighter days are round the corner.

My cycling has suffered too. I had a couple of bursts of activity on the turbo trainer, using the computer game Zwift as a motivator, but I’ve been out for only a handful of bike rides since the start of the year and the occasional 90-minute ride, though enjoyable, isn’t improving my overall fitness. With eight weeks on the road looming this summer, which involves a lot of sitting in a car and eating late, it’s time for drastic measures.

So, I put my trainers on and went for a run round the common. Or to be more accurate, a run-walk-run.

Knowing I’ve got 20 days on the road at the Giro d’Italia coming up, I want to be able to do some kind of activity while I’m away. Taking a bike isn’t an option at the Giro so it’ll have to be running, and so the goal is to get fit enough to be able to go for a short morning run every couple of days. I’m not setting the bar terribly high there because I’m not a natural runner. I overpronate and have glass ankles. Hopefully that will enable me to come home from Italy with a reasonable level of fitness so I can spend June cycling.

Daniel was talking recently about paying to offset the carbon footprint he leaves covering the three grand tours and if he explains how to do it I’ll do the same. This is a similar sort of idea. Going for a run will my way of off-setting my preferred meal choice of antipasto, primo piatto and secondo piatto.

The finalists for the British Podcast Awards were announced today and for the second year in a row The Cycling Podcast has made the shortlist of five in the best sports podcast category.

We’re in some very fine company because the other finalists are:

Brian Moore’s Full Contact by the former England rugby international

Fight Disciples (which won last year)

Quickly Kevin, Will He Score? by comedian Josh Widdecombe and friends, which is a delightful slice of 1990s football nostalgia

Who Are Ya? A football podcast that focuses on a different football club in each episode. I’ve not heard it before but will check out

In the other categories there are a couple of podcasts that leapt out at me. They were the excellent Reasons to be Cheerful by Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd and The Butterfly Effect by Jon Ronson, which was a stunning example of storytelling and a study of unintended consquences. Just to be included in the same breath as them (which we might be if someone with a huge lung capacity was to read out the full list of finalists) is fantastic.

Full gas and phone fraud

The past week has been a strange one of mostly non-blog-worthy stuff. It’s during weeks like this that it feels like the business of running a business gets in the way of the actual business, which in this case is The Cycling Podcast. There was a meeting with the accountants, some travel to book and some plans to make.

On Saturday evening I drove down to Feltham, where Sean Kelly and Rob Hatch were staying before commentating on Paris-Roubaix for Eurosport the following day. I talked to Sean for an episode I’m making for Friends of the Podcast and then we had dinner with Rob – Declan Quigley joined us midway through too – and talked about the following day’s race.

The hotel’s Italian restaurant was only moderately busy but the poor chef behind the pass looked stretched to breaking point. There was a long wait for the starters, and then another delay for the main course. I went for gnocchi with sausage and charred radicchio. Unfortunately, the gnocchi was not good – rubbery and dense like little squash balls and with a watery film clinging to the surface. The radicchio was not so much charred as burnt. But by far the least palatable thing was that there was a very unpleasant waft coming over from a neighbouring table at intervals regular enough to suggest the culprit ought to make an appointment with a bowel specialist. They were rugby fans who had been to the match at Twickenham that afternoon and had possibly spent all day on the booze. While I don’t wish to embarrass or shame the guilty party too much it won’t take a genius to work out that whoever it was going ‘full gas’ in a public dining area supported the team from the West Country.

On Sunday I learned that someone had fraudulently attempted to upgrade my mobile phone contract and order a new handset. Bizarrely, the phone was due to be delivered to my home address, so it clearly wasn’t the work of criminal masterminds. When I explained to the woman in the phone company’s customer service department that I had not requested an upgrade she said that it should have rung alarm bells with whoever took the initial call because, ‘It’s not often someone chooses to swap an iPhone for a Samsung Galaxy.’

The woman said that the phone company’s records showed that someone had rung up on Sunday afternoon claiming to be me. The next step, she said, was that their fraud department would listen to the call and compare the voice to my actual voice in the call I was making now to see if it was the same person. I’m now braced for the revelation that someone has constructed a conversation by splicing up bits of my voice from The Cycling Podcast in the manner of Cassette Boy or that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the teacher visits truanting Ferris’s house and rings the doorbell, which triggers tape recordings of Ferris’s voice.

Perhaps I shouldn't give people any ideas.

Flanders – not quite love at first sight

I wish I could say that the beauty of the Flemish Classics was a case of love at first sight for me but I don’t think it was.

The first bike race I covered as a journalist was the 1999 Het Volk [now Het Nieuwsblad] and the things that stick in my mind are, in no particular order, that it was freezing cold; the fact the farm roads smelled of manure; the way the Belgian fans stood uncomfortably close to the riders at the start in Ghent, almost as if they were exhibits in a museum; the cold again, this time with added wind; and the fact everyone seemed to smoke, which made entering the cafés a test of endurance.

We saw the race a few times, including on the Oude Kwaremont, and I remember the rattling of the bikes, the shouts when someone stalled or missed half a pedal stroke, causing a ripple in the bunch, the steaming breath the riders left in the air, and the cigarette smoke from the spectators. The bunch seemed to take an age to pass, and it struck me that the riders at the back of the bunch were effectively riding a different race to those at the front. It might take them 20 kilometres and a race-ending effort to move up to the head of the bunch. Then there was the dash across the muddy field back to the car to join the convoy of cars racing to see it at the next spot on the road.

The press room that day was in a suite in Sporting Lokeren’s football stadium and I was quite excited because in the 1980s Watford had signed a player called Jan Lohman from Lokeren and it was as if my sporting worlds were colliding. I remember doing a double-take when I saw that in the next room there were free beers and sandwiches for the journalists. I abstained from the beers but the sandwiches were so moreish. There was a choice between a rubbery cheese with holes in it, ham, a pinkish fish pate and a grey-brown meat paste that I wouldn’t have been able to identify if my life depended on it but which was strangely delicious. The sandwiches on offer at the Flemish Classics have barely changed in the two decades since, and in fact, probably haven’t changed in more than a century.

As Frank Vandenbroucke ploughed on in the big ring through the icy rain, towing Wilfried Peeters along in the spray behind him, the pair of them lit by the headlamps of the team cars and motorbikes following, I watched on television in the warmth of the press room, chomped through the sandwiches and slowly started to get it.

A few weeks later I was back with the photographer Phil O’Connor. The day before the race the weather was filthy. We stopped at a petrol station and, clocking that I spoke English, the man at the till asked if we were here for the bike race. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Perfect weather for the Ronde Van Vlaanderen,’ he said, looking out at the dark sky and pea-sized blobs of rain.

That evening, over a Belgian beer, Phil unfolded a road map on the table. He’d marked the climbs and cobbles with a highlighter pen. We compared it to the route in the official roadbook and Phil plotted a route for Sunday’s race. The idea was to criss-cross the countryside in the car to see the riders several times. In the days before GPS units and mobile phones, this was quite an operation. Mistakes made in the planning could cost him a sighting of the race the following day. He made his plan, drew up his contingencies if anything went wrong and I went to bed with the butterfiles building because I knew I’d be doing the driving the next day.

It all passed in a blur. Everywhere we went the countryside looked the same and the sense of déjà-vu was overwhelming. Sometimes we actually were on the same stretch of road we’d been on earlier, just travelling in the opposite direction. It was then that I began to understand why the race is woven into the fabric of the region’s culture because it went within a few kilometres of just about everywhere in the Flemish Ardennes. Almost a century of the Ronde’s history had played out on those farm roads and the memories had seeped into the soil.

Two years later, I rode the sportive for the first time and my understanding of the race increased a little bit more. I’d not appreciated fully the sapping quality of the dead concrete roads, or the way the constant b-dum, b-dum, b-dum of riding over the ridged sections messed with your mind. I suddenly appreciated the true meaning of the phrase ‘false flat’, because Flanders was made up of roads that seemed to be flat yet felt like they were working against you. The wind, too, was an invisible and unpredictable enemy. And that’s before we even got to the cobbled climbs, each of them posing a different type of challenge depending on the stones and the camber.

Reaching Geraardsbergen, swooping over the bridge and down into the town before climbing up to the Muur I felt euphoric. I’ve ridden those roads many times since but nothing quite seems to match that first time.

Having said that, none of it felt terribly cool back then, not that it mattered. The cool came later, perhaps much later, but if any race was made for Instagram it's the Tour of Flanders. The cobbles, the little chapel at the top of the Muur, the Koppenberg, the beers and plates of frites, the uniquely Flandrian take on spaghetti bolognese (a personal favourite of mine), the unconventional glamour of it all makes it, for me, the best weekend of the cycling season.

• I've been blogging for a month now. Scroll down or click here to read earlier posts on a range of subjects.

An update on Margo the chicken

Margo the chicken is still broody. Expert advice and the internet seem to agree (which is not always the case) that she should snap out of it after about 21 days. That’s how long it usually takes for an egg to hatch but, of course, there’s no cockerel around so the eggs aren’t fertilised. So she has perhaps five or six days to go.

It was suggested to us that we get some fertilised eggs from a poultry farmer so that we’d have some chicks but, even though Margo’s mothering instincts should take care of them, we’re not sure we want the stress of adding two tiny birds to the existing three.

 Margo (left) up to no good on the table with her late friend Barbara last summer.

Margo (left) up to no good on the table with her late friend Barbara last summer.

So Margo spends all day in her hen house sitting on any eggs that are in the nesting box. Mabel and Hetty clamber in and try to lay on top of her and she sits on those too. A couple of times a day I open the side door to feed Margo with a jug to make sure she’s getting enough to eat but once she’s had enough she pecks and hisses and gets quite aggressive.

Each day I try to force her out of the house with a golf club so we can remove the eggs. If she sits on them too long, they’ll get warm and go bad. Getting her off the nest for a bit each day might also break the broody cycle sooner.

Yesterday morning I seven-ironed her out of the house and she went bananas, squawking and flapping her wings and then chasing Hetty in a big circle in the garden. Then she calmed down and joined the others free-ranging in the leaves, dust-bathing near the fence and I thought for a while she might have forgotten about her nesting instincts. But no, within an hour she was back in the house. I opened the side door and her feathers were all fluffed up so she appeared to be enormous. One peck was enough to persuade me to leave her be and let nature take its course.

A trip back in time to St Leonards and journalism school

This time last year I headed to St Leonards-on-Sea to finish a book and retrace my past. It turned out not to be quite the experience I thought it might be.

St Leonards is where I trained to be a journalist. I was sponsored by the Watford Observer, which meant my tuition fees were covered by the paper and I was paid a small weekly allowance too. I was 18, the youngest of the Class of 94 by a few years because it was supposed to be a post-graduate course. I’d not gone to university (just the school of hard knocks. Eh? Eh?) because I joined the Watford Observer straight after my A-Levels.

Anyway, I drove down on a bright sunny day last spring to find there was a mix-up over the keys for my Airbnb and, while the owner’s father drove down from south-east London with a spare set, I went for a bike ride past Bexhill-on-Sea and towards Pevensey. Perfect, I thought, to clear my mind before focusing on writing.

When I got back, I settled into the place, which was nice enough, but I already had doubts I’d last for the week I’d booked. That evening, I ate solo in an Italian restaurant on the seafront and wondered what I was doing. I’d come to the seaside to try to concentrate on finishing a book but it already felt like an airkick at nostalgia. I thought that by going back to the place where my career started it might inspire me to write. What a cliché. It worked, in a way, because it got me started again but after just a day or so I no longer felt the need to be there.

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While I was there I thought back to when I first arrived on a dark, miserable Sunday afternoon in January 1994. I checked into a guesthouse called the Clevedon Court Hotel run by a slightly domineering Scottish woman (if it’s possible to be slightly domineering) and her meek husband, who shuffled around the place in a permanent state of apology. They were lovely people and very welcoming to the trainee journalists they had living under their roof who, I assume, were marginally less challenging guests than the sorts of people who had fallen through the cracks in society and found themselves housed in some of the town's grand hotel buildings that had long forgotten their glory days.

My room was tiny. A bed, a wardrobe, a sink, a little Baby Belling table-top oven with hob and grill and a window that looked out onto the square and on which the pigeons gathered from dawn every morning to wake me with their cooing. The bathroom was a freezing cold hop, skip and jump down the corridor.

The day I arrived I intended to spend the evening revising my shorthand because I knew there would be a test on the first morning. At times it seemed that the chief purpose of the course was to get everyone to the magic hundred-words-per-minute mark and that newsgathering and writing were of secondary importance to journalists. Shorthand was a very valuable skill back then but I can quite understand a young journalist today, used to pressing the record button on their iPhone, wondering what the point of it all was. Looking back now they seem rather quaint days – days when local reporters actually covered court proceedings and council meetings, where tape recorders were not allowed. Shorthand was the tool that enabled you to do the job.

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Anyone who learned Pitman 2000 will know the phrase ‘Eat the peach and pay,’ and will be able to write it out in the curious language of thick and thin strokes. Every five years or so, usually when I’m coming down with flu, I have a recurring anxiety dream in which I am chased down an endless corridor by the Pitman 2000 short form for the phrase, ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…’ I don’t want to analyse too much what that means.

Anyway, in the early evening one of the other students knocked on my door and said that they were all going to the pub and so I closed my shorthand text book and did badly in the following day’s test. This started a six-month routine of getting up and making it in for the first lecture of the day by the skin of my teeth, two sessions of shorthand each day, lectures on law, local government and the process of news gathering, and one afternoon off a week to go out and gather some stories so we could create our own newspaper each Thursday night, when we’d take turns editing the ‘paper’ before heading to the pub.

In fact, we went to the pub most nights of the week to watch football on TV or play darts. On Friday nights we went to The Crypt, a nightclub in Hastings with a low ceiling and sticky floors and a DJ who would always play Geno or Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners when we were drunk. On Saturdays we’d drive to Brighton to buy CDs – for younger readers these were plastic discs that used to contain one Spotify playlist of about 12 or 14 songs – or we’d go to watch Hastings United or St Leonards (who played at grounds right next door to each other) depending on who was at home. On Sundays we’d head to the more sophisticated parts of the East Sussex coast – Rye or Camber Sands – for a lunchtime roast.

The whole time I was living in St Leonards, I got double paid in error by the Watford Observer. I’d spent the six months prior to the course working as an editorial assistant and they failed to stop my £100 a week salary after I headed to St Leonards and I didn't notice. Being the sort of person who just withdrew money from the wall until the machine said no, I lived like a king. It took 18 months to repay what I’d been overpaid with monthly deductions from my wages, but it was worth it.

One Thursday night we had a party at the Clevedon Court and more or less everyone from the course, including the tutors, came. I got lured into round after round of tequila shots and woke the next morning with a hangover I can still feel now if I think about it for more than a few seconds. I’ve never touched tequila since and just the smell of it is enough to turn my stomach.

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In the morning I stood under the shower until the throbbing in the roof of my skull faded enough for me to get dressed. It was a still day but my headache was such that I walked along the seafront like a mime artist battling an imaginary wind. Only about half a dozen or so of the other students had made it in and after getting through the first lecture without throwing up we were sent home by the tutors. I spent almost all of the weekend in a fug of self-loathing, broken only by trips to the local café for bacon sandwiches when I could eventually face them. I lost the entire weekend to that hangover. When we went back in on the Monday, the few of us who had at least turned up on time the previous Friday were spared the bollocking. I suppose it says something about journalism’s old drinking culture that just turning up, despite being fit for nothing, was seen as fulfilling the brief.

It seems like a different world now, when competition for places at local newspapers was intense and the papers themselves offered a great opportunity to get started. Back then the Watford Observer was a two-section weekly broadsheet and there was a chance for a young reporter to do a bit of everything – hard news coverage (crime and court reporting), all the basics that were the staples of a paper of record (births, deaths and marriages; council meetings and community issues), human interest stories, sport, entertainment and feature-writing. Things have changed a lot since, but perhaps that's a story for another blog.

The BBC and a question of competition

Last week, an email arrived in The Cycling Podcast’s inbox from a journalist at The Times. He wanted to ask whether we felt the BBC’s increased interest in producing podcasts was hampering the growth of thriving independent and commercial podcasts.

I said I’d be happy to talk on behalf of our podcast and he called me and asked what I thought of the BBC’s podcasting policy, and more specifically the fact it has its own cycling podcast, Bespoke.

The boom in podcasting is an interesting subject but I did think it was a slightly peculiar premise for an article – after all, BBC stands for British Broadcasting Corporation and what is podcasting if it is not broadcasting? It would surely be odd if the BBC was not embracing technology to deliver content in the most convenient way for its audience.

Before the conversation was done, I had begun to suspect that I was not saying what the journalist had anticipated I might and I had the impression that the angle The Times was looking to take was one knocking the BBC rather than expressing concern for the plight of independent podcasters.

A short article was published today and it confirms those suspicions, to a degree, especially as the blob paragraph below it is also criticising the BBC, this time for closing an online forum dedicated to the radio drama The Archers.

The article is behind the paywall but the headline is ‘BBC accused of dominating podcast market’. I’m not quoted, which is fine by me, but nor are any other concerned independent podcasters. The only person quoted is Matt Hill, director of Rethink Audio and co-founder of the British Podcast Awards, who said, ‘It’s about shopfronts like the Apple podcast store; there’s only limited space to discover new podcasts. If BBC original content is being promoted in that space, that does push out the small space that independent podcasts and networks have to promote their stuff.’

Matt Hill makes a great point, that space in the big podcast showcase spaces such as iTunes is limited, but the issue there is surely with Apple rather than the BBC. The problem, if there is one, is not the BBC producing a lot of varied content but the amount of space available in the show windows of the main podcast platforms like Apple’s Podcasts App and iTunes. To ensure diversity, Apple and others could easily restrict the number of podcasts from a single company appearing in those premium spaces. Problem solved.

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Anyway, my own thoughts are that it can only be a good thing for all of us if the BBC is taking podcasting increasingly seriously. There are still plenty of people who ask what a podcast is and who are not in the habit of downloading audio to listen to at their convenience. We regularly get emails from listeners who have only just discovered us, even though we’ll mark our fifth anniversary in June. The British Podcast Awards were held for the first time last year (we were a finalist in the sports category) and so it is still a relatively young, undeveloped medium, even if it’s more than a decade since Ricky Gervais popularised the term 'podcast'.

It cannot hurt if the country’s biggest broadcaster is regularly promoting podcasts (even if only their own) on television and radio, because the chances are that once someone has listened to a BBC podcast they might explore further to see what else is out there.

The same goes for the other big broadcasters such as Sky and TalkSport, or even the newspapers (including The Times) that have entered the arena. They lend credibility to the medium, raise the bar in terms of editorial and production values and will attract more people to podcasts.

Although we may compete or overlap with the BBC for listeners, they cannot sell advertising and so are not a competitor in a commercial sense. So we see only the positives of competition.

We started The Cycling Podcast in June 2013 with nothing more than Richard’s iPhone, our own experience and a very modest, but hugely welcome, sponsorship from Sharp. We paid our own expenses at the Tour de France, we paid our producer and we covered the gap between what we had raised through sponsorship and what it all cost out of our own pockets. I don’t dare look at the profit and loss breakdown for those early years but I’m not sure I made what would conventionally be termed as a profit from The Cycling Podcast until we introduced our Friends of the Podcast scheme in 2015. And I didn’t make what could be described as approaching a living from it until our major sponsors Rapha and Science In Sport came on board in quick succession in 2016. However, I believed in what we were doing and saw commiting time and money as an investment.

My competitive advantage, if you like, was that I had 20 years' experience in the media behind me, I could work for other magazines and newspapers if I had to and I had written books which were generating an income, so I could afford to help subsidise The Cycling Podcast’s growth that way.

When it comes to Tour de France time competition is now intense, with the BBC, ITV and plenty of others in the audio peloton. The BBC and ITV have the huge advantage of being able to promote their podcasts on radio and television and yet our audience also grows so we can only conclude that we are being sucked along in the slipstream.

The beauty of podcasting is that it is not a closed shop – anyone with an iPhone and ideas can get their work online, although I accept that it was probably easier for us to build an audience because we had all covered professional cycling since the late 1990s and early 2000s and we weren't fumbling around at the Tour bewildered by the sheer scale of it all, so we could put together a relatively coherent product from day one. (Although I urge you not to go back and listen to our early episodes to test this hypothesis).

On Monday, Richard and I headed to Birmingham to meet Daniel (who was over from Berlin) to record a few things for The Cycling Podcast – this week’s regular episode discussing the Belgian cobbled classics and looking ahead to the Tour of Flanders, plus a couple of special episodes for Friends of the Podcast that will be out later in the year.

It turned out to be a productive day even if I continued my campaign to alienate large chunks of the United Kingdom one bit at a time by doing a Birmingham accent in the first part of the episode. Never mind competition from the BBC, my accents and comments about places that are Not Watford are tantamount to self-sabotage.

The two Scottish dates of The Cycling Podcast's Grand Tour of (parts of) Britain have been rearranged. Edinburgh, on April 12, is more or less sold out (although check with the venue. We'll be at the Trades Hall in Glasgow on April 11 and tickets have just gone on sale, with priority being given to people who had purchased for the first event. For details go here.

 

One match from Wembley

On Saturday I went to see Wealdstone’s FA Trophy semi-final second leg against Brackley Town on behalf of Simon Ricketts because he’s in hospital and unable to attend.

Having been encouraged by his progress a couple of weeks ago, he’d taken a turn for the worse since I last visited him and was back in intensive care when I went back on Thursday. It was upsetting to see him sedated, unconscious and hooked up to all sorts of machines. The nurse encouraged me to talk to him and so I said I’d go along to the match and give Wealdstone a cheer for him.

I’ve always had a soft spot for non-league football. When I first started working as a journalist, I spent a season or so covering the local non-league sides. Thinking I was clever, I once started a match report with the words: ‘Pointless Harefield United...’ after they’d lost about their eighth consecutive match at the start of the season and had yet to get off the mark. When the paper came out their manager rang up the sports desk asking to speak to me and I had to convince him I wasn’t trying to be smart. I think they won their next game, so perhaps he pinned the newspaper cutting up on the dressing room wall as motivation.

Wealdstone have a famous history and were 90 minutes from a return to Wembley despite having lost the first leg 1-0. They were the first team to do the non-league ‘Double’, winning the Alliance Premier League (later known as the Conference, now the National League) and FA Trophy in 1985. They’re the club that gave the world Stuart Pearce and Vinnie Jones and there’s a no-nonsense edge to some of the supporters too.

It’s been a long journey to get back to within touching distance of the top tier of non-league football for the Stones. As has happened to many clubs, they lost their ground when it was sold to a supermarket and that led to a long nomadic period of groundhopping. They spent a couple of seasons at Watford’s Vicarage Road, paying a ludicrous rent to play in an empty stadium, then moved to share grounds at Yeading, Edgware and Northwood before finally taking over Ruislip Manor’s ground about a decade ago.

There’s something charming about the hodgepodge of structures that provide cover for the supporters at their home, Grosvenor Vale. They’re all corrugated iron, scaffold poles and advertisements for local firms. The stands all have names that recognise the club’s history or people who have played their part. Couch Corner is named after Ray Couch, a statistician, apparently. There’s also Collins Corner, the Mick Wells Stand, the Bulla Stand and the 1966 Stand, to recognise the year the club won the FA Amateur Cup at Wembley. In one corner is a brick gun turret, which was used to provide machine gun cover for the neighbouring airfield during the Second World War, and another corner is apparently known as ‘dead fox corner’ because a dead fox was found there when a group of supporters arrived to do some renovation work one summer.

Brackley were too good for Wealdstone and deserved to go through, so I couldn’t relay the news to Simon that his team had made it to Wembley, but I enjoyed the game. I had a very strong cup of tea from Lynn’s Gourmet Burger bar – the sort of tea that would make even a hodcarrier wince a bit. The crowd was huge – surely more than the 2,008 announced over the tinny tannoy. It struck me how many young people were in the crowd too – no doubt encouraged by the fact it’s relatively affordable and they can stand near their friends, which is not easy at Premier League and Championship matches – and some of the shouts from the terraces were funny and unrepeatable. Non-league players – and goalkeepers, in particular – need to develop a thick skin because they can surely hear everything that’s shouted at them.

Being Graham Taylor

I’d been invited to speak about the process of ghostwriting Graham Taylor’s autobiography at a meeting of the Watford Writers group and, after five nights of The Cycling Podcast’s theatre tour, was surprised to feel quite so nervous about addressing an audience again, but there was something intially intimidating about being able to see the whites of people’s eyes.

I could feel my mouth go a bit dry so I reached for the water and managed to over-fill my glass so it spilled all over the table. I don’t think anyone noticed and there was a warm feeling in the room so once I got going it went fine. Everyone was very kind at the interval and afterwards and I was really glad I’d done it and not used the snowy weather and the beginnings of a sore throat as an excuse to pull out.

I was asked to speak for about 40 minutes, so the following piece is quite long but I figured that as I’d written it I may as well share it more widely. This is what I wrote in preparation, although I deviated a bit here and there on the night.


Photographs by Simon Gill

Thank you very much for inviting me here this evening and thank you all for coming. First of all, how many of you are Watford supporters or football fans?

[A good show of hands]

That’s good news.

And I assume that everyone writes or is interested in the process of writing?

[Reassuring nods]

Excellent, excellent. We should be okay with this then.

I am going to talk a bit about the process of ghostwriting and how it differs from journalism. A lot of you are writers or perhaps you are writing something now so when I talk a bit later on about how I write hopefully you’ll take something from it, even if it’s to think, ‘That’s nonsense, I’m not going to do it like that.’ There’s no right or wrong way to write anything, in my opinion, although it’s probably taken me 20-odd years to realise that. So what I’m going to say is how I approach it – there’s no golden rule – because all that counts is what goes on the page not how it gets there. No one knows what’s been left out, no one knows the thought process you went through to get to that point, no one knows the avenues you went down that didn’t work out. All that you get judged on is what’s in the finished book.

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Sometimes people will let you know what they think of your work and if people don’t like what you’ve done you have to develop a thick skin, but the thing is they can’t have any idea what you’ve put into a piece of work, they don’t know about the days when you doubted everything and think you’re not going to get finished, and, really, why should they?

To write anything I think, whether it’s journalism, or fiction or ghostwriting, you have to know your subject and your character or characters as well as you possibly can. I’ve never written fiction but you have to create characters who are three-dimensional and real. You have to know how they would react and what they would say in different situations.

In my case, I was ghostwriting for someone who was famous, who had a public profile and quite a distinctive way of expressing himself, and I found that made it quite a lot more difficult to capture Graham Taylor and put his life story down on the page.

For two years I worked with Graham, and for a further year I worked on my own trying to think and write like him, and the end result is this: Graham Taylor, In His Own Words.

For those who don’t know, Graham was the England football manager but before that he was Watford manager and he transformed the club and with it the fortunes of the town. If anyone remembers the club in the mid-1970s it was really a greyhound stadium with a football pitch in the middle and he turned it into one of the best football clubs in the country, and he did that by the force of his character.

I am going to explain how I came to become Graham Taylor’s ghostwriter because, after all, who am I? And I’m going to talk about how a friendship developed that made it harder for me to work on the book. And then I’m going to talk about completing the book after he died, when it became almost overwhelming at times.

In order to explain all that, though, I suppose I need to go right back to the beginning and talk a little bit about my own career because although this project was 70 years in the making for Graham, it was also, in a way, 20 years in the making for me.

I first met Graham Taylor when I was about nine or ten at a Watford Football Club open day for young supporters at Vicarage Road when you got to play on the pitch and meet the players. It was either 1984 or 1985 and I queued up for Graham’s autograph with dozens – hundreds possibly – of other young supporters, all dressed head to toe in Watford kit. Eventually it was my turn at the front and I can still remember the conversation.

‘Hello son. What do you want to do when you grow up?’

‘I want to play for Watford. If I’m not good enough for that, I want to write the programme.’

* * *

Scroll forward 12 years to 1996. Graham had left Watford, he’d gone to Aston Villa, he’d become England manager, he’d been portrayed as a turnip on the back page of The Sun, he’d failed to qualify for the World Cup, then he had to rehabilitate himself and his career at Wolverhampton Wanderers and that didn’t work out either. So he came back to Watford, the one place that would still welcome him unconditionally. There weren’t many places queuing up to offer Graham Taylor a job at that time.

In the meantime, I’d grown up a bit and I’d joined the Watford Observer, where I started my career. I’d been on a training course in St Leonards-on-Sea to learn the trade. I’d done all the stuff that young journalists do – I’d covered the births, deaths and golden weddings. I’d been to council meetings and magistrates court and covered local sport and by 1996 I was one of the paper’s sub-editors, laying out the pages, correcting the copy and writing the headlines.

Someone tipped me off that there was a job going at Watford Football Club as head of communications and programme editor. I thought, ‘Well, this is it. This is the job for me.’ I applied and got an interview and found myself sitting opposite Graham being asked how I saw this job. I obviously did okay because I got a second inteview. The questions were a lot harder the second time round because Graham was obviously narrowing down his candidates.

I didn’t get the job, which was very disappointing because I thought it was made for me.

A couple of days after finding out I hadn’t got it, the phone on my desk at the Watford Observer rang.

It was Graham. In the course of a brief conversation he made me feel better about myself than I would have had I got the job. He said, ‘It’s not that you’re not right for the job – although you’re not – it’s that the job is not right for you. Stick at what you’re doing, carry on in journalism and see where it takes you.’ Coming from the son of a journalist, I took that as a compliment.

A bit later I left the Watford Observer and joined a cycling magazine and in 2001 I teamed up with a photographer called Alan Cozzi to write my first book, Four Seasons, which is about Graham’s second spell as Watford manager. I made life easy for myself by making it a coffee table style book with loads of photos and not too many words.

One day a letter arrived on nice paper, written in fountain pen. It was from Graham Taylor and he’d enclosed a cheque for six copies of Four Seasons to give to his friends and family. However, he’d neglected to add on anything to cover postage costs so I had a dilemma. What should I do? I rang him up and explained that as I had financed the printing and publishing of the book and needed to make my money back, every penny counted. He said, ‘I’m sorry about that, why don’t you drop them round to me?’ so I went to his house in Chorleywood and we had a cup of tea and a chat in his kitchen.

I carried on writing about cycling for magazines and, later, The Sunday Times and eight years on, I started work on my second book about Watford, Enjoy the Game, which involved interviewing as many of the players and management from the 1980s as I could. I ended up interviewing around 45 people for that book and quite early in that process I contacted Graham. He already knew what I was up to, because one or two of the players had tipped him off. He said that he was perfectly happy to give me an interview but he asked me to wait until I had interviewed 15 or 20 players because he said he wanted to know the book was well underway so he wasn’t giving up three or four hours of his time for nothing. He also joked that he wanted to know what everyone else had said about him before he started talking about them.

So, the time came and I met Graham at The Belfry hotel near to Sutton Coldfield, where he lived at the time, and he gave me three or four hours of fantastic material. I remember sitting there having had quite a few cups of tea and coffee and I was absolutely bursting for the toilet. He was right in the middle of telling me about Elton John’s battle with drink and drugs and it was great stuff. I had my tape recorder on the table between us. He was in full flow, and I was very close to being in full flow myself but I dared not stop him. Fortunately, with the bead of sweat breaking on my brow, he said, ‘I’m sorry to have to stop here but I need to go to the loo.’ I have never felt so relieved and The Belfry is big enough that I could use a different toilet so we didn’t have to stand awkwardly next to each other at the urinals.

A few weeks after the book came out, my phone rang and the screen said, ‘Graham Taylor.’ I hesitated because there were only a couple of reasons he could be ringing – either to tell he didn’t like the book or that I’d fouled something up terribly, or to ask me how much the postage would be on six copies.

He said, ‘I’ve been reading the book and I must admit I have been struggling because it has brought back so many memories, most of them very happy, but some sad, and I have been getting emotional. So I’ve been picking it up and putting it down. It’s a very good book even if I disagree with a few of the comments by the players. People have remembered things a different way to me but perhaps one day I will do my own book and iron out a few things.’

I said, ‘Well, if you ever do get round to doing your own book let me know as I would drop everything if you needed any help with it.’

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* * *

A couple of years later, I called Graham to ask if I could interview him about another period of his career for another project I was working on.

He very politely declined, explaining that he had started work on his own book with another journalist. I tried to hide my disappointment and said, ‘I look forward to reading it.’

Another couple of years later – so we are talking late summer 2014 now – I got a call from Graham completely out of the blue and he said it hadn’t worked out with his ghostwriter, would I like to talk about working with him.

Absolutely. No question.

So, we arranged to meet and my first question for Graham was, ‘What do you want the book to be?’

I asked him to imagine what his book would be like when he held it in his hands. Would it be hardback or paperback? What might it be called? What would be on the cover? Are there photographs in it?

He hadn’t really thought about any of that, he’d just thought about ‘doing a book’.

I asked him why he hadn’t done it before. He said he’d had plenty of opportunities over the years and had started work on at least four or five occasions. He said he must be the only England football manager who had not done a book. He said he’d been offered the chance to do one right after he finished as England manager. I asked why he hadn’t taken that opportunity. He said he hadn’t wanted to cash in on his experience. At that time, he hadn’t drawn a line under his career as a football manager and had wanted to get back to work. Despite a handful of attempts to start work on a book later on, it had never felt like the right time and things had not got terribly far.

I asked, why now?

He said, ‘I am nearly 70 years old and I have lived an awful lot more of my life than I have left to live and so it feels like it’s either now or never.’

Now, he didn’t know he would pass away before the book was finished but he obviously had a sense of his own mortality and knew he didn’t have another 70 years left to write his book.

Then I asked, why me?

He said, ‘You’re the first person who’s asked me what I want my book to be without telling me what they think it should be first.’

I asked him who he was writing it for and he said that he wanted to do something that his grandchildren could read. They were in their teens and early twenties and, he said, they rolled their eyes – lovingly as grandchildren do – when grandad started telling his boring old stories. But he knew from experience that one day they might want to know more about what he did and so he wanted to tell his story his way.

We talked about how it would go, and how we might work together. The first thing I did was give him a blank notebook in which I’d written very loose subject headings on the pages – childhood, school, parents, Grimsby Town, Lincoln City, Watford, Elton John, Aston Villa, England, and so on – with plenty of space for him to add other headings as he wished.

For a couple of weeks, he’d call me and ask what he should be writing in the book, so I’d say, ‘Anything you like. Short sentences, or names of people, or anecdotes or incidents you think you might want to include. You could even write out longer stories, if you wish. Or it could just be a series of bullet points to jog your memory for when we meet.’

He filled the notebook up and I took it away one day and transcribed the lot before giving it back to him. Then he lost it. But that was fine, because we were off and running and it had served its purpose because it had got him thinking about what he wanted his book to be.

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* * *

Next we went on a series of road trips to places that mattered to Graham. We traced his life. We went to Scunthorpe, where he grew up, and stood in Axholme Road, outside the house where he lived, and I saw him come alive as he recalled memories from his childhood. I watched as he bowled an imaginary cricket ball so it would bounce off the kerb to bowl his dad out as they played cricket in the street. He talked about the patch of grass down at the end of the road that was Lord’s in the summer and Wembley Stadium in the winter for all the children who played games there. We traced the route from his house to his primary school, which he ran every day. And through this I got a sense of Graham Taylor as he really is. I started to get a feel for his character, his sense of humour, his ability to be slightly contrary at times. All the things I was hoping to distil and get onto the page.

We later went to Grimsby Town’s ground and sat in the dressing room where he’d had his introduction to the tough, unforgiving world of professional football. Where he’d had to learn to swear and joke to fit in. We went to Lincoln City and he sat where the benches used to be and recalled hearing the chants of ‘Taylor Out! Taylor Out!’ after his less-than-successful start to life as a manager.

We went to Vicarage Road and Villa Park. At Watford we brought the story full circle because we stood on the pitch and he looked up at the stand which bore the words, The Graham Taylor Stand.

We sat on the sofa and I tried not to notice the tears in his eyes as we watched An Impossible Job – the documentary about his final year or so as England manager – on YouTube.

* * *

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Graham had a summerhouse in the garden at his house near Sutton Coldfield that was filled with stuff he’d collected over the years. There were newspaper cuttings, photographs, football programmes, books and video tapes. He even had his gold disc, presented to him after he and the Watford squad sang backing vocals on a couple of Elton John tracks in the late 1970s. He had an envelope full of embroidered badges he’d carefully snipped off shirts. He had his actual embroidered FA coaching badge, Grimsby Town and Lincoln City badges and the three lions he’d salvaged from the breast pocket of one of his England blazers. Among the most valuable resources were the diaries he kept at various points during his career, including during his time as England manager. It was an Aladdin’s cave of Graham Taylor memories and we had many happy hours going through the stuff because it seemed like each box, folder or suitcase contained new stories. He didn’t know what to do with it all, and I know Rita, his wife, would have liked some of it to go in a skip, but Graham couldn’t bring himself to sort through it all and decide what to throw away and what to keep.

Then we started doing the interviewing. I knew I needed to go into the detail. I found that when we met at his house and we sat on his sofas in the lounge things would go well for a while but he’d relax and begin to feel too comfortable and would slip into football-speak, if I can call it that. He stopped giving me the detail I wanted. So I’d mix things up. Sometimes we’d meet at The Belfry, where I’d had a good experience with him before and which would give our interviews quite a business-like feel. A couple of times we met at Villa Park and sat in one of the executive boxes. Or we’d meet at a hotel down near the Hemel Hempstead junction of the M1 when he came to visit one of his daughters.

Sometimes I would try to focus on a specific era and work hard to keep him on track, but other times I’d loosen things up and let him go wherever he wanted to go. I was always trying to work out the circumstances that would lead to me getting the best information out of him and as the months turned to a year I felt I was building up more than enough to get started on the actual writing.

I recorded more or less every meeting and I must have had almost 200 hours to listen through. Some of it is not great quality because I was trying to keep the recorder surrepticious because people change when they know they are being recorded – they tighten up, they feel they are ‘on-the-record’ and they perhaps try a little bit harder to make themselves sound better than they otherwise might.

Often, he’d tell me some of the best stories over lunch – when he thought we were done for the day. It wasn’t that I was trying to trick him into telling me things he didn’t want me to know, but he would naturally loosen up. I’d dash to the loo so often, to make a note of something he’d said so I wouldn’t forget it, that I think he thought I had some kind of bladder control problem.

Throughout all this, I was also doing other research – reading newspaper cuttings, other books. I read more than a decade’s worth of his programme notes, which I knew he’d written himself. I watched interviews on YouTube. All the time I was picking things up and absorbing things, learning how he expressed himself.

* * *

At some point I realised that some his great stories weren’t quite true. I’ve found this quite a lot with sportspeople. They will tell you a story about how they were 2-0 down with five minutes to go and came back to win 3-2. Then you look at the record books and realise they were 2-1 down with 20 minutes to go. A good story but not quite as good as they remembered. This applies to all sorts of stories, not just events that happened on the pitch, so we had to tackle the issue of the gap between the memory and the reality. I had to sort the myth from the truth without losing some good stories and I did that by acknowledging how the memory plays tricks as events recede into the past.

We had so much material and we thought about what we were going to do with it. There was enough for a multi-volume autobiography but we decided against that because Graham wanted his whole life to be set in context. As he frequently pointed out, when arguing that we should start the book at the beginning and not with a pivotal moment from, say, his time as England manager – he didn’t become England manager overnight, there was half a lifetime that got him to that point.

I knew some good stuff would have to go. We had to prioritise the material and come up with a coherent narrative arc. Any story needs a beginning, a middle and an end but I actually think a book is made up of several small beginnings, middles and ends that together tell the story. Because I cover cycling I can’t help but think of it as being like the profile of a Tour de France mountain stage – a stage in the Alps has perhaps four or five mountains and so I break the story down into a series of mini climaxes, followed by a small reboot. These are usually quite subtle things, perhaps not even that noticeable to the reader, but the small changes of pace and pitch help, I think, to propel the story along.

* * *

I had to continually remind myself that this was not my book. I was writing this for Graham, as Graham. I don’t want sound like I think too much of myself here, or even that I think of myself as a good ghostwriter, but I think there are similarities with an actor taking on a role. I was trying to be like Michael Sheen trying to be Brian Clough, or David Frost, or Tony Blair. I was trying to be Graham Taylor.

As anyone who has written anything knows, finding a voice is one thing but maintaining consistency is another matter. It’s so easy to slip out of your character’s voice and into your own and so it took time to be able to write as Graham. You might think it would be easy because Graham has quite a particular way of speaking, but he has little stock phrases which, if over-used, could easily sound clichéd or even comical. The phrase, ‘Do I Not Like That,’ a variation of which had been suggested to Graham as a title for his book at one point, does not even appear in the book except for one occasion when he references being lumbered with it as a catchphrase.

Sitting down to write is always the hardest bit, I find anyway, but it’s not until relatively recently that I realised that when you are writing a book, you are always writing, sometimes at the most inconvenient times. I’m sorry to put this image in your minds but I’d often find myself instead of singing in the shower, doing impressions of Graham in the shower. Or I’d be out on a bike ride and something would come to me and I’d find I’d ‘written’ a good bit as I was pedalling along. Of course, if you don’t make a note of these things at the time, they can be lost for good so I would stop by the roadside and type out bits on my phone.

One of my tips for writing is to never throw anything away but that also became a hindrance at a certain point. I had handwritten notes in books and on scraps of paper, piles of cuttings and magazines, dozens of text windows on my computer with full chapters, or notes, or random ideas. I had nearly half a million words of interview transcripts. I would go through and bold bits, italicise bits, as if this was helping me to put my thoughts into some kind of order but I ended up in a mess.

So I bought a big artist’s drawing pad and I started to write out the book in a series of diagrams – notes with lines linking those notes, sketching out chapters. Then I overcomplicated that and started using different coloured pens. Although at the time it felt I was making things more difficult for myself, I was actually slowly finding my way.

In the end, I had to get started on a passage that I knew would go into the book and so I picked a section concerning Graham and his relationship with Elton and thought, ‘If I can get this right then it can be the first step.’ I realised that the cliché that says writing a book is like building a house – that you need to start with the foundations, then build the walls, then put on the roof, then focus on the interior design – are nonsense really, because sometimes I’d have the energy and inspiration to sort out a bit of the kitchen before the foundations were in.

I realised that a better analogy for writing a book is that it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Yes, you can start with the outside if you wish, or the bits that have the most detail, but the important thing is to just put the pieces together and gradually build up the picture.

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If I’ve learned anything it is that writing is about perseverance, just keeping going, because you can’t get to the last page unless you have written all the ones in front of it. But you don’t necessarily have to write all the ones in front of it in order. You just have to find your own way, which is what I did.

But the big wake-up was reading parts of the first draft and realising it didn’t sound like Graham. The silence from him and his agent when I delivered the initial pages told me what I already knew. Despite being aware of all the possible pitfalls, I’d been writing as me, rather than as Graham.

I can imagine you’re wondering why Graham needed a ghostwriter in the first place. After all, he was a good writer himself. The son of a journalist, he understood how to tell a story and he could do it well. But when he came to sorting through his own memories he found he just couldn’t. You might wonder why, if I had hundreds of thousands of words of him talking, I couldn’t just reproduce transcripts of those interviews, but it doesn’t work like that either. That wouldn’t make for a pleasing read.

So I went back to the beginning and started again, making doubly sure I wasn’t slipping out of his voice and into mine and here I have to thank a friend of mine, Simon Ricketts, who I worked with at the Watford Observer, who had been a Watford supporter, before deciding to switch allegiances to non-league Wealdstone, and who now works for The Guardian. He was a big fan of Graham’s, he understood what made him tick and he was very keen to see this book come to fruition. He was absolutely vital to me as I worked through the manuscript. He told me when I was losing my way and he encouraged me to keep going.

I sent Graham a small bit, perhaps only four or five thousand words, and heard nothing for about three weeks, which felt like a long time, and a bad sign. However, the reaction was much more positive this time and that gave me the confidence to go on.

Just before Christmas 2016, I saw Graham for what turned out to be the last time. I’d given him a big chunk of the book to read, he’d shown it to Rita, and he was happy. He was very enthusiastic about the idea of it coming out. We’d started talking about the title he wanted and possible ideas for the cover photograph.

* * *

In mid-January 2017, I was sitting at my desk in my office with half a dozen Word documents open on my screen, as usual. I was on the phone to Simon Ricketts, talking through where I was struggling and his advice was the same as it so often was. ‘Just write the next sentence.’

As we spoke, I heard my phone buzz with another call coming through. It was Graham’s agent, Ian Wilson. I didn’t take the call. A minute or two later, he called again. I’ll call him back, I thought. Then an email dropped into my inbox. The subject read: ‘Can you call me ASAP.’

Instinctively, I knew something was wrong. I called Ian and he said, ‘I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. Graham has died.’

It was like a punch to the stomach. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, considering the hours we'd spent together, but I felt like a friend had died.

I found I had to turn off Sky Sports News because of all the tributes. I got calls from a couple of friends in the media who knew I’d been working on Graham’s book asking me if I wanted to write something or say something. I didn’t.

After a few days, people asked me what was going to happen with the book and I had to say I had no idea, because it wasn’t my decision to make. At the funeral, Rita said that the family wanted me to complete the book as he had intended.

On the one hand this was fantastic to hear, on the other hand it meant I had to get back to work after a month on hold. I found it harder to listen to recordings of Graham's voice, harder to think like him without dwelling on the fact he was no longer here. Finishing the book was difficult. The sense of responsibility for getting it right intensified. I also had to make sure that the book retained its authenticity, that it didn’t sound like Graham knew he was going to pass away before it was finished (because he didn’t), or that it sounded like he was speaking from beyond the grave, if that makes sense. Any gaps in the narrative, things that we might have gone back over in the final months before publication, would just have to remain as they were.

Simon nursed me along, sometimes only 500 words at a time. I would send him a chunk and he’d give me some feedback – never too efusive to lead to complacency, never too negative to knock me off my stride.

Sometimes I wrote at home in my office, sometimes at the kitchen table, sometimes I preferred the hubbub of a busy café. I moved around depending on my mood. At one point I felt I had to get away for a change of scenery and I thought that going somewhere familiar but different was the answer. Like one giant cliché, I booked an Airbnb in St Leonards-on-Sea, where I’d trained as a journalist, thinking that the significance and symmetry would help. After a couple of days in the seaside town’s cafés, I had churned out another decent chunk but decided I wanted to be at home. The trip had served its purpose, it had got me going again but I realised I didn’t need to stay there.

* * *

I knew I needed more help to finish the manuscript and get it ready for publication and Bloomsbury’s rather puzzling decision to make Charlotte Atyeo redundant turned out to be my gain because, as a freelance book editor, she was free to work on Graham’s autobiography. She knew sports books inside out, having commissioned and edited a string of titles that had been shortlisted for the William Hill sports book of the year award, and was also a Watford supporter.

I’d love to be able to describe in some sort of enlightening detail what it was she did to make the manuscript better but it sounds so simple that I’m in danger of making it sound insignificant when the opposite is true. She cut bits that didn’t need to be said, she moved bits to places where they would work better, she urged me to clarify or simplify passsages. She just made it better and she communicated those changes in such a way that didn’t puncture my fragile confidence or put my back up. Those who know me will know that’s quite a skill.

So together, Simon, Charlotte and I completed the manuscript. If I can permit myself to use this analogy, I was the football manager, I guess, picking the team and trying to get the result, Charlotte was like the director of football, seeing the big picture and offering an experienced sounding board, and Simon was my first-team coach, getting his hands dirty on the training pitch and working with me on the detail – instead of shouting ‘Just another 10 push-ups’ he’d say, ‘Just another 500 words.’ Simon and Charlotte have never met but together they were crucial parts of the triangle.

The most nerve-wracking part was giving the manuscript to Rita and Graham’s two daughters to read. The notes, when they came back, were very few and after some small changes we had the green light to publish.

In the gap between sending the book to press and receiving copies from the printers, I visited Rita to return some photographs we’d used. When she said, ‘You’ve done ever so well. It sounds just like Graham,’ I could have – and nearly did – burst into tears in her hallway.

* * *

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I’d like to just talk about the cover photograph too. I read a review recently that makes a point about the cover that pleased me so much. It said, ‘There will be other pictures in the family album in which he is better posed, other pictures in which his shirt goes with his jacket. But none that would have looked better on the cover of the book. Taylor has a glorious grin.’

We had intended to do some sort of photo shoot, perhaps hire a studio and rig up the lights and get Graham to pose for a photograph. But we never got round to it.

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Back when I first suggested the road trips to Graham, my friend Simon Gill offered to come along to document the journey. After Graham had died we went through every frame from those trips knowing that if we couldn’t make something work we’d have to rely on something from the archives.

When we were in the changing rooms at Vicarage Road, Graham had sat down and looked round almost in wonder at how plush they were compared to in his day. Simon rattled off a series of frames and when we looked at the pictures we knew it had potential. The background, which was black, was not suitable because we didn’t want a funereal feel to the cover. But once the jacket designer, Steve Leard, confirmed that he could drop it out, we had our cover. And yes, perhaps Rita wishes Graham had chosen a different shirt that day, but it’s absolutely perfect.

To finish, I’d like to read a short piece from Graham’s book which I think says something about life, about sport, about writing, about everything really.

While I was writing this book, I watched the documentary, An Impossible Job. I didn’t particularly want to, for obvious reasons, although it remains a very skilled piece of film-making and it does show what it was like to be the England manager at that time, so I have no complaints about it.
It was not an enjoyable watch but there were moments in it that I had long forgotten. At the end of the film, you can hear the team talk I gave to the England players before the World Cup qualifier against the Netherlands – the one that cost us our place in the tournament. I have given thousands of team talks during my career but this one summed up much of what I believe.
‘In life there are so many opportunities, and they are always round about you. There are too many people in life that never see them. Then there are those people who see the opportunities but don’t grasp them. Then there are other people, who are generally life’s winners… they see the opportunities, they go looking for them, and they take them. And that’s what you are facing now on the football field. Now go out there and take it, it’s there for you.’
Now, we didn’t win that match, but I stand by every word of that team talk. In life you win some and you lose some; the secret is not to get too carried away by one or too dragged down by the other but to keep giving your best. No one can ask any more of you than that.

A happy St Patrick's Day

Saturday was my first St Patrick’s Day as an Irish citizen and Ireland won rugby’s Grand Slam for only the third time. I’m not going to take all the credit for this, because I’m sure the players had more to do with it than me, but I simply don’t believe in coincidences like that.

To be honest, I’m not really into rugby, although when I watch the Six Nations and the World Cup I support Ireland and when it comes to football I always want Ireland to win, whereas my backing of England blows hot and cold depending on a range of factors including, but not limited to, who the manager is, how the travelling supporters behave and how many of the players I can bear to support.

I’ve been asked a few times on Twitter what my link to Ireland is and why I chose to make it official by applying for citizenship last year.

I would be lying if I said that the Brexit vote had nothing to do with persuading me to finally go through the process of gathering together the documents to complete an application. It was made a lot easier by the fact my mum has spent years working on her family tree and had also applied to the authorities in Dublin for copies of the various certificates we needed.

I’m reluctant to turn this blog into a rant about how depressing and insular I feel the whole process of Brexit is because it tends to prompt more angry reaction than covering Team Sky, but I’d be lying if I said that the Brexit vote had not made me think more deeply about my own origins. I decided that I wanted to officially acknowledge the fact I am not the product of one single place.

My Granda, Patrick, was born in County Limerick, not far from Adare, and he came to England as a young man and made it his home. Back then there was probably a fair bit of anti-Irish sentiment here but he got a job working on the railways, made a life and had a family. For as long as I knew him he had a Cumbrian accent, although I’m not sure whether he deliberately made an effort to drop his Irish accent.

If he had not moved from Ireland to England I would not exist and the more my mum has discovered about her family tree the more I see that I am the product of people from all over the place. As a result, it seems bizarre to me to want to draw lines on the map, saying, ‘You’re from there, I’m from here.’ I say that as someone fully aware that the lottery of life gave me the good fortune of having been born in the south east of England within easy reach of London, meaning I’ve never had to move for economic reasons.

I don’t want to generalise because I’m sure that people who voted for Brexit did so for any number of reasons – perhaps concerns about immigration, perhaps a sense that Britain has lost its identity (whatever that ever was), perhaps because they don’t like the way the EU has evolved, although when I’ve asked people which EU laws they’d like to repeal first they don’t seem terribly sure.

I know people from all over Britain who have moved from north to south, or south to north, for work or love. I know lots of people from Europe and beyond who have come here and made Britain their home. I see no difference between them and the ex-pat who goes to Spain or Provence in search  a comfortable, warm retirement. I don’t see any positive reasons for seeking to close off those opportunities to people.

It’s become a tiring debate and I am perfectly willing to accept that my mind is made up just as firmly as someone who holds the opposite opinion. I just happen to think that I’d rather live in a country with its hands outstretched to the world, palms facing upwards ready to shake hands or offer help, rather than one standing with its arms folded saying, ‘Who are you and what do you want?’

Every day I watch the news and the current affairs shows and see the energy being devoted to negotiations that don’t need to take place. Last week I was shocked by the number of people sleeping in doorways in Leeds city centre (and I’ve been struck by the rise in London too in the past year) and think that while all the attention is focused on making Brexit happen we’ve lost sight of what it is that makes a country.

What continues to puzzle me, though, is the inconsistency of thought – the ardent Brexiter who shops in Lidl or Aldi because it’s better for his or her wallet, or drives a foreign car, but doesn’t see how preposterous it all is. They would no doubt say that there will be nothing about Brexit to prevent us buying the foreign goods we want, or travelling to the places we want to go, in which case my argument is: So what’s the bloody point of it all then? Just to be smaller, less relevant, less welcoming? Perhaps that’s unfair but the way things are going I am yet to see much evidence of the land of milk and honey waiting for us in glorious 1950s Technicolour.

Anyway, this is getting political and there are very few things more boring to read on a Sunday than someone banging on about Brexit. Besides, I’m quite looking forward to beating the queues at arrivals in Europe with my Irish passport and working freely there when the time comes.

I spent most of St Patrick's Day watching televised sport, and then went to see Bill Bailey in the evening, where I was left in awe of his range of talents and seemingly effortless command of the stage, the audience and his many musical instruments.

To go, or not to go

The hedgehog house arrived and I placed it in a quiet corner of the garden and put some dry straw inside so it’s ready for some prickly residents to move in. I expect a hedgehoggy estate agent is sizing it up and emphasising its best features as I write.

I’ve spent the bulk of the past couple of days recording my chapters of The Cycling Podcast’s book for the forthcoming audiobook. I had hoped to finish part four of the series Eight Years Covering Team Sky by now but I haven’t had the time to sit down and write it yet, but it's coming.

Yesterday I booked my flight to Tel Aviv to cover the opening weekend of the Giro d’Italia and I have to say I did so with a sense of unease. When we first discussed this issue on The Cycling Podcast we received a lot of emails. We had tried to be fair by covering both sides of the story and as a result we received criticism from both sides.

As a journalist I’m generally okay with that – I think that if people from both ends of the spectrum are criticising then I’ve probably struck a reasonable balance. However, I am aware that this is not just a sports story, it’s about people’s lives and the balance of power.

Some of the criticism was beyond the pale, though, and felt like it was part of a co-ordinated campaign, which opened my eyes to what we are stepping into by covering a bike race in Jerusalem. I am not an expert on Middle Eastern history and politics and so I’ve had a lot of catching up to do but it strikes me that the Giro d’Italia organisers are way out of their depths here, as are we, probably.

Some people think we shouldn’t go, and I respect that point, but our job is to cover the three grand tours and say what we see. We’re going there to report on a bike race and if the atmosphere is tense, if security feels oppressive, or if it feels like some airbrushing is going on, we’ll say that. A few people have suggested we pick the race up when it arrives in Sicily and as much as that sounds appealing to me I think it’s an easy way out.

I remember being in Belfast for the start of the 2014 Giro d’Italia. I do not want to be accused of drawing a clumsy comparison between the situation with Israel and Palestine and the Troubles, but I do remember a taxi driver saying how nice it was to drive round the city and see all the pink bunting and balloons up instead of sectarian green and orange. Sport can have the power to heal divides but – correct me if I am wrong – I don’t get the sense that the motivation for inviting the Giro to Jersusalem was to bring people together.

The issue of boycotting sporting events because of geo-political tensions is pertinent at the moment after the poisoning of the Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury and the calls for England’s participation in the World Cup to be reconsidered. (I’ll resist the temptation to make the obvious joke, that England could compromise by offering to play the first three matches before coming home, because it’s been made already.)

As I said on the podcast recently, it is wilfully naïve to think that sport and politics should not mix. They are intertwined.

The question for me is where to draw the line. Great Britain competed in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow when the Cold War was at its frostiest. Many people celebrated the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, the captial of a nation with a very dubious human rights record. The 2022 football World Cup will be held in Qatar and we keep hearing about the shocking working conditions and numerous deaths for the imported labourers who are building the stadia.

In cycling, the Bahrain and UAE regimes sponsor World Tour teams and Amnesty International’s reports on the two states make troubling reading, and yet they ride shoulder-to-shoulder in the peloton with barely any discussion of the wider issues.

It’s been suggested that by going to Israel we are tacitly accepting the situation, but I don’t agree with that. Not going would be interpreted as an unequivocal political statement. Going, and keeping our eyes, ears and minds open while trying to tread as impartial a line as possible, will – at the very least – enhance my understanding of the situation and is not an endorsement of one side or the other.