Football: Radio's head of steam

Andrew Baker meets Alan Green, a man with a natural flow of strong views
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The Independent Online
True to form, it didn't take long for Alan Green to express his frustration. "This is silly," he pronounced, with the Ulster vehemence that has become such a trademark on Radio 5, "this is daft." David Elleray waving a yellow card? Eric Cantona remonstrating with an opponent? Alex Ferguson making a controversial substitution? None of these - although all three have felt the edge of Green's tongue in the past. He simply could not find anywhere to park his red Peugeot outside the Mottram Hall Hotel. "Oh, this is stupid."

Friday was Alan Green's day off, after the European hurly-burly of midweek and before the routine of Saturday afternoon and the relative novelty of Saturday evening, when he fills in for David Mellor as presenter of the football phone-in 6.06 while the toothy one is campaigning in Putney.

So there is time for Green to climb outside a three-course lunch in the corporate swank of Mottram Hall, not far from his home in Macclesfield, and reflect on his increasing fame and concomitant frustration.

Don't get him wrong: Green appreciates his good fortune as "a punter with a microphone", adores football and commentary and the chance to air his views. He is proud of his 22 years with the BBC, fond of the corporation if not of all that is occurring within it, and a keen supporter of what Radio 5 has achieved in its news and sports coverage. But "I would like to have something that is my own" is a phrase that kept cropping up.

Green is the most recognisable voice of football on radio in Britain, a fact confirmed by the demand for his services from the makers of football computer games. He is quick to share out the credit, pointing out that Mike Ingham is Radio 5's football correspondent as well as a fine commentator, but Green's gravelly rasp is one of the station's trademarks.

"I love commentating," he declared. "I would never want to give it up. When I go to a game for fun, like the Liverpool match on Thursday night, I am always commentating in my head. At Anfield I said to this bloke sitting next to me 'They're confused, Liverpool, aren't they? They're not used to playing this way.' He must have thought 'What a bore', but he turned to me and said 'You're right'. That is what I'd always said about commentary: it's about being a punter with knowledge."

Green gained his early knowledge of journalism as a BBC News Trainee, a traditional source of future stars for the corporation: Jeremy Paxman completed the course a year before Green, Nicholas Whichell followed a year behind. News was Green's first love, and retains a firm hold on his imagination and ambitions.

"What I wanted to do," he explained, "and what I still, deep down, want to do, is to run the Nine O'Clock News. I didn't want to front it. I didn't want to appear in it. I wanted to run it." He still pays closer critical attention to Newsnight than he does to Match of the Day, still considers himself a journalist first and a commentator second.

This unassuaged ambition is undoubtedly what is behind Green's opinionated style of commentary, his determination to go out on a limb more often than the average tree surgeon. "Sometimes I make a fool of myself," he admitted, "but I don't mind that, because I'm just being me. It's a mixture of self- confidence and arrogance. It's me saying 'I make mistakes but I'm quite happy with who I am.' I can live with myself."

It is reassuring that Green gets on well with himself, because he is not pally with everyone in football. "I upset people," he admitted. "I know I upset them. But I never said anything about Alex Ferguson that I know I didn't feel."

The mention - unprompted - of the Manchester United manager indicates the depth of ill-feeling between the two. Ferguson has in the past refused to speak to Green on the basis that he is a Liverpool supporter. The commentator does not exactly shrug this off. "There was a time when I might have worried about upsetting the manager of the most important club in the country," he said. "But not any more."

Ferguson is by no means the only target. Green is scathing about the Premiership ("defensively it is appalling"), has little time for Uefa ("it's not the Champions' League, it's a knock-out competition") and refuses point-blank to call linesmen referee's assistants ("I just won't do it. I won't do it").

Whatever further outlet Radio 5 can find for him, it had better be a long show. He has filled in for Michael Parkinson on the Friday night sports chat show. "It's an hour long at the moment," he said. "I think it works better at two." Better make it three, if the guests want to get a word in.