Alan Green: Football's monster mouth ready to rile for another season
Brian Viner Interviews: Not just listeners but, it seems, managers like Sam Allardyce and Sir Alex Ferguson fly into a rage over the opinions of BBC Five Live's top commentator. Is he ridiculously self-important, or a radio star?
Friday 08 September 2006
As attention switches back from international to domestic football, the questions that have been left simmering for the past 10 days come back to the boil. Can Manchester United hold Chelsea at bay at the top? When will Arsenal start winning? Can Everton compound their bright start by winning tomorrow's Merseyside derby at Goodison Park? Can Martin O'Neill continue to work his alchemy with Aston Villa? And which Premiership manager will be first to be outraged by O'Neill's fellow Ulsterman Alan Green?
Last season it was Everton's David Moyes who got the huff first with Five Live's robustly opinionated commentator and phone-in presenter. Green wrote an article for the Cork Examiner, later reproduced by the Liverpool Echo, in which he argued that Moyes, instead of raising expectations after Everton's fourth-place finish the previous season, should suppress them.
"I was full of praise for Everton but I argued that they should keep their ambitions within bounds," Green recalls. "The Echo had a fit. Why should we pay our licence fee for this joker, they asked, even though the article had nothing to do with the BBC. After that I got death threats. Someone even got hold of my personal email address. It was absurd. And as it turned out, I was right, not that the Echo ran a piece at the end of the season saying, 'By the way, what Greeny said in September wasn't that far off the mark'.
"It was upsetting because I have a long association with Everton. I remember being on their coach in 1986 when Liverpool won the Double, and Everton very unfairly were runners-up in both competitions. I remember the dual parade around the city - I don't know who thought that one up. There was the Liverpool coach ahead with everyone bouncing up and down, and the Everton coach like a morgue. I remember asking Pat van den Hauwe for a word.
"He said, 'Fuck off!' To which Inchy, Adrian Heath, said, 'Pat, come on, this is Alan'. He said, 'You can fuck off, too!'" Green chuckles. "So it hurt me that a good relationship broke down last year but it won't stop me going to Goodison for the derby, and I like to think that the Evertonians around where I sit, who are all well-established season ticket-holders, will view me with some favour."
Whether they do, or whether they don't, Green's standing with some of the Goodison faithful is not helped by the perception that privately he is a Liverpool fan. I should add that I'm one of the faithful myself and I've never considered him biased. Besides, there are Liverpool fans who think he's a Manchester United fan. And United fans who think he's just about anything but. What nobody now mistakes him for is a fan of Bolton Wanderers, whose style of football he described last year as "ugly", adding that he would certainly not pay to watch it. The Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce, went ballistic when he heard, even calling on the BBC to issue Green with his P45.
"I just try to reflect what I see," Green insists. "And the choice of word - 'ugly' - was appropriate. I was highly critical of the way Bolton played for throw-ins and free-kicks, and I might add that I was totally supported by [his co-commentator] Chris Waddle. I said that I wouldn't pay to watch it, but that it worked and would help Bolton qualify for Europe, which at the time it looked as if it would." When Allardyce subsequently hit the roof, Green was astonished.
"His words were, 'I would not wish to say anything that would encourage the BBC to employ him'. I'm also told he tried to take action within the League Managers' Association and was laughed out of court. That was reported to me by other managers, a number of whom quietly said to me, 'You're absolutely right, you know'. I certainly don't take back a word of what I said. I also wonder whether Sam might think that [the episode] harmed his chances of getting the England job? Not because it was about me, but because it was about Sam and criticism. If he couldn't take it in a club context, how on earth would he cope as England manager? I wonder whether that weighed in the minds of the FA people who interviewed him?"
Green pauses, while a helicopter flies noisily overhead. "Rooney's, do you think?" he says. We are drinking coffee on a terrace at Mottram Hall Hotel near Prestbury in Cheshire, not far from Rooney Towers.
"I promise you this," he continues. "If I watch Bolton this season and they play like that, I will say the same thing. Bob Shennan [the controller of Radio Five Live] said to me, 'The day you hold back from making that kind of judgement is the day you're finished as a commentator'."
Allardyce, it has to be said, is not the only person wishing a conclusion to Green's broadcasting career. No other commentator on either television or radio polarises fans quite as much, and while there are those of us who feel that football needs as much trenchant opinion as it can get, there are others who believe that the commentator should never become the story, as Green sometimes does.
Not, he insists, that he enjoys the attention. "I swear to you, I hate it. There were people threatening to sort me out next time I turned up at the Reebok, and I'm thinking, 'I criticised Bolton's style of play. Does that really justify physical threats?' I was at Charles de Gaulle airport last season coming back from Lille v Manchester United, which Lille won 1-0, and some guy called me a fucking Irish bastard as I came through passport control. I was with Mark Lawrenson and at first I thought it was aimed at him, but Mark said, 'No, that's you'. Then two guys came up to me, real heavies, and said, 'You'll be fucking happy then, you fucking hate us'. I said, 'No I don't. It's probably true to say I hate your manager on a personal level, and he hates me, but I certainly don't hate the club'. After about 10 minutes' conversation they shook my hand. I turned to Mark and said, 'Isn't this ridiculous?' He said, 'You can't legislate for it'."
It is not just Evertonians, I'm sort of relieved to say, who have sent him death threats: he's had them from United fans, too. "I have a contact in the Manchester police and after that Lille game I wanted his advice but the truth is that I couldn't get hold of him, so I let it go."
As for those who, while stopping some way short of threatening him physical damage, accuse of him of seeking publicity, he suggests that the very opposite is the case. I can certainly confirm that this is a rare newspaper interview.
"I never seek publicity, ever. Yet in spite of that my profile has risen. There was an article in The Guardian the other week about who should succeed Motty, and they called me his natural successor. Which is ridiculous. Apart from anything else, I'd scare television [executives] witless." And what of the charge that he envies John Motson his status as the BBC's "Voice of Football"?
"That's ridiculous too, as is the current anti-Motty campaign. John hasn't changed at all over the years."
All the same, he doesn't name Motson when asked to identify his favourite TV commentator. "I like Clive [Tyldesley]. It's partly personal because, like the late Brian Moore, Clive is very helpful. TV commentators have access to information we never get. They sit down with managers on the eve of important games and get given the team, which doesn't apply in radio. That doesn't worry me, I'm happy to recognise players when they come out, but it does help with preparation. Brian Moore was a glorious man. He'd sidle up to me and say, 'It's not confirmed yet but I think you'll find X is starting, not Y'. Clive does that. And I like him as a commentator, too."
But commentators, Green adds, are peripheral figures in football. Not so referees, which makes them, in his eyes, fair game for criticism. Even as an admirer of his, I think Green sometimes sticks the boot in too hard on referees. At any rate, it was poor Graham Poll's misfortune that it was Green at the Five Live microphone, and not the more temperate Mike Ingham, when he made his almighty cock-up during the Australia v Croatia game in the World Cup.
"It was hilarious, it really was hilarious. I don't make many notes during a game but I have to write down yellow cards, and when Simonic was booked again, I said, 'He's off... where's the red card... have I got this wrong?' Chris Waddle said, 'He thinks he's hosting Play Your Cards Right'. We went to town on it. We had a hoot, an absolute hoot. And when Poll gave him another yellow card at the end of the game, we were corpsing with laughter. I'm surprised he didn't retire, to be honest. I think he's been let off quite lightly."
Green has made some cock-ups himself, excitedly telling us, when Ronaldo scored for Brazil in the 2002 World Cup final, that "Ronaldo wins the Golden Boot and wins the World Cup for Germany". Chris Moyles on Radio 1 had a lot of fun with that one.
"But the difference is that referees are absolutely central to the game. I have been told that certain refs, and I don't know if Poll is one of them, tell their assistants only to put the flag up for offside, nothing else. 'I'm running the game,' they say. I don't understand that. I think they need all the help they can get. And the fourth official, instead of acting like a policeman in the technical area, should be given something proper to do. Let him watch a monitor, give him proper communication with the referee." Green's dim view of the fourth official's duties might represent one of the few areas of common ground between him and Sir Alex Ferguson, who is honorary chairman of the Premiership's anti-Green party.
"Yes, and of course Sam Allardyce is a great friend of Alex's, not that I think Alex encouraged him to say what he said last season, but I suppose it might have rubbed off over the years, Alex saying, 'That so-and-so Green'. But with Alex it started when I went to the Cliff, the old United training ground, and he said that Mark Hughes would not be playing against Southampton the following day. Hughes did play, and I said that I was learning not to believe the propaganda that comes out of the Manchester United manager's office on a Friday.
"He went berserk. Alex is a bit of a bully - well, a lot of a bully - and when he found I was not going to be bullied, I became public enemy No 1. It was also Fergie who said all BBC people are Liverpool fans."
So, are you? A smile. "All I'll say is that my personal views on clubs will never interfere with what I say. I'm supposed to hate Man United, but listen to my commentary on the [1999 European Cup] final in Barcelona and try telling me I hate Man United. It's garbage."
And finally, his personal views on Ferguson notwithstanding, does he consider him the greatest British manager of all time?
"He has been without question the greatest club manager during my time in England. But I'm totally convinced this will be his last year. And I think Mark Hughes should succeed him. I would have said Martin O'Neill before he went to Villa, but Sparky has grown enormously into the job at Blackburn. He took a side that was pretty ugly, and made them attractive to watch. He'd be a really popular choice and he's a good all-round guy."
A final slug of coffee, and a grin. "And I don't think I'd have a row with him."
Alan Green is commentating for Radio Five Live on Everton v Liverpool at 12.45pm tomorrow, and hosting the station's 606 phone-in at 7.30pm
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