Green the straight-talking voice of radio

'I perhaps pass too much comment on referees - that's a fair criticism of me. But I treat them the way I treat players.... I think they are fair game'
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Alan Green is not happy. He is, in fact, in something of a lather of distress and indignation. Another newspaper interviewer has just written a decidedly poisonous article about him, claiming that the BBC Radio Five Live commentator is jealous of John Motson, adores the sound of his own Ulster vowels, and did not have the gallantry, after her long drive from London to meet him in a hotel near his Cheshire home, to consider whether she might like a cup of coffee.

This prompts several questions, not least of them: why would anyone drive to Cheshire from London, tackling the stygian hell that is the M6, when there is a train service available, albeit a Virgin West Coast service? We'll come to Motty. As for the sound of his own voice, Green insists to me that the precise opposite applies.

"On the few occasions I appear on television I can't watch it. I see that big fat face and it makes me shudder. The voice is the same. The only exception is Gary Lineker's equaliser against Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final. I can just stand listening to that because it brings back great memories."

We are sitting in the lounge of the Mottram Hall Hotel, the very place where his reputation was stained with, or indeed without, coffee. "I only said that I didn't want any, that I was all coffeed out," he protests.

Anyway, so hurt was he by this skewering that at first he declined to meet me, and was only persuaded when I assured him, truthfully, that I am a fan.

Of course, it might be argued that someone who pulls no punches himself, either while commentating or when robustly hosting the football phone-in Six-o-Six, really ought to take criticism on the chin. But he counters that his female assassin evidently set out with an agenda, which he tries never to do.

"I do have my likes and dislikes. I certainly didn't mind Wimbledon going down. I hated Wimbledon, and didn't like going there either. But I try to be open-minded. I have never been a great fan of [the referee] Graham Poll's, for example. I have often thought that he wants to be centre stage. But I have watched him twice this year and he has been outstanding. I perhaps pass too much comment on referees. That's a fair criticism of me. But I treat them the way I treat players. They are integral to football so I think they are fair game."

The referee he admires most is the pop-eyed Italian Pierluigi Collina, whom he recently interviewed for his new World Service show, World Football.

"He's a very nice man. He's a finance director, with a lovely home near Pisa." Near Pisa, eh? I keep to myself a surreal flight of fancy, which has me wondering whether the ultra-strict Collina has ever felt tempted to show a yellow card to the tower, for overt leaning? Meanwhile, Green is still talking, expressing his boundless admiration for Italian football.

"I'm a bit of an Italian snob," he says, "and I greatly envy Peter Brackley [who commentates for Channel 4's Football Italia]. I've always said to Bob Shennan [the controller of Five Live] that the only thing that might tempt me away would be an opportunity to do Italian football. I think that technically, we're behind. [Juan Sebastian] Veron wants to play here so you think hang on, perhaps we're not lagging behind, but the suspicion is that Veron might be off in the summer anyway. I'm not sure it's something that's worked. Also, not many of our players play in Italy, and you wonder why?

"But it's not just Italian football. I love all the Champions' League visits. I hadn't been to [Deportivo La] Coruña until this season and now I've been twice. I love the stadium there, the intensity of it, the fact that it's on a street, with people waiting outside and the players walking amongst them. I've always been the opposite of parochial. Even as a child I used to read World Soccer magazine. And I remember listening to the 1962 World Cup in Chile. The best radio signal in my parents' house was in the bathroom, so there I was in the bathroom fantasising about the world game."

Green pauses, but not for long. Here is a man who talks for England, not to mention Northern Ireland, which for this interviewer at least is a welcome attribute in an interviewee. Moreover, he is happy to indulge me with a game of hypotheticals; of the players he has seen in action – which excludes not only Pele but also to his eternal regret, his compatriot George Best – what would be his dream XI?

He beams. "Ah, I did this for Four Four Two. I'd have Schmeichel in goal, and a back four of Thuram, Adams, Baresi and Maldini. I was tempted to pick the whole of that AC Milan defence, but I thought that was going over the top.

"I'd have Dunga sitting just in front of the back four, and then my only other British player, Souness, because he had such a marvellous balance of ability and aggression. You'd need those two players, Dunga and Souness, true hard men, because the rest is all flair. I'd have Zidane, and Rivaldo, and Maradona playing just off Van Basten." And Gordon Lee as manager? "No, it would have to be Sir Alex."

He says this with a slight chuckle. "It is a matter of public record that Alex and I don't get on," he adds. This is true, indeed his insights into the souring of their former friendship greatly enhanced the sales of his book, The Green Line. Their feud reportedly stems from Ferguson taking offence at Green's criticism of his team selection years ago, and was recently listed, a shade melodramatically, as one of the 10 most rancorous in sport.

"I have tried to mend it by writing to him," says Green, "but he doesn't want to know. I'm sure he doesn't lose any sleep over me, and to be fair nor do I over him. But Manchester United fans think that I have it in for the club, and that is absolute rubbish. I'd be lying to you if I said that I don't take some comfort from his discomfort at times, but I also think that whatever happens this season Alex should be regarded as the best British manager of all time. There are other contenders, like Sir Matt, Jock Stein, Shanks, Bob Paisley, Brian Clough... but Fergie's record is unanswerable."

What, by the by, does the deliciously opinionated Green think will happen this season? "Before the season started I thought Leeds would win the championship. I thought that not having the distraction of the Champions' League would be of huge benefit to them, and I have no real reason to change my mind.

"But Liverpool are doing better than I thought. The Houllier thing is shocking. He is one of the few managers I know well; I like and admire him enormously. But I doubt whether he'll come back by mid-January. And if he does I don't know whether he'll still be there by mid-February. The Fowler transfer is very interesting. I wouldn't have sold him to Leeds. To Tottenham, or Blackburn, or better still abroad, but not to Leeds."

Green has not mentioned Man Utd in considering likely Premier League champions, in which respect he has found rare common ground with Ferguson. But short of squeezing into a red acrylic shirt and blowing kisses to David Beckham from the Stretford End, there is little he can do to alter the perception that his barney with the United manager extends to the club as a whole.

"People do like to pigeonhole you as for or against, and I have some sympathy with Alex. I can understand why it gets to him when he hears on a breakfast programme, 'great weekend, United lost.'

"My one true regret, actually, is that I can't sit down with him and have him say, 'Greeny, this is why I'm doing this or that'. Because I do think he's wrong [playing Van Nistelrooy as a lone striker]. It's half-worked in Europe, but he also played that 4-1-4-1 system at home to Fulham, which seems absurd to me. And it was clearly a mistake getting rid of Stam. Laurent Blanc was a player worth bringing in two years ago, but not now."

While Green draws breath for the second time in an hour, bless him, I reflect that his admirable habit of speaking his mind has just scuppered that last remaining chance, admittedly remoter than the far side of Pluto, of reclaiming his place on Fergie's Christmas card list. Nor will his disgust at Paul Durkin's failure to show Roy Keane a red card in the match against West Ham on Saturday, expressed volubly on Sunday's Six-o-Six, ease the enmity of United's fans. He tells me of an incident some years ago at Selhurst Park, after United had beaten Crystal Palace 3-1.

"I was standing outside the ground waiting for a car, and a group of about 50 United fans walked past. Somebody saw me and shouted 'there's that effing paedophile Alan Green'. Then the jeering started. I got into the car and was really upset. I rang my wife, I talked to the cab driver about it... because there must have been someone around who thought there might be something in it. I know that Mark Lawrenson has had abuse for years ever since someone was arrested on Merseyside for a sexual offence and gave his name as Mark Lawrenson."

Still, he can draw some comfort, I venture, from the fact that, while his voice is instantly familiar to most football fans, his face is not. On which subject, what of this suggestion that he has a giant chip on his shoulder about television, and in particular that he is full of envy for John Motson?

"Complete nonsense," he splutters. "I am comfortable in radio, and while none of the TV boys have all the competitions open to them, there is not a single competition that I'm not involved in. I am committed to doing 100 football commentaries a season, and Five Live is built for football. I also do golf, which gives me the Open and the Ryder Cup. And I do rowing, which gives me the Olympics. Talk about cherry-picking.

"Now, I'd be lying if I said to you that there haven't been times when I wished I'd had the opportunity to do television. There have been times I've thought 'why don't they ask me? Don't they like my style of commentary? Don't they like me?' And Channel 5 did approach me to do their first live match, Poland v England, but the BBC wouldn't release me." And Motty [with whom, incidentally, Green shares a boyhood enthusiasm for Chelsea]? Does he really look at Motty and find himself overwhelmed by that Green-eyed monster?

"Well, clearly people like Mike Ingham and myself thought 'what's he going to be doing?' when we were told he'd be doing some radio this season. If they'd said 'by the way, Motty's going to do the FA Cup final' then I'd have had something to say. But I don't need to do every game; I did 138 one season. John is a great broadcaster, and the truth is that we need more commentators in radio. We haven't enough commentators for the World Cup, for instance.'

Ah, the World Cup. Green has covered three finals, but has been nutmegged by radio's convention of splitting the commentary. "I've never had a goal," he says, forlornly. Never mind. Whether or not he strikes lucky on 30 June in Yokohama, when he will just have turned 50, he has already come a long way from twiddling the knobs in his parents' bathroom.

"World Football" is on BBC World Service every Saturday at 9.05am.

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