Brian Viner: Old-timers show how to talk the talk

From incurring the wrath of Bryan Robson and affronting a mutton-chop dinosaur with kindness to the Holy Grail of football revelations, our intrepid interviewer recalls favourite encounters of 2005
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The Independent Online

As for Charlie George, I met him at Highbury in May and was interested, on shaking his hand, to find a digit missing. "Caught it in a lawnmower, years ago," he explained, surveying the little knob where his finger had been. As for a more valued protuberance, he finally doused any lingering speculation that sexual arousal had been responsible for his famous goal celebration in the 1971 FA Cup final. George's spectacular goal had secured the League and FA Cup double for Arsenal, which in 1971 still represented English football's Holy Grail and made him Arsenal's answer to Sir Lancelot. Not that Sir Lancelot ever celebrated anything by lying flat on his back with his head lifted, apparently gazing respectfully at his codpiece. For years it was suggested that the goal had made him instantly aroused, and that he lay on the ground admiring the result. But he assured me that it was nothing more than a time-wasting tactic. "I used to think ahead of other people, and I knew it would take quite a while to pick me up off the floor," he said.


Still, I thought that on this penultimate day of 2005 I should embrace the end-of-year tradition of dishing out awards, and Charlie George at least picks up the laurels for the Most Disappointing Revelation of the Year. Here are eight more award-winners...

MOST ENJOYABLE INTERVIEW People often ask me which interviews I have enjoyed most, and the answer is that it is invariably the old-timers, the men - and less frequently, women - who have achieved it all and have nothing left to prove. They are the most generous with their time, albeit because they have more of it to spare than the young thrusters, and it is always fascinating to hear sporting recollections that are half a century old and more. For example, it occurred to me as I sat in Sir Peter O'Sullevan's elegant Chelsea flat a few days before the Grand National that there is probably nobody else on earth with an Aintree pedigree like his: it was in 1928, aged 10, that he first experienced the thrill of a successful punt on the world's greatest steeplechase, having astutely wagered sixpence each way on the 100-1 shot Tipperary Tim.

By the same token, it is thrilling to converse with the men and women in sport who are making history rather than recalling it, especially those who don't make you feel as though they're grudgingly meeting their obligations by talking to the press, and would rather be elsewhere. Top of this category was the Wigan Athletic manager Paul Jewell, a warm and altogether delightful guy with a ready Scouse wit who gave the impression that there was nobody with whom he would rather be sharing a cup of tea. My pick, though, is another old-timer: Sir Bobby Robson. He doesn't make you feel as though there's nobody he'd rather be sharing a cuppa with; it's more the feeling that he would be talking with just as much rampant enthusiasm if it were a tailor's dummy sitting opposite him. But it is impossible to come away from an hour in his company without your spirits raised.

MOST CHALLENGING INTERVIEW The first 20 minutes with Bernie Ecclestone weren't particularly pleasurable. The Formula One tycoon strode into a meeting-room in his Knightsbridge headquarters, gave me a cursory, unsmiling handshake and, reinforcing rather than breaking the ice, snapped: "Let's get on with it."

Social pleasantries are for losers; that was the message. He also flatly refused to let my colleague David Ashdown take his photograph. He said he hadn't been expecting a photographer, and therefore there would be no photographs. But gradually an approximation of warmth emerged, and in the end I got 20 minutes more than my allotted 45, which he claimed was an unprecedented gesture of generosity. He eventually let David take his picture, too.

That leaves Ian Botham as the most challenging interviewee of 2005 by the length of a six into the Headingley confectionery stall. It was good of him to talk to me on his 50th birthday, but he did not allow a celebratory mood to overwhelm his deep-rooted disdain for the press. To make matters even trickier, I was in England, he was in Pakistan, and his mobile phone signal was dodgy. Mind you, there have been one or two moments in my previous interviews with him when, having asked him a question of which he disapproved, I'd have paid to be on a different continent.

MOST POIGNANT INTERVIEW In April, the 26-year-old snooker player Paul Hunter arrived more than an hour late for our meeting at the Syngenta Sports and Fitness Club in Huddersfield, where he practises. His agent, Brandon, called me to say that Paul had been having stomach pains and was at that moment seeing the doctor, who suspected appendicitis, but would be with me as soon as he could. I said that he shouldn't bother if he wasn't well, but Brandon said that he knew I'd had a long journey and didn't want to let me down. When he finally turned up he gave a great interview; he is an enormously engaging young man.

That morning, the worst-case scenario was still appendicitis. Later, it emerged that Hunter had neuro-endocrine tumours, a form of cancer. He is currently undergoing his second phase of chemotherapy. But there has been joy amid the heartache; his first child, Evie Rose, was born on Boxing Day. I wish him well in 2006. Not even the reborn Steve Davis would be a more popular winner of the world snooker championship.

DULLEST INTERVIEW I had been warned beforehand that the golfer Luke Donald, while a bright, likeable and modest fellow, does not exactly sizzle with charisma. Sure enough, getting him to impart anything interesting about himself was like having to finish birdie-eagle on the Old Course at St Andrews: not impossible, but a task requiring the utmost concentration and not a little luck. Moreover, I only had 15 minutes in which to do it. More than most sports, golf suffers from delusions of grandeur in its dealings with the media; you are more likely to hear a mea culpa from Jose Mourinho than pin down one of the world's top golfers for a decent length of interview time.

Having said that, not even an hour and 15 minutes with Donald would yield much insight, which is a shame because he enters 2006 as the most likely Brit to win a major.

LEAST DULL INTERVIEW The boxing promoter Frank Warren - who has survived a murder attempt and tussled with Mike Tyson - is as likely to give a dull interview as Luke Donald is to give an enthralling one, but even Warren was pipped by the Channel 4 racing presenter John McCririck, who, shortly after he emerged from the Celebrity Big Brother house, let me buy him breakfast at The Wolseley, a Viennese-style cafe in London. McCririck ordered a bowl of porridge with cream, followed by fried eggs, bacon, sausages and white bread, not toasted. When his platter arrived, he placed a fat, bejewelled hand over it, and peremptorily said "cold". The waiter compliantly carried it away and returned with a plate that, whatever else might have been done to it on the way from the kitchen, was at least piping hot.

Over the course of the subsequent two hours McCririck also drank two Einspanner coffees, both topped with an Austrian alp of whipped cream. Into these he popped a couple of sugar-substitute sweeteners, a gesture almost Canute-like in its futility, it seemed to me. We - or rather, he - covered a multitude of subjects in those two hours. Horse racing was somewhere among them, but he also talked about politics, television, food and Germaine Greer. In my piece I wrote that he seemed like a right-wing, sexist dinosaur off screen as well as on, but that I could discern, beneath it all, the heart of a fundamentally kind man. McCririck was duly outraged. He told another journalist that he'd never been so insulted in his life.

MOST CONTROVERSIAL LINE John McCririck certainly delivered a contender for the year's most controversial line, somehow injecting misogyny even into an expression of compassion for animals, by indignantly opining to me, on the subject of the jockey's whip, that "you can't hit your cat, your dog, you can't even hit your wife, so why can you hit a racehorse?" If McCririck has an opposite in the world of TV presenting, it is perhaps Jamie Redknapp, as attractive and inoffensive as the man with the mutton-chop whiskers is unlovely and provocative, but Redknapp offered an uncharacteristically waspish assessment of the coaching abilities of Sven Goran Eriksson, telling me, "He doesn't deserve the players he's got. In fact, I don't think he knows what he's got."

The laurels, however, go to Stan Bowles, the naughty boy of football even in an era - the 1970s - that specialised in naughtiness. We met in an East End pub not far from Upton Park, and Bowles sat under a collage of great West Ham players through the ages. "The aristocrats of fucking football, West Ham used to be called," he said, with a throaty, nicotine-laced chuckle. "I remember playing against Trevor Brooking. He'd go on the wing, drop a shoulder, cross the ball to the near post, and that was it. I said: 'Is that all he's got?' Didn't rate him at all."

BEST REPLY Even at the time I enjoyed the Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe's observation, vis-à-vis my question about the relationship between him and his then manager Harry Redknapp. "Public schoolboys and cockneys have always got along pretty well," he said. "On the whole they're just about as thick as each other." With the benefit of hindsight it's even more enjoyable, indeed hindsight casts an amusing perspective on many of the things said to me this year, not least by Gordon Strachan, when I asked whether he was enjoying life out of the managerial chair. "Och, it's unfair," he said. "I shouldnae be waking up every day as well as this. I feel like I'm cheating the rest of the world, waking up every morning with no real stress." A couple of months later he was watching in agony from the Celtic dug-out as his new team lost disastrously to Artmedia Petrzalka in the Champions' League qualifying phase, 5-0.

But the best reply came from Bernie Ecclestone, when I invited him, tentatively, to quash the old rumour that he was the mastermind behind the Great Train Robbery. "There wasn't enough money on that train," he said. "I could have done something better than that."

MOST PROVOCATIVE QUESTION The fireworks I expected from Ecclestone when I raised the Great Train Robbery came instead from Bryan Robson, the West Bromwich Albion manager. I had never read an interview in which he talked about his reputation as an awesome drinker in his playing days, so decided to ask him outright whether it was true that the Albion board, before offering him the job, had bluntly enquired whether he had a "problem"? "No they didn't," he said, looking at me with suppressed fury. So it was fiction? "Yes." Silence. Did it annoy him that he couldn't shake off this hard-drinking reputation? "It's only the media who keep bringing it up, and it's a load of bollocks. I played top-level football until 11 days short of my 40th birthday. I could never have done that if I'd drank as much as I was supposed to." By now his cheeks were crimson with anger; I had the horrible feeling that I'd spoilt his day.