Brian Viner: From Ginola to Vinnie, I've had a ball...

The Brian Viner Interviews: I've listened to Ken Bates, talked to Bernie Ecclestone about the Train Robbery and learnt that Damon Hill used to wet himself. I even made it through four meetings with Ian Botham. It's been 13 years, it's been a blast

Click to follow
The Independent Online

David Ginola started it; Vinnie Jones finished it. It sounds like a spot of argy-bargy in a match between Tottenham and Wimbledon in the late 1990s, but in this instance it's the weekly sports interview I conducted for The Independent from January 1999 until last Monday.

It was the longest-running sports interview in national newspaper journalism, a source of some personal pride, and yielded many of the most memorable encounters of my life, not least on day one with the "Divine David", over lunch in an Italian restaurant near the Spurs training ground in Chigwell. We both ordered pizza quattro formaggi, and I gamely but inexpertly tried to follow his lead by eating it with my fingers. While he made a neat envelope with every gooey slice, I ended up with quattro different types of formaggi on my chin. To eat pizza next to Ginola, doubtless like playing football next to him, was to feel distressingly inelegant.

I often found the meal table, however, to be the best environment for an interview. It's hardly a trade secret, but nothing forms trenchant opinions like one or, better still, two bottles of red. It was over a long lunch that Billy Bonds, for so long the colossus of Upton Park, confided that he prefers to watch both codes of rugby than football these days. "At least when those boys get knocked down they get back up," he said.

There were a few occasions when to conduct an interview over lunch I needed my passport. In September 2010 the Leeds United chairman Ken Bates found room for me in his diary but only on his terms: I had to go to Monte Carlo, where he lives, and where I found that he had also invited his wife Susannah along.

He chose our lunch venue – a swanky hotel – and he ordered, then re-ordered, an eye-wateringly expensive Sancerre. Naively, I assumed that he would also pick up the tab. Instead, after three hours, he told me that he normally charges for interviews but this time would waive his fee as long as The Independent settled the bill. I thought about the internal memo circulated only the week before, capping lunch expenses at roughly a tenth of what I was now about to load on my credit card, and quailed.

Still, we got our money's worth in quotes. When I raised the subject of Leeds supporters complaining about ticket prices, his cheeks flushed with irritation. "It's the same at every club," Bates snorted. "They all want their club to buy Ronaldo and let them in for fucking free. People say 'Let kids in for free'. Why should we let kids in for free? One woman asked me to do a deal for students. She said her son can't afford to come. Then get a bloody job. (But) the worst scroungers are those who can afford to pay, and that includes pop stars. There's no such thing as a complimentary ticket; it's just paid for by someone else." For three hours, Bates spouted sense, bile and bigotry in about equal measure, with Susannah trying in vain to curb his use of the C-word. Like many other self-made tycoons, it was not with an abundance of another C-word – charm – that he made his millions.

Bernie Ecclestone was the same, making it clear in his Knightsbridge office in 2005 that he had no patience for even the most cursory pleasantries, and brusquely refusing to allow my colleague David Ashdown to take his picture, insisting that nobody had told him to expect a photographer.

Fortunately, Ashdown is a resourceful old pro and, instead of protesting, he sat tight, showed keen interest in the conversation, and after about half an hour, like a wizened Roman emperor raising a thumb in the Colosseum, Bernie gave the go-ahead.

Indeed, he thawed sufficiently for me to dare to ask him whether there was any truth in the rumour that he had been the mastermind behind the 1963 Great Train Robbery. He obliged me with a smile, albeit the smile of a shark.

"There wasn't enough money on that train, I could have done something better than that," he said, then explained how the rumour had come about. "Roy James, the guy who drove the getaway car, had been a racing driver. That's why they wanted him in the getaway car.

"Anyway, Roy was very friendly with Graham Hill, and when he came out of prison, he asked me for a job. I owned Brabham at the time, but I wasn't going to let him drive for me. Instead, I gave him a trophy to make; he'd also been a silversmith and goldsmith.

"That's still the trophy we give to the promoters every year. He made it. The recipients don't realise that."

Of the many sports that provided me with interviewees, motor-racing, though not my favourite or even in my top 10, probably threw up the most intriguing characters. Ecclestone, Sir Stirling Moss, Sir Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Eddie Jordan, Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica, Mark Webber, Sir Frank Williams and the late Dan Wheldon all in their different ways wafted clouds of charisma, although it was one of the asphalt's less turbo-charged men who gave me my most memorable line, Damon Hill admitting in 1999 that many drivers – although not him, he insisted – took in so much fluid before subjecting themselves to the intense heat of a Grand Prix cockpit that during the race they would habitually wet themselves.

The subject of fluids came up quite a lot over the years. Bryan Robson went literally purple with fury when I raised his reputation as a boozer, but his former Manchester United teammate Paul McGrath was searingly candid about what in his case was rampant, destructive alcoholism.

McGrath also admitted to me that after United's 1985 FA Cup final win over Everton he felt bizarrely lonely, psychologically detached from the team's celebrations. "I've watched the video back and I can see myself sort of half jumping up and down, thinking 'I wish this was over'," he said, which was fascinating, because Mark Hughes had once told me exactly the same thing, about the same match. When I informed McGrath, his eyes opened wide. "Really, I had no idea Sparky felt the same," he said.

It was poignant to think of two such powerful footballers suffering such inhibiting self-consciousness on the Wembley turf, but then, if we've learnt anything about sport these last few years, it is that sureness of hand and eye and foot does not necessarily equate to sureness of mind. In 2008, Marcus Trescothick described to me the worst depths of his depression, when he did not know what was happening to him, except that it might kill him. It is a small irony that the sportsman who is least like Trescothick, at any rate of those I have interviewed, is another hero of Somerset. In four encounters, Sir Ian Botham never revealed the slightest chink of uncertainty, still less vulnerability, except once, when referring, fleetingly, to the pain his adultery had caused his family.

Humility is not one of Botham's many virtues, and yet it is surprisingly common among the true greats of sport. I found it in spades in Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Tom Finney, Gareth Edwards and Cliff Morgan (incidentally, why knighthoods for the towering English football men but not the mighty Welsh rugby men?), in Tony McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, Gianfranco Zola, Denis Law, Brian O'Driscoll and Sean Fitzpatrick. I even found it, less predictably, in Sugar Ray Leonard and George Foreman, who relentlessly talked down his 76 victories in the boxing ring.

"I'd be in trouble sometimes, the fight would look like it was going the other way, then I'd hit the guy and he'd be on the canvas. Brute strength, that's all it was," he said. "Did you hear the story about the greatest archer in the world? He was travelling the countryside, and saw a bulls-eye, and perfectly in the middle of it was an arrow. He measured it, he had never seen anything that direct. He was the greatest of all time, but he'd never seen that kind of marksmanship. Finally he met the guy, and said: 'Tell me, how did you get to be that accurate?' The guy said: 'It's easy, I shoot the arrow first, then I paint the bullseye'. Foreman gave a huge bellowing laugh. "My career is like that," he continued. "I got those knock-outs, now I go back and tell how they happened. The truth is, I don't know how they happened."

I interviewed Foreman in 2002 in a London hotel suite. I had mixed feelings about conducting interviews in hotel rooms: there was no background noise, which was good for my tape-recorder, but no background colour, either. A person's home was always best: the former Wales and Lions captain Gareth Thomas in his neat Glamorgan kitchen telling me about the aftermath of his bold decision to come out as gay; Amir Khan and his cricketing cousin Saj Mahmood talking in the latter's family home in Bolton, a fairly modest terraced house, about the grandfather they never knew, who arrived from Rawalpindi in 1968 and worked endless shifts at Wolstenholme's Bronze Powder factory to fund a new beginning for his sons.

Sometimes, the least likely or least promising venues yielded marvellous material. In 2009 I interviewed Sachin Tendulkar in a shop in Covent Garden, increasingly aware that on the pavement outside there was an ever-burgeoning group of Indians, astounded to learn that their country's supreme sporting megastar was on the other side of the glass. After a while, to my amazement, Tendulkar asked me to pause the interview, and went outside to talk to them, a gesture of generosity that told me more about the great man than anything he actually said.

Similarly, I was once taken by a hotelier in Antigua to a boatyard, to meet the grizzled old fisherman who supplied the hotel with his daily catch. The old fisherman and I chatted for half an hour under a palm tree beside the Caribbean; it turned out to be the perfect backdrop to a conversation with the former fast bowler who had once terrorised the world's greatest batsmen like few others, Andy Roberts.

On the whole, the sporting interviews I enjoyed most were with the old-timers: Roberts, Richie Benaud, Tom Graveney, Sir Bobby Robson, Bert Trautmann, Willie John McBride, the 1951 Open champion Max Faulkner. They invariably had the gift of time to offer me, as well as priceless memories. And without doubt, several glasses of good Champagne in the Chelsea flat of Sir Peter O'Sullevan, followed by a brisk canter across the road to his favourite French restaurant, and a long afternoon of anecdotes and wisdom, will always seem like one of the privileges of my professional life.

It would be unprofessional of me, however, to ape the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist and include no women in this story. I interviewed few people more remarkable than Martina Navratilova, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, or, in a very different way, Paula Radcliffe. The world's greatest female marathon runner is quietly-spoken, even shy. Only the disconcerting directness of her gaze affords a hint of the inner steel.

We last met in May this year and she talked, bullishly for her, of her intention to win a first Olympic gold medal next summer. But then, we can never be sure what lies in store around the next corner, in life as in long-distance running. After all, only four months before that I interviewed a man who seemed to have life properly sorted, the Wales football manager Gary Speed. And in Huddersfield in 2005, not two hours after he first consulted his GP about stomach pains, I met 26-year-old snooker star Paul Hunter, the "Beckham of the Baize". Within 18 months, cancer had killed him.

Still, I wouldn't want to sign off on a gloomy note, so let me sum up the unpredictability of this human existence in another way. If in January 1999, someone had asked me to name the footballer most likely to forge a movie career in Hollywood then, just as they feature in the chronology of my interviews, David Ginola would have been first on the list, and Vinnie Jones last.