Huddled in an Arctic-proof jacket and balaclava in -10C conditions in a football stadium press box in an obscure corner of eastern Europe, Christopher Davies might have wondered why he chose to be a football writer.
The picture of him typing on his laptop, wearing thermal gloves while covering the UEFA Champions’ League match between Arsenal and Ukranian side Shakhtar Donetsk, has been chosen for the front cover of his new book Behind the Back Page, a warts-and-all account of his 40 years in sports journalism.
It is a career that has taken in eight football World Cups, eight European Championships, 18 Superbowls and 66 countries, and Davies revels in retelling the story.
Sat in the conservatory of his home in Bromley, days after his 60th birthday, he reflects on how the industry has changed and how he has seen the relationship between players, managers and working journalists grow ever-more distant.
‘The biggest difference, apart from all the technology and computers, is that we used to go drinking and socialising with players and managers. George Graham [then Arsenal manager] used to say to Tony Adams [former Arsenal and England defender] ‘make sure you get Christopher Davies a cup of tea’. It was so nice and relaxed. Can you imagine that now with Wayne Rooney?
‘I used to have the home number of just about every player, manager and chairman in London. To phone [Arsenal manager] Arsene Wenger and have a drink with him would be absolutely out of the question.”
Davies covered the Republic of Ireland national team during his 19 years at The Daily Telegraph and regularly had drinks with the travelling press pack, as did the players. Davies says drinking with the likes of Paul Gascoigne was great fun. Gazza in particular was ‘mad, but terrific company”. ‘I got some great contacts and an insight that the new generation [of sports journalists] are never going to enjoy,’he says.
The south-London born writer landed his first full-time role at Shoot magazine in 1969, the year it launched, and was the ghostwriter for weekly columns of top players like Andy Gray, now a Sky Sports pundit, Bryan Robson and George Best, who is still his favourite player both on and off the field, he says.
After 13 years at Shoot – and having seen circulations of 600,000 a week – Davies moved to the Daily Star where he spent the next five years. ‘It benefits every journalist to spend five or six years on a tabloid,’he says. ‘It teaches you to work at speed, gives you a sharper news sense.”
In 1987 he began at The Daily Telegraph, a job he only left in 2006 when he took voluntary redundancy ahead of the paper’s multimillion-pound move from Canary Wharf to Victoria that saw more than 100 staff leave.
Davies is reluctant to talk about leaving the Telegraph – he still writes match reports for the paper – but says the severance pay deal was good and it was the right time for him to go.
In his book, there is a photograph of Davies at a press conference held by legendary Manchester United manager Matt Busby before the European Cup Final in 1968. A handful of reporters – and even a couple of fans – sit or stand around an unassuming table, a far cry from the 200 or so media people that attend Alex Ferguson’s press calls now.
Every top flight club and many in the Championship has at least one PR officer. Big clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United, which have their own websites, magazines and TV channels, have considerably more. Are journalists in danger of being spoon-fed football news now? Davies says clubs are not only feeding stories but trying to ‘censor’what gets written.
‘Clubs threaten us,’he says. ‘Unless you write positively, you could find yourself not invited to press conferences. I was banned by Chelsea under Ken Bates indefinitely for a story that was absolutely true.
‘Sometimes sports reporters get banned because clubs don’t like a headline. A lot of the time the stories are wrong, but my view is that if they are libellous then sue.”
Clubs and other football bodies that don’t like mistruths should be wary of spinning journalists a line on stories, he warns.
‘We’ve just seen it at Chelsea. Executives there were saying how well they were doing under Avram Grant and then the same thing happened as with Mourinho [he was sacked]. So it’s a two-way street.
‘In brief, I would say we’ve got the clubs we deserve and they’ve got the press they deserve,’he says, chuckling.
Not all clubs are as bad as each other, says Davies, who praises Arsenal and its manager Arsene Wenger for making an effort with writers. But he says others, including Chelsea, could do more.
A big problem for reporters now, says Davies, is dealing with foreign players. Last season just 170 out of nearly 500 Premier League players were English.
‘When I was cutting my teeth in sports journalism there were next-to-no foreign players and now there are seven or eight ina team. They come over and nobody knows them, whereas people like Bryan Robson, Ray Wilkins, Trevor Francis I grew up with, and had a relationship with.
‘I knew them when they were in the under-21s or the youth team, but Thierry Henry or Patrick Viera comes over, or a manager like Arsene Wenger, and nobody knows them.”
Davies’s book began as a series of emails sent to friends from the 2002 and 2006 World Cup finals, venting his frustration with the faulty laptops, non-existent hotel bookings and dodgy German wine that comes with foreign sports reporting.
Friends in the industry encouraged him to collect his stories and earlier this year he got a publishing deal with sports publisher Know the Score.
One of the stories he recounts is of a rain-soaked night in Glasgow after a European match when a stranded, exasperated Davies was approached by a prostitute. He asked her to do something she had ‘almost certainly never been asked to do before,’namely drive him to his hotel in Govan.
Davies even asked her to fill out a receipt for expenses, but she misunderstood the point and wrote ‘Celtic 1 – Blackburn 0″.
The book also shows the author’s love of the game, and how lucky he considers himself to be. ‘I get paid for what other people pay to do”, he says. His proudest moment was covering the 1994 World Cup Final between Brazil and Italy in the USA. The time difference meant that the game finished so close to the Telegraph’s deadline that Davies had to write seven different holding intros while the match was underway to cover every possible outcome.
Now freelancing, Davies writes match reports for the Telegraph and The People, as well as writing a column for the English language Japan Times.
He is editing a new book of original football essays from the game’s top writers for the Football Writers’ Association, of which he is a committee member and former chair. Martin Samuel, Mihir Bose, David Lacey, Jonathan Pearce, Davies himself and more than 60 other members have each contributed a 1,500 word chapter for the book, titled Forgive us our Press Passes. It comes out in September in aid of Great Ormond Street children’s hospital.
Would he join the business now if he was 16 again, with all its PR trappings and new media? He replies ‘absolutely’without missing a beat, though he is no great fan of online reporting.
‘I just wonder whether journalists will have it in their contracts that they have to write match reports for the internet [as well as the paper]. If I work for a daily newspaper, I go to a Saturday match and I wouldn’t write my report until Sunday. But I wonder whether the newspapers would want a match report for the online edition.”
It’s not bad for journalism, he says, it’s just bad for football journalists: ‘No football writer gets any satisfaction from writing for the website, because you can’t pick it up like you can paper. I use the internet, but I still like the feel of paper.
‘Plus, too many journalists use it as their only source. It’s terrific, I couldn’t survive without it, but you’ve still got to make the calls.”