Andy Cole - 'Technical Gadget Man' and The French John Barnes

Technology has made the job of a football journalist much easier, but things haven‘t always been so straightforward.

David Meek, the Manchester United reporter for the Manchester Evening News between 1958-1995 once told me how he covered one European Cup game in Malta. When he arrived at the stadium, the phone line his paper had ordered was non-existent. With a deadline pressing and a desk waiting for him to deliver copy as the game went on, Meek found a solution by paying the owner of a flat which overlooked the pitch for use of his balcony. And  his phone. Thus the people of Manchester got to read Meek’s match report.

In the 70s and 80s, journalists used to ring their words through to a copy taker. And I can remember doing the same in the early 90s, with news on Preston North End for the Manchester Evening News’ Saturday Pink. You’d have to repeat some words to avoid confusion, though the odd howler did make it through - as one did to the pages of The Times during the 1998 World Cup when the French ‘Gendarmes’ were referred to as ‘John Barnes’ in one match report.

By that time, journalists were starting to email articles – though only after booking a phone connection. Wi-fi has only become the norm in press boxes in recent seasons and, like many journalists, I’ve come to rely on it.

The number of wi-fi spots means that I can work pretty much anywhere while on the road. My office is my computer and I even sent one article from an Argentinian naval base in Antarctica last year.

On Wednesday, I flew from Barcelona to Glasgow via Heathrow for the Rangers v Manchester United match. I intended to send one article from London, but terminal 5 didn’t have wi-fi. Can you believe that? I paid a tenner for access, but the system was down. It was infuriating. So I had to file copy over the phone to Abu Dhabi. It would get much worse.

Ibrox is a beautiful, modern, stadium. But it wasn’t designed for wi-fi reception. You’ll have little sympathy for the working practices of privileged football journalists, but nobody could get online. I was supposed to be doing a live report for FFT’s website. Not a chance.

The Japanese journalist next to me was supposed to be doing something similar. A wasted journey for him, even with his dongle, which didn’t work either. The guy from The Times two seats across explained how it was always like that at Ibrox. He’d complained to the club and got a reply back about the problems they were having. Problems Rangers clearly hadn’t solved.

My deadline for a 600 word Manchester Evening News piece was the final whistle. An hour into the game I had to call the desk and say that I’d have to file by phone. That took an extra 20 minutes (and I repeated the word ‘Crerand’ three times) when I should have been in the mixed zone speaking to players. My mate waited outside for me in the freezing cold, near the United team coach. He’s good mates with John O’Shea and he texted O’Shea something along the lines of: “I hope you are warmer on the coach than I am standing outside it.”

O’Shea replied: “Where are you? I’ll wave.”

Nice one, John. A wave to warm the common man freezing on Edminston Drive.

I told Paddy Crerand about the wi-fi problems. I may as well have spoken in Basque to him. He got his first mobile phone last month and only turns it on to make a call.

“You’ve got problems with your hi-fi?” he asked. “What are you telling me that for?”

“Good to be back in your spiritual home, Paddy?” I continued, changing tack as he started to growl.

My luck had to turn. After five hours sleep, I caught an early cab to Glasgow airport, where I intended to call Andrew Cole for a column we do every Thursday. I texted to see if he was free, but he’s so reliable that he’d already texted me.

“Can we do it on Skype?” he asked. “Still in Brazil.” I paid to go in a lounge where I knew there would be wi-fi access. Within minutes I was connected and I messaged Cole in the Copacabana: “Online. Result. Will call in five.”

I briefly saw the mountain of emails from the day before – typical one - “Hi Andy, you don’t know me but I once saw you at Leicester away in 2001. Sorry to bother you, but is there any chance you can get Andy Cole to present the prizes at our works Christmas do. We’d really appreciate it.” There’s seldom any mention of a fee, because people assume that people like Cole work for free.

I tried to call Cole on Skype - to do the column rather than mither him. The internet was down again. Aaaaggghhh! I had 30 minutes before I boarded the flight. I needed to transcribe the column on the flight to meet the deadline. The lady in the lounge apologised and admitted that they had been experiencing wi-fi problems.

Cole suggested by text that I downloaded Skype to my mobile. Get him, Mr Technical Gadget Man. I didn’t have time, so he saved the day by ringing from his mobile. The call probably cost more than Ireland’s national debt, but like with Meek forty years ago, the readers got their Cole-umn.

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