You wouldn’t think it’s humanly possible for Frank Skinner to look any more shambolic than he does on the TV, but as he apes around for his FFT pictures, all shaggy hair and untucked shirt, he does so with ease.
Asked to stand still for a portrait, Skinner is behaving like a naughty schoolboy who doesn’t want to have his photo taken, all the while cracking gags faster than the photographer can reel off snaps.
“I wouldn’t usually wear this,” he says, tugging at his Baggies top. “I’m usually more of a scarf man myself. I think the clubs only encourage us to wear replica shirts because they know our mums can’t knit them.”
Throw a stone in London’s fashionable Soho these days and chances are you’ll hit a celebrity football fan. You know, the type that swears blind allegiance to Arsenal United just so they can appear as a talking head on a Channel 5 show about why football is the new rock ‘n’ roll. But unlike those C-listers, Frank Skinner doesn’t talk about football just to boost his career.
Such is his all-consuming passion for West Bromwich Albion that he’s agreed to meet FFT for lunch even though he’s promoting nothing. “The only thing I’m plugging is the Albion,” he says in that familiar Brummie drawl. “At the end of the feature I just want it to say ‘West Brom’s next game is on Saturday. Tickets cost from £28.’ Then we can see if people start supporting them on the strength of this article.”
Born in Oldbury in deepest Albion country, Christopher Collins (he borrowed his stage name from one of his dad’s domino partners) attended his first Baggies’ game when he was 10. “It was at home to Southampton: the rain was torrential and there were no goals,” he remembers with amusement. “But I was hooked,”. Almost 30 years on and Skinner still watches every home game from the same seat in Halfords Lane. He was once upgraded to a box, but not for long – “As soon as the players came out I realised that it was all wrong and went back to my usual place.” The Perrier Award winner now even makes sure his TV filming schedule revolves around the football calendar. “As you get older you get your priorities straight,” he says. “I don’t have children but I have the Albion.”
Like any human offspring, West Brom has messed with his emotions. He cried tears of joy after beating Port Vale in the 1993 Division Two play-off final, and tears of anguish for the minute’s silence after club hero and close friend Jeff Astle’s death. But crucially, there are always laughs to be had. “Some of the guys who sit near me are very old,” says Skinner. “Recently, when one of our players blasted the ball over the bar, I heard one say, ‘I wouldn’t have liked to have him on the three-inch-mortars’. It made me laugh because it’s basically a heckle from the Second World War! You don’t hear enough of those these days.”
Then there was the severe snowstorm, which whipped up during one game and had the crowd chanting ‘Orange ball, orange ball, orange ball’. “I absolutely loved that,” smiles Skinner. “I imagine there must have been some official who was really resentful about having to then bring out the orange ball after it had been so heralded.”
But picking his favourite ever Baggies moment isn’t a tricky task for Skinner. It has to be last season’s Survival Sunday, when West Brom survived an historic four-team bun fight on the final day of the season to stay in the Premiership “To be the team that escaped relegation was brilliant, especially since we were bottom at Christmas. I noticed virtually no one bothered with the ‘bottom-at-Christmas’ thing this year. I think we’ve killed that cliché.”
The most striking thing about Frank Skinner’s passion for the game is that he is so completely single-minded. Providing the Baggies survive again this season, nothing else matters. “If God appeared to me in a dream and said ‘You can stay in the� Premiership but you’ll never ever win another trophy again,’ then I’d stay in the Premiership because being there is a trophy in itself.”
But what about the FA Cup, wonders FFT, the most romantic tournament in the world?
“No, it’s more like It’s A Knockout to me,” shrugs Skinner. “It used to be really exciting when I was a kid but now I just don’t care about it.”
Even at mention of the World Cup this summer, Skinner refuses steadfast to remove his Baggie blinkers. “I’ll watch it, obviously, but I’d much rather Albion stay up than England win the World Cup. No contest at all.”
Given his Three Lions past, this apparent lack of patriotism comes as something of a shock, but that’s nothing compared to his claim that if England don’t win this summer, he’d be happy to see the hosts prevail. “I quite like the Germans,” he says. “They’re like us: they drink a lot of beer and they dress badly. And I think we could learn a lot more from them about football than we could from, say, the Italians, whose players are so different from ours.”
Pushed on what exactly we could learn, Skinner’s response makes a modicum of sense. “I’d make Alan Shearer the next England manager,” he says. “That’s what the Germans do. They give the job a great ex-player. I’m all for trying that.”
We’re back on terra firma when Frank proudly pulls out a selection of his antique West Brom league and cup medals bought recently at auction. A whole room in his London pad is dedicated to football memorabilia, but it’s his previous abode that FFT wishes it could have seen. There, the whole bathroom was built as a shrine to the Albion, including a 4ft-high tiled club crest. There was even a design depicting Skinner in his Baggies kit, a fantasy he tried his utmost to keep under wraps.
“I used to have a daydream about playing for Albion that I’d only indulge in when I was on the toilet,” he explains. “It was a very involved fantasy and went on for a whole string of craps. If that’s the correct collective noun for craps.”
At 48, Skinner is realistic enough to accept that he’ll probably never play top-level football for Albion, but he still harbours hopes of becoming an integral part of his beloved club. “I’d love to have my ashes scattered at the Hawthorns. Just imagine in the winter having the under-soil heating filtering through you,” he says, shivering with anticipation. “I’m not sure if they still do it though. If not, I’ll have to do it sneakily. As I get older I could start having bits removed, incinerated and steadily start the process myself…”
West Brom’s next game is on Saturday. Tickets cost from £28
Survival Sunday. It wasn’t just one exciting game, it was four massively exciting games intertwined. I’ll always remember that moment as one of pure joy.
After we lost 1-0 to QPR in the FA Cup semi-final in 1982, we got back to the coach and every window was smashed. We were sat in traffic with people shouting and throwing stuff at us and then I watched an Albion fan get stabbed in the street. I thought then I could never go to the football again.
Stand up if you hate…
The Wolves. Although, I have to admit, I was surprised how pleased I felt when Manchester United got knocked out of the Champions League
All-time favourite player?
Albion have had two great sides, in the late-’60s and early-’80s, and Tony Brown was the only bloke who appeared in both teams. A goal-scoring midfielder, he’s still the club’s top scorer and my personal favourite.
Danny Dichio. He was so slow that when he raced onto a through ball the 45-year-old linesman used to lap him.
�We’re in need of a proper old-fashioned holding midfielder, so it would have to be Patrick Vieira.