Ghosts, blaggers & getting collared by Keano

Mixed zones are not natural. An uninterested professional footballer walks past journalists, who wait on the other side of a barrier clutching microphones.

The different sectors of the media are neatly divided into where journalists can and cannot stand.

There’s space for the Sunday papers, the dailies, the local papers. Then there’s radio, television (rights and non-rights holders). Not to mention the Japanese journalists from websites which nobody really knows anything about.

And the blaggers.

For the first five years of going to the Camp Nou, there was a man known as ‘ghost journalist’, because it was doubtful he was a journalist. I once asked the ghost who he worked for.

“Scottish agencies,” came the reply.

I wasn’t convinced, but what did it have to do with me? And if he got to watch Barca for free by turning up every week with a shorthand pad and a biro, it showed some enterprise.

With the explosion in media, clubs and confederations started comparing notes and working out who was who.

Like the Beeching Report for rural train lines, it meant the end for the likes of 'ghost journalist' and their mini signed merchandise industries in the mixed zone.

Normally, a player stops and you talk for a few minutes about the game just gone. It’s not conducive to do a decent interview, more a search for quotes.

The journalist Graham Hunter has the skill to immediately disarm and get a player talking. He once unfroze Andrew Cole in two seconds, when before that you could tell he didn’t want to be there.

You could see it in his body language as Cole uncrossed his arms and started to speak and smile.

That’s why Hunter breaks back page news most days and I write features and books. His is a talent I don’t possess.

Roy Keane once collared me in the toilets in Hong Kong and asked me why I’d asked no questions in a press conference he’d just been at.

“If I come down, then you should ask questions,” said a stern Keane.

“It’s not natural though is it?” I countered.

“Trying to catch someone out or searching for a killer line or sensationalist story. It’s a game of cat and mouse, with the journalists trying to corner the mouse.”

An unconvinced Keane grumbled, did his fly up and left.

I much prefer sitting down face to face with a player and talking like adults, ideally at length.

You often get the best material two or three hours into an interview, though I accept that current players don’t want to be spending all their time doing in-depth, soul searching.

After big games, the mixed zone can turn into a scrum. Interviews get hi-jacked, journalists ‘surf’ on the questions of others by shunting a microphone beneath the player’s mouth.

Or they shout in frustration when a player wearing headphones the size of Sudan just ignores them and stares ahead.

I went down to the mixed zone after Barcelona’s hard fought win over Almeria last Saturday with Hunter.

There were not many journalists down there in the bowels of the Camp Nou, but Hunter still saw things I didn’t.

He anticipated movements and responses; saw rivalries and scenarios, while at the same time sorting out a big story for a major British tabloid about an African player who plays in England.

“Don’t go there,” he told me at one point, “Ibrahimovic doesn’t like those two (journalists).”

Last Saturday’s mixed zone was one of the better ones and afterwards I felt like a fisherman returning to Aberdeen with full nets.

First Victor Valdes came by and stopped to chat. Then the goalscorer Pedro, with his prominent mono-tooth. Then Xavi, who was fuming at the way he’d just been marked by Almeria’s Chico.

“It was crazy, almost obsessive,” Xavi said. “He followed me everywhere even when I didn’t have the ball or went to take a corner, he was there all the time. It drives you crazy being man marked like that.”

We’ll do a proper sit down interview for FourFourTwo soon.

Then Dani Alves, who had diamond encrusted earrings with ‘DA’ in them, stopped.

Finally, Andres Iniesta came, clutching a sweaty Almeria top which he’d exchanged, wearing jeans and unpretentious Nike trainers.

I’m going to start slipping him subliminal messages from now on so that he joins Manchester United.

Tell him with a nudge and a wink that the word in football is that United will be the team of the next decade and that the side should be built around him and Rooney.

Advise him someone with skin as white as his shouldn’t be exposing it to the Spanish sun and that he doesn’t have enough hair to play for Barca anymore, whereas if he joins United he’ll look positively hirsute compared to Rooney.

It’s daft, but would he expect anything less in a mixed zone?

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