Remembered! ClubCall: the pre-internet hub of transfers, rumours and rants
Sometimes an interview brought more than the man with the microphone bargained for. “The shortest interview I did was with Peter Eustace, the old Leyton Orient boss,” says Raistrick. “It went something like this: ‘Peter, tape rolling, thanks for joining us, disappointing defeat on Saturday, you’ll be hoping to get the lads’ confidence up for this weekend...’ ‘Not really, Khris, I’ve been sacked. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you – you were much better than the previous fella – and God bless.’ Click.”
When Gerry Francis walked away from QPR in November 1994, the only interview he gave was to Incenzo and ClubCall – an exchange that was heard by 16,000 people. When Ron Atkinson was fired by Aston Villa days later, ClubCall was again at the forefront of delivering the news, with Villa chairman Doug Ellis raising the heckles of Villa Park regulars by asking them to pay nearly 50p per minute to discover why he had given yet another manager their marching orders.
“Part of the reason [for Atkinson’s dismissal] was that the buck stops with the manager,” wrote Rob Hughes in The Times. “And no doubt the bucks paid at 49p per minute to hear this explanation contribute to the compensation.”
ClubCall may have been good news for fans who were able to get up close and personal with players, managers and owners, but it wasn’t great news for the country’s newspapers, which had grown used to having everything their own way.
In a premonition of what was to come, suddenly the content of press conferences wasn’t appearing first in the next morning’s newspapers; it was available almost instantly on the club’s phone line.
“We saw it as threat because, in a nutshell, there was a commercial interest in it for the clubs – they were getting money back according to how many people called in,” says David Walker, now the sports editor of the Daily Mirror but previously the chief north-west football correspondent for the Daily Mail. “Some of them [the ClubCall journalists] were good mates of ours but they got extra access from the clubs. What they got was virtually instant and that created a problem for the national dailies.”
Holding says it was a two-way street. “In some ways it made their life easier,” he claims, “because they could call the numbers themselves and get stories that way, effectively nicking our stuff. That said, it’s right to say that the stuff we were getting was almost instant. You would do the interview and the rest of the process was fairly simple. You’d load it up and be ready to go. It wasn’t as instant as Twitter is now, but it was a lot faster than anything that had gone before.”
With their rivals dialling in, ClubCall’s journalists knew they sometimes had to be careful with their line of questioning, as unscrupulous headline writers were ready to twist words if necessary.
“I did an interview with Frank McAvennie when he was at West Ham,” says Raistrick. “He must have said something about Stuart Slater, and the following day, a back page lead in The Sun had the headline: ‘Get rid of the kid’. McAvennie was absolutely furious. He didn’t speak to me again for ages.
“For us, it was a balancing act. You wanted to make sure the interviews were interesting but you also had to be thinking all the time, because you weren’t ever sure what the papers were going to get out of them.”
In reality, by the time the noughties were looming on the horizon, ClubCall was facing up to a future which was unlikely to include premium rate phone numbers. Marshall was running the service when it became clear that the internet was about to change the face of football consumption.
“I was telling everyone that the web was going to kill the service,” he tells FFT. “All it needed was one person to ring the number, find out what the story was and then post it online. Just before I left, they put the price up to 50p a minute. I told them they were crazy – they signed their own death warrant, really.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing, though, in an era when Twitter and the like dominate the public consciousness, is the fact that the service is still in operation – and attracting calls running into the thousands.
“We get five-figure calls per month,” says Holding, “although in the halcyon days of ClubCall we could have as many as that in an hour. There’s also some growth in the numbers because people can simply click a number from their mobiles to get the information. The recent transfer deadline day was our biggest of the year.”
The days of ClubCall attracting 12 million callers each year are clearly at an end, but perhaps a resurgence of telephone football news is underway. Clearly some punters are determined not to hang up on an iconic service just yet.
This feature originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!