Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Neil Ashton - News of the World

Have I got news for you?

It's very easy to have a highbrow above the eyebrow opinion about the News of the World. It's England's biggest-selling newspaper, but even if you don't think it's the best, it's certainly hard not to have a cursory glance as you hover over the Sunday papers.

So, to lay to rest all our tabloid-broadsheet sectarian fears, we thought we'd dial up the News of the World's chief football correspondent Neil Ashton for the latest in our series of interviews with football journalists - even though he does support Crystal Palace.

Ashton joined the NOTW midway through 2009 after five year stint with the Daily Mail. Prior to the Mail he worked for the Sunday tabloid The People.

Not one to shy away from controversy, Ashton suggested to his followers on Twitter last night that maybe the absence of Stuart Pearce from the England senior set up was the difference [in the teams improved performance against Switzerland]. He also had plenty to say to us about managing Crystal Palace, Fabio Capello's failings during the World Cup, and not to mention the time he made Andy Hessenthaler's wife cry:

Have you got one of the best jobs in the world? Definitely. It's all I wanted to do from the moment I realised I wasn't going to wear the red and blue sash strip of Crystal Palace, which I can assure you was at a very early age.

I took myself off to Fleet Street when I was about ten and I can still recall the smell of newsprint, the vibrancy and the anticipation, with so many people living off their nerves and so much competition. That was for me.

Is there a downside to writing about football for the biggest newspaper in England? Yes - the News of the World is only published once a week, although that is probably a relief to most of the England squad at this moment.

'Tabloid journalists? If they haven't got a story, they just make one up'. These are not the views of EFW, rather of the occasional bloke down the pub. A totally obnoxious opinion right? Take a typical office environment. If they make a mistake, perhaps one or two people find about it, maybe the boss calls them in, instructs them to sharpen up, improve, don't let it happen again. The embarrassment is restricted to a few office gossips.

When I make an error it is amplified around the world, with 3m people buying the newspaper and tens of millions reading the online version. Having been in that situation a few times in my career, it's not a very nice place to be. I might make an error, but I'd never make something up.

Is it occasionally frustrating that you have to sit on a story until Sunday rather than getting it out there straight away? Not especially, I expect it, it's a hazard of Sunday newspapers. There are some bloody good daily newspaper reporters working at the industry's coal-face and many of them are always on the lookout for a back page story.

What's been the biggest of your many scoops to date? I don't have any interest in past achievements, I only look to the future.

Well, what about looking back then - have you ever dropped a journalistic clanger? Thanks for the reminder. Around six or seven years ago I was tipped off about Leeds selling Elland Road to raise cash. The property developer involved was so enthusiastic about the project he told me they were even going to bulldoze the statue of Billy Bremner outside the ground to make way for a supermarket. I got a bit carried away with that one.

Having Andy Hessenthaler's wife crying down the phone after I'd written that her husband was about to be fired by Gillingham wasn't pleasant either.

Upson has had it out with the England management, Avram Grant's job is under threat already, you exclusively reveal all these type of stories first. Just how big is your list of contacts? I'm not sure it's about the size of the contacts book, this is just what I do. I'm perceived as a story-getter and as much as I'd like to write with the touch of Paul Hayward or the poise of Oliver Holt, I reluctantly recognise that my strengths are elsewhere.

Footballers appear on the front and back pages of newspapers these days. Does your heart sink when you have to moralise about players off the field misdemeanours? No, I enjoy the challenge. I don't expect anyone to agree with me, but so long as I can outline my argument using examples or facts or experiences then I'll have an opinion on almost anything football-related.

"Sulky" Fabio has been called both a weirdo and a donkey in The Sun, and as a result he's been have having a snipe back at the press lately. He isn't really enjoying the job now is he? It's impossible to enjoy being the England manager. Capello lost credibility when he was completely overwhelmed and under-prepared for the biggest tournament in the world.

However, there is a determined streak about him and it's motivating him to improve as an international manager. Getting to Euro 2012 will not be a problem for this team, what they do when they get there is the issue.

Sam Wallace of the Independent told me not to ask you about your childhood scrapbooks full of Crystal Palace match reports that you would compile obsessively from the newspapers. Or the letters of complaint you wrote in those days to any reporter with the temerity to criticise your heroes. Whoops, I've just done it. Care for a right of reply? I'm not at all embarrassed. I can still remember Brian Woolnough's intro from his match report when Palace beat Blackburn in the 1989 play-off final: "In scenes of rampant and intimidating hysteria, Steve Coppell's red and blue army will take pride of place in the First Division next season."

There were 30,000 people inside Selhurst Park and Wooly was whipped into a frenzy of excitement. It showed in every word of his match report in the Sun the following day.

Sam's actually broken a confidence telling you about the letter I wrote to Jeff Powell in May 1990, but he's forgiven because he's such a good pal.

Jeff claimed Palace were a team of thugs in his verdict following the 1990 FA Cup final replay against Manchester United.

I signed off my letter with the words "I hope the Daily Mail do not offer you a contract of employment after you have completed your work experience."

Cringeworthy, especially as I was 17 at the time. These days it's my turn to get those kind of letters, except they're usually from adults.

You're very knowledgeable about football, tactics, formations and the like. Could you personally manage Crystal Palace? Yes. I'd bring Steve Coppell in as my director of football and add Ian Wright, Mark Bright, Geoff Thomas, Andy Gray, John Salako and Tony Finnigan to my coaching staff.

Is it true that - as well as all that healthy breakfast on show - they have a glass full of maltesers for guests on the Sunday Supplement? I've not seen the Maltesers, but maybe that's because someone's already eaten them all?

Last Sunday there was a glass full of M+Ms which Jonathan Northcroft of the Sunday Times poured into his coat pocket at the end of the show. I don't know if that constitutes theft.

Unlike Sam Wallace, you've embraced Twitter and have thousands of followers. Has Twitter become a useful journalistic tool or is it a bit of a time waster? Oh no, here we go... I got a fairly firm handle on it when the World Cup squad was being announced. I had something like three followers when I tweeted "SWP in England squad".

Then a good contact - and a very good pal - sent an SMS to tell me "Ledley's out". He knew I worked for a Sunday newspaper so didn't think anything of his "joke", but I tweeted it to my three followers.

Within a minute I had 1,600 followers and couldn't work out why. Then someone told me about this "re-tweeting" lark. And then my pal called to tell me he was joking about Ledley. Not great.

Which city in Europe would you recommend for, ahem, a European Football Weekend? Find a way to visit the Sukru Saracoglu in Istanbul, it's an unremarkable stadium with a remarkable atmosphere, full of Fenerbahce nutters bouncing up and down on the terraces, singing rhythmic songs and making it one of the most hostile stadiums in the world.

And finally, thanks a million for talking to EFW Neil. Who would you like to see us interview next? The 6ft 9ins figure of "Slam Dunc" White of the Sunday Telegraph. He likes to think of himself as urbane, cosmopolitan and approachable. The reality is somewhat different, as you will discover....

EFW has of course already been to the Sukru Saracoglu in Istanbul

- Feel free to comment below -

1 comment:

Billy Mays said...

Getting a bit pally with Palace all of a sudden aren't we Dan? I'll look the other way for now as long as you steer clear of Hampshire's debt dodging inbreds!