He’s a familiar face on our television screens on weekends at grounds up and down the Football League, and on his travels Sky Sports’ Johnny Phillips has gathered some fascinating stories. It’s mostly away from the glamour of the Premier League’s superstars that Phillips explores the fabric of the modern game. Acclaimed blogger Layth Yousif sits down with the author of Saturday Afternoon Fever: A Year on the Road for Soccer Saturday, and among a host of tales, also discusses his top three Republic players for this son of an Irishman.
It is a sunny Friday evening in central London. I am supposed to be meeting Sky Sports’ Johnny Phillips but I am running late. Worried that he will be annoyed, I finally get to the pub sweaty and breathless. I needn’t have worried. A pint is waiting for me along with a smile and a handshake. It is reassuring to know that a man who broadcasts to millions is as normal as he is humble.
Pleasantries exchanged we immediately start talking football. A mate of his is an avid QPR fan. The three of us get onto the subject of their 3-0 defeat to Oxford in the 1986 Milk Cup Final. As debacles go for the Loftus Road club – and they’ve known a few over the years – this one is high up on the list. Johnny’s mate talks about the game as if it was yesterday, and the sense of hurt mixed with incredulity is still apparent. The conversation moves onto next season’s prospects. It is instructive as it reveals a real sense of what it means to be a football fan: pain, frustration, absurdity and despair along with that ever lingering bedfellow, hope – real or imagined. These are also themes explored in his book “Saturday Afternoon Fever”.
I ask Johnny how he feels about Wolves, as he is a massive supporter of the Molineux club. His reply could have come from any one of their countless fans. “Last season was painful. I was at Brighton on the final day and although I had to work (Johnny modestly fails to mention he was covering the game for Sky Sports cult football show Soccer Saturday) I was absolutely gutted we went down”.
As he says in his book he is a fan first and foremost. “I realise that I am very lucky to be doing what I am doing”, he says.
“The Premier League is a captivating story, but there isn’t much we don’t know about Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard. During the course of doing my job up and down the country over the last ten years I have found that some of the best stories involve those unsung players, or clubs or people that are sometimes forgotten – and they are just as important to the fabric of football even though they may have been marginalised or denied the space they deserve. And their stories are the ones I’m trying to tell in my book”.
“I am trying to appeal to the When Saturday Comes” type of reader and supporter, or those interested in cult football websites,” he tells me. “The one who is fascinated not only by his own club but in what’s happening throughout football, and is keen on reading about other characters and clubs who they may not necessarily have any association or links with. I think there are a lot of people who are just generally drawn to what goes on in football beyond their own club”.
For what it’s worth I think Johnny is right. There are a great many people who are loyal to their club, but who are also captivated by the wider picture beyond mere transfer rumours and idle gossip.
In Saturday Night Fever Johnny observes and explores the theme of the unsung hero with a deft touch. What could be cloying and sentimental in the wrong hands is actually a tour de force of sympathetic and captivating narratives in which he articulately gives a voice to those who aren’t normally heard.
The chapter on James’s story entitled The Ambulance Man who Saved a Football Club is one of many absorbing tales in the book. Whether it’s the intriguing story of the re-birth of Fleetwood Town told with sensitivity and a wry smile; the scouser living his dream giving football tours of Liverpool; the environmental ethos of Forest Green’s Chairman Dale Vince, or tales of Sunday League football, Johnny’s keen eye acutely captures the sense of what the game means to so many of us.
“But there are also dark chapters laced with despair and tragedy. Norwich City’s loan signing Kei Kamara who had to face the bullets of the War in Sierra Leone, the personal misfortunes of ex Villa and England International Lee Hendrie, the heartfelt tale of Charlie Oatway who grew up an illiterate in working class West London, far removed from what people generally associate the area with. All these stories are told with a compassion and understanding that allows the subjects room to tell their accounts honestly, but always without self-indulgence or self-pity.”
The chapter on the tale of Gretna Green is a masterpiece. The saga is told through the club’s centre forward, Kenny Deuchar who also happened to be a Doctor. At the time as the club were on the rise though the lower divisions in Scotland it was a feel good tale. Soccer Saturday picked up on the “good doctor” and even his gran got a mention.
Yet as they continued to progress something was rotten in the state of Gretna. Brooks Mileson, their rich benefactor, a Shakespearean tragedian if ever there was one, although ostensibly hailed as a hero, albeit an eccentric one, turned out to be concealing debts that were eventually to send the club – who amazingly reached the Scottish Cup Final – hurtling to oblivion.
Again, Phillips style allows the narrative to breathe, and although the reader is already aware of the outcome, the sense of impending doom as the story reaches its conclusion is grippingly powerful. Reading this chapter on a train I actually missed my stop. The fact I was so engrossed is testament to Phillips mastery of his craft.
In the telling of what, sadly is an all too common problem in football, namely rich benefactors who turn out to be less than honest in their intentions – not to mention the fact that invariably their finances are just as opaque. Phillips doesn’t condemn. He lets the facts speak for themselves. And as the good doctor said plaintively but without rancour or bitterness, “If it wasn’t for Gretna I’d never have had the memories and experiences”.
Johnny is a natural storyteller. Richard Lee, the Brentford goalkeeper who appeared on Dragons Den and has written a book on communication and behavioural patterns – something that probably isn’t discussed much in any of the four pubs that ring evocative Griffin Park – is allowed a portrait of his story without any semblance of sneering or condescension. Not that Johnny would anyway but it is refreshing in these days of corporate spin and bland, homogenous footballers to read an intelligent account of an intelligent man who just happens to play football.
There is also a delicate and penetrating portrait of Rafa Benetez. A dignified man so unjustly vilified by a section of Chelsea supporters last year.
“Of the time (Benitez) went to an Irish pub on the eve of the 2005 Champions League Quarter final against Bayer Leverkusen, or his staunch backing of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, not just in emotional terms but in financial terms too, having given them £96,000 of his own money to help their brave campaign. Something certain Chelsea fans should think of the next time they encounter this honourable football man.”
There is of course a chapter on his beloved Wolves. In it he gives a warm account of his team and why he supports them. Yet this isn’t your run of the mill yarn you would expect. He also speaks with honesty on the Punjabi Wolves fans who have encountered casual racism – but a theme of the book is apparent in this chapter too: in adversity there is always hope. It is soundtrack to the narrative of all true football fans.
As Forest Green’s environmentally aware Chairman told Johnny: “Modern life is unsustainable and it’s also without heart. It’s a spiritless life when you can just consume anything you want and throw it away…that’s an empty way to live”.
Saturday Afternoon Fever is an anecdote to the vacuity of shallow, celebrity obsessed life, sport and in particular football: If you read one book over the winter make it this one.
“As the son of an Irishman Johnny soon turns the talk to his top three Irish players.”
Unsurprisingly Robbie Keane is number one. “It might be an obvious choice possibly. But his goalscoring at international level is phenomenal. He will finish his career with far many more international goals than the likes of Shearer and Rooney despite playing with far less talented players. His number of caps and goals has undoubtedly been helped by his availability. He never misses a game, be it a friendly or important World Cup qualifier. Fitness should be lauded as an asset like ability and his professionalism has ensured he has remained at the top of his game for so long”.
And the second best?
“It had to be Shay Given. He was an outstanding goalkeeper whose mediocre displays at Euro 2012 shouldn’t be allowed to cloud his overall record as Ireland’s greatest ever keeper. He was magnificent during the 2002 World Cup and it is only a shame that, like Keane, he had to wait so long to play tournament football again when he was arguably well past his peak.
Johnny is quick to tell me number three. “I would say Steve Staunton. He was another one whose longevity will mark him out as one of the true greats of Irish football. At his best there were few to touch him when he broke down the flank for his country. At times he was as good as an out and out winger, such was the reliability of his crossing. It’s a pity events didn’t work out for him as a manager”.
The night is drawing to an end. We grab one last beer.
As the crowded bar thins out the barman looks at Johnny as if he knows him from somewhere. Johnny tells me modestly, “I have been lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. I very feel privileged to do what I do and I try never to forget that”.
As we finish our pints to leave the Barman suddenly says “goodbye Johnny all the best”. He clearly likes him. Everyone likes Johnny. If you read Saturday Afternoon Fever you’ll know why.
Johnny Phillips’ book “Saturday Afternoon Fever” is now available.
Follow Layth Yousif on Twitter @laythy29