Author of the acclaimed ‘Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King’ and ‘Thierry Henry: Lonely At The Top’, Philippe Auclair is one of the finest sports writers in England. Brought up in Normandy, he crossed the Channel and slipped into journalism in the 1990s after…well…a most unconventional previous career.
Philippe, there’s a fairly common route into this industry, but you didn’t take it. Other people started on fanzines, did their NCTJs and slowly rose up. But you…you were a pop star!
Well, yes and no. I never went to journalism school, I graduated in philosophy in France. But the prospect of teaching philosophy for the rest of my life absolutely terrified me, so I took my guitar and went to Brussels. A friend gave my cassette to Michel Duval who was the head of a record label there and the next thing I knew he said, “We’d like you to release a record.” And I thought that was normal. I’d only started playing guitar six months beforehand!
This was back in 1983. I got a job as a chef in a brasserie and stayed there for a year and a half doing one EP, one single, one album, living with very little money in a really big flat. This was Brussels with no heating, temperatures hit -27 in my first winter. It was a great place at the time, it was really hip. Even though nobody talked about ‘hipness’ or ‘coolness’ at the time. It was used as a basis for a lot of American experiments on musicians who didn’t quite fit in the American scene. It was the beginning of the big Belgian scene, and I was vaguely part of that.
If you could compare your style to any musician, who would you compare yourself to?
Prefab Sprout. When people ask for a description, that is generally what I answer, even though it’s not very easy to define. We had some success though. I had two singles in the top ten in Japan. I remember arriving in Tokyo for the first time, we saw pictures of ourselves on a building which was a very strange thing to see! We had done a TV programme the evening before and there we were with screaming girls, people offering flowers, it was amazing. It was pretty obvious that you were not going to back into teaching once you’ve done that.
Where did football come in?
By chance. I played it, not to any kind of decent level, but I played for my university at left back. I loved it far more than is the norm for French intellectuals. I moved to London because, as you know, music doesn’t pay the bills and I found work with the BBC World Service. I was in a room full of clunky typewriters and cigar smoke and so I developed a career as a journalist. I had also been approached by a friend who was looking for somebody to write features for a classical music magazine and I was the features editor there for the seven issues that it lasted.
After that, they asked if there was anything else I was interested in and I told them that I loved football. This was 1992, the year of Cantona. I started to do snippets about the English Division One and then the Premier League. It all developed organically from there. There was a new sports station called ‘TV Sport’, the first satellite channel of its kind, before BSkyB, and I became a summariser. I did the Copa America for them, which was a terrifying experience because I had no idea what I was talking about. I did the Rugby World Cup in 1991 which was a fantastic experience, and from then on, I found myself doing more and more work of that kind – still maintaining a balance between what I was doing as a musician, what I was doing as a broadcaster and what I was doing as a voiceover artist. I was doing all three at the same time.
I think everything happens by chance, it’s just about how you grab it. Another friend of mine from the French service of the BBC had been contacted by France Football saying that they were looking for a London correspondent. They said it was all happening in England, they needed somebody there. They gave me a trial, my first piece was about Gianluca Vialli and it went from there.
Why do you love English football so much?
I think it has something to do with where I come from in France, which is Normandy. We always look to the other side of the Channel. The other thing is the fascination with George Best. I mean, I was tiny but I do remember George Best. I do remember, they’re not just false memories which have been put in my head from the highlights on every television channel. I think at the time, I didn’t see too much of him but I did see the pictures.
Was he the perfect marriage of your two interests? The pop star footballer?
Absolutely. It had to be England. If you’re like me, a young child, in the late 60s, London is the only place to be. I was fascinated with English football, which is also due to the magazines I was reading like France Football. I had a real passion for it. The seed had been sewn.
How did the English journalists treat you when you arrived? Did they resent you?
The opposite. I found them tremendously helpful. Brian Glanville, who I revered as we all do, helped me far beyond what he probably should have done. I remember at the end of a press conference with Graeme Souness saying, “You have to give this boy an interview.” Souness was actually very nice.
I was not really a competitor, I wrote for a highbrow weekly, I wasn’t stealing stories from anybody. I was very careful and very respectful. I always made sure to ask the boys ‘when is your deadline for that?’ ‘embargo until when?’ I always respected them. And they could feel that I really loved English football, that I knew a little bit about it, and what I didn’t know I was willing to learn.
Did you find that the arrival of Arsene Wenger helped you?
Yep! The French invasion. Gerard Houllier at Liverpool, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. It helped at the very beginning without any doubt. The first time I went to Colney, I was very, very nervous at the idea of sitting next to Arsene Wenger.
He liked talking in French, he liked our paper, he enjoyed talking and exposing his ideas, and also he needed to at the time because he wanted to establish his legitimacy. I mean, he was legitimate of course, he had the first double, but he was still in the process of establishing a base.
Did he view you as sort of a ‘safe zone’, you know, someone he could talk to?
Yes, he could talk to me and he was not checking himself, he was very open about most things, so was Gerard Houllier by the way. Not Jean Tigana though! But that was true of the players as well, that was true of Patrick Vieira, in particular who was wonderful to work with, Robert Pires who was wonderful to work with. Thierry, he was a bit different, a bit edgier, but still – really good value. But this has changed completely. Now we see them in mixed zones which is basically a free-for-all amongst everybody, in which we are side-tracked by televisions and microphones under their noses, and you’ve got a camera sitting next to you, which means that the quotes you were saving for a later date will be up on a website later on. Most of the interviews you read in the papers now are made through a sponsor, or the launch of an initiative which means everything is formatted.
This brings us nicely to the present day. It’s a lot harder now, isn’t it?
Yes. Access is almost non-existent, I think that we’ve got to get used to the idea that we have to do our work with very limited access. And of course, I know that some of us try to feed the illusion that there is still the kind of dialogue going on, but there is barely any dialogue. I mean when do we see players? On some occasions you might have a one on one, some journalists develop a relationship with a particular player. But with managers it’s a bit different.
Do you still have a relationship with Arsene Wenger?
Yes, I’ve got his number, I’ve got his email address, you know, we keep in touch from time to time, but it’s certainly not what it used to be. But the first time I met him he gave me his mobile number just like that because I didn’t have time to ask my last question, and he said ‘just call me later’ which I did.
You’ve known Roy Hodgson for some time, haven’t you?
I wouldn’t say I’ve known him for a long time, but I’ve known him for non-football reasons, through our love of literature. The first time I met Roy, it was not that long ago, I think he was at Fulham, at the beginning. I got an interview with him and we sat down at his office at the training ground and we started to talk. I’d studied Hodgson for a while, but nobody in England really knew of him or talked about him. He was the outsider. Nobody thought of him as the next England manager, that’s for sure. And we spoke about loads of things, we spoke at length about his time in Scandinavia and I think he was quite impressed by that. I then realised he spoke French, and very well, and I found out that he actually taught French to earn a living when he was a semi-pro in South Africa! So if you need French lessons, you know who to ask now.
He’s not the natural kind of figure you think would be England manager, is he?
No, he’s an oddity. He’s a real oddity. He is a true patriot who doesn’t feel the need of wearing a poppy or a flag or voting UKIP. But he’s a true English patriot. And he really cares a lot for what he does. He’s not cut from the same cloth as the others, he’s a man of the world, he’s also a lower middle class chap from South London. He’s one of the easiest people to start a conversation with.
Do you still love football?
Yep. I love the game. I love my club. I enjoy the company of my fellow writers which is important. But also I have to say that I’m very worried about that state of our profession. I’m worried about the state of the game, especially since I’ve really gotten my teeth into investigative journalism.
I really despair at times when I see where the money is coming from. I know football fans have never really cared about where the finance is coming from for their club, but I do have a problem with nations with appalling human rights records having their names on a shirt. I have a problem with Gazprom being the sponsor of the Champions League. I have problems with very shady characters coming in from various countries, investing without people asking them the right questions. I have a problem with a club like Leeds United, who were owned by people whose identities were hidden from us, and from the Football League itself for all of 10 years. I have a problem with a sport in which corruption is everywhere, in which football players are trafficked. In which, yes, it’s a very corrupt game in which match fixing is becoming more and more common practice. The money from betting is becoming extreme, which is catastrophic. So I’ve got loads of problems, loads of things.
So why do you still love it?
I suppose I still love the feeling of kicking a ball. I love the beauty of the game. I love the narratives of the game. You know even ugly games like the one last night, (Chelsea vs PSG) that was incredibly intense and fascinating. This is the moment when money doesn’t matter anymore. You know, this is way beyond money. And, football, strangely enough, despite the complete and utter lack of any morality, is still a place of truth. There’s no place to hide on the pitch. I know it’s a cliche but it’s true. You can see everyone on the pitch. Who a man is. Who the player is. You don’t need an interview for that, that’s what I keep saying.
I think it was Jorge Valdano who said, “Of all the unimportant things, football is the most important.” In the end, you still love it. Sometimes you curse yourself for loving it, but the love remains.
You can follow Philippe Auclair on Twitter (@PhilippeAuclair)