chris's photo-1
Christopher Davies (left) and England manager Gareth Southgate.

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 29, 2019) — For more than 50 years, Christopher Davies has been an avid football observer, acquiring a wealth of knowledge about Planet Football.

His byline was a fixture in the Daily Telegraph for nearly two decades, serving as the London newspaper’s soccer correspondent. He brought wit, intelligence and passion to his coverage of the Premier League. And he traveled extensively while providing stellar reporting on the Republic of Ireland’s national squad in locales spanning the globe.

He attended his first World Cup in 1966 in his home country, then (more or less) became a regular fixture at the quadrennial extravaganza starting in 1974 in West Germany. In his memoir, he lists more than 60 nations that he’s traveled to on the job. (He also penned a regular column, “Premier Report,” for The Japan Times for more than a decade and a half.)

Looking back on his career, Davies, a former chairman of the committee of the Football Writers Association, insisted that gratitude is how he should remember his life’s work.

“Only when we take our foot off the football journalistic pedal and reflect on our careers do we fully realize how lucky and privileged we have been,” Davies wrote in his memoir. “We all have mates who earn far more than us and while we want their salary, they all want our job.”

With a keen sense of history and an ability to put things in their proper perspective, Davies is a football pundit who sees the big picture while pontificating on the 1960s to the present time.

“I have been lucky, very lucky to enjoy such a wonderful career even if I didn’t always realize it at the time,” Davies wrote.

Without further ado, a recent interview with Davies follows.

***

In the decade-plus time since the publication of “Behind The Back Page: The Adventure Of A Sports Writer,” can you share some of the most interesting feedback you’ve received about the book? Any favorite emails, phone calls, letters, greetings in a public space that you’ve received regarding the book?

It has been very rewarding to hear so many positive feedbacks from the book, not least the opinion of the taxi driver who recognized my voice from talkSPORT. “I bought your book,” he said.

I waited in anticipation.

“Quite enjoyed it. But you’re better on the radio.”

Where do you think Jose Mourinho will likely wind up in his next coaching stop?

If a top club (not in the English Premier League) is struggling after a couple of months the Unemployed One might get a call. However, while his coaching skills all but guarantee some success, his toxic personality and his love of controversy are a dangerous cocktail.

I wonder whether Mourinho’s style — he is 56 — has been overtaken by younger coaches such as Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino, Thomas Tuchel, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane. Maybe his best chance of a return is at international level.

Will Arsene Wenger likely return to the pitch as a national team manager or as a club boss?

My feeling is that Arsene Wenger will return in a director of football or technical director role. Having managed Arsenal, he would not want to take a job with a lesser club and the clubs bigger than Arsenal either aren’t available or would go for a younger coach if necessary. He is 70 in October and should be traveling the world first class and staying in five-star hotels, but he is addicted to football. Wenger still has the appetite to work, though probably in a different role than previously.

Who do you consider the most overrated football player of the past 50 years? The most underappreciated?

These are the sort of questions when, as soon as you have made up your mind, you change it. But here goes. The most overrated? Pele. Yes, Pele.

Many of those who call him the greatest player of all time hardly ever saw him play live and only occasionally on television. The first World Cup that was readily available to watch on TV was 1962 when he was injured in the third game; he was brutally kicked out of the 1966 edition when Brazil was eliminated after three games, before playing his part in Brazil’s famous 1970 triumph.

Statisticians claim Pele didn’t score the generally accepted 1,283 goals because 526 of those came in unofficial friendlies and tour games. His 757 goals in 812 official games sounds impressive until you realize many of them came in 10-0 or 11-0 thrashings of weak South American opposition by Santos.

When Brazil won three World Cups from 1958 to 1970, Pele was their top scorer just once (1958) and won only one Golden Ball in 1970, when Jairzinho scored in every game. Didi won the Golden Ball in 1958 and Garrincha in 1962.

Pele has been superbly managed and promoted by spin doctors, but while appreciating his ability to do the near impossible I still believe there is something of a myth surrounding him.

Underrated? You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Till Its Gone) was a famous line from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and certainly applies to Paul Scholes. Oh how Manchester United and England have missed the midfielder since he retired. Scholes, called “undoubtedly the greatest midfielder of his generation” by none other than Zinedine Zidane, has not been successfully replaced by club or country. Perhaps it is only in his retirement we realized just how good Scholes really was.

Is there a player today who’s on the cusp of greatness on a comparable level to where Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo now are?

In a word, no. Kylian Mbappe is probably the heir apparent, but he must join a top club in Spain, England or Italy (in that order) to face regular high profile competition which he does not get with PSG in Ligue 1. Mbappe, 20, has sublime skill and an incredible goalscoring record for Monaco, PSG and France, but he has to play on the biggest stages and win major honors regularly to be accepted as a true superstar in the Messi/Ronaldo class.

From start to finish, what was the best World Cup you’ve witnessed in terms of overall quality?

The 2016 World Cup in Russia was, inevitably, preceded by negative political agendas and the usual doubts about how safe it would be to visit plus hooligan/racism fears. In fact, it is difficult to find anyone who was in Russia for the tournament to have a bad word about anything.

The hosts scored five against Saudi Arabia in the opening game and the World Cup rarely looked back after that.

The Champions League may be technically superior, but in Russia we saw so many unforgettable matches with drama, the unexpected, giants falling, upstarts winning and, of course, controversy … there was barely a dull moment. It barely disappointed in any respect. Overall, there was a World Cup-high nine winning goals (plus four defeat-avoiding equalizers) scored in the last minute or in stoppage time of games – 13 moments of last gasp ecstasy and agony. There was only one goalless draw.

Matchday two gave us possibly the best game of the finals, Spain 3, Portugal 3 with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a hat trick, including a late equalizer against the country where he enjoyed so much success with Real Madrid.

The biggest shock was the demise of Germany who went out at the group stage. Who will ever forget the second goal by South Korea against the Germans, scored by Heung-min Son, the move starting when Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was dispossessed in the Korean half as the former World Champions pressed for an equalizer … with the Tottenham striker running half the length of the pitch unopposed before slipping the ball home while Neuer watched from the halfway line?

Spain, Argentina and Brazil underachieved while England, against most expectations, reached the semifinals before losing to an Eden Hazard-inspired Belgium.

VAR made its debut in Russia, contributing to the record 22 penalties, though none in the quarterfinals or semifinals. VAR returned after a two-round absence in the final between France and Croatia when Argentine referee Nestor Pitana awarded France a penalty for handball against Croatia’s Ivan Perisic. After a lengthy delay while he consulted VAR, Pitana became, it seemed, a minority of one in believing Perisic had deliberately handled the ball. Penalty and subsequent goal for France.

Croatia’s spirit was eventually broken and France won 4-2. Les Bleus were the best team at the finals when France, Croatia, Belgium and, at times, the lesser lights of South Korea, Japan, Peru, Morocco and Egypt raised the pulse.

The football, overall, was exciting amid a huge public relations triumph for Putin and Russia.

Has the Premier League evolved more or less in the way you had envisioned when it was set up in the early 1990s? And do you think the big-money stakes in the league have become a distraction from the “purity” of the game?

I do not think anybody predicted the Premier League would become so successful and so rich. Remember, when it was formed English football was still recovering from the dark days post-Heysel and post-Hillsborough when English clubs did not compete in European competitions.

We also had no idea so many billionaires, led by Russia’s Roman Abramovich, would ensure English clubs could outbid the more traditional moneybags clubs of Italy and Spain. Of the current 20 most expensive transfers in world football, 11 have, at some time, played in the Premier League. This does not include the likes of Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, David Silva and Sergio Aguero.

The Premier League has also attracted the cream of world coaches and 2019 saw the two major European club finals competed by four Premier League clubs. This could not have been achieved without the foreign financial clout that attracts the best players and coaches.

According to FIFA’s 2018 Global Transfer Report, $5.14 billion was spent on players by Europe’s top five leagues, with English clubs spending $1.98 billion on transfers from abroad.

Between 1989 and 1998, there was only one Champions League final that did not feature an Italian club. More recently, since 2000, Spain has dominated with nine victories to England’s four. If La Liga, at the top level, is still technically the best, few would doubt the Premier League is the most exciting.

However, some would argue that the money available to the EPL’s elite has made the Premier League effectively two leagues — the top six (Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United) who have dominated almost unopposed and the other 14. In the Premier League era only Blackburn and Leicester outside of the big guns have been champions.

Who are a few of the top football journalists whom you admire these days? And what makes their work stand out in a crowded field?

Danny Taylor is the best football correspondent and that is not just my opinion as he has scooped the individual awards for the past four years. His departure from the Guardian/Observer to The Athletic leaves the newspapers with a huge, effectively almost impossible job to replace him because there is no one within touching distance of Taylor.

I bought the Observer on Sunday specifically to read his column — there can be no higher compliment for any journalist. Apart from always finding a new angle on a topical theme, Taylor also broke stories — a rare combination for a football writer. I covered the Republic of Ireland for the Daily Telegraph when Taylor was making his way up the Guardian ladder and was always impressed with his work ethic, a quality that should never be underestimated.

Taylor exposed the former coach Barry Bennell who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for subjecting junior players from Manchester City and Crewe Alexandra to hundreds of sexual offenses.

He was also commended for his exposure of a cover-up within the Football Association after the England women’s footballer Eniola Aluko made complaints about alleged racial discrimination from the then manager Mark Sampson. The F.A. subsequently apologized to Aluko after the investigation led to a parliamentary hearing. A new inquiry upheld Aluko’s allegations.

There are a number of outstanding football writers/columnists in the U.K. Sam Wallace (Daily Telegraph), Oliver Kay (ex-Times now The Athletic), Jonathan Northcott (Sunday Times) with James Gheerbrant (Times) the pick of the rising young stars.

***

If you were beginning a one-on-one exclusive interview with Diego Maradona in July 2019, what’s the most important (or pressing) question you’d ask him?

How would you like to be remembered and how do you think you’ll be remembered?

Same premise, but how about with Sir Bobby Charlton?

If you could swap places with one current footballer who would it be and why?

Pep Guardiola?

You are admired by many people for what you have achieved as a coach … who are the people you admire outside of football?

Do you think you have had a distinct reportorial style during your distinguished tenure at the Daily Telegraph and over the decades filing commentary for The Japan Times and others?

I always tried to ensure my personality came over in columns because every writer needs a style. It is also important to have an opinion rather than sit on the fence – hopefully an opinion to give people food for thought, but not just going against public opinion for the sake of being different.

One thing every football writer knows is that if you make a mistake, someone will spot it. And delight in telling you.

What achievements as a journalist are you most proud of when you pause and take time to reflect on your career? What do you consider the hallmark(s) of your career?

In 1994 I became only the third Daily Telegraph football correspondent in the modern era to report on a World Cup final, following Donald Saunders and Colin Gibson. There is no bigger match and it is the only report I have framed. The problem was, the game was in Pasadena and it kicked off at 20:30 in the U.K. By the time Brazil has defeated Italy in the penalty shootout it was gone 23:00 — past the normal deadline in those days.

I had to write various “set and hold” intro’s for my report before extra-time had finished with the scenarios that Italy won after extra-time, Brazil won after extra-time, Italy won on penalties and Brazil won on penalties. A sub on the sports desk immediately inserted the correct one as soon as Italy’s Roberto Baggio missed the crucial spot-kick and minutes later the paper started printing.

Having begun my football writing career on Shoot magazine in 1967 it was an honor to cover the sport at the highest level for the Daily Telegraph for 19 years.

Has there been something lost in the art of storytelling because of the social media age and instant information and people’s longing to grab the newspaper a few hours after or the next day to read about a big event?

Twitter is now the voice of the nation. It is, at the same time, the best and worst media development this century. The power of social media can never be underestimated and it has been manna from heaven for lazy journalists who will spot two of three critical remarks about a manager on Twitter and … hey presto … “under fire from fans” which can then become “job under threat after public backlash.” The so-called fans could well be supporters of a rival club, but never let the facts…

It is also a platform for keyboard warriors, usually hiding behind some fake name, to abuse managers, players and especially referees. Some of the abuse — racist, sexist, homophobic and religious — is truly horrible and more should be done to catch those responsible.

The positive effect is that social media makes everything instant. Goals … reaction … TV clips of crucial moments can be seen and read almost as soon as they have happened. The immediacy of social media and some top-rate sports websites plus the excellent job Sky Sports, BT Sport and radio do of covering matches makes it almost impossible for newspapers to tell their readers anything they did not know when they went to bed.

Many newspaper reports are on Twitter within minutes of a game ending – why buy a morning paper? Well, fewer people are and U.K. newspaper sales are plummeting. Multimedia news platforms have been a major factor in the decline and by the end of 2014 no U.K. daily or Sunday newspaper had a circulation exceeding two million.

Last year the Daily Telegraph reported a loss of 22 percent; Daily Mirror and Daily Mail 12 percent; no newspaper increased its circulation.

The American-based website The Athletic is starting a U.K. operation for the new season and has signed up many of the top writers. It will provide the first serious challenge* to newspapers since the digital era.

(*As an aside, an industry insider elaborated on the big changes this way: “The U.K. is on the verge of experiencing the biggest revolution to hit football writing since … well, probably ever. The Athletic, launched in the USA three-and-a-half years ago, has spent the summer signing the cream of British football writers for the launch of their U.K. operation next month. It has gone for the top table of football journalism, which will leave two or three daily papers severely depleted. … Just as Roman Abramovich changed the financial face of English football when he bought Chelsea in 2003, The Athletic is doing the same with football writing. … It is not only the national newspapers who will feel losses as many of the leading provincial reporters have been signed up.” Among the hires: Amy Lawrence, Dominic Fifield and Stuart James of the Guardian/Observer; Kay and George Caulkin of The Times; Laura Williamson, Adam Crafton and Laurie Whitwell of the Daily Mail; Jack Pit-Brooke of The Independent; and David Ornstein of the BBC.)

If you were asked to give advice to any aspiring sports journalists, especially writers, about pursuing a career in this field at a time when countless newspapers have downsized, others have folded and the competition for jobs is cutthroat, what would you tell them?

That if you are good enough you will be given a chance. Websites offer young writers a platform not previously available. Most leading writers learned their trade with provincial newspapers or sports agencies. These days websites can give hopefuls a chance to show what they can do.

***

Based on your observations of the way NFL reporters do their jobs by being at the 19 Super Bowls you covered, do you believe it’s harder, or just different, in being a top-notch beat reporter on the NFL beat vs. the top club soccer league beat?

In my next life I want to be on the NFL beat. I wouldn’t have minded it in this life, either. English Premier League clubs employ media officers whose job too often seems to be to ensure players do not speak to the press. Managers do a press conference the day before a match and a post-match interview, but getting much-needed quotes from players after a game can be difficult going on impossible. Often, one or two reporters are allowed access to chat to a player and they have to share this with other journalists at the game. I doubt whether NFL reporters would believe this, let alone having experienced it.

NFL players are media-trained from the start of their career through high school and college; by the time they reach the NFL they can give great interviews, whatever their college qualifications. Many Premier League players have little or no experience of speaking to the press before their debut — this, plus the awareness of the ability of some football writers to twist meaningless quotes too often means an interview without substance.

NFL franchises cannot ban journalists whose reports or columns they do not like. This has been a common practice in England, with football writers even banned from games for headlines they did not write. Premier League clubs can be prickly to criticism, but reporters are not cheerleaders though freedom of speech can be an optional extra with some clubs. Reporters are often banned for writing stories that are true, but which the club would rather have remained under wraps. I was once banned by a club for an article I did not write, but was accused of leaking some facts to the journalist who I did not know.

***

Do you think it was a mistake for the London Monarchs to step away from the World League of American Football in the early 1990s and for NFL owners to de-emphasize the WLAF at a time when the Premier League didn’t yet have billions pouring in, and arguably, American football was still a fertile, untapped market?

In short, did the American football owners — hampered by greed — fail to make the proper long-term investments in the U.K. and through the WLAF (later known as NFL Europe), thus sealing its own fate?

As with most things there is no single reason for failure. I do not believe the demise of the London Monarchs and the World League of American Football launched in 1991 was due to the introduction of the Premier League in 1992. While English soccer’s elite league is now the most lucrative and popular in the world, it was a slow burner, not an immediate financial global success.

A personal view is that the two sports did not really overlap; they were self-contained with neither relying on the other. The Monarchs won the inaugural World Bowl after averaging 40,000 at Wembley, the home of English soccer though many tickets were given away to generate interest and atmosphere.

It worked and the success of the team saw tabloids carrying back page reports of the Monarchs’ matches in the 10-team league (six in the USA, three in Europe and one in Canada). But from a 9-1 regular season and World Bowl victory the Monarchs slumped to 2-7-1 in 1992 though attendances of 20,000 were still reasonable when compared with clubs in the second tier of professional soccer.

NFL owners, while not wanting to lose millions of dollars (they each paid $50,000 towards start-up costs), were willing to test the market and create an opportunity for fringe players to gain valuable game-time. The two most notable Europe-to-NFL quarterbacks were Kurt Warner (Amsterdam Admirals) who led the Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV and Brad Johnson (London Monarchs) who became a starter with the Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he won Super Bowl XXXVII.

Four-time Super Bowl champion kicker Adam Vinatieri was given an opportunity by Amsterdam and went on to play for the New England Patriots for 10 seasons. Many others enjoyed decent careers in the NFL which probably would not have been possible without playing in Europe.

Ironically, it was the failure of the American franchises after year two of the WLAF that prompted the NFL to call a two-year time-out. The three European teams attracted promising attendances and Frankfurt even made a profit of $600,000.

The league returned in 1995 with just six European teams but from a Monarchs perspective absence did not make football hearts grow fonder. With Wembley too expensive and not always available, the Monarchs moved to White Hart Lane, the home of Tottenham Hotspur and then to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge in 1997.

The London Monarchs became the England Monarchs in 1998 when the league was renamed NFL Europe, a nomadic monarchy with the team playing home games at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, in Bristol and then Birmingham. With attendances of 6,000 the Monarchs folded.

In hindsight, the initial 10-team Transatlantic set-up was probably wrong. Had the WLAF begun with a six-team European League, well who knows? But I do not think the setup of the Premier League impacted on the Monarchs. The World Bowl triumph of 1991 was followed by a mediocre season and then a two-year hiatus. There was no coming back from that and as the Premier League began its upwards spiral the WLAF and the Monarchs, particularly, never recovered from two years in the wilderness.