It was 20 years ago, back in June 1996, that I started writing this column. There have been only four editors in that time, which is a better record than most football managers. I even pre-date – by three months – Arsène Wenger at the Arse. Ian Hargreaves (editor, 1996-98) hired me. He had been the editor of the Independent, for which I’d written lots of stuff, but I had never actually met him. He had no interest in football but it was the summer of the Euros in England. It was thought it might be in all the papers, so better have something.
Gazza was in his pomp in 1996, and in the pub and in the kebab shops, but England got to the semis, beaten 6-5 on penalties by Germany. Gareth Southgate missed his and was never allowed to forget it.
After the Euros, I just carried on. Peter Wilby (1998-2005) took over as editor. He quite liked football and supported Leicester City, whatever happened to them, but he really preferred cricket. I can’t remember much about John Kampfner (2005-2008), apart from him inviting me to lunch, then cancelling.
Jason Cowley arrived in 2008 and is still there, last time I looked under the office table. He’s a football fan, far more knowledgeable than I am, which of course isn’t hard. Shame he supports the Arse but at least he knows when I’m making dopey predictions.
In the old days, there were lots of NS parties, plus lunches with interesting guests. They seem to have stopped, unless I’m not being invited, bastards. I am now the longest-serving NS columnist, oh yes, and if I don’t get an engraved clock in June, or at least some goldfish, I will be spitting.
I write this column on a Sunday, having been to a game on Saturday – Spurs or Arsenal – and watched everything that moves, football-wise, on the telly. Monday to Friday I work on a book. Weekends I do various columns. I watch nothing on telly apart from football. I make notes on every game, just as I make notes on everything I do and think.
The problem with this mag not being seen by most people till Friday is that my totally original, fab observations have either been on every back page all week or, more likely, completely forgotten. Which is why I muck around, writing as much about my domestic life as football, hoping stuff doesn’t date too quickly. I envy the Lezard. He could probably write a whole year’s columns ahead, then go to bed, and nobody would know when he’d done them.
I start a new notebook every season, making two lists. One I call Topics, ideas for possible columns, and the other is called Points, full of daft thoughts, bits and pieces. Now I look back over the 20 years, this is mostly about haircuts. Each week I fret, until I have a topic I think I can spin out.
I don’t think anyone in football actually reads the column. In November 1996 I was very disobliging about Gazza, saying he was “unbalancing the team” and “throwing himself around like a mad cow”. I kept this quiet when I later ghosted his autobiography.
In 2006, I read that Wayne Rooney was being given £5m by HarperCollins for five books covering the rest of his football life. In these very pages I rubbished the notion of a lad of 19 being given all that money. After the column appeared I got a call from HarperCollins saying I was on the shortlist to ghost Wayne’s first book. Brilliant idea, I said, long overdue.
The biggest changes in 20 years have of course been the arrival of all the foreign players, foreign managers, and the obscene salaries. But you know all that. Television – that has seen huge advances. I was always knocking and mocking Sky, Andy Gray and all that lot, forever telling us the Premier League was the best in the world blah blah.
But football on television is so much better: technically amazing, and so much of it. My ambition, when I am even older, is to sit all day drinking Beaujolais and watching football on the telly. Then writing this column. Bliss.
Hunter Davies’s new memoir, “The Co-Op’s Got Bananas!”, is published by Simon & Schuster
This article appears in the 04 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred