The latest in a series of profiles and interviews, Orginal Fat Bob gives his personal view on the life and career of a footballing guest before sitting down for a chat and asking a few questions. Our Diasboro special guest this week is Eric Paylor.
1. The Overview – the man and his career
Eric Paylor had his first introduction to Ayresome Park when he was a young reporter for the Hartlepool Mail. He was lucky enough to see a lot of Middlesbrough’s glory years under Jack Charlton. He later joined the Evening Gazette and subsequently progressed to chief sports writer until his retirement in 2011. He continues to write as a freelancer and I saw him in one of the Boro hospitality lounges, with a good friend of mine, the former Premiership referee Jeff Winter. Eric very kindly agreed to do this Interview and here are his responses to the Diasboro questions.
2. The Interview – a quick chat
OFB: Did you play football before going to watch it as a spectator and what position did you play?
EP: I played Sunday football from the age of 17 right through until I was 34. I am a Hartlepool lad and started out with local team Expamet 67 in the South East Durham Sunday League, which involved teams from as far afield as Sunderland and Sedgefield. When the Hartlepool Mail formed a team and entered the Hartlepool Sunday League, I switched to the Mail. I was a striker/winger with Expamet and switched briefly to centre-back with the Mail. After that I was a full-back, playing either right or left. I also played five a side football with my Gazette colleagues until the age of 49.
OFB: What was the first football match you remember going to see?
EP: I discovered that Hartlepools United opened the gates ten minutes before the final whistle to let out the disgruntled fans. So, at the age of eight or nine, me and my chums used to time our return from a ship-spotting trips to Hartlepool docks to take in the end of the games. I’m not sure who were the first visitors I saw, but I have a feeling it was Stockport County or Southport. I first time I saw the start of a game was Pools against Peterborough United when Posh first were admitted to the Football League in 1960.
OFB: Why did you decide to be a journalist?
EP: I was a bank clerk with Barclays when I first left school. I had two very good pals at the Hartlepool Mail who told me there was a vacancy for a trainee journalist and that I must apply. I went for an interview and got the job. I took it, just to be working with my pals. It’s probably one of the best decisions I ever made.
OFB: Did you go to college at Darlington or learn “on the job”.
EP: I learned “on the job”, though I did attend two mandatory eight-week block release courses at Darlington college during my trainee years. I started in the Hartlepool Mail’s Peterlee office and one of my jobs was to report on Horden CW in the Wearside League.
OFB: Who was your favourite player when you started to report football matches and others that you have watched over the years?
EP: Most of my favourite players are from the Willie Maddren/Bruce Rioch era because I used to travel to games with them and considered myself “one of the lads”. The banter was great and there was a strong sense of camaraderie. I’ve always been very fond of guys such as Bernie Slaven, Tony Mowbray, Colin Cooper, Gary Pallister and Steve Pears. Later on I was quite friendly with Nigel Pearson and others during the Bryan Robson era. It’s great to see John Hendrie and Steve Vickers regularly at Boro matches while I bumped into Steve Baker and Tony McAndrew before the Luton game. In football terms, the best player I ever saw in a Boro shirt was Emerson, when he wanted to be! (I agree with that – OFB)
OFB: What has been your most memorable game, your own individual piece of writing and your best experience with the fans?
EP: My most memorable game was the Carling Cup Final. I put so much mental and physical effort into it that I was ill for three days afterwards. As far as my writing was concerned, I was proud to write many exclusives for the Gazette over the years. I always had a top relationship with Steve Gibson and former chief executive Keith Lamb and they were very good to me in terms of giving me the inside stories. My best experience with the fans was probably after the win at Wolves in 1992 which secured promotion. Everybody was on the pitch and hugging each other.
OFB: Was your job as a sports reporter as glamorous as it sounds?
EP: It was great to watch the Boro home and away for 26 years. But the work was hard. I had to find an exclusive story every night, or at the very least put a new slant on an old one. I worked six days a week every week and made countless phone calls on an evening. I’ve had conversations with Steve Gibson at 11.30pm at night. You could never switch off. I’ve had horrendous run-ins with players, usually over misunderstandings. But hey, I could have been a bank clerk!
OFB: Did you travel to away matches with the Boro and stay at their hotels during your career.
EP: I travelled on the coach with the Boro in the early years and stayed in their hotels. On several occasions I’ve been up until 2am chatting in the hotel with Bruce Rioch on the night before the game. I didn’t dare go to bed before him in case I missed anything.
OFB: Did you travel with Boro to Europe and the rest of the world during your career.
EP: I attended virtually all the UEFA Cup games, though my friend and colleague Phil Tallentire reported on a couple of them in my absence. I didn’t go to Egaleo or AZ. However every season I accompanied the team on its pre-season training tours. I went on the same flight and stayed in the same hotel. I went to Italy, Spain, Holland and Ireland on many occasions.
OFB: Who were the jokers in the Boro team and can you recount some amusing episodes?
EP: The vast majority of them were jokers though fortunately they played very few tricks on me. Don O’Riordan caught me a few times with minor japes. John Hendrie is the obvious joker who springs to mind. He’s never lost that twinkle in his eyes. The well-known story is from an end-of-season trip to Spain when John fell asleep on his stomach around the pool. The other players pulled his shorts down while he slept, and he suffered such severe sunburn that he couldn’t sit down for the rest of the trip.
OFB: What was your worst football game or experience and why?
EP: Liquidation was the worst experience. I’d been covering the Boro for only 12 months. If the club went to the wall, then the Gazette would not need a “Boro man”. I had a mortgage to pay and a wife and two young kids to support. It was quite stressful.
OFB: What was it like during the dark days of Liquidation, did you think the Boro were doomed and were you kept informed of the developments?
EP: It was hard because the rest of the media were reporting that Boro were dead and buried. The Football League were insisting that all the old creditors had to be paid in full but there wasn’t the money initially to do so. I was fortunate that Steve Gibson got me on board from the start. When he was battling to save the club in 1986, he phoned me nearly every day to keep me informed of the developments. The information I was receiving from Steve meant the Gazette’s stories were not only written positively, but ultimately proved to be correct. The Gazette was the only media outlet which gave the fans real hope.
OFB: Who was in your opinion the best manager that the Boro has ever had and why?
EP: It’s a toughie. I don’t think we’ll ever see another era like the one we enjoyed under Steve McClaren, because the rich clubs are getting richer and the gap is ever widening. McClaren was 100 per cent focussed on being successful and in general his signings were spot on. It was a great time to be a Boro fan. But then I don’t think anybody else could have achieved what Bruce Rioch achieved from 1986 onwards. Without him we would have been in the third tier for years.
OFB: Who was the greatest influence on your career and why?
EP: In journalist terms, I had a sports editor at the Gazette called Alan Berry who believed in me and supported me to the hilt. I’m sure he put in a positive word for me when I was interviewed for the Boro job. As daft as it may sound, Bruce Rioch helped me to become a better sports journalist. He talked regularly about achieving personal standards and how to maintain them. I learned a lot of life skills from him.
OFB: Which opposing team and which player did you fear the Boro playing against?
EP: I always hated playing Newcastle United. The rest of the North-east media seemed to put them on a pedestal. I disliked St James’s Park intensively. I could never understand why Alan Shearer was worshipped in the manner in which he was. Beating the Magpies was one of the game’s greatest pleasures. However, maybe I’ve mellowed with age. I wish all the North-east clubs all the best. The club which I really dislike now is Liverpool. All the old arrogance has returned.
OFB: Who is your current favourite player playing football today and why?
EP: I don’t really have favourite players any more. But as a fan I get a lot of enjoyment from seeing young players come through the Academy. I’m hopeful that Dael Fry will become a top player in the game – and playing for us in the Premier League.
OFB: Fans of a certain age (including myself) think that the days of our club under Jack Charlton were the best do you agree?
EP: No. I think the Steve McClaren era was better. (well that’s shot me down in flames – OFB!)
OFB: How do you think the match day has changed, from the time that you started watching and being involved with writing and reporting on professional football, to the present day?
EP: It’s changed completely. In my time I was on the inside of the club. Now football reporters are kept on the outside. I’ve no sympathy when negative things are written about clubs. I found it difficult to write negative stories because I was fed information by the club on a daily basis, which in turn was passed on to the fans via the Gazette.
OFB: Can you tell us of some episodes whilst travelling to away games in the Gazette Mobile?
EP: I think the story of the game at Brentford in 1986 is well catalogued. I left Teesside at 5am with Gordon Cox for an 11am Sunday morning kick off and the A1 was blanked out by a heavy snowfall. You couldn’t even make out where the road was. I had to get out on several occasions and help push the car back on to the road. But we made the kick off. Another hairy moment was running out of petrol on the M1 when Nigel Gibb was driving on the way back from Bournemouth. Fortunately we eventually flagged down an RAC van which just happened to have a gallon of petrol available. I once saw a dead body on the A1 after a guy had jumped off a bridge.
OFB: If you could be a fly on the wall, is there any dressing room you would have wished to eavesdrop on at any time during your writing career?
EP: One thing I would like to have heard is the time when Terry Venables sat down with Alen Boksic and told him to get his house in order. Venables was not a man to mess with!
OFB: Do you have any regrets in your career, or missed opportunities?
EP: No, none. There were several occasions when people suggested that I might like to apply for other reporting jobs on other newspapers, occasionally nationals. But I couldn’t see past the Boro. I had a dream job.
OFB: Who was the nicest person that you have interviewed and why?
EP: Nice is a strange word to use with regard to professional football. I’ve interviewed many honest and helpful people over the years. Bryan Robson, for example, went out of his way to give me his time when he often had other pressing matters to deal with.
OFB: Whereabouts do you live these days and what are you doing in your retirement?
EP: I live in Seaton Carew where I have lived ever since I was married. Believe it or not I can almost see the stadium from my house. I never actually fully retired in that I have continued to write columns, some of which appear in the Gazette and another in the Sunday Sun. Watching wildlife was always my passion away from the job. As soon as I left the Gazette, I started visiting RSPB Saltholme on a regular basis and now have a whole new batch of pals. I also write a weekly wildlife column for the Gazette.
OFB: Whom have you made a lifelong friend through football?
EP: I can call on many former players as my friends but by far the biggest lifelong friend is Gordon Cox. I travelled with him for many years to Boro matches all over the country when he worked for local radio. Since he took up a role with the club I have remained in regular contact and we still go out for an occasional drink together.
OFB: Now this could be a controversial question, but it has to be asked. Could you name your greatest 11 Boro players for a first team? Go on then we’ll also allow you three substitutes!
EP: I’ll probably change my mind in a week’s time but my current team would be: Pears; Craggs, Southgate, Pearson, Ziege; Ripley, Emerson, Souness, Zenden; Viduka, Hasselbaink. Subs: Mowbray, Juninho, Merson. (Great choice – OFB!)
OFB: Is it nice for you to think that you acted as an ambassador for the North East area and its people telling them about their football club and giving an insight?
EP: I never looked at it that way. I just wanted to get an exclusive story every day and make sure my employers knew I was doing my job properly!
OFB: Have you heard of our blog “Diasboro” and did you know that it evolved from Anthony Vickers blog “Untypical Boro?”
EP: I have to admit that I’d heard of Diasboro but never investigated it. I’ve always thought that Vic was an exceptionally talented writer (should have been political writer for the Daily Mirror). I see him at home games but the subject of Diasboro had never cropped up in conversation.
OFB: Finally, if you hadn’t had the career that you have had, what do you think you would have done as a profession?
EP: I’d probably have been an insignificant bank employee.
OFB: A huge thank you Eric for taking the time to talk to Diasboro and all our readers, posters and bloggers.
If you wish to leave a comment about OFB’s latest In2views article with Eric Paylor please return to the Week 31-32 discussion page