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BEN FINDON ON MANCHESTER CITY, ALBION CUP MEETINGS AND SHEIKH MANSOUR

4 April 2019

So how does someone who comes from Hastings, lives in Eastbourne and is named after part of Worthing end up supporting Manchester City, Albion’s FA Cup semi-final opponents at Wembley on Saturday?

For Daily Telegraph assistant sports editor and former Evening Argus man Ben Findon, the explanation is simple. “The dawning of my football consciousness was in the late 1960s, which was when City had Colin Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee and won things as well,” he says.

“They were reigning champions and won the FA Cup in the first season I really followed football so they were my team. Everyone else at my school supported Chelsea or Manchester United. I wanted to be a bit different, I suppose, and once you have a team, you can’t change.”

That choice did not exactly bring season after season of joy and success as City struggled to live up to those heady seasons under Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison. Sticking with City was the very opposite of glory-hunting as they dropped into League One.

“Thirty years in the wilderness,” he agrees. “People talk about the riches they have now, but they lived on the poor side of town for ages and the fact is that the only way you are going to compete with United and other big clubs is with a barrel-load of money to attract the top players.”

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He is not conflicted, then, by the idea that City sold their soul to Sheikh Mansour in exchange for the fabulous success they now enjoy?

“The owners may be rich beyond belief, but they spend the money the right way and look after the club’s history and legacy,” he says. “They are bringing in the right type of players and playing the right type of football, and the investment around the club, both in infrastructure at the Etihad campus, and things like the women’s team, is incredible.

“And the money is a stick that people like to beat City with, but the most expensive goalkeeper and central defender in the Premier League don’t play for City. In the Manchester derby last season, City didn’t have the most expensive player or the best-paid player on the pitch, and if you added up what each team had cost, United came out on top.

“But anyway I have no qualms at all about the money. If you are going to be a top team and challenge for honours, you need a lot of investment. If you don’t have it, you may have a one-off success as Leicester did but it won’t be long-term. But let’s see what happens. They have won one trophy already this season in the League Cup but they may not win any of the others, who knows?”

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Saturday’s game reminds Ben of a previous FA Cup meeting between the clubs. “The Goldstone was a graveyard for City,” he recalls. “I looked up the results of the first three games I saw City play there: 4-1, 4-1, 4-0, all in Brighton’s favour.

“The 4-0 was a fourth-round FA Cup tie in 1983 in which City were so abysmal that I left before the end, the only time I’ve ever done so at a City match. The manager, John Bond, was sacked a few days later and Brighton went on to the final.

“In those days City were spectacularly good at shooting ourselves in the foot in any way you care to imagine. Even when we won at the Goldsone 1-0 later in the season to confirm Brighton’s relegation, the following week we managed to relegate ourselves.”

Wasn’t that the day Luton Town manager David Pleat famously ran onto the Maine Road pitch to celebrate his side’s survival in his white shoes? “It was. Don’t remind me.”

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Then there was the League Cup tie at Withdean that Albion won on penalties shortly after City had come into their wealth. “Fortunately I couldn’t get a ticket for that one. We were still capable of pushing the self-destruct button, but the new owners would be the big story in the end, although in the short term it was great for the Albion.

“But all those days and nights have meant that City fans never count our chickens. We will never have the feeling, as United do, that it is our right to win trophy after trophy. We still sing the song “We’re not really here” and maintain a healthy disbelief in everything that is going on around us.”

If Ben had wanted to get to Withdean, he probably could have arranged himself a press box seat. One of his duties at the Telegraph is to decide which reporters cover what games and he includes himself on the match list most weekends. However, he refuses to abuse his position by sending himself to many City games.

“I like to get around to see as many teams as possible, so I’ll probably only report on them once or twice a season. I don’t find that there is any great conflict in reporting on them, as the job takes over and you’re looking for an angle as you would at any game, hoping there isn’t a last-minute goal that means rewriting your whole story on the final whistle.

“That might change if I were to send myself to the derby or a big European game, but usually these are fairly routine matches. Likewise if I go to United I’m more concerned with the story, whether the WiFi is working and hitting the deadline – the usual priorities. The only place where that isn’t true for everybody in our line of work is Anfield, where there always seem to be a lot of Liverpool supporters in the press box and you certainly know about it when they score.

“I still enjoy going to games, although not every week depending on office commitments and trying to have a home life too. But I also like going to local non-League matches and enjoying the atmosphere there.”

He was, in fact, in the away end for the first match at the Amex, the Sussex Senior Cup final between Albion and Eastbourne Borough. “At the time, one of my sons was a massive Boro fan and they were exciting times for the club in the Conference, playing some relatively big clubs. Lewes is a great place to watch football. I saw a lot of Hastings United when I was growing up and non-league football was my way into journalism.

“There was a free paper called the Bexhill News and I noticed they didn’t have any sports so I thought this was a chance. I asked if they wanted me to send them some match reports of Bexhill Town, who became Bexhill United and Sidley. That led to a job with the Bexhill Observer, training and doing sport and news.

“Then I moved to the Eastbourne Gazette and Herald, which was a step up, a bigger paper, and that’s where I specialised in sport. I stayed there for about 18 months then made the jump across to the Argus. That was a fabulous experience. I was there for about four years, reporting and editing before coming to the Telegraph, which is where I have been for 29 years.

“The Argus was then based in North Road, of course. The building was an old laundry, baking hot in summer and freezing cold in winter, and which has since been converted into desirable apartments.

“It was the heyday of John Vinicombe, who was very much of the old school – a brilliant journalist and a fabulous operator and raconteur.

“He would have lunch in the staff canteen then come back to the sports desk, light up a cigar and, for an hour, regale you with stories of the old times – football, boxing, golf was another big thing of his. He was a legendary character. And then one day along came a new young face, a talented young journalist that you could see was going to be great, called Andy Naylor.”

John Vinicombe was not to every reader’s taste, a mantle that Andy Naylor has inherited – inevitably, in Ben’s opinion. “You are there to be shot at and Andy is a fantastic reporter and is doing a great job.

“John was always getting criticism from the fans, the club and sometimes even the players, but that goes with the territory. He could be quite confrontational and had strong opinions. He gave it to you straight and it didn’t matter to him whether it offended the fans or the club. He had running battles with managers.

“But I’d say that any local reporter worth his salt will have been banned by the club he or she covers at some time. It shows that you are not just a club mouthpiece and that you have your own thoughts and are not afraid to express them. And that is important in journalism.”

At the Telegraph, Ben now works with world-renowned writers such as Albion fan Paul Hayward on national and international stories. “It’s the people who make any job or workplace. Paul is a fantastic guy as well as being a top journalist but we have also had excellent former professionals on the staff.

“Two who spring to mind are the late Graham Taylor, who taught you so many things about the game, an education that you couldn’t buy. Likewise Alan Smith, the former Arsenal forward, a true great and another from whom you could learn so much. Kenneth Wolstenhome, Bryon Butler too. It was an honour to work with them and listen to what they had to say.”

So what about this FA Cup semi-final – how does he see it going as Pep and his boys pursue the quadruple? “Guardiola wants to win everything and has a big squad so there’s no suggestion that he’ll just chuck this one away,” Ben says.

“That said, I’ll be surprised if Sergio Aguero starts because he’s got a niggle and they’ll have one eye on the Spurs match in the Champions League on Tuesday. A few of the big names will probably be on the bench but the squad strength is now such that it won’t really weaken them much.

“But it should be a great occasion and one to make the most of after so many decades out in the cold. Now that the good times are back, just enjoy it.”
Hang on – are we talking about City or Albion here?

“We spent a long time in United’s shadow and that was a big thing for us but it doesn’t compare with what Brighton have been through, the loss of the Goldstone, the exile, the battle to come home, Withdean. If ever a set of supporters deserved a day in the sun, it’s Brighton fans, so I hope they enjoy it. Not too much, of course …”


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