Almost every football writer started out as a football fan. The tricky part comes if your loyalties end up clashing with your professional life.
That is not an issue if you are a Barnet supporter reporting on Premier League games, or a Toon follower covering Carlisle United.
But when your job keeps you in close contact with the club you grew up supporting, it takes a great effort of will to stay neutral. Just ask John Cross, the Mirror chief football reporter.
He knows that there is no point in denying his close links to Arsenal, Albion’s opponents at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. Much of his 20 years at the Mirror has been spent on the Arsenal beat. And there was the little matter of his best-selling book on former Gooners boss Arsène Wenger. But he insists that he does not class himself as a fan.
Not any longer, anyway. “My dad was born and brought up in Islington and didn’t miss a game at home or away for donkey’s years,” says. “I grew up in Hertfordshire but went to Arsenal as a kid and have always felt a north London connection. And I admire people in our business who remain very passionate about the clubs they support - but perhaps that is because they are not involved with them day-to-day.”
John’s professional involvement with the Gunners actually began with his first job in journalism, at the Islington Gazette in 1988, so it was hardly surprising that he was seen as the logical choice as the Arsenal man when the Mirror decided to give writers specific clubs to follow in the mid-2000s.
“The system used to be looser, and when Arsenal were being mega-successful, it was the chief football writer, Martin Lipton at that time, who covered them most,” John says.
“But when the website became a more important part of the paper’s output, we embraced the system of writers covering a particular team, so I did Arsenal more or less all the time – virtually every home game and some away games.
“You then become ‘Mister Arsenal’ in the readers’ minds and people assume, quite reasonably, that you are an Arsenal fan, whether that is true or not. I did that for about ten years, until I became chief football writer. Martin was then mostly covering Chelsea, which I suppose showed how the balance had shifted.”
While the advantages of reporting on a club you know well are obvious, there are clear drawbacks too. “If you are identified as supporting a club you get battered on social media - as I am by Tottenham supporters, even though I have been gushing in my praise for Spurs and I love Mauricio Pochettino.
"And after the opening of Spurs’ new ground, which is superb, I had a social media exchange with another journalist about a colleague who admitted he had gone home in tears because the stadium was so good. Again I was slaughtered by Spurs fans as being a bitter and twisted Arsenal supporter, which is nonsense. I was actually taking the mickey out of some of my colleagues. In any case you are far more critical of the team you support, because you can be more balanced about other clubs.”
From the Islington Gazette, John moved to a local paper in Swindon and then Hayters, the London-based sports agency before he joined the Mirror in 1997. His Mirror career largely coincided with the Wenger years at Arsenal.
“We had some fantastic times and he is still very helpful to me now. However disappointingly it ended for him, those early years will always be remembered fondly and will mark him down as one of the managerial greats, without any shadow of a doubt.
“When he arrived at Arsenal there was a complete transformation. He knew everything about the French market; he massively improved players’ diets; and he completely revolutionised training, with short, sharp sessions, stretching, massage and even tiny things that shouldn’t be underestimated like making players warm up by running between mannequins, which helped their movement, so that they were big, strong and fit but also very mobile and agile.
“You heard stories about rival teams lining up in the tunnel next to them and looking at these giants and not thinking: ‘Are we going to win or lose?’ but ‘How many are we going to lose by?’ They would be beaten before the game kicked off.
“He went in a different direction in 2005, because he thought that smaller, technical players were the way that football was going. So out went Sol Campbell, Gilberto and Patrick Vieira and in came players like Cesc Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky.
“And he was right, because European football did go in that direction - just look at Barcelona. But Arsenal didn’t have the players to compete on quite that level. And while Arsenal suddenly had the costs of the new stadium to pay off, Chelsea and Manchester City found immensely wealthy new owners.
“Wenger was fighting with one hand tied behind his back. The wage bill for the Invincibles in 2003-04 had been huge, they were one of the top-paying clubs in the country that season, but after that they struggled to fund the wages. Even during the Invincibles season, with the new stadium costs mounting up, they had to sell a piece of land to pay the wages; it was as close as that.”
That was Arsenal’s last league title win to date, but John argues that Wenger’s achievements since have been underestimated. “I maintain that Wenger’s hardest job was keeping them in the top four, keeping them competitive, while they were falling behind other clubs financially.
“Forget about winning titles. Qualifying for the Champions League season after season is the most underrated, under-valued, under-appreciated achievement of his 22 years at that club. He had no right to do it with the squad he had but he did it every year.
“Also in 2007 David Dein departed as vice-chairman and Wenger lost his right-hand man, his most trusted lieutenant. That was huge. David was a genius. He had persuaded the club to sign players that Arsenal would never have signed previously, he had to go out on a limb financially, stretch himself, push the boat out, and he would always do that. I’m not saying that the people who came after him weren’t good, but there wasn’t that same dynamic as there was between David Dein and Arsène.”
Some critics of Wenger among the club’s support complained that the written press gave the Frenchman too comfortable a ride. Certainly all football reporters will admit that he was an easy man to like compared to some of the less helpful members of his profession.
“He would take your calls, always come back to you with a message, he was always polite,” John says. “You’ll remember that after doing all the TV and radio briefings he used to have a separate session with the papers in a room off the main press room at the training ground, where he would sit down with us. Then there was a change of staff and I think that gave Arsène an excuse to stop it because he wasn’t getting the same level of respect from some of us and he’s probably right.
“But it went along with Arsenal being less successful so of course the comment wasn’t as glowing as it had been. There was one game where I think he thought the headlines weren’t fair and he used it as a trigger to stop seeing us separately from everyone else.
“But we had some great gags in that room. There was one January transfer window when Arsenal were desperate for a striker and in my playful way I wrote a list of names of players they’d been linked with and left it on the table in front of where he was going to sit. He saw it and started laughing and then actually talked us through every one of them, strengths and weaknesses.
“He’d obviously completely ruled one of them out, and a journalist who hadn’t been there went with that striker as Arsenal’s shock January signing on the back page of his paper the next day! If I’d been Arsène I’d have been thinking: ‘Didn’t they listen to a word I said?’ What he’d actually said about the striker in question was that he loved him but he was far too injury-prone and didn’t we think he had enough injury-prone players already?”
John was able to put much of his knowledge of the great man into his book, Arsène Wenger: the inside story of Arsenal under Wenger, an authoritative and comprehensive survey of his time at Highbury and the Emirates Stadium. He has almost lost count of how many languages it has been translated into.
“I think it’s 16,” he says. “It has been translated into more different languages than some Booker Prize winners. It’s the best thing I have ever done in my life and the thing I am most proud of. My sports editors have always laughed at me because my intros always begin ‘So-and-so last night blasted …’ but I like to think that the book showed that I could perhaps do more than that.
“The moment your newly-published book arrives on your doorstep is an amazing feeling, as you know. One of my best friends, Sam Wallace of the Telegraph, had been nagging me to do it for ages, and he was right.
“Arsène was quite helpful and gave it his blessing although he famously forgot – I told someone close to him that he had okayed it and he said: ‘I’ll check that with Arsène because he’s not sure he has.’ But he was very respectful and gave me a lot of time and came up with a brilliant line, ‘I’m making you rich out of you killing me.’ Of course you don’t get rich writing books any more, and I like to think I was very balanced about him, but he was great.
“David Dein was helpful too and took a great interest. Once he asked me how it was going and I told him it had just come out in Japanese. The next day I got a copy delivered, so I took a photo of it and texted it to David. He didn’t text back, which was strange, but then the next day was an Arsenal press conference. Before we started Arsène said ‘I hear the book is coming out in Japanese,’ and gave me an impromptu lesson in how to read Japanese script.
“My biggest regret is that my dad didn’t live to see it. Arsenal was so important to our relationship because like many fathers and sons we didn’t talk about anything else. It would have made him proud, as it did me. I was able to include all the anecdotes, all the background detail that you could never fit into a red-top piece.”
The Wenger years are over, and John, since his promotion to being the Mirror’s number one football man, now covers the top game on any given day, which usually does not mean an Arsenal match. But of course he still writes about Arsenal and Unai Emery, who eventually took on the task of stepping into the Frenchman’s shoes.
The famously vocal and opinionated Arsenal fans’ jury is very much still out on Emery. Albion will be hoping that they can provoke more ire and outrage on the Fans TV YouTube channel after Sunday’s match by inflicting a fourth consecutive league defeat on the north London club.
John counsels patience and a greater appreciation of the job Emery has done in difficult circumstances. “They’ve got a manager who had great success at Seville, mixed fortunes at PSG, and who is in the second division of coaches.
“But now he has a second chance to prove himself on the bigger stage, and for him to take over from a managerial legend, to inherit a horribly unbalanced squad and put them in contention for a Champions League place is a remarkable achievement.
“It’s a shame they have lost three in a row in the league because Arsenal’s fans are very volatile, very changeable and now you have a wave of negativity whereas over the course of the season he has done well. He was lucky during the unbeaten run in autumn, but they could still finish in the top four and win the Europa League, and what an incredible achievement that would be.
“If I was being picky, I admire him for choosing to speak English in his interviews, but because his English isn’t great I don’t feel that you get that connection between him and the media, and more importantly the fans.
“And we still don’t quite know what sort of coach he is, possession-based, counter-attacking or pressing. We’re still waiting to see the identity of Emery’s Arsenal. There have been some brilliant performances but we still don’t know what his best team is.
“Everyone said it will take two years but now they’re getting impatient after a year - give him time. I see so much negativity from fans after some results and I just don’t get it. And some of the fans who were calling most loudly for Wenger to go are now blogging about their favourite Arsène Wenger memory. Why didn’t you give him more respect at the time, then?
“I was critical of Wenger at times and I thought he should have gone earlier but I still think you can be constructive with criticism, and the same with Emery. Arsenal don’t have a lot of money, the wage bill is high and there will have to be sales as well as purchases and it will be hard to rebuild while not losing ground in the league to the two best teams in the country. And that will test the patience of some of the fans even more.”
While some Arsenal fans get nostalgic about Wenger, John’s best Gooners memory goes back further. “I should choose an Arsène Wenger game but from my supporting life, my best Arsenal memory was the 1987 Littlewoods [League] Cup semi-final replay at White Hart Lane. They had been behind on aggregate, took it to a replay and won on the night through Ian Allinson and David Rocastle.
“After many barren years, that was the night that George Graham began the modern-day revolution. It even beats the 1989 title win at Anfield because that would never have happened without 1987, which gave everyone the belief that the team could win things.”
Arsenal came from behind to beat Liverpool 2-1 in the final with two goals from Charlie Nicholas, the first time Ian Rush had scored and finished on the losing side in seven years at Anfield. John’s favourite Arsenal player, though, is less surprising.
“It has got to be Thierry Henry, who epitomises Arsenal under Arsène Wenger – style, class, power, pace. Arsenal had the best striker in the world at that time, which seems unbelievable now.”
Arsène Wenger by John Cross (Simon & Shuster)