MIKE COLLETT started his career at the Hendon and Finchley Times in 1972 and has been Reuters Soccer Editor since 1996. In all he has covered nine World Cups, 30 European Cup finals, but he had never covered a game at Buckingham Palace. Until this week
It is fair to say that there was a glaring omission on my CV, despite my 42 years of writing about football since I first cut my teeth reporting on Finchley at Summers Lane in the Athenian League.
I must admit I had never covered a match in which the half-time refreshments were served on silver platters by tail-coated footmen – and its also a pretty fair assumption to say I will never do so again.
For this week’s match between Civil Service and Polytechnic FC on the lawns of Buckingham Palace normally used for royal garden parties and diplomatic receptions was a complete and unique one-off, the brainchild of Prince William, the FA’s president who persuaded, as Greg Dyke memorably said on the day “his granny to let us use her back lawn for a football match – though woe betide anyone who broke a window”.
But why was I there at all?
Well, I had a call from the FA a few days earlier asking me if I would be interested in being the sole match reporter, doing a pool report for the world and assigned to one of two royal rotas covering the game. But none of the other reporters there would be covering the match, they would be writing about presentations by the Prince to the 150 volunteers chosen by the FA to celebrate grassroots football.
The Palace wanted a lot of security details and advised me a suit and tie was the standard attire. That was another first. I don’t think I have ever covered a match in a suit and tie before. There would be no wifi at the Palace, and no internet because the press work room was being refurbished – but could I file 800 words as soon as possible after the game ?
The match itself was to celebrate the grassroots of English soccer in this the year of the FA’s 150th anniversary. Civil Service were chosen as the “home” side as they are also 150 years old this year and are the lone surviving founder member of the 11 clubs that formed the FA on October 26, 1863 at the Freemasons Tavern in Covent Garden.
Civil Service selected Polytechnic as the opposition because they are their local Chiswick rivals, were formed in 1875 and the two clubs have been playing each other since 1893.
But this was no kickabout on the lawn .. it was a highly competitive Southern Amateur League First Division match, refereed by Premier League official Howard Webb. The outcome mattered. Polytechnic won 2-1 and went second in the table. Civil Service were left floundering one off the bottom.
But how to report a match in which, through no fault of one’s own, you know none of the players, have little background , no press box, no seat, no electricity and no connections?
Well it is easy: you just think to yourself, this is where I came in covering pretty much grassroots matches not much above this level. You talk to people. I found the respective chairmen of the two clubs – Ian Hunter of Civil Service in his tartan trousers and Barry Madigan of Polytechnic – in the crowd and got some good reliable background, got hold of one of only 25 special edition programmes printed for the occasion. And I concentrated.
I filed a first quick story of 250 words off my blackberry … letter by letter … and then returned to something approaching normality with a round of post-match interviews before really getting back to reality, walking out of Buckingham Palace, finding an internet connection and filing 800 words for the FA and another story for Reuters global subscribers.
As Howard Webb told me after it finished: “When I got the call to referee a match at the Palace, I thought I was going to Selhurst Park.”
Me too, mate, but look at this way: we can all say we got a new ground on the list, and one that doesn’t even exist any more.
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