By Andrew Leci
Day 10 - Game Over
And, we're done. The final day of an epic trip, was as good an onsite work day as it's possible to get.
At The Etihad Stadium for Manchester City vs Spurs - we'd all spent a week teasing up a special pitchside guest, and it turned out to be... our old friend... Shebby Singh.
Such a pleasure meeting up with (after quite a few months) the man who is now running Blackburn Rovers Football Club, and who has been, for so many years, a regular (and vaunted) pundit on ESPN STAR Sports.
We did a couple of pre-match pieces for Super Sunday, and then retired to a ‘commentary' position, up in ‘the gods' of the stadium. It was brisk, it was breezy, it was absolutely freezing, and I have to confess to donning a pair of Blackburn Rovers woolly gloves in order to keep my fingers sufficiently warm to write notes during the game.
Spoke to Roberto Mancini and Andre Villas-Boas after the match - something of a coup to get BOTH managers immediately after a game - and it was all done so quickly, that we made it (almost) live, into the post-match show.
Not the best game of football at Eastlands, but certainly an intriguing one. Some real markers, perhaps, laid down for the rest of the season - after Manchester City's come from behind win, and Spurs' rather negative capitulation.
Had dinner in the evening with good friend Jason McAteer, at his own restaurant just outside Manchester, and may just about be able to grab a couple of hours sleep before clambering aboard a plane to take me home.
If I'm still compos mentis when I get back, I'll do a quick post mortem. Otherwise, see you all on Prime Time Premier League on Saturday, for Arsenal versus Spurs.
Day 9 - A Pulsating Draw at the Emirates Stadium
After a day off on Friday, which all went horribly wrong (too many things to do, too many places to go, too many people to see), it was back to work on Saturday and a trip to The Emirates.
First, and possibly most importantly, what a good game between Arsenal and Fulham! Could have gone either way, and in the end a draw was probably just about a fair result.
Interviewed Martin Jol after the match, and he appeared to be disappointed that his side hadn't picked up all the points - despite Arsenal's late penalty.
Also interviewed Brede Hangeland who is ridiculously tall, and left me with a sore neck. His English is a great deal better than my Norwegian, and he gave a good interview, stressing that a point at The Emirates is never a bad result, but that it could even have been better. He had a good game, as did many of the Fulham players.
Martin Jol has certainly got them playing a good brand of football this season, and they are certainly not the pushovers away from home that they have been for much of their Premier League tenure.
Tony Gale was kind enough to do a quick piece for us pitch-side; and I had a good chat with commentator Gary Taphouse before the game; other than that, not too much name dropping today. I'll see if I can do better at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
I've already teased up our special guest. You'll just have to tune in to find out who it is.
Day 8 - The Next Generation
Before anyone gets too worried, this has nothing to do with Star Trek, although it has been an unusual and interesting day.
We went down to Chelsea's training ground at Cobham, just outside London, for a NextGen Series match between Chelsea and Norwegian outfit Molde.
The competition is, in essence, a Champions League for the Under 19s, and, as the name would suggest, is designed to produce top professional footballers of the future.
The game itself was almost a no contest - Molde failed to match the Blues in every single department, as well as almost every single physical attribute. It ended 6-0, and it could have been more.
What was interesting is that there were very few spectators, and despite the nature of the competition, the match itself was somewhat low key. We stood by the side of a small stand, littered with a handful of what I have to assume were journalists (maybe even club scouts), and the action was only a few feet in front of us.
It was ‘park' football, but of the very highest order, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a few of the Chelsea players making it through to the big time.
Adam Nditi (left back, very much in the Ashley Cole mould) was an absolute terror in the first half, and contributed to both goals, scored by Islam Feruz (lone striker, diminutive, sharper than a razor blade).
In the second half, Alex Kiwomya (son of Andy, nephew of Chris) impressed, as did Reece Mitchell (went to school with Raheem Sterling, and is as slight of foot as a nimble elf on hot ashes), and the side's captain George Saville, who is a robust, dictatorial midfielder who pulls no punches, and was way too strong for most of the Molde players.
Strangely enough, Lucas Piazon, the only member of the Chelsea squad to have seen first team action, wasn't as involved as would have been expected, although he did bang in a very decent second half free-kick, and claimed an assist or two. It looked for much of the game as though he felt that he didn't really belong, but then when you've been on the bench in Premier League matches, and when you've started against Manchester United in the League Cup, I suppose playing in front of 50 fans can be a bit of a come down.
Interviewed the Chelsea manager Dermot Drummy after the game, as well as the co-founder of the NextGen Series Justin Andrews, on his reasons for setting up the competition, and what he hopes to achieve. It was fascinating to see, first hand, the players of the future, and think about what they have to go through to make the grade.
If you're intrigues, it will all be on World of Football next week.
Day 7 - Professional Waiter
Spent six hours today at Spurs Lodge - the brand new, state of the art, training facility recently built by Tottenham Hotspur FC.
The complex is truly impressive, and would probably help to convince any prospective new signing that the club would be worth joining. It seems to appeal to the current crop of players as well.
I was told by a source (can't be named) that the facilities for the players have encouraged them to hang about for longer than usual, and that this can only be good for team bonding, team spirit, team togetherness, and other aspects that make a team more of a team. Team stuff, basically.
We shot some of the players training, and I was amused and somewhat gratified to see a childish sense of fun being displayed. One of the exercises seemed to involve a game of tag, and while I'm going to put it down to reaction, speed of thought and mobility training, it looked more like a bunch of kids having a good time in the park before their parents came to fetch them.
Significantly though, it was super competitive, and a win for one group was celebrated in much the same way as a goal in the Barclays Premier League.
Professional footballers are (and have to be) competitive. In everything they do.
We had two interviews scheduled today, the first with Jermain Defoe (who I've spoken to before), and one with manager Andre Villas-Boas (who I've chatted to post-match, briefly) when he was at Chelsea.
We waited around in our 'Media Room' for quite a while. And then we waited some more.
Jermain was finished training, and now he was having his lunch.
Sources at the club told us that Jermain had finished his lunch and was now in the pool.
Another source told us that Jermain had finished in the pool, and was now having a massage. Jermain is big on pre-match preparations, and expects to get the nod for the Europa League tie with Maribor on Thursday night. He wasn't doing anything to compromise his levels of readiness for an important game.
So we waited some more.
And then, suddenly, out of the blue, or at least down the stairs, came Andre Villas-Boas.
Fortunately the crew was all revved up - and they had had no place to go for the best part of four hours.
It was 'action stations', as Andre came into our 'studio', and, I must say, gave a very good interview.
I can only compare it to the last time I met him, when he looked stressed, mildly uncomfortable, and not at all at ease with himself. But that was immediately after a match - what did I expect?
This time, his manner was easy, and his demeanour calm, but in talking about football, his passion shone through. At Stamford Bridge many months ago, there was very little eye contact. For nearly 15 minutes today, we gazed at each other - he didn't look away once.
Before this begins to sound like a 'love in', he did take exception to one (maybe two) of my questions, but these things happen. He handled them well; batted them back with aplomb, and spoke intelligently, coherently, and with a great sense of engagement. It was a good interview.
Then we waited.
Jermain was getting dressed.
We waited some more.
Jermain had finished dressing, and was looking for his comb.
Jermain was composing a light opera, and would be just a few minutes more.
I had had a long, long chat with Jermain Defoe last season at White Hart lane, and I started the interview by asking him to close his eyes and describe to me what it was like to score a goal.
I knew it was an unusual way to start an interview, but what the hell; and he went with it, to a surprising degree. He remembered me. Thank heavens for that.
Great interview - he talks as fast as he runs, and he's relishing the opportunity to play in every game (something denied to him last season). He has some very interesting thoughts on the new manager's tactics, and feels that everyone in the squad is benefiting from them. Always good to hear, and much to be expected, perhaps.
Spurs know how close they came to being the only team to win at the Etihad Stadium last season - and they missed their chance by the skin of Jermain Defoe's boot. They're hoping for better luck on Sunday.
Day 6 - The Sparks Flew
Firstly, let me apologise for the misleading title. The sparks didn't really fly at all.
Ahead of my interview with Queens Park Rangers manager Mark Hughes, I was anticipating a slightly rough ride, and a degree of fractiousness. Mark is, after all, under quite a lot of pressure following QPR's poor start to the season. This is not time for statistics, but let's just say that there aren't too many teams in the history of the Premier League that have survived after failing to win any of their opening 10 league games of the season.
I'm sure all you 'statos' out there will be able to work out exactly how many. In case you can't be bothered, I'll tell you at the bottom.
Interviewing an under-pressure manager is never easy - Arsene Wenger in the tunnel at Old Trafford after last Saturday's game taught me that (like anyone needed teaching).
But, Mark Hughes, or ‘Sparky' as he was known during his playing days (and it wasn't because he secretly had a hankering to be an electrician) was almost the perfect interviewee.
He listened to the questions, and responded in such a way as to convince me (at least) that he hadn't heard them a hundred times before, and wasn't trotting out roughly the same replies.
Perhaps some of my questions were a bit out of left field, but it's always good to be different.
Managers do a lot of media work (not enough, some would say), and I honestly believe that they deserve to be stimulated just as much as readers/viewers. And I haven't met anyone yet who hasn't had something interesting to say in response to a strange question, even if it's simply to say, "gosh; haven't had that one before."
We discussed the level of expectations at the club considering the number of players who were brought in over the summer, and the need to build on a narrow escape at the end of last season.
We talked about the pressure managers are under these days, and how that seems to have changed since the days of...of...say...Alex Ferguson (as he was when he took over at Manchester United).
Sir Alex (as he is now) didn't win anything at the club for almost 4 years, and had to wait until the FA Cup Final of 1990 before he bagged his first piece of silverware.
In terms of connections then, guess who scored two goals in that final at Wembley (it went to a replay, but United got there in the end)?
Correct. Mark Hughes. One can only speculate, but Hughes' extra-time equaliser against Crystal Palace, in the first game, could possibly have saved Alex Ferguson's job, and the rest, as they all too frequently say, is history.
I have to say a big ‘thanks' to Tony Fernandes for helping us to get the interview. As I said to Mark as we sat down, "we appreciate you doing this; I'm sure it's the last thing you want to do right now," and it would have been perfectly understandable for him, in the circumstances, to avoid the media like the plague.
Hope it makes ‘good telly'.
Day 5 - Pardew earns his Cheddar
Not an awful lot to write about today as we travelled down from Manchester to London. The train was comfortable enough, but the catering left a lot to be desired. A PA announcement immediately after we set out apologised for the lack of hot drinks (the tea urn must have broken down), and the absence of hot food (the microwave was on the blink).
It reminded me of the Monty Python ‘Cheese Shop' skit (from many many years ago) when it turned out that the shop didn't actually have any cheese - not even Cheddar. Anyway the journey was reasonable enough - plenty of newspapers to read and chats about the production week ahead to be embarked upon.
In the absence of any real activity today, I thought it might be interesting to look back on yesterday's match at Anfield, and something that struck me at the time.
When in the studio, or watching matches on television, you don't get to see what happens on, or near the touchline.
Occasionally our directors cut away to the managers, or the substitutes benches, and sometimes even the crowd - if there's an attractive woman (rare in a football crowd - much more common at a tennis match) or an obese fan wearing a team shirt that is stretched beyond its capacity, but we don't get to see that much of what's going on off the pitch. Understandable.
From our commentary position at Anfield, we could see the managers' technical area immediately below us, and I got to watch both Alan Pardew and Brendan Rodgers in action.
Brendan Rodgers spent a lot of time on the touchline, while Alan Pardew never left it - gesticulating for most of the 90 minutes, calling players over for a chat during hiatuses in the game, and constantly exhorting his troops.
Admittedly, he had quite a few decisions to make during the course of the match, as James Perch, Demba Ba, and Yohan Cabaye all had to be replaced, and Vurnon Anita was sent scurrying around from position to position filling the gaps.
It was fascinating to watch Pardew's managerial style, and it was as "hands on" as anything I have seen. Other managers have different approaches, and I'm not going to suggest that any one is better than the other, but it was interesting to watch the Newcastle gaffer's relationship with his players, and his engagement with the proceedings.
In our interview after the match I suggested to him that he had ‘earned his money' during the game, and he seemed to appreciate the sentiment. He had to make some quick tactical decisions, and he made them, and the fact that his side still managed to come away from Anfield with a point should mean that he got at least some of them right.
OK, that's all for now. We have an interview with Mark Hughes tomorrow, at QPR's training ground. In light of his team's...indifferent/poor/awful/inexplicable/potentially traumatising (delete where not applicable) start to the season, this may be another difficult one.
I'm sure he's been telling his players to be positive, and I will try to be the same.
Day 4 - Suarez warms up Anfield
Today was the coldest day of the trip so far. Roy Evans and I were positively shivering in the stands at Anfield, and for much of the match, Liverpool didn't do much to warm the cockles of our hearts (or feet - where are cockles on the human body anyway...?
The crowd erupted when Suarez scored the equaliser, and it was quite a goal, but I'm not sure how many people appreciated the irony.
Liverpool had played some lovely one touch, flowing football in the first half, only to lack that cutting edge in the final third, and actually create very few scoring chances.
Cue a 50 yard punt forward from left back Jose Enrique for a goal that bore the hallmark of ‘Route One' football. Liverpool had several chances to seal the deal, but couldn't take any of them, and it was game over.
The last quarter of the game was pulsating stuff. Which is more than could be said for the rest of it. Unfortunately.
Pitchside with Roy Evans was a delight, although it can be difficult to get him in position when everyone in the stands wants to talk to him or get his autograph.
Post-match we talked to Alan Pardew, who was slightly disappointed not to get the win (no comment), and was mystified at the sending off of Fabricio Coloccini. It was certainly a talking point (also no comment from me).
Jose Enrique also gave us an interview, and was very charming, although I'm not sure he understood the fact that I was complimenting him for setting up the Suarez goal. Perhaps Brendan Rodgers has instilled his football belief system in his players to such an extent that they won't even celebrate a superb long ball that sets up a goal.
Anyway, it was a good day work wise, and everything went smoothly apart from our half-time cross, during which we had problems with the sound, but apart from that everything went smoothly.
And before getting into a packed train to head back to Manchester, we popped into the bar at Anfield and got bought a drink (it was free) by Jason McAteer.
Ian Rush was also there and wasted no time in getting stuck into me for my lack of footballing prowess - we play together once a year in a tournament in Thailand, and it's not hard to be the butt of jokes when your team-mates are the likes of Ian, John Barnes, Lee Sharpe, Clive Walker, and Paul Masefield.
Also in the bar were several Liverpool players of yesteryear, including Jimmy Case, Phil Neal and John Aldridge. As a boy, I watched them play. I do find it weird sometimes, to be standing next to them in a bar.
These things happen, I suppose.
Day 3 - Not happy
The understatement of the day, but the only way in which I can politely describe the mood of Arsene Wenger when I got to interview him (post match) in the tunnel at Old Trafford.
It was, without exception, the most difficult interview I have done, and not an experience I would look forward to repeating. He was, understandably, disappointed by his team's performance, but I couldn't do anything other than to ask him why and where it had all gone wrong, and why his team simply didn't seem to be up for it on the day.
He was not happy.
I may have mentioned that. He didn't appear to understand my second question, so I had to rephrase it. All not good, really. But these things happen.
Conversely, Patrice Evra was very happy and gave a great interview. By the time I got to speak to him, I'd been standing around in a very cold players' tunnel for quite a while, and I was feeling mischievous.
First question: "Patrice, congratulations on scoring the winner, but what on earth were you doing up there in the first place?"
He laughed. Always a good start. The rest of the interview was a breeze.
Pitchside with Gary Pallister was a delight as it always is. Apart from the fact that he's 6'5" tall, and makes me look like a shrimp (and I'm 6'2" - when asleep), he's immensely likeable, has a very good presence on camera, and is an excellent pundit.
Pre-match we talked a bit about Robin van Persie, and how he might celebrate if he scored; the possible weakness of Andre Santos at left back for Arsenal; and the job that Michael Carrick might have to do to curb the creative potential of Santi Cazorla.
Need I say more?
Tough day, and let's be honest, not quite the magnificent game of football we were predicting and building up to, but these things happen.
Had a good natter with Bryan Robson before the match (we spend a lot of time waiting around for our PTCs, and all kinds of people tend to pass by) - always good to see him, and he is rightfully regarded as a living legend at Old Trafford.
Steve McManaman also popped by and he may even have remembered that we worked together in the studio a few years back. And I got to practice my French with Marcel Desailly who was sat in front of me in the press box, and had left his accreditation on my desk. I've met him a few times, and he's a charming guy, and we chatted again in the tunnel after the game. Wicked sense of humour. Him, not me.
Despite the stress of being at Old Trafford, and only getting one bite of the cherry when the cameras ‘roll' - no chance at all to get things wrong - it's always a great experience. Not the best game, and not the best interviews, but...these things happen.
Day 2 Fortress Anfield?
With jet lag kicking in, day two was a difficult one. Wide awake at 3 am, with little to contemplate for the next few hours other than the first shoot of the day at Anfield.
It's always fun doing 'Vox Pops' in Liverpool. Reds' fans are as passionate about football as it's possible to get, and generally very knowledgeable. I asked why they thought the team's home form had been disappointing this season, and not surprisingly, there were a variety of responses.
What shone through though, was the faith the fans have in Brendan Rodgers, although just as prevalent were their concerns about not having another frontline striker in the squad.
Not at all surprisingly, every single respondent predicted a home win on Sunday, with no one going for Newcastle United. This was much to the irritation (mostly feigned) of my Toon-loving producer and cameraman.
From Anfield it was off to Melwood for Rodgers' Friday Press Conference, which turned into one of the shortest I have ever attended. I think a total of nine questions were asked, before the manager moved into another room to 'do radio'.
I did get the chance though to ask him how important it was to turn Anfield into the 'fortress' it once was, and he responded with a very committed and decisive "it's vital".
In previous years, the intimidation factor of playing at Anfield was worth several points a season (maybe even a goal per home game), but that's not the case these days, and Brendan seems only too aware of the fact that the situation needs to change. An emphatic win on Sunday will certainly help the cause,
After Melwood it was time to digitise and edit, and in the evening we caught up with Russ Wiseman - the eminently garrulous individual we often see on Scorecast over the weekend.
It was a great pleasure spending time with Russ, who has a stack of great stories, and the inside scoop on so many movers and shakers in the game. Unfortunately, most of what we talked about will have to remain 'off the record".
And now it's Old Trafford - for one of the highlights in any Barclays Premier League season - Manchester United versus Arsenal.
Day 1 - Manchester rush
It was a difficult first day 'on site', thanks in no small part to a plane delay in Munich.
We sat on the tarmac for rather longer than expected, as maintenance engineers looked at one of the engines on our 777. Disappointment and frustration in these situations tends to be tempered by the fact that you really don't want to be in an airplane when there's something wrong with it - except on the ground.
It all added up to us getting in late to Manchester, and being in danger of missing our first assignment - an interview with Liverpool's Nuri Sahin.
Cutting to the chase, we made it by five minutes - straight off the plane, into a taxi, and falling out of it (luggage and all) at Melwood.
In the circumstances (ie. not too much preparation time) the interview went very well. I opted against conducting it in Turkish (too much effort doing the translation afterwards), so we plumped for English (Nuri is pretty much fluent in five languages).
You'll be able to see the interview over the weekend, on ESPN News, Sportscenter, and on Super Sunday, but the bottom line is that we sat and chatted for 20 minutes, and it probably should have been half that time, When interviews go well, neither the interviewer nor the interviewee is aware of the time passing, and you run out of it before you know it.
It's almost incredible to contemplate what Sahin has already achieved, and he's still only 24. My producer suggested that he spoke very fondly (perhaps too fondly) of his time in Germany, and that perhaps he regretted the decision to move to Real Madrid in 2011.
In any event, he certainly appears to be enjoying his time in Liverpool, and was full of praise for the club, the fans, his teammates, and particularly Brendan Rodgers.
The rest of the day was spent shooting at Melwood with some PTCs (I hope you all remember the nomenclature from last time...) and then on to Old Trafford to shoot with Andy May looking ahead to Saturday's game.
Right on cue, after a quick grab from a United fan outside the Megastore, the heavens opened, and I was instantly reminded of my childhood - cold, wet, miserable (some of the time). Our crew scurried for cover with as much dignity as we could muster (not very much in the circumstances), and that was a pretty much a wrap for the day.
Back to hotel to 1) check in, and 2) digitise and...and...all the other technical stuff that I pretend to understand but don't. Anyway, all the material we shot was eventually sent back to ESS HQ, and we were done for the day.
Then it was just a question of wandering around Manchester for a couple of hours looking for somewhere to eat. Finally managed to crash at around Midnight after what had turned out to be a 46-hour day.
I can't remember a hotel bed that looked quite so good.