Five Questions For Cultured Football: James Masters, Sports Writer

James Masters is a writer whose articles often go beyond the simple reporting, opting instead to look at the social, historical and political connections that add colour to the stories. He has written for every national newspaper in England and currently is a sports writer for CNN as well as a football contributor to The Times of London.

For his sins, he is also a life-long Leyton Orient supporter.

Which is your favourite stadium?
As a kid it was always Brisbane Road. As a four-year-old, the old East Stand with that ramshackle feel, the prehistoric toilets and the burger smells which would waft through the air, it was the only place I ever wanted to be. Taking those four steps up from the bottom level to the concourse were four of the most magical steps I’ve ever made — that moment when you see the grass for the first time was something which always inspired. If it was a night match, the first sight of the old floodlights would have the adrenaline pumping. Walking alongside my uncle and grandfather I’d subconsciously begin to walk faster and faster. This being Leyton Orient, the football may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing but it’s the only place where I’ve ever felt at home. The stadium has changed a lot since I was a kid but even now I still get a little palpitation when I make that walk.

Brisbane Road, home to Leyton Orient

Away from Brisbane Road there are a few stadiums which I’ve always liked. One being Underhill, Barnet’s old ground, perhaps for the novelty factor of the slope, the old terracing and fact I could sneak under the turnstile as a kid. For atmosphere, it would have to be Upton Park — that’s a place which will be missed, few other places generate that kind of feeling. Craven Cottage is another one — none of this identikit stadium lark, it’s a proper football ground. Outside of England I’d go with the San Siro — the fact you can feel it shake when the fans jump up and down is pretty special.

Is there a football kit that you would happily wear around?
The only time I was allowed to wear a football kit was the day before we went away on holiday as by that time all my other clothes had been packed and doing more washing was simply not an option. To be honest, I’m not a big football kit fan. I don’t wear a replica shirt unless I’m playing and I would never wear one as a fashion statement. If I had to plump for one then I must say that the Italy second shirt caught my eye at the Euros, while I’ve always been an admirer of the Peru’s white shirt with the red sash. And Croatia’s red and white checks….that’s a beauty.

Peru’s Shirt. Classy.

Which is your favourite football book?
I’ve read hundreds but there’s only one that sticks in my mind as being almost perfect. That would be Duncan Hamilton’s book on Brian Clough, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me. It harks back to a day where you could actually speak to managers and players as human beings rather than today’s custom where we’re supposed to be grateful for a few anodyne quotes in a regulated and often clinical setting. Hamilton was able to write such a book because of the access he was granted and that he was talking to one of the greatest managers the English game has ever seen — and a man not afraid to speak his mind. But it’s the way it is brought to life that makes you actually feel as if you’re right there with him that makes it so memorable.
The other would be Ronald Reng’s book and the biography of Robert Enke, the former Germany goalkeeper who committed suicide. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more powerful book when it comes to football. Everyone should read that book — they should put it on the national curriculum in schools. It’s that important.

Is there a goal that you remember more fondly than others?
I’m not sure where to start with this one. I started going to football at the age of four but if I’m honest the first goals I really remember where at World Cup ’90. Even now I still get a little teary eyed when I see Gary Lineker’s equaliser against West Germany. Watching goals on TV is one thing but being there and seeing them live, that’s another.

That’s why most of my favourite goals happen to be associated with Leyton Orient. Sure, while working I’ve seen some fantastic strikes, but when it’s your own team it feels that bit more special.

If I had to choose, and it’s a tough one, I think I’d go with Matt Lockwood’s long-range strike in the Division Two play-off semi-final second leg. Orient had lost the first leg 1–0 at Hull but were level in the tie thanks to Steve Watts’ first half header. Lockwood was something of a hero for me and he scored the goal which sent Orient into the final, unleashing an unstoppable left-footed rocket from 30 yards into the top corner.

As a 17-year-old whose entire life was devoted to Orient, it was one of the most incredible moments in my football life. Sure, we went onto lose the final at the Millennium Stadium but at that moment, I could dream — and that’s a lovely place to be.

Which footballer (past or present) would you most like to spend an afternoon talking to?
I’ve thought about this one long and hard but I’d go for Bela Guttmann, the former Benfica coach who won the European Cup in 1961 and 1962. I’d want to know how a man who went through the Holocaust, who risked his life for his family and went through experiences that so few managed to survive. Not only did he survive but he flourished, becoming one of the greatest coaches in European football. But he never spoke about the war, what he saw, how it affected him, what kind of impact that made on him. He was outspoken, he liked to tell people what he thought and he had the flair for the dramatic. An afternoon with him would certainly be lively.

Five Questions On Cultured Football is a monthly series of interviews where we ask those who write about football to talk about their favourite memories. Make sure that you don’t miss any new Cultured Football post by subscribing to our newsletter.