In many ways I thought twice about doing this question and answer session, I knew the regard that Piers has with many Arsenal fans, and I knew I would get a fair amount of grief for doing this, which as it turns out I have. I have been accused of being self-serving, or doing this for ego or gain. That charge is of course absurd, since I do not blog, have no site to promote or do not try and make a living doing so. Neither is it for followers, as if that was the case I would have accepted all the numerous invitations to do a blog, or podcast's that I have had. I simply thought I would be interested in knowing what Piers had to say about certain subjects, subjects that he gets criticised for constantly that include Copenhagen, Arsene, and Tweeting amongst others.
He did not need to do this, but did. So on that basis, my thanks are due. There were no preconditions, nor were any sought.
I think, as you will see, he has been robust in his replies so please don’t shoot the messenger.
Hi Piers, so let me start by saying that it seems that to many Arsenal fans you don't have the greatest of reputations... so is the purpose of this Q&A to convey the real Piers or just to build some bridges?
I don’t feel any need to build bridges. I’ve been an Arsenal fan for 40 years, have held a season ticket for the last 20, and currently own four season tickets and ten Arsenal shares. I’m entitled to my opinions as much as any other Arsenal fan. The difference is that I respect everyone else’s opinion, even if I don’t agree with it, whereas some Arsenal fans refuse to respect mine. That’s their prerogative but I think it’s silly. It’s football, not war. I’m never going to stop supporting Arsenal, nor am I ever going to stop expressing honest opinions.
I remember you from your earliest days at Bizarre, were you out on the town each night seeing what stories you could pick up? So why choose entertainment over sport or wasn't it an avenue open to you.
I always wanted to be a sports reporter, funnily enough, and used to write pieces for sports magazines as a teenager. But then I got offered the Bizarre column on The Sun at the age of 23, and a whole new world of amusement opened up to me.
When did you start going to watch The Arsenal, was it because of family reasons?
I started going from the age of six, so from 1971. As you can imagine, that was a pretty good time to start being an Arsenal fan! I had posters of Charlie George on my wall. My dad’s a lifelong Spurs fan, so this caused a bit of tension at home….
So if he was a Spurs fan, what made you become an Arsenal fan?
He was working hard, took his eye off the ball, and Charlie George wooed me away. Dad's regretted it for the last 40 years.
I had posters of Charlie George on my wall. My dad’s a lifelong Spurs fan, so this caused a bit of tension at home….
An obvious one here: favourite game or player?
Favourite game was when we won the League at Old Trafford; Wiltord scoring the only goal. I was there, and after the game ran on the pitch and joined in the players’ group hug - still got those pictures somewhere. Later, I met Liam Brady in the lounge, and hugged him too. There was a lot of hugging going down that night.
My favourite player would be Bergkamp. He was the best I’ve ever seen in an Arsenal shirt, though Thierry ran him pretty close.
I believe you were on the last shareholder roll at Arsenal, are you still one, or did you sell to Kroenke or Usmanov?
I still own ten Arsenal shares, though I recently transferred one of them to my eldest son for his 18th birthday. It’s his proudest possession – he’s an Arsenal nutcase.
So why haven't you sold to either?
I don’t want to sell them – I want to be invested in the club financially as well as emotionally. It gives me the right to express proper opinion; critical and praiseworthy.
So, on that basis then, you are in favour of no singular Arsenal owner, plurality of ownership, ergo which must mean that you are broadly in favour of the club’s self-sustaining strategy?
No not really. The ownership issue is a red herring. As you can see at United, you can still win trophies when you accrue debt, and when you have a foreign owner, and when your team's in 'transition.' Ferguson has proved it, once again. I'm in favour of competing with the best teams in England and Europe for trophies. I don't think our transfer strategy, even given the funds we've had available, has enabled us to do that.
We will come onto what many will want to discuss later regards your stint as Mirror editor, but when you were made editor did you ever bury bad news arsenal stories?
No, I never got involved in that. I let the sports guys do their job, and they did it so well that I used to get letters accusing me of being biased against Arsenal! Imagine how hurtful that was.
Ok, so you know this one is coming, and you have recently said sorry regards the Mirror’s coverage on Copenhagen. So what happened, why the false coverage?
I was at the game, and it was complete carnage in the square – the worst violence I’ve ever seen at first hand. At one stage I had to run to avoid being caught up in it, as glass was smashing everywhere - a very scary experience. The Mirror did exactly the same with the story as every other paper – and, as with the sports stories, I didn’t let my Arsenal allegiance get in the way. All the papers, not just the Mirror, slammed many Arsenal fans for behaving like hooligans and causing trouble, and it certainly seemed that way at the time. That was what the police in Denmark were telling everyone. The Club felt so too, which is why they banned 37 of them from the ground. Not because of anything the Mirror published, but because of their own photographic and video evidence. Later, as more facts emerged, it appeared that many of the Arsenal fans involved had been provoked and were defending themselves. At that point, I realised that all the papers, the Mirror included, had probably jumped to a few wrong conclusions. I’ve since apologised for this, on several occasions publicly, and in private to some of the fans concerned. And those apologies were sincere. But to blame me personally for the bans is ridiculous – just ask the club.
All the papers, not just the Mirror, slammed many Arsenal fans for behaving like hooligans and causing trouble, and it certainly seemed that way at the time. That was what the police in Denmark were telling everyone.
When you say ‘’At that point’’ does it show a disregard for consequence. As seen with some of the points with Levison, it seems the truism of today's headlines is tomorrows fish and chip paper, has been the case within the newspaper industry, rather than correcting mistakes that have been made, as it doesn't sit with a business interests to do so i.e. it doesn’t sell papers. Do you feel that because of that it’s fair to say sometimes and with this Copenhagen example there was a journalistic disregard for reporting or correcting errors? No matter what those consequences may have caused?
Daily newspapers have to work at ferocious pace, and occasionally mistakes are made. I think some of those Arsenal fans in Copenhagen were treated very unfairly, with hindsight, and the media have to accept some of the blame for that – including me, as the then editor of the Mirror.
Just this week you have been involved in a dispute with an NBC's Toure about journalistic propriety on the Trayvon Martin case. You told him no proper journalist pre-judged a person’s guilt. So why did the Daily Mirror do that to many Arsenal fans who were in Copenhagen in 2000 often with serious consequences for them?
I’ve answered this above. The photos and video that came out of Copenhagen were very damaging, and looked terrible. That was why so many fans got banned. The real story took a while to come out.
Why did it take so long to say sorry?
The facts of what happened took a long time to emerge – there was a lot of claim and counterclaim. The Danish police blamed Arsenal fans for a long time.
Are you saying the stories were written on the basis of what the Danish police had told the reporters?
Partly, yes. They were definitely steering the media to blame Arsenal fans.
I don’t expect forgiveness, but I hope the fans involved now have a better understanding of what happened. And to those who were genuinely, innocently defending themselves and got banned, I’m truly sorry.
Can you understand why so many are antagonistic towards you primarily due to this issue?
Yes, of course. I should have stuck to the golden rule – never s*** on your own doorstep. If I had my time again, I would have handled it very differently. I think being caught up in it myself clouded my judgement. I don’t expect forgiveness, but I hope the fans involved now have a better understanding of what happened. And to those who were genuinely, innocently defending themselves and got banned, I’m truly sorry.
You live in the US now because of your job, do you ever come back and get to games? Do you still have season tickets?
I go whenever I’m back in London, which is nowhere near as often as I’d like. But I watch every single game on TV in the States, as my Twitter feed confirms. They screen every game out here, home and away.
You and I had words recently via twitter when I challenged you over what I saw was flip flopping of your criticism of Arsene. We are an easy target from afar, how do you keep up to date with Arsenal in the round being where you are.
Trust me; I don’t miss a ball passed, or a shot kicked out here, ever. I plan my whole CNN schedule around games.
My last question is somewhat aimed at those that believe the coffers are full and the club make a lot of money. Which is not the case at all, the club barely breaks even past transfer dealings. So when explained to most, people start to see what an achievement Arsene has overseen while we have built a stadium and kept competitive. So I ask, given these facts is it not all too easy to criticise without looking at a fuller view?
It’s always easy to criticise, but that’s also the right of every fan – to express an opinion. It’s always been that way, and should always be that way in the future. When I go to games, everyone’s screaming advice, criticism etc. to the players and manager – it’s part of the game, part of the fun. My issue with Wenger is that we haven’t won a trophy for 7 years, and I think his strategy of dumping all the invincibles so fast and replacing them with kids, the best of whom – Fabregas etc. - then left the moment they matured, was wrong. We went from being a big, tall, powerful team to a small, technically good but easily-intimidated team, and it didn’t work. That was Wenger’s decision.
Well the history of Arsenal as a club, has always been to dismantle teams too early, you can trace that back through the history of the club. You say its Wenger's decision, but that decision was based on a strategy to pay the bills, build a stadium and stay somewhat competitive. Wenger is a lightning rod for many for a club decision to stay competitive with his hands in his pockets.
I don't believe money has been the real issue. I think David Dein leaving has been a much bigger problem – without him, Arsene has been dithering in the transfer market and then panic buying. That's not how you win trophies, as we've seen.
We went from being a big, tall, powerful team to a small, technically good but easily-intimidated team, and it didn’t work. That was Wenger’s decision.
Piers, there is no way that the Cesc scenario can be blamed on Arsene. It was somewhat a unique case, due to his history. Would you have said no to Cesc and kept a player who ultimately refused to play pre-season for the club last summer?
Yes, I'd have made him stay as long as I could. You don't sell your best players unless you absolutely have to. Cesc left because he didn't think he'd win big trophies at Arsenal – it was a damning indictment of our transfer strategy.
Why do you so often feel the need to copy in Arsenal players to your tweets?
Why not? I’m an Arsenal fan, and they often reply. You guys would kill for a reply from Van Persie or Wilshere!
Not for me, many maybe, but don’t you see when you are a ‘’personality’’ and your followed by players and you go into ranting mode, they read these, and it chips away at their belief in the boss, especially when you change position. I agree that you are entitled to a view, and no issue with that – but to be negative and copy in players into a tweet doesn’t help the club as a fan.
This makes me laugh. Arsenal players get on fine with me, very well in fact. (Apart from Master Frimpong when he's had a late night)They understand I'm a typical fan – when we play crap and lose, I'm furious. When we play great and win, I'm deliriously happy. You guys forget they hear what the fans shout at games when things aren't going well. The idea 'real fans' never criticise their team is complete nonsense. Check the Twitter feeds of my most vociferous Arsenal fan critics - they're always criticising too – just total hypocrites. We all want the same thing – a successful Arsenal team.
When you edited the Mirror did you ever intervene with the Sports pages coverage of Arsenal (often it was very critical under your watch)?
No, as I said earlier, I never did.
Not sure if you are aware but The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust is concerned that Stan Kroenke has been to one Arsenal game at the Emirates since buying the club a year ago, what is your stateside view impression of either Kroenke and American owners of Premier League teams?
Kroenke has a good reputation in America, as a businessman and a sports owner. I don’t think he’s been the problem. I genuinely think Wenger’s transfer strategy has been flawed. He’s missed David Dein enormously.
So would you like an owner like Abramovich or Mansour?
I'm not against foreign ownership – the Glazers have done a good job at United. But you need a manager strong enough to drive through what he really wants, as Sir Alex has. I'm not sure Wenger's done that in the last few seasons. Maybe he will now. I hope so. Still love the guy personally, and would like nothing more than for him to prove me wrong and win trophies again. But let's be honest, if Fergie went 7 years with no trophies at United, he'd be gone. We'll see how this season plays out, but the recovery has been amazing after a terrible first few months. If Arsene can keep Van Persie, buy 2 or 3 top class players like Podolski, Wilshere stays fit once he's back, and we get rid of dead wood like Chamakh and Park, then we could win things again. I like the new spirit in the team.
Have you ever interviewed Arsene and when did you last meet him?
I’ve met him a few times, and he’s always been a totally charming, intelligent, amusing and honest man. I love him personally, he’s a great guy. And he’s been one of our greatest ever managers. I just don’t agree with his strategy for the last 7 years – mainly because it’s been so different to the one that won him two Doubles.
let's be honest, if Fergie went 7 years with no trophies at United, he'd be gone. We'll see how this season plays out, but the recovery has been amazing after a terrible first few months.
Who would you rather have as a guest on Life Stories, Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger?
Ferguson – I would give him a harder time!
As a former national newspaper editor, how do you see existing standards of football coverage in the newspapers? What innovation would you like to see, that you possibly see currently in the USA.
I think we lead the way in covering football, I really do. British newspaper coverage of the sport is insanely good – great reporting; great analysis; great scoops. Fans always get annoyed at negative stories, but there are plenty of positive ones too. Usually depends how the team’s doing!
Given your profile on CNN and your two million followers on Twitter, do they not get somewhat perplexed on your constant Arsenal and Shugs conversations?
Yes, they think he’s something you put in a mug of tea.
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