Hansen and a welcome dose of nostalgia
Last Thursday was a strange day. I was meant to be playing in a Blind Golfers Association Charity Day but got a phone call earlier in the week from the Football Focus editor, Mark Cole. Mr Cole has numerous nicknames... "Cole", "Cole-Dog", "The Cole", "Colemeister General", but on Monday he was talking business.
"Are you still playing in that golf day this week?" he asked me.
"Yes," I said tentatively, sensing what was coming.
"I need you to go to Anfield to interview Alan Hansen about the Liverpool-Manchester United game."
Despite numerous attempts, both Liverpool and United were not able to provide us with a member of the current squad to talk to ahead of the big game, so Mark suggested that the last man to lift the league title at Anfield would be the perfect option. I sent an apologetic email to the organisers of the golf day, who were very understanding, and promised to bring some nice things with me next year.
I first interviewed Mr Hansen a few years ago at his home near Southport. His wife made one of the finest cups of tea I've ever tasted and I distinctly remember a selection of chocolate ginger crunch biscuits that accompanied the said beverage.
Last Thursday, I was responsible for my own nourishment on the long trip to Liverpool, so I armed myself with the travel essentials - tube of fig rolls, six-pack of mince pies and two pints of semi-skinned - and headed for the M6. If you have never experienced the heady combination of mince pie and milk, let me take this opportunity to heartily recommend it to you. My own personal opinion is that limiting the mince pie to the festive period is a shambolic way to treat such a culinary delight. It's an all-year-round beauty!
Anyway, I picked up producer John Nicholson from Liverpool Lime Street Station and the plan was to meet our camera crew (Andy and Dennis) and Mr Hansen at 12.30pm at the ground. At 12.51pm, I sent Alan a text saying: "The boys are setting up in the Kop. I'm waiting for you at the Shankly Gates." It was at that point that the Liverpool press guy, Steve, came galloping over to say that Alan had been inside for 30 minutes and was waiting for me. As I walked towards him in the press room, he was just reading the text I had sent and raised an eyebrow as only an ex-professional can. It was as if to say: "Do you even know where the Shankly Gates are laddie?"
I have interviewed lots of sports types over the years and no-one works the death stare like a Scotsman. Gordon Strachan has a good one but Sir Alex Ferguson is the master. I once asked him a question about whether he was looking forward to seeing Andrei Kanchelskis again after the winger - who had left Old Trafford - signed for Manchester City. He looked at me in such a way that I felt my eyes getting hot. He then launched into a 45-second mini-hair dryer about why it was such a stupid question. There was a point halfway through the rant - just when I thought he couldn't get any angrier - that he took the rage up to another notch.
In comparison, Alan Hansen is a delight to interview. He's one of those blokes that you could sit and listen to for a very long time. At one point, I miffed him slightly by asking about Liverpool's terrible run of defeats with a big smile on my face. I think I got away with it.
After we'd done our interview in the stands and Alan had explained why he fancied Liverpool to win on Sunday (which of course they did), I snuck in a quick fig roll double. As we moved towards the dressing room, Alan was off, talking about where he used to sit, how Steve Nicol used to make the whole team laugh and how his pre-match routine involved reading the matchday programme until 2.53pm before bending down to touch his toes and heading for the pitch. His eyes lit up as he spoke about some of the great team talks he'd heard and the winning culture at Anfield.
As we moved out into the tunnel, we paused in front of the famous "This is Anfield" sign. When Alan first went under it in 1977, he touched it with both hands, stopped, looked up and then walked out onto the pitch. I have no idea how many times he's been past it since, but he is adamant he has done exactly the same thing every single time. Always with two hands, always with a pause and always with a longing look. Traditions are important at Liverpool.
Our final stop in Alan's nostalgic look behind the scenes (which you'll be able to see later in the season) was on the pitch itself. Normally, you get harpooned by club officials within three seconds of stepping on the pitch at most football grounds around the country, but Alan still has an air of authority about him and the eight league titles he won at Liverpool have earned him the right to trample a few blades of grass now and again. It was at this point, he reflected on the goal he scored against Manchester United on Boxing Day 1979. Anyone who wasn't at Anfield that day will struggle to recollect it. I'll let Alan explain himself...
As we shook hands, poised to go our separate ways, the latest Anfield Tour shuffled out of the tunnel and into the dugout. Normally, it would be quite a treat for the members of the tour party to see a Liverpool legend up close, but this was a group of German school kids, most of whom were Manchester United fans. There was an "Alright, Al" from the tour guide and then, in a flash, our leather-jacketed Scotsman was off down the tunnel and away.
I said my farewells to the crew, polished off the final three fig rolls and headed home. Incidentally, Alan thinks Liverpool will have a hard time at Fulham this weekend. The whole of Football Focus comes live from Craven Cottage. We are on at 11.30 again because of the Formula 1 from Abu Dhabi, so don't forget to book your seat on the sofa a little earlier.