Filed: Wednesday, 24th February 2010
By: Staff Writer
Neil Humphreys is a Dagenham-born author and journalist who now resides in Australia, having spent the last decade (or so) in Singapore. Neil took time out from his busy schedule to chat with KUMB.com about his new release, Match Fixer, which recently hit the shelves.
KUMB.com: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to us Neil. Tell us about your latest book, Match Fixer.
Neil Humphreys: It's about a good-looking, Dagenham-born Essex lad, Chris Osborne, who's made it through the West Ham academy and is another one off Harry Redknapp's "production line". (Why did I put that in inverted commas?) He's a striker, but he's there when Carlos Tevez is flying so can't break into the first team. So he takes his boots, like many English footballers, and tries to make a career overseas. He nearly gets a gig in the Australian A-League, playing for Melbourne Victory, before ending up in Singapore, with the fictional Raffles Rangers. I had to fictionalise the team because they're as bent as a nine bob note. Chris becomes a local hero, the Asian women love him, he's a real playground superstar, caught up in the whole expat lifestyle over there; the parties and drugs flow. And he's clearly out of his depth when the illegal betting syndicates come calling and the gangsters threaten him to fix games. Will he fix the big game? Read the book.
KUMB: West Ham United feature heavily in the book. Why the Irons and not another club?
NH: I'm from Dagenham! My father is from Forest Gate. My mother is from Bethnal Green and my dear old 90-year-old grandmother, a West Ham supporter, still lives in Stratford. Who else was I going to support? It's against the law to support another club in this part of the world. Of course at school, and in my football team, Barking Juniors, there were always a few bandwagon jumpers - a few Liverpool and Manchester United fans, one or two Gooners, but you get tossers in all walks of life, don't you? Nothing wrong with being an Arsenal fan if you live in North London, but never trust these Man U fans who grow up 10 miles from Upton Park. It should be criminal offence. And you know who I'm talking about, Mr Beckham Senior. Your boy should've grown up worshipping Alan Devonshire not Bryan Robson.
KUMB: The S-League sounds like an absolute riot. Is it as corrupt as the book suggests?
NH: When I was a rookie reporter, my first assignment was to interview a footballer in the S-League (and Englishman! the shame!), who'd been interviewed over some very strange scorelines. And in 2000, a bookie paid some men to bash up a footballer from Yorkshire, Max Nicholson, with hockey sticks, so he couldn't play in a match his team was supposed to lose. After that, bookies and footballers went to prison. Last year, half the players from a Chinese team called Liaoning went on the run after being charged with match fixing. They're still wanted by Interpol. And just last December, two Singaporeans were arrested in Syria on alleged match-fixing charges. Their tentacles reach everywhere, including Europe. It's everywhere, it's rife and it's international. Look out, this World Cup, the bookies are coming from across Asia with suitcases stuffed with cash. I genuinely believe that.
KUMB: Many of the places listed in Match Fixer are real - the Singapore Polo Club, the KTV lounges etc. Has there been any reaction from them to their inclusion, and how much knowledge is gleaned from personal experience..?
NH: It's all based on personal experiences - the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Like Ricky Gervais always says, write what you know. I'm a big believer in that. Good luck to JK Rowling, she's a genius. But I can't write boy wizards on broomsticks. I can do Dagenham, working class footballers, Faces nightclub, Chadwell Heath training ground, West Ham's coaching history, Melbourne Victory, Asian culture, Singapore, football corruption and Asian gambling addiction, because I know these worlds. I lived these worlds (except the Chadwell Heath training ground, perhaps. I was a bloody awful footballer, but I did go there as a fan in the early 90s).
KUMB: Yati, Chris Osbourne’s girlfriend in Match Fixer sounds like a babe... Is she based on anyone inparticular?
NH: Ha, ha, you know, I've done a few interviews now and talked to mates about this book, and they all say the same thing. Who's Yati? They're not interested in the nuances of language in different countries, the social comment or the insight into football corruption; they just want to know who's Yati based on, does she really have a body like that and is she that good in bed. I'll just say yes to all of those questions and yes, it's been a colourful career.
KUMB: Who's your favourite character in the book – and your least favourite?
NH: My favourite characters are actually very similar people, even though they live on different sides of the planet - Tony Osborne, the footballer's Dagenham born and bred father, and Singaporean Detective Jimmy Tan. I love those guys. Tony has lived his whole life in Dagenham, like his father before him, and always worked in Ford, like his father. But Ford is downsizing and Dagenham is changing rapidly, and not always for the better, and he knows that. So he wants more for his son. And he teaches his son, good old-fashioned values about the game. Don't be a spitting Diouf type or a whiny Gary Neville type, constantly moaning about the 50 grand you take home every week. Be a Brooking type. A courteous, intelligent gentleman. He almost applies his Trevor Brooking philosophy to his and his son's lives. So does Jimmy Tan in Singapore in many ways. An industrious, no-nonsense copper. He provides for his family and keeps the streets free of scum, so women and children can walk Singapore's streets safely. What's so wrong with that? Well, nothing.
Least favourite character is Danny Spearman; had an average career as a footballer, but now ekes out a living as a football pundit on TV. He's fat, rude, old-school with his off-colour jokes and slags off the current crop of footballers who had the kind of talent he could only dream of. Does he remind you of anyone? Switch on a TV and watch a football show in England, across Europe and Asia and even Australia and the United States. There are Danny Spearmans everywhere.
KUMB: Match Fixer has been well received by the critics. Are there any plans to write a follow-up?
NH: There wasn't, but I am toying with writing a novel that is set exclusively in the English Premier League, which examines the league at every level from the young kid on a council estate with dreams of reaching the top to a scummy Middle Eastern oil baron looking to buy a Premier League club as a play thing to impress his mates in the Emirates. Because the current state of the English Premier League really pisses me off.
KUMB: Now the book has been published, is there anything you'd change?
NH: No, it's perfect! Just kidding. Ironically, if anything, I would've exaggerated the extent of corruption, bribery and violence. I'm now in talks to make a TV documentary about international match-fixing in football and I am genuinely shocked at how far it really goes - much further than my rancid imagination. Asian syndicates are involved across Africa and Europe right now, as you read this, trying to fix games. I am absolutely certain of that.
KUMB: You've lived in some glamourous locations (compared to the East End, at least) since leaving Blighty in the mid 1990s. Do you ever miss Dagenham?
NH: I've lived in three countries now and you always miss the daft, almost touristy things. I was just back in Dagenham and the East End for the Match Fixer launch, and what was the first thing I went for? All together now... a proper fry up! Could I find one? I had more chance of finding Tiger Woods in a monastery. Had no problems in Dagenham, lovely cafes all over the place. But my wife and I were walking around the old Spitalfields market, where generations of my entire family had worked for decades, and couldn't find a fried slice anywhere. When I was a kid, I'd work with my uncle and you couldn't move for cafes in the Aldgate, Whitechapel areas. Now it's all poncey. Don;'t get me wrong, I'm glad all those great old buildings are still there, they could've been knocked down or converted into tiny apartments and sold off to city slickers. But no fry ups. Lots of lattes and wraps (what is a bloody wrap anyway? It's just an expensive sandwich), but no egg and chips. So we walked past the Ten Bells, through Brick Lane, all the way round to Bethnal Green, through Shoreditch and got almost back to Liverpool Street, when we found a cafe in Bishopsgate. I absolutely love the multiculturalism of the East End today, the curries and cuisine is out of this world. But searched high and low for a fry up. Of course, now people are gonna say if I took a side street here and there, I'd have found 20 different cafes!
So I miss fry ups, Double Deckers, Monster Munch, Space Raiders, Eastbury Manor House (where we got married, flew back from Singapore to get married there), talking about West Ham with people who really know, Autumn and the sense of humour. When i saw the West Ham v Blackburn game, which was bloody awful, the fans taunted Paul Robinson with taunts of "England's Number five". I just love that.
KUMB: You're now based in Australia having spent a number of years in Singapore. Do you think you'll ever return to England?
NH: Yes, categorically, yes. If you had asked me six weeks ago, I would've said a definite no. But something really struck a chord when I came back for the Match Fixer book launch. The weather was awful, freezing, sleety rain, I don't think we saw the sky for the first week, Dagenham shut down at 4pm, and everyone had that miserable face of winter. But after spendiing a few days in and around London, I felt like I had plugged back in to the world. Australia is a a great country, but it's so far away, it might as well be in Jupiter.
KUMB: How does life in Oz compare to life in Singapore?
NH: It's much slower, but then life in Central London is slow compared to Singapore. It's like they are all taking speed and running on treadmills all day long.
KUMB: Do you get many opportunities to return to England?
NH: Not as often as I like. Usually every other year.
KUMB: You recently became a father for the first time. Has your life changed much?
NH: My daughter has made me think about England more. When you're young and childless, you wave your families goodbye and go off and see the world. But everything changes when your parents become grandparents. There's only so many times you can watch them sob as they say goodbye to their granddaughter at the airport, before it starts to tug at your conscience.
KUMB: Your previous books mainly centred on life in Singapore. What made you begin writing fiction?
NH: Because if I'd written this book as non-fiction, I could've been arrested, beat up or sued! There are real match-fixers, real illegal bookies trying to bribe footballers all around the world right now. I know that. I know all the rumours. But because these guys live in the shadows, they don't leave names and addresses. And they certainly don't leave a paper trail. So proof is hard to come by. But if I wrote fiction, I could pretty much say anything! Twist any rumour or allegation and have fun with it. Being a journalist, it was such a liberating experience. No need to check facts and figures; let's throw the West Ham footballer, the sexy, dark-skinned female journalist and some shady gangsters and bookies into the pot and see what comes out. I loved it.
KUMB: And why football?
NH: Because, like many readers of KUMB.com I suspect, I'm getting pissed off with the state of the "Wonderful" English Premier League. I write a column called The Game's Gone for Ex-Hammers, that great retro West Ham magazine and I really enjoyed the tone and articles of that magazines. I'm not one of those annoying grumpy old men, shouting, "in my day, it was great. There were 60,000 crammed into the North Bank, you couldn;t move, you couldn't breathe, you had to pee in a bottle and you could only see one corner flag on the pitch, but it was great." And I know that some of the players in the 80s and 90s were hardly saints, West Ham players included. But something has been lost in the game.
The moment footballers started earning 50 grand a week, the game changed forever. A connection was lost between player and footballer. When a young Billy Bonds made a mistake (which was hardly ever), he was immediately forgiven. Because this was a guy who arrived for the game on a bus, with other fans, earning little more than those in the Chicken Run, And he went out there and busted a gut. Today, players earn 40-50 grand a week, so fans are less forgiving. When they see players clearly not fancying the away game to Sunderland in winter, they won't tolerate it anymore; not when they're turning up to training driving Ferraris. That's why I like Mark Noble, he's a throwback, a local boy, who gives everything on the pitch. It doesn't always come off, but he's a tryer. Fans respect that. Now we've got players earning a fortune, pledging their undying love to the club, and then pissing off at the end of the season when their teams get relegated because they didn't try a leg in those games at Sunderland in the middle of winter. It's all a bit nauseating really.
KUMB: Who are your footballing idols - and why?
NH: This ties in with my last point - Billy Bonds and Trevor Brooking. Legends and gentlemen, never forgot that connection to the fans, never forgot that they were blessed with a talent they were lucky to be born with, and spent their whole careers working at it. Billy Bonds did a wonderful interview with the Independent a couple of years ago where he said something like he never had a problem with top players earning 100 grand a week, but he took issue with really ordinary players earning 20 grand a week. Spot on. Players with only one foot earning 20 grand a week? It wouldn't do for Bonds and Brooking. They just kept practising until they had equal ability in both feet. When Trevor Brooking had an old VHS video brought out about his career in the early 90s, he was set up in a crappy an old portakabin in the forecourt of the ground. The queue went past the gates and up Green Street. Why? Because Brooking spoke to every single person in the queue. I was one of them.
He asked me if I played for a team, what position I played, and remarked that he was from Barking, before saying he still "messed about" with a team of old pros (like Billy Bonds and Liam Brady, what a pub team that was) on the weekends. I still remember what he said. I still have that signed video and it was 20 years ago. The man is class. Can you imagine Ashley Cole sitting in a cold portakbin for four hours signing DVDs and talking at length with 11 year old boys about their favourite subjects at school? Can you imagine half the England team playing for a pub team over Hackney Marshes 10 years from now? For no other reason than their deep love of kicking a ball around. It will never happen again.
KUMB: Are you one of the many hundreds of ex-pats who stay up 'til the early hours to catch the Hammers live via the internet?
NH: No mate, I watch every game LIVE on my flat screen TV. You lot in the UK get the short straw. In Singapore and Australia, we get every Premier League and cup game live, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. We can choose which one to watch, I see more West Ham games now than I did in the UK.
KUMB: What do you think of Gianfranco Zola - and how do you think the Irons will fare this season?
NH: They will stay up. By default. There are at least three other teams worse than West Ham. They won't need to go on a run of wins, they'll just have a slightly less worse run-in than other teams below them. Zola and the squad are still paying for the terrible sins of others who came before them.
KUMB: Who is your favourite player from the current squad, and why?
NH: Robert Green is easily the best shot-stopper in the Premier League. It's not even debatable. I see him almost every week and his reflexes are second to none. But he is a victim of what I call the 'Underworked Italian Goalkeeper Syndrome'. I have never really rated Italian goalkeepers. Never. They are poseurs who drop too many crosses and punch those that English keepers would catch. But in the late 80s and 90s, they were supposedly the best goalkeepers in the world. Rubbish. They had the best defences in the world in front of them. They might get called upon to make one or two saves a game. Robert Green gets called upon at least five or six times a game. He'll pull off four great saves and one or two might beat him. So he's conceded two goals. Like the Italian "greats", Van Der Sar has two tame shots to save, so he holds them comfortably and he's the best keeper in the Premier League. It's nonsense.
In his prime, Ludo Miklosko was the best shot-stopper in Europe. I really mean that. I had a season ticket in 1991, when we won promotion and the man was extraordinary. He had a spring like no other big goalkeeper I've ever seen. He could pull out saves from the top corners, saving the kind of freekicks that keepers today don't even move for. What game does everybody remember about Ludo? The 1995 title-decider against Man United. Martin Tyler even mentioned it in the Man U v West Ham game this week. Why that game? Because everyone watched it worldwide. He was magnificent in that game. But ask any fan who watched West Ham regularly between 1990-1992, and they'll tell you he made saves like that almost every week. But he never got the recognition because - with all due respect to those players - he didn't had a truly world class defence in front of him. It was solid, but not impregnable; so he'd always get beaten in the end. Robert Green has the same problem. He doesn't get the credit that his shot-stopping deserves.
KUMB: How do you see England faring in this year’s World Cup finals?
NH: I'm like any other England fan. Too many years of hurt. I covered the Euro 2004 championships. I was there in Lisbon when they lost to Portugal on penalties. I vowed to never get my hopes up again. They have had the players for some time now, but they also have the manager now so ... maybe ... no, I'm not going to say it.
KUMB: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us Neil. Before we go, is there anything else you'd like to add?
NH: This has easily been my favourite interview for Match Fixer. Proper questions. In return, let me say that Match Fixer, for a limited time, is practically being given away on Amazon. Cheers KUMB!