FOOTBALL: Getting Arsene's Point; A Word in Your Stocking: Taking a Look along the Bookshelves and Picking out Some of the Best Reading on Offer This Christmas
We ended up in a little Italian cafe, the sort, sadly you just don't find too often outside London, where you sit on bench seats and can order a plate of spaghetti and sauce for a fiver and buy decent wine by the glass. Boringly, but sensibly, we ordered water with our plate.
After years of waiting and wondering, I had finally tracked down Jasper Rees. In 1995 Rees had written what he thought at the time was a run-of-the-mill match report of a Crystal Palace versus Coventry City game at Selhurst Park for The Daily Telegraph. It began with a sentence that would have substantial repercussions. It read: 'What, ultimately, is the point of Coventry City?'
It did not go down well at Highfield Road, or elsewhere among Sky Blues supporters. The then-chairman of Coventry City, Bryan Richardson, fired off an angry letter to the sports editor of The Daily Telegraph. Others found a different way to express their contempt for this perceived slight.
One fan in particular took what the Americans might call extreme measures. Rees received an letter, which contained a copy of his match report smeared in an unmistakable brown substance. And it wasn't HP Sauce.
'It was not a pleasant envelope to open,' said Rees. 'Inside there was another envelope inside, so I opened that up and inside there was a piece of cellophane wrapping with a white piece of paper folded over the edge of it, paper-clipped.
'Inside the wrapping, was my cutting but the cutting was covered by the white paper so you couldn't see he'd soiled it and it said on it 'What, ultimately, is the point of Jasper Rees?' which is a question I've often asked myself --and then I took the white paper off and there was a very neatly trimmed cutting which had been used as loo paper.'
The story was recounted in Rick Gekoski's book Staying Up, which also went on to claim that Rees had given up football reporting as a result of this particular piece of fan mail.
I just wanted to find out if it was all true. The chance came with the publication of Rees' new book Wenger, The Making Of A Legend (Short Books, pounds 14.99). So he was still writing about football, then, I thought.
I rang his publishers, with little hope that he would see me. They put me on to their PR person, who sounded dubious. Nevertheless, she gave me his e-mail address and once I had convinced him that I was not a psychopath, just a Coventry fan, he agreed to meet me.
So what does he remember about the match? I asked. 'It had been a terrible game,' he said as we tangled with our spaghetti. 'I've got no memory of it at all except it was Coventry and I think it was a 0-0 [in fact, it was 2-0 to Coventry; Dion Dublin and Cobi Jones] and it was another soul-destroying trip to watch Coventry in which you are forced to watch this terrible, terrible football that you knew was going to keep them in the Premiership.
'I dunno. Something clicked. And I just came out with this line --'What is the point of Coventry City?'
'Of course, it's a deeply offensive thing to say if the person reading it is a Coventry City fan . . .'
Did you have any doubts about it? 'In my own head --and I wasn't expecting anyone to get this --I was quoting Martin Amis. In his book Money there's a fantastically offensive character called John Self. There's a woman who won't sleep with him and he says to her --'What's the point of you, then?' 'So that was the phrase I was quoting. It was meant to be an entertaining read. But what is the role of a football reporter? Are they meant to not be passionate or display their grumbles and gripes and enthusiasms?'
Rees somehow tracked down the sender of the soiled report who, it turned out, was not your average football hooligan, but a member of the string section of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
'I've no memory of how this came to pass but I somehow acquired his number and we had a very pleasant conversation, actually. …