The Times’ Henry Winter discusses Kenilworth Road, Indian spin bowlers, and Maiden Castle

By

“Hi is that Henry Winter?”

“Speaking. Just on my way to Kenilworth Road at the moment so apologies if I stop speaking for a moment – lots of roundabouts, you see.”

Such is Henry Winter’s love of football, he is willing to navigate the roads of Hitchin and Luton, a Herculean task, instead of kicking back and watching the drama of transfer deadline day unfold. The country’s foremost writer of its foremost sport is happy to discuss with Palatinate where Kenilworth Road ranks compared to his incredible number of stadium experiences elsewhere, ahead of Luton’s first league fixture since its renovations.

“Luton are up there; the atmosphere for the [play-off semi-final second leg vs Sunderland] was good. It depends what the fixture is. Anfield under the lights, when Barcelona are in town is a pretty spine-tingling atmosphere. I like the City Ground – Nottingham Forest last season were fantastic as they realised they had someone pretty special who was going to keep them up in [manager] Steve Cooper.

“Celtic is extraordinary. Galatasaray, Besiktas, or some of the stadiums off the beaten track in Spain, such as La Coruna – I love that atmosphere and the location close to the beach. In Portugal, the [Porto stadium] Dragao is architecturally and visually absolutely stunning. There are quite a few, but Arsenal has really improved.”

“I would throw Crystal Palace in there as well – they whip up a good atmosphere. It’s quite old school, where the press box is. And it’s the whole feel of the place, from Steve Parish to Roy Hodgson to the players. I have seen Cantona jump into the crowd there though. Sheffield United too when the stadium is full. The good thing now is that stadiums are full again. Nobody enjoyed seeing matches behind closed doors.”

The good thing now is that stadiums are full again. Nobody enjoyed seeing matches behind closed doors

Having visited so many places and so many games, enemies are all too easily made, especially in the emotional world that is football.

“It’s part of the game. It shows how passionately fans view the game. Chelsea fans think I’m a Spurs fan. Spurs fans think I’m a Manchester United fan. Manchester United fans think I’m a Liverpool fan and Liverpool fans think I’m a posh tw*t. On the whole, most people are balanced. But if you’re critical of a club, people will be unhappy.

“Most people understand on the whole, once they’ve calmed down 24 hours after the game, that we’re effectively weathermen. If I look out the window and it’s rainy, I’m not going to say it’s sunny. If Manchester United need another central midfielder, I’m going to say they do. Hence, I hope [Sofian] Amrabat is inbound today. I’ve been very fortunate the people I’ve worked with at the Telegraph and the Times have been pretty balanced; they don’t demand outrageous headlines.”

“Social media can get lively though. I remember one instance where I just pointed out that Liverpool fans booed the national anthem, and I almost couldn’t pick up my phone, it was just so hot with replies, despite me just stating a fact. [Mentioning] Black Lives Matter gets very toxic if you mention players taking a knee. The difference between Black Lives Matter as an organisation and Black Lives Matter as a sentiment, you’d hope would be balanced, but it’s not. We saw it at Burnley where a small portion of fans booed when players took the knee, and they’ve got a black manager.”

Football fans everywhere are familiar with the work of journalists such as David Ornstein and Fabrizio Romano. Winter himself has 1.3 million followers on X, formerly known as Twitter. Social media has created endless opportunities for scores of content creators and journalists. Unfortunately, it gives voices to those who wish to use them to spread negativity.

“For me personally, social media has definitely been a benefit, but then I’m not female and not black. I see the abuse friends of mine get – female presenters and black players, journalists, and fans – and think it’s crazy. There’s one journalist I know who’s gay, and he was getting a kicking on social media and I stood up for him, and I got a taste of what he goes through because I had a really vicious backlash and lost about 15000 followers, not that that is any way important. But you realise the intensity and ferocity a lot of people have to face on social media.”

Mentioning Black Lives Matter gets very toxic if you mention players taking a knee

“When you look at penalty shootouts, the abuse that Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, and Marcus Rashford is awful. I’m particularly aware of Rashford because when he missed a penalty for Manchester United, United put a statement out saying he’d received 700 messages or something, but it was a lot more than that. I got shown some of the voice messages, and it was absolutely disgusting.”

“There’s a horrific, poisonous side to social media, just like there is to society, but the good thing is that Rashford got this country and government to do the right thing on child food poverty. In a very calm way he pointed out that it’s wrong that kids go to school hungry and that was very powerful the way he used social media. He’s very enlightened and part of a politically and socially aware generation of footballers, and I think it’s fantastic they’re on this platform.”

“I made a factual mistake once, and a player very calmly came back and said x, y, and z are wrong, and I corrected it and thought it was really useful. I think it’s good we’re more accountable now – if I get something wrong people let me know. So look, there are positives. The communication between supporters and players is really important. If fans have been to a match, I think it’s good they have the connection afterwards to talk to the players.”

Social media was teeming with opinions during the Women’s World Cup, passing judgement on the Lionesses as they progressed to the final, only to be beaten by Spain. But Winter believes the future is positive despite the loss.

“I thought [the Lionesses] did fantastically to get to the final considering the injuries and suspensions, but they were just beaten by an outstanding team. Spain were the deserved winners. Long term, the trajectory of women’s football will just accelerate. What was really significant was the letter that the captain, Leah Williamson, put out urging politicians to do more for girls’ sports, instead of basking in her own glory.”

“I thought the Spanish situation [where FA president Luis Rubiales was eventually banned by FIFA following an unconsensual kiss on a player] was extraordinary. We had a run-in with the Spanish FA when England players were abused at the Bernabeu in 2003, and Emile Heskey, Shaun Wright-Phillips, and Ashley Cole were racially abused. You could just see the Spanish was not particularly enlightened, and their initial support of Rubiales following the kiss on Jenni Hermoso on the lips, you thought ‘Come on, how can a guy like that represent you – how can he survive in his role?’”

Football doesn’t belong to the West or to Latin America – I think it’s great that it gets shared around the world

“Hopefully, it will turn out to do some good; people are saying it might be Spain’s #MeToo moment. I thought it was a terrific tournament overall.”

Having spent last November and December in Qatar for the men’s tournament, Winter has a better idea than any of true workings of the biggest World Cup in history. The Middle East’s continued investment in the sport has brought headlines and criticism but having witnessed the culture, Winter is able to extract tangible positives from his experiences.

“Well look, football doesn’t belong to the West or to Latin America – I think it’s great that it gets shared around the world. I thought it was an unfortunate time to have [the World Cup] as it affected domestic leagues. I thought it was incredibly well run, but they just threw money at it. I thought the atmosphere was terrific, particularly in the souks late at night with no alcohol and Moroccan fans and Saudi fans.”

“It’s not a football country – we had a game of cricket against the workers in our hotel and I thought it would be an easy win for the English journalists as Qatar is not exactly a cricket stronghold. But there were Indian spin bowlers and Pakistani batsmen working out there who absolutely wiped the floor with us. So, it was very difficult to get a feel of the real country because the majority of people you spoke to weren’t Qataris.”

 I had a slight ‘in’, as my brother [Timothy Winter] is a famous Islamic cleric, so a lot of people there were wanting to meet me to know more about my brother because he’s pretty well known out there. Because of him I spend a bit of time going to mosques around the world – I find them very beautiful places. The call to prayer and music I find very powerful. I was tweeting about that, then obviously the football was great. England did would we expected them to do – tactically Southgate didn’t really press the right buttons at the right time. The right team won in the end. It was pretty much as expected.”

“The stadiums were absolutely stunning. The sad thing is the majority of them will just be white elephants. That was my ninth World Cup. I quite like hiring a car and getting lost in different countries, but it’s quite difficult to get lost in Qatar. I pulled off the road and met some camels and had a little wander round in the desert but even then it’s not quite trekking across the Sahara. It was an experience, but I wouldn’t rush back there.”

When Newcastle United’s first team squad trained at Maiden Castle under Kevin Keegan in the 1990s, you’d go down there to interview players and you’d walk in and it was like matchday

Going into 2024, there is more belief than ever in the England squad that will be heading into a major tournament. There is less in the manager. With squad selections raising most fans’ eyebrows, questions have been raised around Southgate’s future. Raheem Sterling’s absence in the September squad was a strange omission.

“I felt for Sterling. You can’t say you’re going to pick on form and leave Sterling out. This is a huge year. England have got some fabulous players. Jude Bellingham is world class. Harry Kane is world class. A really good goalkeeper in Jordan Pickford. John Stones is world class. Declan Rice is right up there. And how many right-backs do you want!? Trent Alexander-Arnold can create and get involved.”

England have got so many good players that I really want to see this team win a trophy. Not because of the forty years of hurt, but because they are a bunch of good individuals that are so hard-working and doing well with their clubs. More than half of them are being coached by better managers than Southgate, so Southgate is fortunate to be in this position. But he has created a culture where players want to perform. There are no d*ckheads in this squad.

“He’s done so much off the field in terms of developing players at a very young age. That can be one of his greatest legacies. I just want him to be a bit bolder at certain times, being more decisive in his decision-making. But England have a chance. You look at French and say they are the outstanding squad team in Europe, but England are up there. I would absolutely love England to it, I just think the French have Mbappe and so many good players making strength in depth, but then so have England.”

“England have got a chance. They have to get to the semi-finals. When I walk out of games I’m usually quite relaxed because any emotion I have I pour into my piece; it should be cathartic. But I walked out of Wembley [after the Euro 2020 final] very angry, because you knew the three black players were going to get the racist abuse, and that’s just depressing. But also because Southgate didn’t respond to Mancini in the second half.”

Winter has made no secret of his admiration of the North East, even remarking on the beauty of Durham from the viaduct on the train past. With Newcastle United becoming a powerful footballing force, he takes a strong interest on one of the country’s proudest sporting institutions.

“The Newcastle fans are extraordinary. When their first team squad trained at Maiden Castle under Kevin Keegan in the 1990s, you’d go down there to interview players and you’d walk in and it was like matchday. Cars double-parked on the verge outside and hot dog stand set up. Partly because Kevin Keegan was the Piped Piper, but Newcastle fans are just so passionate about it. Great atmosphere there. I’m also a huge admirer of Eddie Howe as a coach and I’m sure he’ll have one or two plans.”

“He’s got Callum Wilson off the bench if Alexander Isak has run himself into the ground. He’s a talent. Kieran Trippier; nothing phases him. He’s a perfect captain as well as his defensive ability and set-piece delivery. He’s just a winner. He’s played in a Champions League final. St James’ Park is a special place. Newcastle University’s applications go up by about 10% when the club is performing well. I was there the other night to give a talk and the place was buzzing. It’s a special place. But look, so is Durham.”

And if a man as well-travelled as Henry Winter tells you a place is special, you know it must be true.

Image: Henry Winter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.