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'I’m sitting in Bosman’s house on the morning they’ve found in his favour...it makes my career'

Graham Hunter is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines.

File photo of Graham Hunter.
File photo of Graham Hunter.
Image: Mike Egerton

SPORT IS CEASED but the show must go on…and at a faster rate than before. 

Behind the Lines is moving to become a weekly show for the forseeable future, given we feel listeners would appreciate another diversionary hour in their fortnight. Also, we reckon a few sportswriters will have some extra time on their hands at the moment. 

If you’re unaware: each episode of the podcast features a lengthy chat with a writer about their career and their favourite pieces of writing, and the entire back catalogue is available by signing up at members.the42.ie. 

This week’s guest is Spanish football writer and broadcaster Graham Hunter. You’ll recognise him from Sky’s La Liga coverage, he has written acclaimed books on Barcelona and the Spanish national team, and is also the host of The Big Interview podcast. 

His big break came in 1995, when he pitched a story to his editor at the Scottish Daily Mail about a footballer called Jean-Marc Bosman. 

Bosman is a now-retired Belgian footballer, but in the mid-nineties, he was agitating for a change in how footballers were contracted to clubs. In 1990, Bosman’s contract with RFC Liège expired and he wished to move to French side Dunkerque. Under the rules of the time, however, Liége could hold out for a transfer fee if they wished, and they refused to release Bosman. 

He then sued for restraint of trade, and took his case to the European Court of Justice and, eventually, won. This case was immortalised under the phrase, “The Bosman ruling”, and revolutionised the transfer market by giving more power to players. As Bosman remarked nine years ago: “Wayne Rooney earns £200,000 a week because of me.” 

Prior to the ruling in 1995, however, there was relatively little interest in Bosman, with Hunter stumbling across the tale in World Soccer magazine. He pitched the story to his editor, who put him on a flight to Belgium the following morning. 

Landing in Belgium, Graham managed to get Bosman’s phone number from a local journalist and rang him up to request an interview, speaking in pretty rudimentary French. 

Allow Graham to take the story from here… 

“He said no. No chance. ‘Mate, I’ve flown from Glasgow to Brussels to speak to you, you can’t say no.’

“He said, ‘How much money do you have?’

“‘I have 33 francs.’

“He said he’d take that and told me to get on a train to Liege and he’d pick me up.

“I turn up at Liege train station on this day in 1995, and this black BMW pulls up. He gets out, we drive to his parents flat, which is up this creaky, windy set of stairs made out of wood.

“It’s this tiny little flat which he lives in with his parents, and he’s got this bastard big Doberman. I don’t know how he pronounced it, but as I understood it, his name was Satan. He’s huge!

“They locked the dog in another room. He takes the money off me, we set up and I had just enough French to formulate the questions and have a vague idea of the answers.

“The Scottish Daily Mail had set up a stringer at Brussels Parliament who would take the tape, transcribe it for me and give it back.

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“He had been completely on his own, he was penniless. He had to sell his house, he had to sell his furniture, he had to move back in with his Mum and Dad.

“He turned to drink, his wife left him.

“So we are a good 35 minutes into the interview, and I can tell he’s talking about injustice and alcohol, and his wife, and then the phone starts ringing off the hook.

It’s an old fashioned house phone, so it’s ringing like fuck. My main worry that Satan is coming through the door. Bosman says ‘don’t answer it, don’t answer it’, but his Mum eventually gets sick of hearing it and picks it up. She listens to it, and there’s one of those pregnant pauses that you see on TV: nobody except her can hear what’s going on, and everything goes silent. It’s unnatural, but it feels like something is going on. She turns around and says, ‘It’s CNN, you’ve won your case.’ So I’m sitting in Bosman’s house on the morning that they’ve provisionally found in his favour. He turns to his mum and says, ‘Tell them I’m not speaking to them. This fella has paid his 33 francs. I might speak to them this afternoon.’

“We finish up the interview, and as I leave the door, the Doberman leaps toward me to say adieu. I take an involuntary step and the laptop on which I’m going to write the story takes a 32-step stumble down the stairs, and there are bits scattered around the ground. Luckily it’s the battery case and battery, so I get out of there I get a train to Brussels to meet the stringer to transcribe it.

“It’s a two-page spread in the main section of the Daily Mail.

“I trash it out, and it makes my career” 

Listen to the full interview with Graham on Behind The Lines. To gain access to the podcast feed – and plenty more besides – subscribe at members.the42.ie.

Highlights from the series’ first 12 episodes are available for free at this link.

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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