RR: You’ve been covering Sunderland for a number of years now, so obviously you’ve witnessed first-hand just how difficult the last number of seasons have been at the football club. Do you feel Sunderland have what it takes to stave off relegation this season, or do you think that it’s finally our time to drop?
NB: My head tells me that this is the season that it finally catches up with Sunderland, but then I think back over the past two seasons and I was resigned to the drop in April of both years and look what happened.
It is asking an incredible amount of the team now, bearing in mind the lack of resources to enable them to strengthen in January, which was key last season.
The gap between them and safety is already effectively three wins – when you consider that is probably 30% of the number of wins they’ll need in a season to avoid the drop, the next matches against Bournemouth and Hull are critical.
Though, I felt that about Stoke and West Ham too. It is possible to stay up but I think the next few months are going to be hard and brutal and then it’s down to the strength of character of the players and whether they can rekindle that incredible ability to survive again.
RR: The media’s relationship with the club has been something that has become subject to speculation and criticism over the years. Do you feel that Sunderland get a fair rub of the green in terms of coverage from the press?
NB: Sadly I think the club’s perennial flirting with relegation means the perception of Sunderland outside of the region is nothing but negative.
It’s a crying shame because the support, despite the trying circumstances, continues to be incredible and there are few clubs across the country who can claim to have supporters as loyal, bearing in mind what they’ve been through.
There will always be an onus on national newspapers to look for a ‘story’ and bad news generally sells more papers than good news so I think overall the kindest thing to say is that it’s actually no bad thing that Sunderland aren’t in the papers when they’re struggling. I think when they do do well the media does try and embrace them – the League Cup Final was a good example. I think there’s a danger we can all get a little paranoid about media coverage when ultimately the people that care and the people who are important don’t need to read about themselves in the papers. But it is nice to get some praise here and there and to read some positive interviews - for example, George Caulkin’s piece in the ‘Times’ about George Forster of the Supporters’ Assocation and Sam Allardyce - but ultimately there are more important issues to worry about.
RR: Who is the most media friendly manager you’ve known whilst covering Sunderland? And who was the worst?
NB: Bizarrely, as I write, the most open manager and the most media friendly has been David Moyes. The worst, and it will come as no surprise, was Paolo Di Canio.
RR: People know you best for partnering Gary Bennett on air at BBC Newcastle for each and every Sunderland game. What’s it like travelling up and down the country with the former Sunderland captain – is he a bit of a diva, or is he no bother really?
NB: I must tell him you asked if he’s a bit of a diva - ha! Not at all. He’s completely down to earth and grounded. We know each other inside out. I knew him first when I covered Carlisle United and he played a season there. We got on then and it seemed the natural thing to ask him to be my summariser when I came to Sunderland in 2003. We’re like a couple off “Last of the Summer Wine”, for those of you who can remember it.
He’s no bother at all. Well, not much. I do have to keep an eye on him at stations and on the Underground in case he wanders off…
RR: Tell us a little about the matchbook, and what the readers can expect.
NB: The ‘Matchbook’ is actually a ‘Matchbox’! It’s a compendium of 40 cards – a Title card, an introductory card, and then a card reproducing each of the pages of each of the 38 Premier League matches last season. In colour and A5 sized – which is actually smaller than the actual Matchbook, which is slightly larger than A4. But it’s practical and compact.
RR: How long have you been making matchbooks for? What gave you the idea for doing it – was it just boredom or a hobby, or more than that?
NB: I first started producing matchbooks when I covered Carlisle United. Then they were more scrapbook than matchbook as I pasted in the match reports from the newspapers and kept the books as an archive, but gradually over the years, through five years at Newcastle with Ruud Gullit and Bobby Robson, and then at Sunderland, the books mutated into the style and form I use now.
As they are an archive and a record of the matches I have covered I have strived to try and produce something I can hand down and that I’m proud of - it's just a shame about most of the results!
Imagine if Sunderland did a ‘Leicester’ …. The matchbook would be a treasure, so you can see where I’m coming from in making that comparison.
I’m not sure what prompted me to fashion the books into the books they have become as it has been such a gradual process over many seasons. Partly because they gradually became neater and more organised and partly because I enjoy the ‘artistic’ side of producing the pages. A frustrated artist-cum-graphic designer itching to escape.
RR: Your colourful notes gained notoriety mainly on social media. At what moment did you cotton on that people actually enjoyed seeing the notes you had drawn up for each game?
NB: When people at matches started noticing them in the press rooms and press boxes and said people would be interested to see them. So, I posted a few pages on social media and it just took off. Here, Germany, Russia, the USA, Italy, Eastern Europe, and now I’m told China!
RR: Was it your idea to release your notes as a matchbook?
NB: I have to thank ‘Tales from the Red and Whites’ for that. They approached me about publishing it and then thought outside the box as to how they were going to do it.
RR: The idea of the matchbook is very unique, both in content and presentation. Were you very specific about how you wanted this to look?
NB: I have to admit I had no hand in how it looks. In my mind when people said I should get it published I’d always had it in my mind’s eye as being a book. However, the reproduction costs for an A4 colour book would be too prohibitive and even looking at self- publishing, and I’d made a number of enquiries with people who have done just that, it still requires a considerable financial outlay so as much as it would have been fantastic to see it reproduced in book form, ‘Tales from the Red and Whites’ have done such a classy job with the Matchbox that I can’t have any quibbles.