As a noted reporter and filmmaker, Gabriel Clarke has regularly interviewed many of football management’s most high profile names over the years - many of those opportunities coming about in a longstanding role with ITV.
Clarke, who himself is one of the most recognisable names and voices in football media, recently sat down as the latest guest of 90min’s Voice of Football podcast series, opening up on what it has been like interviewing managerial giants Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger.
Away from television, Clarke co-directed a 2018 feature-length documentary about the life of former England manager Sir Bobby Robson, while his latest project, released next month, is a uniquely emotional insight into the life and career of the late Jack Charlton, featuring previously unseen archive footage and filmed during the final 18 months of his life.
Listen along to the podcast and follow on for some of the best bits from the episode.
Interviewing Sir Alex Ferguson
“Ferguson was a force of nature. He didn’t do that much in terms of television interviews, but it was always a challenge, and a really special one. I think there was just a demand from him that you don’t waste his time.
“He had an aura. This wasn’t just post-match. I’m also referring to interviews that we would do with him quite regularly for preview magazine shows. Throughout the 1990s, we had a Champions League show and Manchester United were constantly in the Champions League at that time.
“They would be sparring battles where you would have a news story to cover, with Manchester United like no other club.
“There’s always a news story in the background, whether it’s their transfer failings, whether it’s a player in the team, whether it’s Ferguson’s team selection, whether it’s the last match they’ve played. So there’s an agenda that you would like to follow and then there is his way of doing it, which is his own agenda.
“Often, his agenda was fascinating. So you would very rarely come away from a Ferguson interview with nothing. There would always be something. It’s just how much that something will be what you wanted to get, and how much of that something was what he wanted to tell you.
“It was a potential lesson each time you interviewed Ferguson and always a challenge.”
Interviewing Jose Mourinho
“I was lucky enough to interview Mourinho when he was assistant manager at Barcelona and unknown. We wanted to interview Louis van Gaal before a game [against Valencia in the Champions League semi-final], but he wouldn’t do it. But there was this guy called Mourinho who spoke really good English. We hadn’t heard of him, but we did the interview anyway.
“We used it because he said something in it that was provocative to do with Valencia’s tactics. [Barcelona] were pummelled in that tie by Valencia, by the way, but Mourinho was on his way.
“At that moment, I could sense a charisma in him. There aren’t many number two coaches you interview that you think, ‘That guy is impressive and stands out’.
“We found out, obviously, a few years later and we were fortunate enough to cover a lot of that season when he really came to light – Porto vs Man Utd. His superb displays, not only as a coach, but in front of the camera, which just captivated English audiences, and Chelsea was the next step.
“Mourinho was a challenge to interview because you were almost expected to get something superb each time. It was, ‘Well, what did he say this time?’
“The challenge with him was, not so much getting him to talk, but knowing that there’s a real point. There’s always something bothering Mourinho, there’s always something he wants to say, potentially a little stick you can nudge him with.
“Sometimes, he would come with his agenda, which would be incredible because you hadn’t thought about it in that way. I think at his freshest and his best, from around 2005 to 2010 at Inter Milan, he was untouchable in his all-round tactical, psychological and media approach and very special.”
Interviewing Arsene Wenger
“You could ask Wenger anything, pretty much. He would give you an answer that was lucid and frank. That’s even on difficult things to do with his team selection or broader things in society.
“Wenger’s depth of knowledge…he’d be able to give you, in a very concise way considering [English] is his third language, an insight that you maybe hadn’t thought of.
“Wenger was never really at his best post-match. He didn’t really enjoy the matchday experience, pre or post-match interviews. But the day before a game, or relaxing in a midweek talking football, and other things associated with football, his insight was amazing.
“I think he took defeat increasingly badly. He really did struggle, almost if the Arsenal performance wasn’t perfect. He found that harder and harder to deal with, whereas a lot of managers with experience, you think it would get easier.
“Did Arsene Wenger peak in 2004 with the ‘Invincibles’? For the next 14 years, maybe it was never going to be quite as good. But he was always trying to get back to that point again, or to be perfect in the way his team played. So I think that search for perfection ended with Wenger being really hard on himself post-match and therefore it became more prickly than it should have been.
“That ‘Invincibles’ team was built on strength and power, not the sort of beautiful football that Wenger [wanted] in his second or third Arsenal team from 2008 to 2012 – the Fabregas years, or Van Persie. He wanted to win with a style of football that was perfect. That was the challenge he set himself and he was never going to quite get there.”
Finding Jack Charlton
Clarke’s newest film, Finding Jack Charlton, is a portrait of the England World Cup winner and legendary Republic of Ireland manger.
Charlton’s family have given access to detailed, hand-written notes that he kept throughout his career, offering an intimate window into the man and his managerial philosophy. There is also new unseen archive footage that has been uncovered, captured behind the scene with Ireland at the 1990 World Cup and on the road to qualify for the 1994 tournament.
Charlton sadly passed away at the age of 85 in June 2020. Having suffered from dementia in the final years of his life, that contemporary narrative also forms a central theme of the story.
“We’d made Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager and it wasn’t really my intention to make a film about another great English manager. But I’d just been talking to a few people about Irish football. I got talking with Andy Townsend, who’s executive producer, and he mentioned there hadn’t really been a film about Jack and his influence on Ireland, from an English point of view,” Clarke said.
“Andy put us in touch with Jack. The autumn of 2018 was when we met Jack at the pub his son owns in Northumberland. Jack was suffering with dementia and because of the stage that it was at, they told us Jack wouldn’t be able to do an interview.
“We wondering about where we would go with the film, but John, his son, was very keen to help. So it became a story over the course of filming, not only about Jack and his success transforming Ireland, not only the team but the nation, but also of Jack’s struggle with dementia, which of course is an issue that’s becoming more notable in football and its connection to football.
“So those are the two big pillars of the film.”
Released in UK and Irish cinemas on 6 November and available to buy on DVD, Blu-Ray and as a digital download from 23 November, Finding Jack Charlton features contributions from key figure from his life and careers, including his family for the first time.