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Famous Fans: Sir Michael Parkinson

8 November 2012

Football might have changed a lot since TV broadcasting legend Sir Michael Parkinson attended his first match at Oakwell, in 1940, but his love and passion for the game still burns brightly.

Parkinson now lives a long way from his Barnsley roots, in the South East. Yet, while he watches more of local side Reading than his beloved Tykes, his loyalties remain undiminished.

"I went to my first Barnsley game when I was five," Parkinson explains. "I don't remember too much about the game, but my father tells me that at half-time he asked me if I wanted to go home. I said I wanted to stay, and I was committed for life from that point.

"I've supported Barnsley all my life despite where ever I've been. I've worked in Manchester, spent long periods in LA., but it doesn't matter where you go; even if I can't make it to a game the first result I look for is Barnsley's. I don't care who you are, the first team you see is the team you support. Always."

These days there are no shortage of methods with which Parkinson can follow his team. However, it wasn't always as easy, as he recalls a particularly expensive experience working across the pond.

"I was in Los Angeles and I used to read the Los Angeles Times, which used to put a 'stop press!' service which included the English football results. One day I read a scoreline that almost gave me a heart attack, Barnsley 1-21 Stockport County!

"I spent about $400 ringing people trying to find out what the score was, and thankfully it was 1-1. That's the sort of madness you have as a football supporter and you never lose it."

Parkinson was born in Cudworth and grew up in Barnsley. He worked on a local newspaper and his job included interviewing the club's footballers, before he moved on to the Manchester Guardian.

He transferred over to television in the 1960s and became a household name as one of the country's finest on-screen presenters.

He has interviewed Muhammad Ali, Luciano Pavarotti and Richard Attenborough, among others, but it's talking to footballer he recalls with particularly fond memories.

"I used to write about and interview the Barnsley players at a local newspaper," he recalls.

"That's going back some 60 years, great memories, but then Barnsley made way for Manchester United in what I call the second phase of my life.

"I was working in Manchester following the Munich disaster and the first games that followed it. I knew Matt Busby very well, players like Tommy Taylor and I had something of an emotional attachment to United after that, as I think anybody in Manchester around that time did. In the 60s George Best arrived and he ended up becoming one of my best friends."

It would have been easy for Parkinson to be seduced by Best and co. as Busby's Babes embarked on a wonderful journey that would culminate in the European Cup win in 1968.

He remained loyal to Barnsley, though, and was finally rewarded with what he describes as the best moment as a Tykes fan - their promotion to the top flight in 1997.

"I remember it very well," he recalls. "Dickie Bird [cricket umpire] had a little weep on my shoulder and it was wet for two weeks afterwards.

"I remember chatting to the chairman after that game. These fans had been kissing him, embracing him and telling him he was the greatest, but he turned round and looked at me and said: 'Next year they'll be after my head.'

"That season was remarkable. We had a yellow away kit and the fans would chant 'it's just like watching Brazil.' We played some great football that year."

Barnsley were relegated 12 months later and have since become part of the furniture in the npower Championship.

Parkinson and Bird still go to games when they can, but Parkinson admits it's an altogether different experience from the one he fell in love with all those years ago.

"I see the game with different eyes now because I'm older," he explains. "The game has changed a lot, of course, it's almost unrecognisable.

"The saddest change is that fans don't seem to be able to have the kind of a relationship we used to have with the players.

"I remember I used to get on the bus to a home game and quite often Barnsley's centre-half would be on it.

"You shared some kind of bond with the players because they were part of your community. They might have come from Scotland or Ireland but they probably worked down the pit with your dad. You'd see them in the local pub. It was a different relationship then.

"Georgie Best had that star quality. He was a top player, of course, but he always had time for people.

"He was the original David Beckham, the original superstar. I remember Matt Busby once said of him that he was his best outfield player in any position. He said he probably would have been a better goalkeeper than Harry Gregg as well.

"So we're talking about an extraordinary player, but one who would make time to talk to supporters. I recently wrote a column about my early years as a football fan and the players I used to watch and interview, and I recall those experiences with find memories."

Parkinson is now hoping his grandchildren can fall in love with the beautiful game like he did.

He takes them to watch Reading, but always keeps one eye on what's going on further north.

"Last year I was able to watch Barnsley at the Madejski Stadium but not this season after Reading's promotion, which is a shame.

"Reading is a nice club, but I find myself rushing to the TV screens to find the Barnsley score when I'm there. If we're losing, I can become very southern all of a sudden.

"The Madejski has a nice family atmosphere and you don't hear too much bad language. So, for my grandchildren, they're embarking on a similar journey that I went through."

Of course, Reading find themselves at the wrong end of the Premier League following promotion from the npower Championship last season.

Barnsley endured similar difficulties in 1997/98, which goes to show how hard it is to compete at the top level.

"Money has changed the principle for many football clubs because it's hard to compete with those who have more of it than others. For example, when Barnsley went up we all know there was a big chance they'd come straight back down.

"Reading are finding it hard this season while Southampton, who were by far the strongest side in the Championship last year, are also struggling. I don't know what the answer is because I think there is a great virtue in promotion and relegation, they make for very exciting moments towards the end of a season."

As well as pondering the future of football as we know it, Parkinson has also been busy filming his latest series; Parkinson: Masterclass, which airs on Sky Arts this month.

In it, the seasoned interviewer meets people he describes as inspirational figures at the top of their game.

"I get to speak to great classical pianist Lang Lang, war photographer Don McCullin, jazz artist Jamie Cullum, principle dancer Carlos Acosta, author Michael Morpurgo and portrait artist Jonathan Yeo," the 77-year-old explains.

"I wanted to ask them what it takes to get to the top because a lot of people now take success for granted. You watch some of the talent shows and people assume you can work for five minutes to become successful.

"The people I interviewed have worked very hard to get to where they are. I like that about people. When Best arrived at United he was a gifted player but he only had one foot. He worked hard to become a two-footed player.

"He spent hours heading the ball and practising with his other foot. He became better than the rest because he worked harder and that's what my guests have done; I'm fascinated by that.

"That's the message I want to give people, it's the only way to achieve anything in life. All the most successful people in the world, without exception, worked harder than everyone else."

And no matter where he is or what he's doing; fewer will be working harder to keep in contact with the Tykes than Sir Michael Parkinson.

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