Wednesday 24 May 2017

12 days of Kimmage: Paul talks to Ross O'Carroll-Kelly creator Paul Howard

Over the Christmas/New Year period we'll be looking back at some of Paul Kimmage's big interviews of 2015. Here's his sit-down with Paul Howard from March 29

Paul Howard
Paul Howard
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

There was an interview with Robbie Henshaw in Hot Press last month, and some interesting features on Mark Ronson, Una Foden and Hudson Taylor. PJ Gallagher was in the Mad Hatters Box, there was something about orgasm (I didn't look) in the Sex Column, and the usual batch of opinion and reviews.

But it was the main interview by Olaf Tyaransen, 'Will the real Ross O'Carroll-Kelly please stand up?' that had me reaching for my wallet.

Have you ever tried cocaine?

Jesus.

What?

These aren't the kind of questions you get from the likes of Tony Ward or Gerry Thornley.

It was just a question.

You're not a cop, are you?

The interview was, by some distance, the best read in the magazine and yet there was a part of me that felt short-changed. Okay, so the "Rossmeister" has sold a million books and never fails to entertain but I wanted more; I wanted the creator; I wanted the real Ross O'Carroll-Kelly, because he's always been much funnier and more interesting.

Paul Howard was born in London in 1971. His parents, David and Laura, were childhood sweethearts from Dublin and Paul was the second of four boys. In 1979, the family returned to Ireland and Paul was sent to St John's in Ballybrack, shackled by an English accent.

"The transition wasn't easy," he laughs. "We were these 'Cor Blimey' cockney kids and it took us years to lose our accents."

He started work straight after his Leaving Certificate and began writing for Southside, a local Dublin paper, in 1989. A year later, he was covering sport for The Sunday Tribune. His first book, Celtic Warrior (a biography with Steve Collins) was published in 1995 and was followed The Joy - an account of life in Mountjoy Prison.

In 1998, he was Irish Sports Journalist of the Year and created his first 'Ross' column for the Tribune. Two years later, he thought it might make a book and started a best-selling series that has topped the Christmas charts six times in the last eight years.

His other books include The Gaffers: Mick McCarthy, Roy Keane and the Team they Built, Time Added On (George Hook's autobiography) and Triggs: The Autobiography of Roy Keane's dog. He has also written a musical, three plays, and makes regular contributions to The Mario Rosenstock Show and Irish Pictorial Weekly.

He lives in Dublin with his wife, Mary, but commutes each morning to Avoca to write and had almost completed his latest 'Ross' when we sat down for the interview. He was also working on a film script and a new American sitcom he's contractually forbidden to talk about. But there was plenty more to discuss.

Paul Kimmage: Let's start with your working day because you seem to be on Twitter 24/7 and yet you get so much done?

Paul Howard: The only time I can work is in the morning: I get up most days at half-past six, drive to Avoca and I'm at my desk at about twenty past seven . . . pot of coffee, just me and the dog.

PK: Triggs?

PH: (Laughs) No, Humphrey is his name. He sits on this big cushion and looks adoringly at me as I write.

PK: And that helps?

PH: Someone looking adoringly at you always helps . . . Naah, I tend to zone out a bit when I'm writing.

PK: What do you mean by zone out?

PH: I tend to go into . . . not a trance, but I'd be quite intense about it. And the voice I write in is quite bombastic and aggressive - there's a lot of 'focks' and that kind of thing - so I'll be thinking in that voice for about an hour and a half and then Mary will ring me on her way to work: "You're talking to me in your Ross voice, Paul!" So I'll work until about one o'clock and then take the dog for a walk. I'm slower in the afternoon and tweet a lot - usually because I'm distracted - but I'd generally sit there at the desk until about six most evenings.

PK: Eleven hours. That's a long day?

PH: Yeah, but I've always felt I had to work harder than the more talented guys.

PK: What about time off? I met you at the book awards a couple of years ago and I think you told me you'd taken about two afternoons off in the entire year?

PH: Yeah, I took on far too much. I was doing Anglo the Musical, I did Triggs, I was doing Ross books, a film script and I've been working on this biography on the life of Tara Browne for about six years.

PK: Remind me who Tara Browne is.

PH: Tara Browne was a member of the Guinness family - a Guinness heir. He was born in Dublin and grew up in Mayo and Luggala, and died in a car crash in London at the age of 21. He hung around the periphery of the Beatles and his death is mentioned in the opening lines of "A day in the life."

'I read the news today, oh boy

About a lucky man who made the grade'

PK: What made you want to write a book about him?

PH: That song fascinates me more than any other Beatles song. My dad had (the album), Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and I remember putting the needle down on that song and listening to the static and John Lennon's disembodied voice. I vaguely knew that the guy those opening stanzas were about was Irish, and when it was his 40th anniversary I went up to Luggala and interviewed Garech in the castle.

PK: Garech de Brun?

PH: Yeah.

PK: Who was Tara's?

PH: His older brother.

PK: Okay.

PH: I wrote it for the (Sunday) Tribune but didn't do it justice - you can't interview a man on Thursday and produce quality for Sunday - but I got a call from Mike McCartney - Paul's brother - (after it was published) and spent about four hours with him in Liverpool and knew by the end of it, that this was a life I wanted to explore. I've done about 120 interviews for it, and finished the research and I'm just trying to find time to get it done. But it's the book I really want to write.

PK: Take me back to the start and your path to journalism. You were born in London and came to Dublin when you were eight?

PH: Yeah, and it was a really weird time. When we lived in England we felt very Irish, but when we moved to Ireland we were suddenly English, and acutely aware of our Englishness, because of the hunger strikes and what was happening in the north. I remember walking through Sallynoggin one day with my mother and my brother, Vincent, and seeing this 'Brits Out' graffiti at the top of the 'Noggin Hill, and Vincent saying "What are they going to do to us when we start school?" (Laughs) So I felt like a bit of an oddball right from the off.

PK: Where was school?

PH: I went to loads. We were on the housing list for 18 months when we moved back from England and lived with my grandmother in Monkstown until we got housed in Ballybrack. I went to St John's in Ballybrack and Archbishop McQuaid National School and St Lawrence College in Loughlinstown for secondary. That was great. It was run by Marionists and they were just so cool. Brother Fred would play Simon and Garfunkel records and get us to interpret religious meanings in them. But I wasn't much of a student - middle of the class in just about everything I did.

PK: There was no sign of your talent for writing?

PH: I think I had a talent for making people laugh.

PK: That's not a subject.

PH: I know, but I almost made it one.

PK: Go on.

PH: Because we were born in England we were exempt from Irish; I eventually took it on but I was a liability and a messer and to distract me, Miss O'Dwyer, our Irish teacher, would give me these essays to write: 'My life as a shoelace' or 'The ups and downs of my life as a ping pong ball'. On Friday, at the end of class, I'd stand up and read these stories to the class and make them laugh and that was it for me. That sound was just . . .

PK: The sound of laughter?

PH: Yeah, I've been chasing that ever since. Growing up I'd watch episode after episode of Blackadder and Only Fools and Horses and I was a student of comedy. But I was an average student in school. I didn't have the confidence to be as good as I could have been.

PK: Not even in English?

PH: I got a C in my Leaving Cert - it was the only honours subject I did - and I think part of it was this kind of disconnect between the person you are, and the person you're supposed to be in school. Think about it: we're in a classroom studying John Donne and the metaphysical poets and Shakespeare's love sonnets and I'm a 15-year-old boy living in a housing estate in Ballybrack! (Laughs). I haven't been in love! How can I possibly know what Shakespeare is talking about! And a lot of kids were good at faking it and getting the cog notes and learning sample answers, but I couldn't do that.

PK: What made you want to be a sportswriter?

PH: Sorry, this is a really boring answer - I just loved sport. When I was six, my dad used to let me stay up late to watch Liverpool in the European Cup and we played football endlessly on the street, but I wasn't good because of the glasses.

PK: You always had glasses?

PH: Yeah, from the pram. I had a turn in my eye and had an operation and wore a patch and had an English accent and . . .

PK: So this kid has nothing going for him?

PH: This kid is walking around with a giant neon sign on his chest that says, "Bully me."

PK: Laughs.

PH: The 1982 World Cup was the big thing in my life. I had a copybook and did a report on every match. The first match was Argentina against Belgium: I wrote out the teams and the substitutes and did a paragraph of run-of-play and that's when I wanted to be a sports journalist. I was 11!

PK: You didn't go to college?

PH: No, I knew what I wanted to do and didn't want to waste four years in college so I bombarded Ken Finlay at Southside (a Dublin regional newspaper) with letters saying "Give me a job" and he eventually wrote back and said, "Write me three stories." So I went off and did this really dull story about Loughlinstown Community Council and a disagreement they were having with a local scout group. One of our neighbours was on the council and I got into a meeting and took some notes and the following week it was in Southside. It was the first thing I ever got published and my first blast of hot air.

PK: From the council?

PH: Yeah, I don't think they saw this kid taking notes at the meeting as (the source of) something that would eventually end up in Southside. I looked impossibly young and out of my depth.

PK: What year was that?

PH: 1989. I was 18 but started dressing a lot older to try and carry it off a bit more. The first day I went in with copy, I had a white shirt and borrowed a pair of my father's Farah slacks because I thought I had to be well dressed. And then I started wearing suits and Gene Kerrigan thought I was a Jehovah's Witness . . . actually, the first thing Gene ever said to me was 'I thought you were about to serve me!'

PK: That was when Gene was at the Sunday Tribune?

PH: Yeah, but they used the same building. Southside was owned by the Tribune and had moved into the main newsroom, right outside Vincent Browne's office, when I started bringing copy in and that's when I said, "This is where I want to be." It was an amazing newsroom: Pat Brennan was there and Mike Millotte and Kevin Dawson and Gene Kerrigan and David (Walsh) and Gerry Thornley and Gerry Barry. There was an energy when Vincent was walking around (he does a great impression of Browne) . . .

"Ahhggggg! Jesus Christ!"

. . . and I couldn't wait to get in. Then Ken eventually hired me. I was covering council meetings and interviewing Eamon Gilmore back in the day when Eamon Gilmore was the champion of the anti-water rates campaign.

PK: You remember that?

PH: I remember it well. He was just a councillor at the time. We had one phone in our house, on a little wicker table at the bottom of the stairs and I'd call his home: "Is Eamon Gilmore there?" And his wife would put him onto me and I'd pump him for information.

PK: Would he remember you?

PH: I'm sure he would. He was the champion of the anti-water rates protests in Dún Laoghaire and I would have quoted him over the years saying, "People shouldn't have to pay for water." And he ends up part of a government that brought in not just water rates, but metered water. But they're the compromises that happen over the course of a political life, aren't they? And I didn't know that at 18 (laughs).

1. The Milky Bar Kid

Referring to his biography, 'The Celtic Warrior', written by Paul Howard and published by The O'Brien Press, Mr Collins said there were things in it that were not true.

While he did co-operate with the editing of the book, the selection of photographs in it, and the design of the cover and the promotion of the volume, he never referred to any of the inaccuracies in the book during the various press events surrounding its launch.

He had known Howard, the author, since 1990 when he was known as the 'Milky Bar Kid'. He wanted him to write it because he would believe the stories he (Collins) told him and would print them.

- The Irish Independent report of a breach-of-contract case between Steve Collins and Barry Hearn at the High Court on November 22, 1997

PK: How did you get into sport?

PH: Ger Siggins (sports editor) asked me to cover the 1990 Irish Masters snooker for the Tribune. I went up to Goffs on the bus thinking, 'Wow! I have a by-line in the Tribune.' I had just joined the Dublin Tribune and was a couple of years with them but I'd do bits and pieces (in the main paper) for Ger . . . I interviewed Crisanto Espana. Do you remember him?

PK: One of Barney Eastwood's boys (boxers).

PH: Yeah, I interviewed him up in Belfast. Boxing and football were my great loves, and still are.

PK: Celtic Warrior was your first book?

PH: Yeah.

PK: You loved Collins?

PH: (laughs) I did, yeah.

PK: Why are you laughing?

PH: You know why I'm laughing.

PK: You have to explain it.

PH: When you're 21, it's an amazing thing to be taken into the fold and given access. As a reporter you're mostly outside the fence looking in and when you're inside the fence, it's generally because you have made certain compromises. For example, you can't write that Robbie Keane is one of the poorest players ever to play for Ireland and expect him to take your call on Tuesday morning.

PK: Laughs.

PH: So (compromise) is what you have to do. Steve was the first internationally known star I had access to. I really liked him and in the early days he did me a lot of really good turns, really good turns. The first time I was out of Ireland was to cover his fight with Reggie Johnson in New Jersey: I had just turned 21 and my parents bought me a flight to New York for my birthday. The first couple of days I was staying with Joe Egan's sister in Brooklyn and then Steve rang one night and left a message: "You need to be here in (New Jersey). I've booked you into the hotel." It was really thoughtful and we were good friends for a couple of years before we fell out.

PK: Why did you fall out?

PH: It was really stupid. I did the book with him and the book essentially became evidence in a breach-of-contract case with Barry Hearn. Steve felt that Barry Hearn wasn't acting in his best interests as a manager.

PK: And he broke it to go where?

PH: To Frank Warren. Now Steve had had contract disputes before but Barry Hearn was managing both (Chris) Eubank and Collins and it was stated in court that he sent a letter to the WBO bad-mouthing Steve for not agreeing to an immediate defence against Eubank.

PK: This was after the Millstreet fight.

PH: Yeah, and then the second one eventually went ahead at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. So Steve broke away but in the book he had talked fulsomely of his love for Barry Hearn, and what a great manager he was, and I think that he had to put distance between himself and what he had said in the book. He said at a press conference - and this pissed me off - that he effectively had little or nothing to do with the book. And that really annoyed me because it was a ghostwritten job - the cheques certainly went to Steve - he paid me, I think a grand. And I had a shoebox full of tapes and corrected proofs that he'd gone through and to hear him say . . . I was sore. He rang me and tried to get me on-side but I felt my professional reputation had been maligned and I never spoke to him again. My mum was great at getting you to see things from other people's point of view. She said, "Don't take it personally," but I did, I took it really personally. And I'm sad that we fell out because I really liked Steve.

PK: Did you get that close to anyone else?

PH: Sonia (O'Sullivan).

PK: When?

PH: I started writing about Sonia in '97 in Athens, when she had the second meltdown, and ghosted a column she did in the Tribune for about two years between . . . I think 2002 and 2004. There are some sportspeople where you can't help it, you just like them too much, and I always found it really difficult to write objectively about Sonia because I felt invested in it. And I know a lot of other journalists did as well because . . . I don't know, I just admired her so much. I was fascinated by her.

PK: What was it that fascinated you?

PH: The strength and the weakness, the vulnerability. You'd look at her before a race and think, 'She could have the greatest race of her life today, or she could get lapped and she doesn't even know which of those is going to happen.'

PK: This is after the meltdown in '96 obviously?

PH: Yeah. I was close to her during her really interesting years - the Europeans in Munich where she got caught or was overtaken in the race to the line in the five (5,000m), and then Paula Radcliffe just ran away from her in the ten (10,000m). And then in Paris the following year . . . was it the Worlds?

PK: Yes, it was.

PH: I was ghosting her and seeing her all the time and she was great all week, really positive, and then she left her running shoes on the underground. And she spends the next 24 hours ringing every Metro station in Paris and fixates on the shoes: "I have to have those shoes." And in the end Nick (husband) says to her, "It's not about the shoes" and he rings the sponsor and they send her a new pair but they're red - a different colour. And she gets beaten in the race and runs off into the night, frog-leaping the furniture in the mixed zone to avoid talking to us.

And three days later I ring her at home: "Hi Paul." And it's as if it never happened.

PK: Everything is normal again?

PH: Yeah, and we get into this conversation about the shoes and she says, "Well, everybody knows you can't run in red shoes," and I just found that fascinating. It was as if she had cracked open her head to let me look inside and that's what was great about Sonia, you don't often find sports people now who are that reflective.

PK: You didn't ever discuss doing a book with her?

PH: No. I didn't have a desire to ghostwrite another book after the experience I had with Steve and didn't ghostwrite another book for ten years.

PK: That bad?

PH: I felt hurt by it on a personal level because we had been so close, and he had a great personality but something happened to him . . . I remember he rounded on the Irish media at one of the press conferences after he beat Eubank, but the Irish media was Tom Cryan, Martin Breheny, Gerry Callan and me, and we'd done nothing but write raves about him for years.

PK: (Laughs) You were almost holding his spit bucket in the corner.

PH: Well, you laugh but I actually was. The last fight he fought for Barney Eastwood was against Sumbu Kalambay for the European title in Verbania in Italy. I was sitting at ringside and covering it for The Irish Times, so it's a serious gig - I have to go straight onto copy and dictate it. So it's round one and they go out to fight and the next thing Paddy Byrne in Steve's corner says, "Paul, we've no water! Can you get me some water?" So I jump up thinking, 'Fucking hell! Where am I going to get water?' There's a shop at the back of the arena and I'm stuck in this queue . . .

"Round Two"

"Round Three."

. . . and I'm starting to panic: 'I'm missing the fight! He's in the corner with no water!' I get to the front of the queue and ask for 'Aqua' but the guy has no English. "Sin gas?" he asks. And I've no idea what that means. I take the bottle and bring it down and give it to Paddy and Steve is drinking it between rounds . . . fizzy water!

PK: (Laughs) What was the first major event that you covered?

PH: I did the World Athletic Championships in Athens in '97, and the Europeans in Budapest the following year but by that stage I was already deeply cynical about athletics and didn't believe anything I saw. I think Sonia was the last athlete I truly believed in at that level and found it very difficult to write about. I remember watching the 100m final thinking: 'This is not a race, it's a freak show.'

PK: You were the lone sceptical voice when the Tour of France started here in 1998.

PH: I wasn't the first to say there was doping in cycling but I did feel quite strongly. I was looking at all these scandals thinking, 'Hang on a second! We're spending two million pounds of public money to bring this race to Ireland and the result is the illegal importation of drugs'. I remember I went on radio - the Dunphy show - with Pat McQuaid and he kept calling me "that journalist" - he wouldn't say my name and accused me of sensationalism. And the next day Willy Voet was caught. So there was that and the Michelle Smith thing - I wasn't in Atlanta but did some digging on Erik de Bruin - but the first big events I covered, I was just sitting there and hating it . . . Marion Jones and CJ Hunter at the Sydney Olympics . . . the World Cup in 2002 . . . all of these tournaments I'd dreamt of as a kid and by the time I got there . . .

PK: The fairytale was over?

PH: Yeah. The World Cup in 2002 was the most horrible month of my life. The players blamed the press (for the fallout over Keane) and turned inwards and it was terribly frustrating. It was becoming more and more difficult to get people to talk to you. It was all group interviews now and the 'media day' and PR guys saying "wrap it up" when you basically just said hello. I remember interviewing an Irish international in England and you're up at four to get to the airport, and you've booked the last flight back that night because you hope - in some mad fit of optimism - that he might bring you back to his house and spill all his secrets. And you end up getting what we used to call a 'knee trembler' in the car park.

PK: What's a knee trembler?

PH: He leans up against the car and four questions in says, "Have you enough there?"

PK: Laughs.

PH: I interviewed this player at the training ground; Goals on Monday was on the television and the sound was on 'mute' but a muted television can hold a footballer's attention more effectively than a beautiful woman and he didn't look at me once.

PK: Laughs.

PH: If you had put me into a line-up with a woman, and a fellow with a grey beard, and asked him to pick me out 30 seconds after the interview, he wouldn't have been able to do it! I remember getting back to the airport and calling Mark Jones, the sports editor, and he says, "How did you get on?" I said, "Mark, he didn't look at me once." And Mark said, "Right, we need 2,000 words." And I remember thinking, 'We're conning people!' And that wasn't the sports journalist I wanted to be.

2. Traylock, Drico, Ross

Olaf Tyaransen: What's your earliest memory?

RO'CK: I'm five years old and I'm standing in the gorden of our old gaff in Glenageary slash Sallynoggin. There's, like, a hurricane blowing and my old man is throwing a Gilbert ball at me at full force to try to improve my hands. He's shouting, "A future Ireland number ten - mark my words!" That day I ended up with my first concussion.

The Hot Press Interview,

February 2015

PK: You say your first loves were boxing and football but you made your name with a game you didn't love.

PH: Yeah, it's a weird thing but because I write Ross people presume I'm a massive rugby fan and I'm not. I don't watch a lot of rugby. I watch Ireland and I watch Leinster and I watch Munster in the Heineken Cup and that's it.

PK: Take me back to your debut as a rugby reporter

PH: I was still at Southside and doing a bit of freelancing because sport was what I wanted to do and I got a marking from Pat Courtney at the Indo to cover a rugby match in Skerries. I didn't know where Skerries was, and I didn't know anything about rugby, so I bought a book The Rules of Rugby in Chapters in Middle Abbey Street and I got this bus to Skerries that took forever.

PK: The 33?

PH: Yeah, I think that's what it was.

PK: Was this an All-Ireland League game?

PH: No, schools, Skerries Community College and Gonzaga or somebody. And it was a real eye-opener for me because I'd gone to a soccer school and had no idea about this sport. I was Magellan entering a new world; it was the social aspect of it that got me. When our school played soccer there'd be 40 people and a dog at the match but you had all these men who should have been at work watching this game. And these incredibly well-dressed ladies wearing baby seals and standing in the mud with big heels shouting (adopts a posh voice): "Well done Traylock! Get your foot under it Traylock!"

PK: Laughs

PH: And I thought it was amazing. I loved that social dimension and did some more of those games but I was always aware of class. It's not so much now, but class was a huge issue when I was growing up and there were very firm lines between working class, middle class and upper class. I was working class, and any private housing estate near where we lived in Ballybrack was called 'Poshland'.

PK: So you were conscious of it?

PH: I was very conscious of it, anyone who spoke a bit posh was from a different world. My grandmother nannied for Rosaleen Linehan - she minded Hugh and Conor and Fergus when Rosaleen was working. They were privately educated and I remember meeting them for the first time and feeling really different to them. And it was the same when I started covering the schools matches, I thought: 'This is another world'. We used to do this supplement for the Dublin Tribune and I'd have to ring all the schools and say: "Who've you got this year?" And there were all these 'Tiernans' and 'Ross's' and names I'd never heard of: I'd never known a Tiernan or a Ross growing up.

PK: But your own Ross was starting to percolate?

PH: Yeah. I was taking it in by osmosis: I was socialising and going out to pubs and listening to people betraying their prejudices and in January of 1998 - 18 years ago - I wrote the first "Ross" column. It was this size, four paragraphs, and wasn't particularly funny but it ran from January to March and . . .

PK: Matt Cooper was the editor?

PH: Yeah.

PK: Who was sports editor?

PH: Brian Carey.

PK: So he had to approve it?

PH: Yeah, I had a column called "the Mixed Zone" - funny things you saw that week - and it was part of that. But it was weird, we started getting letters saying it was funny and that never happens when you're a sports journalist - people only write in when they're complaining. So we brought it back for the second year and made it a bit bigger and it was the same thing - people responded well to it. It was in those years after 1999 that I first heard the phrase 'Celtic Tiger' and the column stopped being about rugby. I started to put social observations into it, things I was seeing in Ireland that I found distasteful or obscene, and one of the first was about a bank writing to Ross and approving him for a £5,000 loan that he hadn't asked for. And I only wrote that because it happened to me that week.

PK: You were offered a loan?

PH: Yeah, and I couldn't understand how something like this could happen because when I started as a journalist my first computer - a Wang - cost £3,000 and I bought it on the electricity bill, or what we used to call the 'never never.' It was HP (Hire Purchase) and my Dad had to go guarantor with his house as security! So I kind of understood that to borrow money was a big deal and then suddenly it was easy and there was this huge cultural shift - largely driven by the media - in attitudes towards indebtedness. Being in debt was no longer a bad thing. So something really interesting was happening here and the column became about that - rugby rarely got mentioned - and when it went into the back page of the news section, it really started getting a following.

PK: That's interesting.

PH: Yeah, I mean what was happening in Ireland was absurd. I remember calling to see one of my friends one day in Ballybrack: "Come on through," he says. He was living in a council house his parents had bought and he leads me out the back and there's a hot tub in the garden. And it's freezing cold but the whole family - mum and dad and the kids - are sitting in the hot tub! They had turned their garden in Ballybrack into a destination spa hotel!

PK: Laughs.

PH: A madness had taken over that was ripe for satire and once I found Ross and his Dad and . . . the dynamic between Ross and his Dad is based on a real conversation I overheard. This kid walks off the pitch and says to his Dad: "I don't give a fuck how you think I played, just crack open the wallet." I thought: 'That's it, that's the dynamic - a father who adores his son and can't hear the abuse.'

PK: The column didn't have a byline?

PH: No, I never put my name on it and nobody knew who wrote it until I wrote the first book. Occasionally I would get phone calls from people saying 'Who does that?' And Brian was suspected at one stage . . .

PK: Brian O'Driscoll?

PH: Yeah.

PK: Was suspected of being Ross?

PH: Yeah, yeah, before he was Brian O'Driscoll, especially when Ross left school and went to UCD. Ross's career and Brian's career have run on parallel lines. I remember seeing Brian play for UCD when I was researching the first columns and (laughs) . . . I didn't know he was going to be a world superstar.

PK: Well, that's interesting because when I was working with Brian on his autobiography that perception - that he sounded like Ross - was in it.

PH: Well, Brian is not an obnoxious character, he's quite a level bubble really.

PK: Yes, he is.

PH: Whereas Ross was a completely different animal but their lives ran parallel - they were born in the same month of the same year, they did the Leaving in the same year, and they both went on scholarship to UCD. (Laughs) And then their lives divided. But people thought that whoever was writing it was in UCD. Brian had a friend in UCD called Ciarán Scally and I'd get these calls occasionally: "It's Scals isn't it?" Or "It's Drico?" And I had no idea who Drico was.

PK: When was the big bang in terms of popularity?

PH: It was progressive. The weekly column was a great way of getting it out there, and I still go to schools and colleges for readings, but the day I realised it had really got big was an invitation from one of the societies - I think it was the L&H (Literary and Historical) - to come and read from the book at UCD. Do you remember the U2 video for Where the Streets have No Name and the guy says, "We're shutting the location down?" Well, this was my Bono moment. I went to the lecture hall and there were so many people trying to get in that the fire officer came down and closed it down.

PK: Really? They closed it down?

PH: No, we had to move to a bigger lecture hall. It was the first time I performed Ross in public and I got that same buzz I got in school, reading my stories about being a ping-pong ball. To hear people laughing at something you're saying is such an exhilarating thing. There's nothing (beats that) . . . it's like a drug.

PK: Yeah, but how do you sustain it?

PH: Another really boring answer - I love it. When I've done a good morning's work and written something I know will make people laugh - that's a great thing. And it's a great thing to go on Twitter and have someone quote a line you've written.

PK: A line like 'He's Coolock's only wine snob.'

PH: Well, you are, aren't you?

PK: (Laughs) Guilty as charged.

PH: I mean, the Off Licences in Coolock are all built inside cages to stop ram raiders aren't they? And there's you, perusing the shelves looking for a good vintage.

PK: When did you make the decision to step away from sportswriting and concentrate on Ross?

PH: In 2007 . . . I didn't really want to, to be honest. I never set out to be a novelist and when I see myself described as one I think, 'Jesus! I'm never going to be on a Booker (prize) longlist, because I'm never going to write that kind of book'.

PK: Does that bother you?

PH: No, I'd rather win a William Hill (award) for a sports book than a Booker for a novel. I still miss being a sportswriter but the newspaper I took a sabbatical from doesn't exist anymore so I'm not going back there.

PK: What do you miss?

PH: Well, I probably miss sport more than I miss sportswriting. I miss sportswriting when there's a big story that I'd love to write about but I don't miss having to go off and find someone who will talk to me.

PK: You don't miss international footballers?

PH: Yeah, I think that was it. I remember transcribing interviews and hearing questions I was asking, and the way I was couching questions, and thinking: 'I'm turning into one of those Sky Sports reporters!' I sounded like that. I was turning into that guy who says, "You know, there's been a lot of criticism recently" or "A lot of people would ask," and bring up things in a really craven way. I could hear myself becoming that guy and I hated that guy.

PK: So what makes you think - because you've said it a couple of times - that you'd like to come back? Sportswriters are hated, but everybody loves you now.

PH: (Laughs) You've talked me out of it. I'm going to write a hundred Ross O'Carroll-Kelly books.

PK: Okay, I need an exclusive - what's the latest one called.

PH: I'm thinking 'Seedless in Seattle'.

PK: Seedless?

PH: He gets a vasectomy or is planning a vasectomy.

PK: Laughs.

PH: Thanks Paul, that's the reaction I was looking for.

Sunday Indo Sport

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