Vox in the Box: Jacqui Oatley

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Jacqui Oatley is a TV presenter and was the first woman to commentate on Match of the Day, going on to host the show eight years later. She has reported on football around the world, presented the BBC’s coverage of the Women’s World Cup in 2015 and will host Euro 2016 for ITV. She is also a director of Women in Football

Is there any particular way we should be addressing you, Jacqui Oatley MBE?

Ha! No, I don’t think so. My mum’s actually got one but I didn’t know too much about it. Apparently you have to be nominated by between two and 15 people with lots of supporting evidence, then the honours committee decide on the level. So you can’t apply for an OBE or an MBE – somebody applies, then they decide if it’s a CBE, or a Knighthood or whatever. It’s not something I’ve ever really thought about, but obviously, it was a huge shock.

You had a slightly unusual route into journalism…

I didn’t really grow up thinking I wanted to be a journalist – I just didn’t really see that as an option, or know anything about it. I grew up as a football obsessive in Wolverhampton, and even though I’d sit at the back of the school bus and devour Match, Shoot and 90 Minutes, it was never suggested to me by teachers, career people or whoever ‘Why don’t you work in football or become a journalist?’ That was just a hobby, or obsession, and we couldn’t play football because we weren’t allowed to.

I did a German degree then got a job in intellectual property, and I was getting my football fix by playing every Sunday and travelling home and away with Wolves every Saturday. Then I dislocated my kneecap on the opening day of the season in 2000, ruptured the ligaments and lost all the cartilage and to cut a long story short, was told by the surgeon that I’d never play again. I was absolutely devastated, but it was maybe the catalyst I needed to actually take the leap and start to research how to work in sport. I did a radio production course in the evening, so it was just a case of making the next step, but while I was in a job I couldn’t do that, so I gave up my job, gave up my flat, so I was homeless, jobless, slept on friends’ floors for a week at a time, taking my duvet in a carrier bag around the country and did work experience for free wherever I could get it.

I then did a one-year postgrad at Sheffield, and as soon as I got there I wrote to all the local stations saying ‘Look, I’m a mature student – I was in my late 20s – so I’m in a bit of a hurry, can I come in?’ I then got a non-league slot on the radio for £20 a week, and made that my own. I quickly built up contacts from that and just learned to be a journalist from scratch, basically. Then worked my way up doing more reporting, then 5Live gave me a ring, and it went from there.

You seem to have moved away from commentating and more towards presenting and reporting – was that a conscious thing or just the way things presented themselves?

It was just sort of the way it happened really. I’d been asked for a while to do some presenting on the BBC News channel, and when I was pregnant with my first child I realised I’d be better off as a freelancer, and as I was doing more TV work the commentary didn’t really fit in with that. In terms of the amount of time it took – the travelling, the prepping – it didn’t really add up.

TV never really interested me before, all I wanted to do before was go to games for 5Live, but other things came up, like Football Focus reporting, and women’s football – I did commentary and reporting for the 2007 World Cup in China which was pretty full-on. Last year I filled in a bit for the Africa Cup of Nations, then this year I’ve got a couple of FA Cup shows, and ITV gave me a contract which will involve some international football and darts.

One of the things you do is post-match interviews for Match of the Day – it’s always seemed like one of the more underrated skills in the industry, because you have a very short amount of time when emotions are inevitably running quite high to get something sensible out of these managers and players…

It’s probably the most high-adrenaline part of the job, much more so than presenting. It’s my favourite part of the job too – I love interviewing, probably because I’m really nosy! But it’s the sort of thing I miss the most if I’m not doing it regularly. You have to do an ‘on the whistle’ report, then previously (not so much this season) also come up with a 30 second ‘considered’ piece about the game. Then you have to quickly run down to the tunnel, and your heart’s pounding because you’ve just got no time to think.

I’m very conscious that they’re in a very high-pressured situation, whether they’ve won, drawn or lost, and their whole week is focussed on this. And if they’ve just lost, or if it’s a big team drawn at home, that’s a huge deal and the manager might be under a lot of pressure. He might have just screamed at his players in the dressing room and you’re the first person he’s spoken to after that, so you’ve got to be conscious of that, but at the same time you can’t shirk an important question, and it’s a chance to ask them directly. We’re in a privileged position as we’re talking to them one-on-one, whereas in a press conference you don’t have that. I always kick myself afterwards if I think I haven’t got anything interesting or different or a ‘news line’ out of them.

Particularly when a manager has lost a game, I guess it’s easy to pick up if they’re in a really bad mood – do you alter your approach based on that, or stick with what you were going to ask anyway?

You always have to think on your feet, because if they have a face like thunder you think ‘Oh, well this is going to be fun…’, so I’d never dive in with a ‘killer’ question straight away because it could be the shortest interview ever. The production team aren’t going to be happy if they’ve got nothing to show because you’ve dived in with ‘So, seven defeats in a row – what the hell are you doing?’

I’m always conscious of not diving in but also getting to the key issue quite quickly, because you never know when you might get told to wrap up quickly. You do have to think on your feet – you might have certain questions in your mind, but at the same time you have to listen to what you’re saying, because you might miss something important. There’s nothing worse than watching an interview and spotting that they’re hinting at something – hinting at quitting, or that he’s done something – and missing it because the interviewer is thinking about the next question.

The follow-up question is always important, and sometimes they might react badly to it, and I’ve definitely had a certain manager – naming no names – scream F-words at me in the interview room because I followed up something he didn’t want to talk about. I don’t mind getting screamed at, if it means I’ve done my job properly. I always ask in a respectful way, but I think it’s important to ask direct questions, and then however they act is up to them.

It can be quite intimidating even in a press conference with some managers, so I guess it’s much worse for you…

It can be but, I don’t mind that – I’ve got quite thick skin now after several years of doing this job, but as long as I feel I’ve asked a fair question in a fair way, I genuinely don’t mind how they react. If they put me in my place because I hadn’t asked the question properly, I’d kick myself but not be annoyed with them.

Have you been involved in any similar situations to Mel McLaughlin (a cricket reporter who was sleazed upon by Chris Gayle and told “don’t blush baby” live on Australian TV this week)?

Yeah, very similar. The big difference being that it didn’t happen live. It was in what we call a radio ‘huddle’ where the reporters gather round and ask questions. I threw one in about the significance of the match, and instead of answering the manager said ‘Oh my god, what beautiful eyes you’ve got’ then turned to the others and said ‘Hasn’t she got beautiful eyes?’ Then he said ‘Oh, I’m embarrassing you, but [turning to the others] she is a good looking girl, isn’t she?’ The others all giggled, a bit embarrassed for him more than anything, and I just looked at him as if to say ‘And your answer to the question is…?’ which he did then answer.

I’ve not had it too often, but I know that similar things go on off microphone, and working with Women In Football we hear a heck of a lot of stories of people going over the top – and I’m not just talking about jokey banter. In Gayle’s case, from what I read he has plenty of previous, makes people very uncomfortable and does it on purpose to get a rise out of them. If you’ve got people working in sport, like Mel McLaughlin or like me, you deserve not to be treated like that. I think that perhaps because we’ve had the Keys and Gray thing over here, that people can’t get away with that sort of thing anymore. It’s been a bit wake-up call for ‘old school’ people over here that used to think it was OK to talk about…whatever, in a derogatory sense. Even if they still think those things, they might fear for their jobs now.

You mentioned Women In Football – for anyone that doesn’t know, could you explain a little bit about that organisation?

It was set up a few years ago by Anna Kessel and Shelley Alexander, the idea being that whenever you tended to see another woman working in football it was just the two of you in the press box, or they were the only woman on their sports desk, or their office. The thought was it would be a good idea to get those women together for networking purposes, to help each other out with jobs and things like that. We started having events, which I host, at which we’ve heard lots of stories about people who’ve had various difficult situations at work – all highly confidential – and it’s just somewhere people might want to come and express opinions that they might want to keep confidential. We’re looking for ways to increase the representation of women in football, so to put it briefly we’re trying to improve the landscape for women working in the game. We’re lucky enough to be working in the game, so we want to open that door and help other women find their way.

It’s not just for journalists or people working in the media – there’s an under-representation of people like physios and doctors, so we’re trying to get more of those involved, and coaches as well. We’re trying to branch out a little bit – for example I hosted a ‘mums in football’ workshop recently, because there’s a theory that if you’re a woman working in football it would be very difficult to have children, but actually if they see other women in the game who have kids they could see it’s possible to do that.

You can follow Jacqui Oatley on Twitter (@Jacquioatley)

Vox in the Box: Jacqui Oatley
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