James Richardson first made his name in 1992 as the host of Channel 4’s Football Italia, broadcasting live from Italy direct to a nation still wondering why they were suddenly expected to pay to watch their own football. To those of a certain generation, it became one of the best loved TV shows of the 1990s. Now the presenter of the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast and BT Sport’s European Football Show, he also heads up ‘The Goals Show’ for BT’s Champions League coverage.
James, you present a TV show that relies upon information coming in from eight different locations on the planet, with four big personalities alongside you and people talking into your ear. When that red light goes on, you must surely feel a sudden urge to shit yourself?
No! I think the more people are involved, the less urge I would have to panic. If it was just two hours of me on my own then that would be the time for panicking. I’ve got guys next to me who are very good with information, who know all the background, who are experts in their field and basically bring everything we need. All I have to do is be the jockey on the horse. That’s not something that you should be concerned about.
You seem remarkably unflustered when you broadcast, are you just a naturally unflustered person?
I’ve made a lot of mistakes. And I do make a lot of mistakes. On a show like we’re doing with the Champions League one, it’s one where you wouldn’t want any mistakes at all. If anything makes me nervous, it’s that. But I try not to worry about mistakes so much anymore. You know, at the end of the day, it’s only telly.
Is that the mantra to keep in mind?
I think it’s an important thing to keep in mind and you can apply it to a lot of things in life. I probably get less stressed than I used to, but now I rely on other people more than I used to. The job that I used to do when I was in Italy, specifically, was very focused on me, so maybe that led to me getting a little bit stressed about getting everything right, taking care of everything. But with BT, with this show, it’s relaxing to know that these guys will basically handle it.
How old were you when you started presenting Football Italia?
It was 1992, so just turned 26, I think.
Was it a surprise to be given that job?
Oh, absolutely. I did everything possible not to get that job. A friend of mine worked for a company that had just got the rights to this new Italian football show that was to be broadcast on Channel 4. You know, although it was on Channel 4, in some senses, it was a mainstream English football thing because it was all about Gazza, this massive football icon. So the notion that I would be involved in that, having not come from a traditional football TV background, was so removed that when she said they were looking for a presenter, I didn’t even bother calling back. Then I rang her a week later and she said, “They’re still looking for a presenter, have you called?” and I said no. She said, “Really, give them a call. They don’t have anybody yet.” So I gave them a call and the first thing I said was, “I’m not a football expert and I’ve never presented before,” because I really didn’t want to be doing it under false pretences. I thought people maybe would have got upset with me. But as it turned out, they didn’t.
Did you think it would work?
I went out there and I really wouldn’t have been surprised if I was called home within a couple of weeks. I didn’t think I was a natural fit for presenting a football programme on TV. I mean, not being funny, but I was incredibly lucky. That show really sticks with a lot of people and their 90’s memories, because of the unique situation it was in. All the English football had disappeared off terrestrial TV and not many people had Sky. It was in Italy where we had just had the World Cup that everybody was so emotionally caught up in, the English players had done well over there. It was almost like a surrogate World Cup. Plus, it had Italian football which was determined to be the best club football in the world. It was just a beautiful backdrop. And then, of course, there was Gazza, probably the most charismatic footballer this country has ever produced.
You even ended up doing some skits with him, didn’t you?
Yeah, he was well up for that. He was a really good guy to work with and, bless him, he was a very sociable sort. Sometimes we would film with him on a Thursday and he would ask me, “What are you doing? You should come out,” but I couldn’t because I had to get the stuff back on a satellite to London. But there were one or two occasions when his agent was out, we would go out for a drink or dinner. Gazza once reversed his car into mine, but my car was so bad that he probably improved it. I had a terrible old car. A car in which one day, when I was driving, the horn broke and was permanently ‘on.’
You were in Italy. Did anybody notice?
It was at night and I stopped at a red light. The car in front of me was there and my car just starts honking at him non-stop. I couldn’t stop it. The driver was getting quite agitated. I was sat there thinking to myself, this is all going to be very funny in a year or two. But I wasn’t able to make it funny there and then, so I just had to pull over and yank the wires out. The problem then was that I was driving around in Italy with a car that a) had no acceleration and b) didn’t have a horn. The horn is a pretty vital tool in Italy, especially on the motorway in a car that had no acceleration.
When the Italian football died off, in television terms, you actually dropped out of circulation for a little while, didn’t you?
I certainly did! I’ve never had the fortune to be working as a much loved character in a soap opera, but I imagine were that to be the case and my character died off, I might struggle to find many other gigs. And so it proved with the Italian football. I was almost exclusively seen as being that bloke in Italy. I couldn’t get a job at Sky, which was where all the football was, and in one specific case, I was taken off a programme that I was supposed to be on because I was ‘too Channel 4.’
That must’ve been incredibly frustrating?
Well, you know, it was a weird thing. Because it actually seemed pretty normal. When I got that job, I was 26. Suddenly I was presenting a show on Channel 4, but I was living in Italy. It was kind of a virtual thing. I was aware on a rational level that the show was going out, but effectively my life continued as if I wasn’t on TV because I was living in Italy. Whenever I came back to England, it was weird because I kept getting “Oh, you’re that guy off the show!” but it didn’t feel real. When I did finally move back to England and all of that had disappeared, it actually felt more real than the idea that I had been on TV in the first place.
So, yeah, it was frustrating because I obviously thought I could do the job, but at the same time I had to recognise that I had been incredibly lucky to get that job and have it for 10 years and I couldn’t really get upset if everything didn’t click back into place straight away. I had hoped that things were going to really kick on and I was going do loads of things. What actually happened was that I did absolutely nothing for about six months.
So when did the Channel 4 contract actually end?
2002. Originally, they were going to keep doing highlights, but that fell through, so when I came back, I didn’t do anything until January of the following year. I started doing one day a week at what had become British Eurosport, something small in the back of somebody’s office, and that was a big reality check. Because of my association with Italian football, I kept doing work associated with that for a while. But this all changed when Sean Ingle at the Guardian said, ‘the World Cup is happening, let’s make a podcast’.
Before that, in 2005, Bravo brought Italian football back with you at the helm.
Yes, what a bizarre channel. Funnily enough they’re not there anymore. They had this massive launch party and then Italian football was on Bravo, but nobody knew it was on Bravo. I think it would have had an audience, but people simply didn’t know it was there.
You had Ron Atkinson as a pundit, didn’t you?
Yep. Ron Atkinson, Claudio Ranieri, loads of people coming on. Pierluigi Collina was a guest one time. He’s a very weird man. Effectively what happened there was that somebody who used to watch the Channel 4 show had got into a position where he could make his own schedules and thought, “I know what I’ll do!” But it was a bit like me going, “I’m going to remake The Clangers and put it on BBC One’, and boom, 9 o’clock on a Saturday night.
They actually have remade The Clangers…
Oh, you’re kidding? Somebody else always gets there first. But yeah, Bravo was very brief, but it was very nice. It lasted for about a year and a half and they pulled out midway through the second season because of the Juventus scandal. They just thought…’We can’t.’
And then Sean Ingle calls…
Yeah! I was already writing for The Guardian’s online site, ‘Guardian Unlimited’ and Sean called. They were really into new media, they always have been a bit ahead of curve on that, so they decided to do a podcast. I remember having lunch with Sean and his colleagues and thinking, “Well, that’s not going to work, is it?” How wrong I was. We did the 2006 World Cup show and then when the World Cup finished they said, let’s do one every week talking about the Premier League. And all of a sudden I started getting work on the Premier League. I think if you’re working in football, you want to work on the Champions League and you want to work on the Premier League. So, yeah, the podcast coming along completely changed things. Before that, I was hosting a game show on Channel 4 with Carol Vorderman.
I don’t remember that!
Yeah, well I do…That you can find on YouTube, actually. But now, all of a sudden, there I am talking about the Premier League and I’ve finally broken that thing of, “he’s that Italian football presenter.” Once that podcast started, maybe again there was this thing of a generation who’d watched the Channel 4 show and had got into a position where they had started commissioning or hiring people in TV. I started doing more work, I worked for Setanta and did a couple of Premier League shows on there. Then I did a little bit with ESPN, I started working at the Premier League itself and now I’m at BT.
What do you think it was about Football Weekly that worked? It’s a fairly generic idea, it’s a panel show, it’s talking about what’s happening right now, but it really works and it’s worked for the better part of ten years.
Well, I’m no sociology student, but possibly on a practical level, it’s a pre-product which provides people with entertainment that’s very easy for them to consume at times when maybe they would be happy with anything. When you’re on the tube, you end up doing anything. Staring at other people, staring at the adverts. Here’s somebody giving you 45 minutes of people doing their best to be well informed and entertaining. That’s it right there. Can you be more entertaining than an advert on a tube train? It’s absolutely low expectation media. Really forgiving.
The other thing, I think, is that quite possibly there was a certain approach to football broadcasting in this country. You know, that whole ‘proper football man’ label. A lot of people who watched football weren’t proper football men and maybe there was kind of a hidden community, you know, we all came out together. Maybe they feel at home with us. We’re not particularly buying into any corporate narrative with the Premier League, or a TV station, or anything like that. We cover European football and we’ve always regarded that as important as the Premier League and we’ve done it in a light hearted and relaxed fashion.
Plus, and this is in no way a small thing, what made Football Weekly stand out so much is that the Guardian had already thought of these things. They had Sean Ingle, Scott Murray, Paul McInnes, Barry Glendenning, they were all involved in doing this parallel reporting job. You had all the proper reporters in the papers, but then you had those guys on the website who had their own team. So immediately, that attitude, that vibe on that original 2006 podcast came from the fact that the website was already doing that. So again, I was really lucky that I walked into this almost perfect environment.
And now that vibe has sort of developed into a TV show.
The big development there is the fact that TV channels have realised you didn’t have to play football professionally to comment on it. Particularly when you’re talking about foreign football. You’re far better off talking to somebody with local knowledge than somebody who used to play in that country ten years ago and might have played in some of these stadiums. I mean, those guys can tell you some really interesting things about their experiences, which is something that I, and many other journalists will never be able to grasp. But in terms of presenting, for me, it’s even greater when you have a story behind it. I’m completely about the whole soap opera off the field as well as on it. Who is this guy? What is the thing that he’s trying to achieve? That whole Hollywood thing. What is the obstacle that’s preventing him and will there be a third act redemption? So, for me, having people that can actually bring all of that, as opposed to just filling up the time with enough stock answers to get us through to kick off, is revelatory. When BT started it was something that I felt really strongly about.
You must’ve been delighted when the European Football Show came to fruition?
Oh, absolutely. Even more delighted when they said that they were going to go with the guys that I worked with on the podcast, people like Rafa, Julien and James. It makes it fun to do, which is important because people watch it for entertainment.
Are you enjoying it?
I really love it. The rehearsal was a little bit stressful in that I’d thought it was going to be a blast and it actually seemed like really hard work. When we did one for real, I was a little bit nervous to begin with because it was Champions League, people would be tuning in and be thinking, who are these jokers? It’s such a good format, you’d have to be really thick to blow it. But we’re only three weeks in so there’s plenty of time! But so far so good. You want to see the goals, we’re going to bring you the goals, and we’ve got guys that are going to tell you what’s going on in all these matches. So, it’s kind of a no brainer.
You can follow James Richardson on Twitter (@acjimbo)