The Football Weekly host opens up about falling in love with Cambridge United, getting the Soccer AM gig and being told he was a twat by a potential employer
You grew up in Cambridge and became a fan of Cambridge United. What was life like back then?
It’s a great place to grow up. I remember when Cambridge got to the quarter-final of the FA Cup in 1990, the local news took to the streets to try and gauge the buzz of the town and no one had a clue it was on. East Anglia is not really a hub for football.
I used to go to watch Cambridge United, or I played football on Parker’s Piece, which is this expanse of grass where the first ever rules of football were put up years and years ago. If I wasn’t doing either of those then I would be playing football games on my Amiga.
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Did you have a season ticket for Cambridge United?
Oh yeah, I was a Junior U. In the membership you got a woollen flat cap and a horrible silk scarf, which you could trade for a woollen one. Until I was about 13, I sat in the junior’s enclosure, which was a small block just by the corner along the side and you would look at the New Market Road end, our Kop. It was the most extraordinary thing, you could almost touch it.
Then when you were old enough, you’d stand behind the goal. My Dad used to say, “oh you don’t want to go there, bad things happen there.” In reality there used to be only like eight people there. Eventually me and my mates used to stand there, but not in the mosh-pit part – I was never brave enough for the Cambridge United ultras.
What were some of your earliest memories at Cambridge United?
I started going around 1986/87 and then in 1989/90 we won the first ever play-off final to be played at Wembley and we reached the quarter-final of the FA Cup. Two seasons later we got to the play-offs in Division Two to go into what would have been the first year of the Premier League, but we got hammered by Leicester and that was it really for us. That was our one chance to get in the Premier League, barring some oligarch or rogue state with a terrible human rights record taking over.
Did watching Cambridge United make you think about going into football for a career?
Not really. I had aunts and uncles who used to ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I’d always say, “I want to be Des Lynam”. In truth I used to say that to make the conversation go away. Because of that I didn’t give my career any real thought until I finished University at Oxford. I was Sports Editor of my student newspaper, not because I had huge aspirations but because I wrote one report and no one else bothered to do it. Once a week, me and a mate would take a crate of beer into the offices and put all the paper together.
What was your first experience of work in the industry?
Before I started at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, the first work experience I had was at the BBC Sport website. Basically, a mate of mine guessed the email address of someone from the credits of Football Focus – he just put a dot between their name and put @bbc.co.uk on the end. Luckily someone replied and I was offered two weeks’ work experience in the TV centre.
At the end of the two weeks, the organiser called me in and said, “you’re good at the work but everyone thinks you’re a twat.” It was good that he said that, though. I was cocky and it was a lesson in humility that I needed early. Hopefully I’m no more of a twat now than I was then.
What did you do at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire?
I did everything there from reading the news, reporting, attempting comedy shows, radio shows, sports – everything. I was there for around three or four years and studied a post-grad sports journalism degree while I was there, which was at City University. Radio Cambridgeshire was amazing though. They gave me so many opportunities I wouldn’t have got at a bigger radio station.
How were the nerves at the start?
My first show was an August bank holiday at 5pm, no one was listening and I was absolutely shitting myself – I can’t tell you the terror. I’d play the wrong records from the nerves. I’d say, “Here’s Coldplay” and play Eddie Grant but be too scared to touch anything!
How did Soccer AM come about?
I was at BBC London for four years and got the breakfast show for a time there. Then I started sending out demos of my work to loads of other radio stations. TalkSPORT asked me to do the late show, which I did for three weeks. I was just about to sign for them, then Sky Sports called me in for a chat. I presumed I’d get a job covering 10-pin bowling or something like that.
Then, in the meeting, they spoke to me about Soccer AM for about an hour. I was actually a Fan of the Week in 2000, so I knew the show really well. A month later they asked if I wanted to accept a two-year-deal to host the show. I couldn’t breathe. Then I replaced Andy Goldstein, who was covering after Tim Lovejoy left. I think Andy has forgiven me by now…
What were your emotions like before that first show?
I went round to Helen [Chamberlain]’s house, had an egg sandwich and we got on. Then, I was bricking it for the first show and I was rubbish, some people would say for seven years, but it took me a few weeks for it to not feel like agony. There was so much to learn and I wasn’t relaxed. Tim and Andy are quite laddy and I’m really not, I’m a massive square – I’ve got grade-eight clarinet for fuck’s sake! It’s a cliche when people tell you to be yourself but it’s so true – after a year or two I felt like I was truly being myself at Soccer AM. After that point, I enjoyed it all so much. It was a life-changing experience for me.
How was it going from Soccer AM to Fantasy Football Club?
I wanted to stay and eventually run Soccer AM but the boss had ideas to phase me out and you’re beholden to what they want to do. Fantasy Football Club was actually a really good show, it wasn’t about Fantasy Football at all, which is intrinsically really boring. Instead it was ‘this is your life as a footballer’, so we’d get Emmanuel Petit on and talk about his career and I love doing that. Me and Paul Merson got along brilliantly too, he’s such a kind man.
Were you close with Merse off-screen too?
Many may have read his new book or watched the documentary that came out about him recently. We had him on the Football Weekly podcast recently too, talking about his gambling struggles and I witnessed them first-hand and I asked him on the pod whether I could have been more helpful and he said, “no, not really because you don’t have any experience.” We’re all flawed characters and I’m glad he’s doing well at the moment and enjoying the smaller things in life and not betting. He’s also a really good broadcaster, he’s got real warmth. The guy is often mocked but he’s actually dyslexic, who gives a shit if he mispronounces a name? I’m full of admiration for him.
Since then you’ve continued your work with TalkSport, The Guardian and now joined Stan Sports. Do you enjoy the variety?
I really care about people who are nice, there are stories of broadcasters who yell at all their producers and aren’t particularly kind. I have less time for those sorts of people. If there’s a mistake on air, I’m never going to yell at the producer, I want to create a nice atmosphere. In the long-term I think that creates a feeling around the studio and that everyone belongs there, which brings success. That goes for the radio, the podcast, the TV, for live football, entertainment shows, everything. If you have an environment where everybody is decent and friendly with one another, that makes a difference to the atmosphere and helps the show ultimately.
How do you fit it all into your schedule? What does a day look like now?
So for Stan Sports, I’ll be doing their UEFA coverage. Villarreal vs Manchester United is a 5am kick-off, so we’ll be there for around 4am. We’ll follow that and the Barcelona game after and do some post-match analysis. I’ll then go home and have a nap, get up, do the script for the Football Weekly podcast, then I’ll do the podcast at around 7:30 pm. I’ll then go straight to bed for another early start covering Stan Sports. TalkSPORT now for me is 8-til-10 pm on a Saturday, then 10-til-midnight on a Sunday. I prefer working in the mornings but working in sports media, your weekends aren’t a thing. I’ve worked every weekend, bar holidays, since 2008. That’s what your shift is, so that’s that.