Whilst the previous football season was divided into 2 unequal chunks pre and post-1st lockdown, this past campaign has been almost exclusively about empty stadia, bringing your own sarnies and, in my case, utilising a selfie stick for a decent, worthwhile reason (i.e. not taking a selfie) using it instead to conduct socially-distanced manager interviews on my iPhone!
It’s only really been the playoffs for me - bar a couple of test events last December - where I’ve had that warm feeling of knowing I would be amongst a few thousand of my closest friends, rather than just sat next to my broadcasting and journalistic colleagues. The privileged position I have as a match commentator on national radio is never ever lost on me, and that feeling has merely been compounded by the continuation of lockdown and the national sport as a ‘behind closed doors’ spectacle for pretty much the whole shebang. You have even more of a duty to your listeners at times like this to do your job to the best of your abilities.
One upshot of the way fixtures were scheduled for TV broadcast in the Premier League was that my usual Saturday 3pm top flight commentary on talkSPORT 2 would not be happening - that was typically because there would only be one such fixture at that time, and our national BBC counterparts got first dibs on that match. But there was a big upside for me as a consequence - namely that our focus on Saturdays would be Championship commentary games instead. My work schedule included midweek games from the EFL already, so an extra game was great for me. My love for the EFL and especially The Championship should be all too obvious, seeing as my lot have spent more years at that level in my lifetime than anywhere else!
But whilst I’m used to it, Perry Groves - my regular Saturday 3pm wingman - has been used more to commentating on Premier League games, but it was just a couple of weeks in to our jaunts around the EFL when Perry turned to me and said “You know what Dants? This is really refreshing to watch”.
And Perry genuinely meant that in a number of ways. For one thing, the EFL is, of course, a VAR-free zone. As I’ve commentated on some Premier League games too this past year at places like Brighton, Fulham & Southampton, the two of us were in a unique position to compare and contrast what the beautiful game is like with and without Stockley Park scrutiny.
And the contrast is stark. I needed to be convinced about VAR in the first place and perhaps a relatively incident-free World Cup 2018 lulled me into a false sense of security about its effectiveness. But perhaps, as we’ve all discovered over time, it’s more about those operating matters miles from the stadia rather than the system itself. The mantra ‘miminum interference for maximum benefit’ was trotted out to us all by the PGMOL representatives prior to VAR’s introduction into English football, and rarely has that mantra ever rung true…wiser and more accurate to swap the words ‘maximum’ and ‘minimum’ around in that phrase.
I cannot think of a game Perry and me commentated on in the EFL where we walked back to our cars to head home with the most prominent thought in our heads being ‘Cor the ref had a stinker today, didn’t he?’ It just wasn’t in our minds as neutrals calling a match as straight as we always do. We spent most time talking about players’ honesty and graft (with occasional exceptions of course) and some great football (again, not always true) - what crystallised our VAR opinions were those rare Saturdays where a Premier League ref took charge of a Championship game and you could clearly see how relaxed they were officiating without a finger in the ear every 5 seconds with instructions coming from an industrial estate near Heathrow.
I think of a beleaguered Lee Mason, a fortnight after a horrid VAR decision at Fulham which he was at the centre of, taking charge of Sheffield Wednesday v Birmingham City at Hillsborough and looking so much more relaxed without the VAR sword of Damocles hanging over his head wherever he went on the field of play. Use that sword instead to cut VAR out of football, if it cannot be sensibly implemented - and that appears to be an impossibility for those at Stockley who just can’t help themselves but play God.
But back to the beautiful game - as usual, my trips around the country occasionally took me to grounds for the first ever time. Such as:
Brentford - well, this was the same for everyone, to be fair. The Brentford Community Stadium was opened this season as the Bees finally left Griffin Park behind. I saw Luton Town’s Twitter feed somewhat cruelly dub the new ground as the ‘Lego Community Stadium’ in reference to the colour scheme of the seating around the stands, which are a mixture of burgundy, a dull yellow and cream. I think it gives a unique look, myself - and after all, from next season (hopefully) you won’t see any of those seat colours as every one will be occupied…especially if it’s Premier League teams visiting. (they’ve just reached the playoff final as I type).
From a purely selfish point of view, working conditions at the BCS are light years ahead of the cramped press box at Griffin Park which struggled to contain an increased press interest as Brentford began flirting with the top end of the Championship. I’m just waiting for the first shanked clearance to head over the North Stand and see the ball bounce onto the elevated section of the M4!
Forest Green - this is as fresh as possible in my memory, as it was only yesterday that I made my first trip to Nailsworth in Gloucestershire for what turned out to be arguably the maddest game I saw all season - talk about ‘save the best til last’!! The New Lawn affords you some lovely views of the rolling Cotswold hills to the North, but I wasn’t able to view a plant-based burger or vegan sausage roll as the kiosks weren’t open due to covid regulations for the playoff semi final against Newport County.
But any thoughts of abandoning meat for the evening were swiftly cast to the strong winds at the stadium as the 2nd leg exploded into life inside 8 breathless minutes with Forest Green Rovers quickly cancelling out Newport’s 1st leg lead with 2 goals. That was just the start as the game swung back and forth more than Tarzan over 120 minutes. And it was on 118 minutes that Nicky Maynard scored Newport’s crucial 3rd goal of the night to qualify and silence the 1200-strong partisan Green Army faithful. What a game! You just cannot deny the gut wrench and the joy of the Play-Offs
I also made a return trip to Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Stadium for the first time in 20 years to discover that only really the car park outside had changed, to Peterborough’s Weston Homes Stadium, where the sponsors had clearly been a tad busy since my last visit with apartment developments now towering over all sides of the ground, and to Oakwell, home of Barnsley, whose main stand is still a proper throwback to a bygone age of wooden bench press boxes, brick wall urinals and a top quality cuppa.
I must at this point pay tribute to the many pundits I work with up and down the country.
Perry Groves, who I mentioned earlier, remains a relentless supplier of jokes and jelly babies (both of which are welcome)
David Connolly seems to know a member of coaching staff at every club we visit and gleans great, useful info every single time about players we’re watching to use in our games together
Sam Parkin remains a gentle giant with a giant knowledge about the lower leagues and all its intricacies; also a supplier of fantastic mini sausage rolls at half time
Adrian Clarke was a delight to have back on the pundit team after an enforced absence - one of the most descriptive co-comms you’ll ever hear
Chris Iwelumo is still chiding me about how useless I am on Instagram (he isn’t) and his boundless enthusiasm for the game comes through in every game he covers
Dean Ashton is like Tony Hart with all the gadgets he brings with him to games, drawing circles, arrows and crosses all over his iPad as he sorts out formations and so on. He’s a very happy bunny that Norwich are back in the big time
Trevor Sinclair has such a happy countenance when you see him at games - a man genuinely thrilled to be at every game he commentates on. Like all my other pundits you can have some fun with Trev during comms
Neil Redfearn has been brilliant as Sheffield Utd Women’s coach this season, but it’s always a pleasure to sit with him at games oop North and benefit from all his vast experience
Courtney Sweetman-Kirk is one of Neil’s star players at the Blades, and she starred for talkSPORT as she came on board several times with me for EFL matches, displaying a great aptitude for match punditry for someone so new to broadcasting.
Alvin Martin is always going to be hard to dislodge as my favourite all time co-commentator. He was my first talkSPORT radio husband, after all. The only disappointment in working with Alvin is that we never get to cover Bristol City away games…just so I can hear him describe the Robins’ purple shirts…(think about it)
Micky Gray joined me a couple of times this season, including the arduous climb up to the Burnley press box and always has a smile on his face and a tale to tell about his young lad’s progress as a golfer !
Simon Grayson took the managers job at Fleetwood Town to try and escape me, but it didn’t work and he was manacled back with me at Sunderland for their ultimate play-off failure against Lincoln :) he brought the gas and air after our punishing climb up to the very back of the stand and our lofty commentary position!
Michael Kightly got the nod for that see-saw game at Forest Green to round off my domestic season and he got a belter. Really good debut from Kights - made me laugh when he said he’d played at the New Lawn for England ‘C’ but couldn’t remember anything about the game…you’re not THAT old Michael!!
As well as the on air team that includes your genial hosts Russ Williams (who bites quicker on jokes at Spurs’ expense than Moose with a tuna pancake in his hand) and Dan Windle (doubtless still gnashing his teeth at Portsmouth doing a Devon Lock on the last day of League One fixtures), the team on the 17th floor of The News Building that you don’t hear on air deserves just as much if not more credit. Kate Pichowicz is unflinchingly cheerful, positive and superbly focused as my regular matchday producer - they’ve even started to let her out of the building to produce at stadia on occasion! Ollie Thornton, James Hurley, Jamie Dickens and many others back at talkSPORT towers are all crucial to keep everything on the straight and narrow whilst I’m burbling away for 45 minutes at a time. And my Football Editor boss Jason Bourne has looked after all us commentators in fine style. It must feel like spinning plates looking ahead at a constantly shifting rota of games and kick off times whilst placing comms teams where they will work best - it’s one hell of a job he does as a result.
As for my own personal highlights, I have to put the final day of the Championship season right at the very top. With the top 6 already sorted prior to the playoffs, it was all about which 3 of 4 teams would drop into League One. And as the fixture computer so cruelly does at times, it pitched 2 of those 4 teams involved together at Pride Park for game 46 as Derby faced Sheffield Wednesday. Elsewhere, Wycombe needed a bigger swing than Frank Sinatra and Robbie Williams combined to get the goal difference they needed to survive, so it was really all about what Rotherham could do at Cardiff to try and save themselves whilst trying to relegate both the Rams and the Owls at the same time.
I’d brought my abacus, slide rule plus all my fingers and toes with me to the East Midlands and I needed every digit as, during the course of the 90 minutes, there were times where Derby, Sheff Weds AND Rotherham had all made themselves safe, relegating the other two. Rotherham took an early lead in South Wales and kept holding onto it whilst the game I was watching with David Connolly to’d and fro’d incessantly. A draw would potentially have sent both sides through the trapdoor, and as Derby somehow wrestled the game back to a 3-3 scoreline (thinking they still HAD to win to overhaul The Millers) Marlon Pack scored a Cardiff equaliser that knocked the stuffing out of Rotherham and condemned them to the drop as well as Sheffield Wednesday who’d come so close themselves.
It was a breathless 90 minutes-plus and Alex Crook, our guy at Cardiff/Rotherham was right on point with his updates to supplement the drama unfolding minute by minute in front of me at Pride Park. It was an afternoon where the tension, goals and drama gives you everything you need to work with as a commentator and I absolutely loved every second of it. I guess the game I just saw at Forest Green was right up there with it, in truth!
As for my beloved Blues? Another appointment that ended up bemusing the fan base as Aitor Karanka shrugged his way out of our affections with some pretty woeful form and woeful formations too. Enter Lee Bowyer to unveil a revolutionary 4-4-f****g 2 system that recognised how to correctly utilise a striker as genuine and hardworking as Lukas Jutkiewicz (with a strike partner and genuine width) and hey presto! Goals, wins and points! It’s a simple game sometimes…Now then, Blues - don’t do anything stupid and lose this manager as quickly as you found him. We’re still a tad bemused over Rowett & Monk. Give Lee what he wants, like his own staff, and let him get on with it without needless interference. Easier said than done with TTA in charge…
Anyway, thank you for tuning in if you ever did to our coverage this season. It’s always an honour. Here’s to full capacity grounds come August when we all reconvene for season 2021/22 (that’s allowing for the bits of St Andrew’s that won’t be open as they’re still structurally unsafe!!!) and here’s to a great upcoming European Championships on talkSPORT, Let’s ‘ave it!!!!