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The loneliness of the long distance commentator - Season 22/23

The end of my 19th season with talkSPORT bombing around the country - and further afield - in pursuit of the beautiful game. I reckon I’ve done over 25,000 miles driving around the UK covering matches for the mightiest sports radio station in the known cosmos this past campaign. I didn’t claim any diesel expenses for the trip to Qatar though… :)

With the Covid pandemic now firmly in the rear view mirror, it’s been a season of unrestricted access for fans and press to get reacquainted with. I must admit that there was a slight benefit to an empty car park and stadium surround whilst we brought you games during Project Restart, but the norm that we’ve now returned to is well worth that little extra delay in getting away post-match.

Some grounds are worse than others for that - and that’s even on those days where your post match interview duties go on for a good while so that you could be at least a further hour inside the stadium. West Brom fans will know about the queues that stretch down Halfords Lane in either direction long after the final whistle at the Hawthorns…that’s one example that springs to mind straight away.

Of course this was a season like no other, with a World Cup slapped right bang in the middle of it all, if you please. Having returned to the UK after the quarter finals in Qatar, I was straight onto World Darts duty at Ally Pally soon after and the football only really kicked back in for me domestically on Boxing Day at Leicester, but from thereon in it’s been pretty relentless stuff for players, fans and press over the past 5 months.

I wouldn’t say that my quest to visit all 92 English football league grounds is all that relentless, but I am now up to 82/92 following this season’s travels. That’s not as impressive as my commentary colleague Jim Proudfoot who completed the 92 just a month or two back, and many congrats to him! After the relegation/promotion issues to and from the EFL were sorted, here’s what I have left to go (in no particular order);

Rotherham Utd (New York Stadium)
Sutton Utd
Leyton Orient
Mansfield Town
Carlisle Utd
AFC Wimbledon

I’ve specified Rotherham’s New York Stadium as I did once work at their previous home of Millmoor. I think that was back in the times where myself and Tony “Bomber” Brown were sent up and down the land to take in West Brom’s promotion campaign under Gary Megson. Millmoor was clearly a stadium from another era at that time, and I’m sure my mind isn’t playing tricks when I recall seeing a woman hanging out her washing in her back garden that overlooked the tiny stand opposite our commentary position! I think their new place is a bit posher and less prone to bloomers on display fluttering in the breeze.

You’ll note Wrexham nestling at the foot of that list - I fancy that a lot of their fixtures will be covered by us and especially the Sky cameras as their Hollywood high profile journey continues back in the Football League. So, it stands a fair chance that The Racecourse will get ticked off at some point for me, but it’s by no means definite. There’s no choosing your choice of grounds to work at - merely the luck of the (FA Cup) draw for the most part.

Notts County are also back up, but I HAVE been there. In fact it was the first “away game” I ever did as a reporter for Capital Gold back in 1999 watching Walsall, using a thing called a ‘reporter phone’, a really prehistoric bit of broadcast kit - however, I also went as a Blues fan to Meadow Lane earlier in the 90’s to watch Barry Fry’s side lose one Tuesday evening. I’d taken my then girlfriend to the game and she subsequently forgot that she’d attended…so much so that when I brought our trip to the Trent up at a party some months later, she furiously denied all knowledge of being there and accused me (wrongly) at full volume in front of all and sundry of having an affair. That was a fun drive home.

I did cross a couple of grounds off the old list this past year. Early on in the Football League Trophy campaign (sadly no longer associated with pizza) me and David Connolly worked together at Broadfield Stadium, home to League 2 Crawley Town as they met (and beat) Portsmouth from the division above in the group stages. The Red Devils were on the first of 3 permanent managers for the season, as it turned out-Kevin Betsy was in charge for my visit in late August. They won on the night via a penalty shootout following a 2-2 draw, which is how the competition works in the early fixtures. The ground reminded me of Walsall an awful lot and the welcome from the press box team was most definitely Walsall-like. I was shown to my seat in the stand, was brought up drinks and a sandwich and was generally fussed over, as all press attendees were, it seemed.

I think I’ve mentioned before when writing here that sometimes you break your duck at a stadium and then the floodgates open to head back almost immediately. QPR and Luton Town are 2 recent examples of places I’d never worked at since picking up a microphone which suddenly became regular haunts from nowhere. Well, you can now add Stockport County to that list after the past couple of weeks at the end of the season.

I was sent to Edgeley Park initially to cover the final day of the League 2 season, as there was an outside chance the Hatters could sneak an automatic promotion spot if Northampton slipped up at Tranmere. Thanks to the Cobblers taking a very early lead, the jeopardy was never really there in my match, but I was soon informed that I would be returning to Greater Manchester to commentate on the 2nd leg of their playoff semifinal against Salford in a week or so. That was a far more dramatic occasion - as it almost always is in the Playoffs - with penalties needed to get Stockport over the line in the end.

The Playoffs continue to show what a fabulous innovation they were back in the late 1980’s and then refined to the system we know now a few years hence. Salford City became the 104th club to participate in them by virtue of their 7th placed finish in League Two, which leaves very few sides who’ve NEVER experienced it. Even the might of Chelsea and Man City have dabbled in it. I almost feel for Man Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs fans etc who will probably never know the utter gut wrench of it all. I’ve got good, bad and truly awful memories of my lot taking part in them. Long may they reign.

The other debuts on my grounds list this season came at non-league level. First to Berkshire and the home of Sandhurst Town - only they weren’t there that night. Bracknell Town are sharing the ground currently and they drew Ipswich Town in the FA Cup 1st round back in November. Our commentary position, even at smaller stadia, is usually somewhere near the halfway line, but once you’re below EFL level, you are at the mercy of where stands happen to be in relation to the pitch.

And in the case of the gloriously named ‘Bottom Meadow’ Stadium, myself David Connolly and producer Izzy were sat in the front row of a stand that went back just 6 rows, set roughly level with the 18-yard line at one end and set a few yards back from the touchline. What that meant was that the crowds who were able to stand to our right against the advertising hoardings effectively blocked our view of any attack down one side of the pitch! “Character building” is the phrase that springs to mind, but we navigated our way through and mostly saw what we needed to see. Thankfully the 3 goals Ipswich scored were at our end!! And the street food on offer in the gazebos behind the goals was spectacularly good- good value too.

A trip to Torquay United was similarly challenging in that FA Cup 1st round when Derby County went to Plainmoor in the same month as I’d travelled to Bracknell. I was only providing goal reports and updates for talkSPORT in Devon that day rather than a full commentary, but to be plonked right behind the goal at one end and then see all the goalmouth action happen at the other end was a bit of a wounder. It took me a good while to discern that it was in actual fact Will Goodwin who’d notched Torquay’s dramatic stoppage time equaliser to force a replay. In fairness, the floodlights at Plainmoor weren’t especially strong as darkness slowly fell and there were a gaggle of players in and around the penalty box 100yds away, but I was still telling myself off halfway back up the M5 later on.

Due to my changing roles over the years at talkSPORT I hadn’t presented the Breakfast show for quite some time, and certainly not since we’d move to our new London Bridge home. But in mid-February I’d done a Borussia Dortmund Champions League game ‘off tube’ (as they say) from talkSPORT Towers and had gone back to stay at my brother’s flat in nearby Islington rather than travel home. The last thing I’d expected was a phone call at 6.01am from producer Scott asking whether I could dial up from home & cover for an AWOL Alan Brazil. This, of course, has happened many times before, and back in the day I’d almost learned to sleep with one eye open anticipating a mercy dash to either my ISDN line or to London itself to cover for Alan, wherever he was at the time.

On this occasion, Scott wasn’t aware that I was only 20 minutes away from the main studio by taxi. He was delighted to learn this and summoned a cab immediately. Next thing you know, I’m sat next to Gabby Agbonlahor and reminding him which of our respective clubs have won the most major trophies in the 21st Century. It was an absolute honour to sit in the breakfast hotseat once again. The feelings of deja vu were so strong, I half expected Ronnie Irani to show up!

My 2022/23 season has taken in Premier League, EFL, Champions League, FA Cup, EFL Cup, EFL Trophy and World Cup games - here’s a few highlights

* Plymouth Ipswich (Sunday Sept 25th)
Lunchtime kickoffs have a reputation for being a bit lacklustre and tame. Not so here for this League One clash I did (once again, David Connolly was my wingman) at Home Park between two of the most fancied sides to gain promotion (and the bookies were right in both cases in the end). It was a fabulous match as Plymouth came from behind to win 2-1 in front of a full house at an increasingly impressive stadium after a former Pilgrim in Freddie Ladapo had given Ipswich the lead before half time. The fact that David and me were still waxing lyrical about this game when comparing it to games at much higher levels this season speaks volumes.

It was also quite poignant to see Devonian broadcasting legend Gordon Sparks in attendance to see the official opening of the Gordon Sparks Press Box, despite being rather poorly at the time. It turned out to be the final home game he would attend before he sadly passed away last October. He’d been a great help to me many years before on my first visit to Home Park when I hadn’t a clue where to go or where to plug in. Plymouth getting back to the Championship is a fitting tribute to his love for the club.

* Netherlands v Argentina (Fri Dec 9th)

This was my last game in Qatar before flying home post-quarter finals. I was sad, of course, about coming home because you want to be part of the team for the duration of the tournament, but that simply isn’t possible nor practical. But this 120 minutes plus penalties had more packed into it than my homeward bound KISS suitcase (of course I have a KISS suitcase - what do you expect???)

I think it was 15 yellow cards that referee Lahoz issued during the game-including 2 in the flipping shootout if memory serves, and Stuart Pearce alongside me did say that the game we watched in the Lusail that night “had just about everything”. Messi had the Albiceleste on the brink, as he steered the team into a 2-0 lead before Wout Weghorst came on for the Dutch and scored as many goals in 20 minutes for them as he had in 1457 minutes for Burnley last season! The equaliser deep in stoppage time took especially large cojones as a free kick on the edge of the Argentina box was not fired straight at goal but instead rolled to the side of the wall for Weghorst to slide it home.

The Dutch had been on the front foot for those 20 incredible minutes to get level and then spent all 30 minutes of extra time reverting back to the passive football that served them no purpose in the early stages of the match. The penalties were always going to go one way after that, it seemed…especially with Emiliano Martinez in goal for Argentina. Two great saves from him did the job…within 10 days they were World Champions ! But the Dutch should still be kicking themselves for their extra time approach…and how there wasn’t a red card in amongst all those yellows beats me!

* Arsenal Bournemouth (Mar 4th)

March proved to be a memorable month for matches I covered - particularly as I seemed to spend the entire month keeping colds, blocked noses and (crucially) sore throats at bay over the course of at least 10 commentaries. Arsenal’s home game against the Cherries was the first game I did that month and it had pretty much the lot. After a previous visit to the Emirates saw our commentary position somewhat compromised by fans trying to attack us as The Gunners lost at home to Brighton (still don’t know why we were targeted), the Arsenal media team had put us on the TV gantry that day, which necessitated a journey in the 2nd slowest lift in football (Leicester’s lift to their press box will ALWAYS be slowest).

The game wasn’t slow in coming to life, though, as Bournemouth took less than a minute to silence the home crowd by taking the lead, then having the temerity to go 2-up just before the hour! This was title-chasing Arsenal not just being kept at bay by relegation-threatened Bournemouth but actually being out-fought and out-thought. Alvin Martin and me were starting to tee up Gunners fans to phone and moan to Jamie O Hara’s phone in after us when the comeback began through Partey’s strike, eventually resulting in the 97th minute winner from Reiss Nelson that prompted total bedlam all around us - you simply could not hear my commentary once that ball hit the back of the net, such was the cacophony of joy. You really thought that the title was very much on at that point…we all know what happened there…

* Sheff U Blackburn (Mar 19th)

By the time I’d got to my Air BNB in Sheffield on Saturday evening having commentated on Wolves v Leeds that afternoon, I was a tad concerned about my voice. It had been scratchy enough as I headed for the game at Molineux, never mind how it felt after 90 intense minutes with 6 goals and a precious away win for Leeds to commentate on.

My throat doesn’t respond well to your average Strepsil or Chloraseptic Spray - it just gets worse rather than better in my experience. I do prefer those basic blackcurrant pastilles you get at everyone’s favourite chemist, and I bought about 5 packs of those at their Wolverhampton branch on Saturday morning. Not only that, but a fresh stash of lemon and ginger tea bags were required. Paul Nicholson, ex PDC Darts star and a commentary colleague for ‘darts on the radio’ had recommended those teabags on a previous occasion where my voice was struggling and it had really worked.

This time, I felt like all the lemon and ginger in the world couldn’t help as I had a desperately early night knowing I had a lunchtime FA Cup quarter final to work at in just hours. My larynx wasn’t exactly fully firing when I awoke after a restless night, but you tend to know instinctively somehow that you have enough within you to power through. Which I subsequently had to, as the two Championship sides served up a belter in the last 8, culminating in Tommy Doyle’s incredible winner late on at Bramall Lane. Loved doing that game, despite feeling decidedly grotty.

* Barnsley Sheff Weds (21st)

I wasn’t feeling that much better when I had to head back to South Yorkshire 48 hours later for a crucial League One game. Sheffield Wednesday were on a 23-game unbeaten run but were somehow not miles clear of the likes of Plymouth and Ipswich at the top, and Barnsley were within striking distance too. Oakwell was well and truly rocking with the belief that The Tykes could indeed hunt down the points difference to the Owls - cue a topsy turvy game where Barnsley raced into a 2-goal lead, only to be pegged back by a resolute Wednesday side and then went back in front late on to eventually win 4-2.

As I type this, they’re set to meet in the playoff final at Wembley next week. If it’s anything like as intense as the game I did with Adrian Clarke on this occasion, it’ll be a brilliant way to end the EFL season at Wembley.

And it’s been a great season to be a part of on your wireless. Here’s to another great campaign in all the leagues next time…and maybe Blues finishing above 17th in the Championship? That would make a lovely change. I should take this opportunity to thank all the team I work with across talkSPORT & talkSPORT 2, be it pundits, producers and technical staff. It’s one hell of a team we have - and it’s one hell of a right forearm smash Chris Iwelumo has on him when he demonstrated during our Coventry/Middlesbrough playoff commentary what it’s like when a forward puts his arm across a centre half when backing in. I did the rest of that game in traction! (not really)

Have a smashing summer and see you in August for my 20th consecutive talkSPORT season!

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