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May 23rd 2022 - My football season 21/22

Leigh Sports Village ahead of the WSL Manchester Derby

The Football Season 2021/2022 is now at an end for me work-wise, after 108 games, mostly as a commentator barring a few ‘reporter’ shifts in amongst them, and 21 different pundits by my side (not all at once) to help cover the action.

Grounds were back at full capacity for the most part, as we all tried to banish you-know-what to the rear view mirror but in truth, press facilities both pre and post match remained on a somewhat uncertain footing for most of the campaign…it wasn’t really until the Spring of this year that interviews with managers/players no longer necessitated the need for social distancing. At least during the previous months I’d finally found a practical use for a selfie stick rather than just as a narcissist’s wand…it made for a fine boom arm to keep a 2m distance between you and the phone you were using to record your post match interviews on. Unless, of course, the selfie stick companies knew years back exactly what was coming in 2020…gulp.

This past year, my talkSPORT/talkSPORT 2 commentary work covered Premier League and EFL matches as before, not to mention Champions League and domestic Cup competitions too, but also I took in my first commentary games in the WSL and Conti Cup as the women’s game continues to grow at a terrific rate.

This meant a first ever trip to Leigh Sports Village in early October to take in the Manchester Derby, whereupon I was presented mid-game with a potential commentary disaster I hadn’t really mentally prepared myself for. When Georgia Stanway was given a straight red card for Man City Women, I almost trotted out the line “…and Manchester City are down to 10 men…” which would have been quite the faux pas. Funny how your brain stops you sometimes just in the nick of time - I ended up saying the above sentence without using the final word, and when subsequently bringing up Man Utd’s player advantage I had to be mindful not to slip back into a mode where I would make a basic mistake.

Lucy Ward was alongside me on comms and said after “Well done on the ‘down to 10’ thing - it’s caught a few out before now I can tell you!”. That made me feel better - and it just goes to show once again that no matter how long you’ve been watching games for the wireless, you are always learning new techniques and striving to improve game on game for the benefit of the listening audience.

Trips to Sheffield United pretty much bookended my season - my first match of the campaign was in early August at the start of the Championship as Birmingham City spoiled Slavisa Jokanovic’s first game in charge of the relegated Blades with a 1-0 win. If I’d been 30 years younger, I’d have claimed that this was the start of a glorious 9 months following the Blues…but I know a darn sight better than that these days, and my lot did indeed struggle once again for any sort of consistency. Jokanovic certainly didn’t recover from a poor start and was gone before (most of) the Christmas decorations were up.

By early May though, Bramall Lane was a much transformed place, with Paul Heckingbottom’s steady hand on the tiller guiding them up the league to a playoff spot, and the last day of the regular season saw me back in South Yorkshire as they totally dismantled champions Fulham 4-0 to go into the post-season jamboree in great heart…they did eventually come up short on a dramatic night in Nottingham 10 days later via penalties, but I imagine they’ll be a force next year under the steady, uncomplicated man at the helm.

I mentioned Leigh Sports Village earlier as a new ground to tick off - I’m still not able to tick off all 92 grounds in the top 4 divisions (I reckon I’m 12 venues short just now, allowing for who comes up from the NL playoffs) but it’s always nice to get fresh experiences on your travels - those experiences included:

Stratford Town - where I reported on the Southern League Central side’s first ever FA Cup 1st round tie at Knights Lane against League One Shrewsbury. They only went and took the lead too, sending a 2800 sell-out crowd wild, only for the Shrews to go through the gears and win 1-5 in the end. Still, the Bards were an incredibly welcoming club to us high-falluting national media types pitching up out of nowhere to Shakespeare country. I seem to remember writing a Shakespeare themed preview for the show I was reporting into which seemed to go down well with the listeners…see? talkSPORT can go highbrow!

Solihull Moors - I went HOME! Yes, Damson Park is a stadium I’ve visited before but never in a working capacity. So when the Moors forced an FA Cup replay out of League One high fliers Wigan to take them back to my hometown, it was brilliant to be asked to cover it for talkSPORT. Damson Park is now known as ARMCO Arena and it’s had more than a lick of paint since my last visit, which was good to see - and the team pushed the Latics all the way, as it needed extra time to separate the two sides, Wigan edging it 1-2 in the end. There’s a few folk I know at SMFC with previous links to Blues, and it was lovely to catch up with some friendly faces there before the game. Good luck to the Moors in the playoffs (they’re set to play a semi-final soon as I type this).

Exeter City - another FA Cup R1 replay, another new ground as I travelled down to Devon wondering if that stadium I always saw from the M5 at the Exeter turning was St James’ Park…it wasn’t…

Bradford were the visitors and I met some of the young guys providing Grecians fans with commentary week in week out for their in-house service. These days in the absence of opportunities in local radio for budding commentators, the “in-house” route into broadcasting appears to be the one to covet most, and I did enjoy chatting with the guys down there about the realities they have to deal with working at lower league stadia week in week out and the technological problems they seem to encounter almost every time in trying to get on air and provide a service. My ISDN line at Exeter worked just fine :)

Buxton - In early December, I met up with redoubtable producer and renowned “unsung hero” Declan McCarthy and Sheffield United Women’s striker Courtney Sweetman-Kirk on an absolutely flithy day in the FA Cup 2nd round as the non league Bucks look to cause an upset against Morecambe on their artificial surface at the Silverlands. It was blowing a hooly along with driving and rain in Derbyshire that morning for a lunchtime kick off, and me, Courtney and Dec were grateful to be under the cover of the main stand.

Steve Wilson of the BBC wasn’t so lucky on the temporary television gantry opposite, which left him completely exposed to the elements and saw his notes quickly go soggier than a Weetabix that’s merely been shown a milk carton - proper scratch and sniff commentary ensued from him and he said to me afterwards that’s the worst conditions he’s ever worked in. There was an ‘Up The Bucks’ bedsheet hanging out of a house window just behind his commentary perch, but the driving rain ended up smudging the lettering so badly, it almost looked like a swear word was being displayed 20 minutes in!

It certainly challenged the players to give us a spectacle in such stormy weather, but they duly did as Morecambe edged out the hosts with a solitary goal - which in turn took them in Round 3 to…

Tottenham Hotspur - Now this was breathtaking in a number of ways. I’d not been to the new Spurs stadium up until the early January tie against The Shrimps, and I’d been told numerous times by colleagues about how extraordinary the place now was, but nothing can really prepare you for seeing it yourself…and it was a proper ‘wow’ moment when I first arrived in the press room, never mind when me and Clive Allen went up to our birds eye view commentary point on the halfway line.

The press room practically has its own postcode, and has now usurped Chelsea in my mind as the ultimate press facility in English football (not that it’s a prerequisite to HAVE to have facilities like this everywhere - I don’t mind what’s on offer as long as I can get a cuppa!). Clive gave me a quick guided tour of the players area and other places near to the press room with a real sense of pride in what he was showing me. Can’t blame him either - the old commentary position at White Hart Lane was a little portakabin type room with a window directly behind the Spurs dugout, so it was nearly at pitch level - that was always something of a challenge as a commentator when play was out on the far side from our vantage point.

No such issues at the new place - although Spurs definitely had an issue with Morecambe who had the temerity to take the lead on the half hour, and then held onto that advantage until 15 minutes from time, when Conte threw on expensively assembled talent from the bench and within the blink of an eye it was 3-1 to his men. Next time I’m there, I’ll book the Skywalk …perhaps…

The MCFC Academy - I’ve parked next to this place enough times as that’s where press go for Man City games at the Etihad, but I finally went inside when Man City Women’s side beat Spurs in the Conti Cup semi finals back in February. It’s a League One standard new stadium for me - maybe even lower Championship standard in terms of potential capacity, but the facilities are, as you might expect, top notch. Again, this place was all good for my continuing education on the women’s game and Lauren Hemp shone as she’d done in the Manchester derby some months before. Ridiculously talented player.

There were also a few places on my commentary map that I hadn’t visited for many years.

Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park welcomed me for what I think is only my 2nd ever visit to The Wirral, as they played host to Forest Green in early January, protecting a great home record …and promptly got walloped 0-4 by the eventual champions. There’s an odd rivalry that’s sprung up in recent seasons between these 2 clubs (mostly over playoff games and incidents within them) and the animosity towards Forest Green was very evident. So evident that FGR owner Dale Vince elected to listen to the first half in the Tranmere car park and sneak in at the interval so as not to make a spectacle of himself pre-match in winding up the locals. Seemed a wise move as the players did all the hard work for him.

Hartlepool United is a place I’d not been to since the Gary Megson era at West Prom over 2 decades ago, but our great commitment to the Football League Trophy saw me back to Victoria Park in January for a thrilling cup tie where Luke Molyneux’s screamer sent the game to penalties at 2-2, where ‘Pools held there nerve to knock the Addicks out and make the semis. Myself and Simon Grayson really enjoyed the game, and so did the former Mayor of Hartlepool, who’d tuned in to our talkSPORT 2 coverage of the game and felt compelled afterwards to email my bosses telling them how much he’d enjoyed our commentary and how lacking it was in the (apparently) usual patronising narrative that Hartlepool get when national media usually visit his part of the North East.

That was so lovely to be made aware of and I’m very appreciative of him making my bosses aware that I did an good job, but it is a shame that he notes that such patronising commentary styles still exist in 2022. We should all be beyond that at this point as broadcasters. But here we are.

Gillingham also welcomed me back to Priestfield for a 2nd visit years on from that same Megson/WBA promotion campaign at the start of the 2000’s as Rotherham sealed promotion on the final day of the League One season, sending the Gills down in the process. That also prompted the first of the slew of somewhat sinister pitch invasions at full time. Rotherham fans were not for moving from the playing surface it seemed, and a planned on pitch celebration by the Millers looked in doubt…until one middle aged Rotherham fan of somewhat intimidating build started walking along the line of fans refusing to get back into the stand and remonstrated with each and every one - to be fair to him, he did a better job than anyone else in the ground to get the fans back in their seats. I was allowed pitch side but if he’d started on me, I’d have probably moved too!

It would take too long to list all the brilliant qualities that the 21 pundits I’ve worked with this season possess. Suffice to say they’ve all been brilliant in their own ways, but I will mention Perry Groves as my regular wingman once again for our 3pm Premier League games on talkSPORT 2. Perry in unflinchingly positive about life, football and everything whenever I’m in his company. He also must have a deal with Bassetts by now, such is his commitment to bringing individual bags of Jelly Babies on match day not just for me and him, but also for whoever we have as on site producer AND the reporter that’s providing talkSPORT with updates whilst we do commentary. Why Jelly Babies and not Wine Gums or, say, Minstrels? Simple really - you can chew and digest a Jelly Baby nice and swift during a break in comms to keep the energy levels up and not encounter chewing/swallowing difficulties that you would with a Wine Gum…there’s a science to this, I promise you. It’s always great to have Perry next to you as well, as it’s not often I look fashionable ;)

Other notable mentions - Matt Murray almost convinced me that he only took work at Port Vale on his birthday as it meant working with me for the game against Newport! Working with a former goalkeeper as a pundit makes for a really interesting view of the game. If you think about it, Matt spent his career stood on his 18 yard line watching play unfold in front of him and he brings a unique perspective to the game, not least his thoughts on what the ‘keepers should and shouldn’t be doing at those vital moments. We did have a moment towards the end of the game where my Mediaport broadcast unit gave up and decided to stop working. This necessitated some proper old skool commentary on the last 10 minutes via my IPhone ! That’s one way round it I suppose?

I got to work with Scott Minto for the first time as well as he’s joined the talkSPORT ranks in recent months. We covered Palace’s comfortable FA Cup win over Everton in March and he possesses the exact same keen calm analytical eye that m’colleague Matt Holland has displayed alongside me for years on the station. I’ve known Scott for a good while now since his emergence as a Sky TV presenter and I’m delighted he’s part of our team now. Great to be around.

As is everyone, really. They all seem pleased to see me, at least :)

Best game? Well, I seen Fulham win 7-0 twice away from home at Blackburn and Reading which were pretty memorable to commentate on…Boreham Wood winning at Bournemouth in the FA Cup was easily the biggest shock I witnessed. The atmosphere at Leeds at times this season has been off the charts, notably Pascal Struijk’s late equaliser vs Brighton a week or so before the end of the season with so much at stake. But Middlesbrough’s FA Cup win over Spurs sticks in the mind - totally deserved win for Boro having matched Spurs in every department and getting a thumping winner from young Josh Scoburn. That form never quite carried over into Boro’s bid for the playoffs, but much like Sheffield United who I mentioned earlier, Chris Wilder’s men won’t be far away next year I reckon.

But the EFL playoffs are off the scale in terms of tension drama and intrigue, as I discovered in the 2nd legs at Nottingham Forest and Port Vale. Incredible gut wrenching drama leading on both nights to penalty shootouts, but sadly also to the sort of fan behaviour that I thought had gone out to the periphery of our game. However, there it was front and centre with the headbutt on Billy Sharp, the attempts to accost Swindon players as they attempted to leave the field at Vale Park, and something I saw right in front of my commentary position in the Potteries…grown men in their 60’s electing to taunt Swindon media right in their face rather than celebrate reaching a Wembley final with their club

I don’t know where this is going, or quite why the Billy Sharp incident alone hasn’t drawn a line in the sand for the FA, EFL, police authorities and the rest. If the circumstances that led to that moment goes unchecked or swept under the carpet, I worry what the next level incident will be that actually nudges the needle of those in control of the game and it’s safety. Such a disturbing culture creeping back into the sport and society as a whole.

Worst game? The Buxton FA Cup tie was challenged by the weather, as was Burnley v Watford in February. Incessant driving rain and gusty winds were so bad, Ray Lewington came walking out with the Watford coaching staff in long trousers.

Best individual performance? Easy - Kevin De Bruyne’s one-man show at Wolves with 4 goals and a whole host of delicious passes to boot. What an extraordinary talent.

This bears repeating as I head towards my 19th consecutive season with talkSPORT, but the honour of commentating on football at any level for the station is never lost on me whenever I’ve arrived at a club car park and I’m fishing my equipment out of the boot. I’ve known commentators who’ve deemed certain levels of football as ‘beneath them’ and not worthy of their presence. I’ve always thought the exact opposite-I’m grateful every time they decide it’s ok to let me in at the media entrance!!!

My continuing thanks to all those who work alongside me at stadia as well as those who work tirelessly back at base to keep the show on air whilst we keep the show on the road. Thanks to various service stations for some vital cuppas in the dead of night (Gloucester still tops the pile for me) and no thanks to Highways Agency for some mind boggling road closures.

Let’s do it all again next season - meantime I have a new album to plug!!!!

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