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Monday 13th May 2024 - My talkSPORT Season 23/24

My 20th season for talkSPORT is coming to a conclusion, save for a Euro Conference League final to commentate on - not to mention the Euros that start in mid-June over in Germany, then the World Matchplay Darts kicks in come July and THEN the Olympics looms large as July becomes August. This will be one of those summers where it’ll be hard to tell when one ‘season’ ends and another one begins!

The beginning of this season back in August saw me tick off 2 more on the “92 league grounds wot I ain’t never been to” list. On the EFL’s opening weekend, I was dispatched to North Wales with Dean Saunders to see how a buoyant Wrexham would adapt to life back in the EFL after their high-profile promotion. The positivity around the Racecourse was palpable and Hollywood star Hugh Jackman joined his star-studded pals Ryan & Rob in the directors box to take in the joy of those in red. MK Dons had other ideas and promptly walloped Wrexham 5-3 (a scoreline that looks closer than the 90 minutes actually showed).

It’s to Wrexham’s credit that that result most definitely did not define their season and in the end, they took 2nd spot for back to back promotions whilst MK sacked Graham Alexander, hired Mike Williamson from Gateshead and ended up getting a walloping of their own off Crawley in the playoff semis.

3 days later, it was off to SW19 to visit the new Plough Lane stadium for the first time - technically I could claim to have been there before as Jason Cundy and me had hosted a Friday Night Kick Off show on talkSPORT from the dog track that used to be on that site…but the developers have done a really smashing job building a new stadium for AFC Wimbledon to call home. And the way they played in dispatching Coventry City in the EFL Cup 1st round that night suggested Johnnie Jackson’s side had a lot to be excited about going forward - not quite a playoff spot in the end, but a solid season plus a cash windfall in selling top scorer Ali Al Hamadi to Ipswich (more on them later)

I’d also seen a shock the night before at Priestfield as Gillingham put Southampton to the sword, and Russell Martin the Saints boss was scathing in the criticism of some of his players when I spoke to him afterwards. Think it’s fair to say he got the right response in the end (as I type, they’re in the playoffs after a mad 23-game unbeaten run mid-season).

There are some places you get to visit where a long time has passed since you’d last worked there. Meadow Lane, Nottingham falls squarely into that category. It was the second ground I EVER worked at in early 1999 as a Capital Gold reporter and I was back in mid-October 2023 to see the local derby Notts County against Mansfield. The Stags were outstanding in a 4-1 win where County just couldn’t live with them. It’s a long time since Mansfield have been a L1 side but Nigel Clough has finally got them there. I’m not sure how competitive they will be at the higher level compared to Wrexham and Stockport (the other automatically promoted teams) but the fans will be understandably delighted after 11 successive campaigns at L2 level.

Up in the rarified atmosphere of the Premier League, a 3pm Saturday commentary was my regular weekly gig and I got to witness several strange afternoons at 2 particular venues. At Old Trafford, Manchester United were entirely unconvincing each time I went, even though I saw them beat Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Utd. They also lost heavily to Brighton at the Theatre Of Dreams (not the only decent Brighton away win I saw) and whilst Erik ten Hag remained stoic and unmoved during the post-match interviews he gave me, it belied his utter bemusement at how his players were failing to set standards that usually put the fear of God into teams visiting the red half of Manchester. The Sheffield United game was a case in point despite the eventual 4-2 home win. The Blades led twice and the apathy from the stands that accompanied both those goals spoke volumes for how somebody (Sir Jim Ratcliffe?) needs to give the whole of Manchester United a bloody good shake.

Whilst Old Trafford itself looks tired and in need of more than simply a lick of paint, my trips to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this past year are always a pleasure to undertake…even though you do have to park in a separate postcode to avoid ridiculous car park charges etc. Speaking of postcodes, the press room there has one all its own! No wonder the NFL jamboree loves going there twice a year for International Series fixtures. It’s all state of the art and the commentary box view is as good as anywhere I’ve worked.

The 3 games I commentated on there vs Brighton, Wolves and Palace had a lot of deja vu about them, despite Spurs winning 2 of the 3. In all of them, Spurs started sluggishly and encouraged their opponents to take them on. That said, the fans appear full square behind the Angeball philosophy and the defeat to Wolves wasn’t greeted with fan toxicity or vitriol, rather encouragement and, dare I say it, understanding about what their team were trying to do. I wonder whether Champions League qualification might be a year too early for a developing squad and Europa League participation might suit them better.

At the business end of the season, I ended up seeing 2 successive promotion celebrations in 2 weeks. The first came at Pride Park where Derby County ended their couple of years marooned in the 3rd tier by going up automatically with a comfortable win over already-relegated Carlisle. When teams succeed after years of either failure or inertia, you always end up thinking of your peers that follow the clubs week in week out for local radio and/or club commentary. Ed Dawes at BBC Radio Derby is as good an example of this as I can think of. I’ve known Ed for a number of years and he is such a lovely man - it’s always a pleasure to see him at Rams games whether home or away. I’ve also seen him suffer in a sense as his club have toiled for years at Championship level, stayed up by the skin of their teeth, finally dropped through the trapdoor and then failed to crack the top 6 in League One courtesy of a last day defeat at Sheffield Wednesday.

And so, when the full time whistle went and the inevitable pitch invasion was launched, Ed was first in my thoughts, and probably with a number of us in that press box knowing what he was finally witness to - namely a good day to be a Derby County supporter.

The messages I subsequently received on my phone 7 days later were of the sort of conciliatory nature that Ed probably got 2 years back when Derby went down. That’s because my lot finally bit the dust at Championship level, after 7 seasons finishing no higher than 17th in the table. To say we’ve been circling the plughole would be putting it mildly. And victory against Norwich on final day ultimately meant nothing as Blues’ destiny was not in their own hands that afternoon.

I was commentating on matters at the opposite end of the table on the day as Ipswich completed a quite remarkable back to back promotion as they won 2-0 against Huddersfield at an utterly euphoric Portman Road. Producer Izzy (an Ipswich fan) was part of our team in Suffolk and her elation and happy tears at full time was in total contrast to my despair upon learning that everyone around us in the table had done what they needed to do and won to preserve their status - ultimately condemning us to the drop.

To be in amongst joyous scenes of fans wearing royal blue and white in full celebratory mode was a bit weird I must say, but I was determined to be as professional as possible on air as the afternoon progressed and my team’s fate became more readily apparent. I hope the pain didn’t manifest itself too much on air, because such afternoons are not about commentators like me, rather the 20,000+ fans around me in a state of euphoria. But as the news was confirmed in the wake of all the full times, I was asked for my opinion and I gave it honestly without any knee-jerk reactions that my industry seems all too full of nowadays, more’s the pity

I see parallels with the last time Blues went down to the 3rd tier back in 1994, not long after new ownership had come in at St Andrew’s (Sullivan and the Gold brothers in that instance) promised promotion, changed manager, but ultimately were relegated. I’ve blogged before on here about just how much fun that 94/95 season was under Barry Fry…but there’s no denying that the League One we’ve dropped into is far more competitive than the one we visited 30 years ago.

I’m normally glass half full about Blues staying up in a given season, but my trip to watch them at QPR for talkSPORT 2 on Good Friday put me in a different frame of mind compared to years past. We had the lead at Loftus Road and were pegged back and looking set for a point that could have proved so so important to us, before QPR full back Jimmy Dunne unleashed a 30 yard shot at the Loft End which 99 times out of 100 would have landed in the BBC White City car park nearby…instead this was the time where the shot tore into the top left hand corner of the net and Blues were sunk right at the last. It felt pivotal, but again, I hoped my commentary that afternoon did not come across as a heartbroken Bluenose watching it fly in, but rather a neutral excitement about what it meant for both clubs as QPR were struggling just like my lot were. Such is the life commentating on your team. You have to take the rough with the…slightly less rough.

I’ve worked mostly this season with pundits that I already have a strong on air rapport with. Perry Groves as my regular wing man brings an inexhaustible supply of jelly babies (needs a sponsorship with Maynards at this point!) and boundless good humour. (He regularlynjoked about needing a comedy nose and glasses as we walked from Northumberland Park station to Spurs’ ground!)

He’s been through an awful lot this past year or so and I’m so proud of the strides he’s made after stepping away from the drinking culture that was affecting him and his mental health. His deliberate pun insertion during commentaries is something I have to listen out for and acknowledge/admonish!!

In terms of new pundits I’ve worked with, there was Troy Deeney, a Bluenose who somehow I’d never met until we worked at Man City v Villa late in the season. He’s a delight to talk to and searingly honest about everything within the game, but also very humble about these first steps he’s taking into punditry and was very keen for me to give him ‘notes’, which doesn’t happen necessarily with every new face in the press box. Hope to work with him again very soon, if a management opportunity doesn’t come his way first. Current West Ham Women’s boss Rehane Skinner joined me at Chelsea for a UWCL tie and was excellent in her summing up of the game, despite some obvious nerves on her part at first.

Scott Minto is someone I’ve gotten to know over the years that he presented Sky’s EFL coverage, and now that he’s part of team talkSPORT, I’ve finally had the chance to work alongside him, which has been every bit as much fun as I’d expected it to be. We did the somewhat anti-climactic first leg of Norwich v Leeds in the playoff semis this past weekend, but the game still flew by because of the way Scott worked with me in commentary. Indeed, everyone who sits with me offers such a great deal to help our coverage sound fun, knowledgable and descriptive. Dean Ashton, Adrian Clarke, Chris Iwelumo, Mickey Gray, Courtney Sweetman-Kirk, Alvin Martin, Danny Mills, Sam Parkin, Dean Saunders, Lucy Ward…and many more. Heroes one and all. And most even fetch me a cuppa at half time!

As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed the coverage that I’ve been a part of and thank you for the kind messages I receive, both on here and through my socials. It’s lovely to know you love and value what we try and do on talkSPORT…I’ll talk more on here about my impending 20th Anniversary with the station in a month or two!

Take care & KRO

Dants x

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