I’ve just made a brew at my brother’s flat in North London having completed my 96th and final live football commentary for this season. So now is as good a time as any to reflect as I sup on Phil’s superior supermarket brand of Sri Lanka’s finest.
96 games, most of which went 90-odd minutes, plus a few that went way beyond that, some that left me spellbound, others that left me more than a bit nonplussed at times, but all had their moments at times - whether they be Premier League games, EFL, Champions League or the much-maligned Checkatrade Trophy. In fact, I’ve just rounded things off today at Wembley with the FA Vase and Trophy finals back to back, so as the odd international fixture has popped up now and again, just about the only thing I’ve not covered regularly from an English game’s perspective is the Europa League...which is a bit of a shame as I’m one of the few UK journalists that a) likes the competition, albeit with a few reservations and b) doesn’t look down my nose at it as depressingly patronisingly as so many of my colleagues do. I look forward therefore to hearing Andy Goldstein trying to change his tune and claim that Manchester United are now in a cup he’s always loved. I remember our argument in 2011, pal...
Not every game goes brilliantly for any radio football commentator and there are plenty of times when you sit back in your car after a broadcast for the drive home (or to a local Travel Tavern) quietly cursing yourself for missing an important assist in a build up, or taking a bit too long to identify a scorer in a crowded penalty area. That’s the nature of the beast, but most of the time you know you’ve come prepared, you know you’ve not needed to use at least 80% of the prep notes you painstakingly wrote out in 4 different coloured biros, and you remembered to pack your 4-way extension plug back in your rucksack this time.
The way I see it, commentary games should be given out on merit, not just because that’s what your contract says you get automatically. Otherwise, in my opinion, you can slacken off knowing that you’re guaranteed games whatever. And despite the fact that I knew at the start of the talkSPORT & talkSPORT 2 season that I would ostensibly be working most Saturdays at 3pm on a PL commentary and live EFL/UCL etc on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, I have never once assumed for one moment that these are just mine for the campaign without me continuing to ‘earn’ those games. So I graft.
My car grafts harder than me though, in fairness. I know most motorways (and the services along them) very very well nowadays, and the game of ‘Roadworks Roulette’ on the M1/6/5/42/23/62 will be all too familiar with away fans who regularly traipse up and down the land giving quite brilliant support to their team. I developed a pathological fear of the M6 north of Stoke pretty much all season, mainly because it only takes a loose pebble in the inside lane to cause gridlock right up to Knutsford, but also because my sat nav usually decides to throw a massive wobbler on this stretch of the motorway and essentially give up. Good job I know where most grounds are around Greater Manchester.
Ah yes - grounds. I’ve taken in a good few new stadia these past 9 months in a variety of competitions. I’m still not at the “all 92” stage yet-far from it. But *adopts Jesse’s Diets voice* “This year, I ar bin mostly paying a first visit to...”
⁃ Hampton & Richmond in SW London for an FA Cup tie with Oldham Athletic, whereupon Moose broke a media chair in the stand by merely sitting in it within 5 minutes of arriving and Sam Parkin neglected to invite us over to his for tea, despite living within one of his wild shots over the bar from the ground. Frankie Bunn’s Latics won through, but he never saw out the season...nor did both his replacements...
⁃ Luton Town, which I’d somehow swerved for nigh on 20 years and then promptly got sent to Kenny Road 3 times in quick succession. That included a dramatic encounter with AFC Wimbledon late on in the season when the Dons snatched an equaliser for 2-2 beyond stoppage time through a Blues loanee, Steve Seddon. It was also where Adrian Clarke tried Bovril for the very first time as a pre-match drink...and promptly had an epiphany. I presume he’s got it coming out of his taps at home by now, of course...
⁃ Southend United, where Southampton brought an U21 side for a Checkatrade game and promptly got mullered by a Shrimpers side containing a very promising midfielder Dru Yearwood, of whom I now expect nothing after me bigging his performance up. My record on that is patchy at best (see Sylvain Ebanks-Blake). Hope I’m proved right for once though, Dru!
⁃ Accrington Stanley - where I saw Derby sneak through in the FA Cup, Sunderland blitz Stanley in the League and 2 old ladies sat just to the right of the press box could clearly be heard in both matches providing their own running commentary on proceedings whilst I was giving it the beans on air too. Only their delivery was slightly more ‘Terry Jones playing the mum in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian’...albeit without any rude words
⁃ Loftus Road - Gawd knows how I’d never ended up here before 2019, but then QPR are exclusively Tony Incenzo’s manor from a talkSPORT perspective. And you DON’T take QPR games off the Incenzo! But a commentary game vs Preston meant a trip down to West London to sit alongside the great man, and get a guided tour of the Loft by Tony himself, a place where everybody knows his name - a bit like Cheers, but without Norm.
⁃ Rodney Parade, where I apparently cemented my growing reputation as an ‘honorary Welshman’ (copyright Rob Phillips of BBC Wales) by entertaining a press box full of the Principality’s finest with my burgeoning Dean Saunders impression. It’s climbing the charts with my Jim White take-off, although whether Trevor Francis ever gets dislodged at the top of the pile is open to question. Someone apparently said to Dean a few weeks back “Have you heard that Dants does a great impression of you?” To which he immediately replied, deadpan “What? He’s scored 25 goals a year for 10 years running?” Decent comeback to be fair. And that’s a true story - unlike most of his...don’t ask him about Billy Whitehurst or you’ll never get away.
⁃ Finally, Prenton Park - where I tried to locate Ray Stubbs prior to Tranmere v Forest Green and failed miserably, preferring instead to wax lyrical in the press area about Blues’ Brazilian player, Fumaca, signed by Barry Fry on the pitch at St Andrew’s at half time in a 1990’s league game, and then walked back down the tunnel, Glenn Miller-style never to be seen again. Why that moment came up whilst sat in the Wirral is yet to occur to me, but there you are.
Best game I’ve called this season? Well there’s a few bubbling under - Ajax’s precocious young stars winning in Juventus was very special to watch with David Connolly, Wigan beating Leeds with just 10 men for an hour at a raucous Elland Road takes some eclipsing as Neil Redfearn will testify, and Burton seeing off both Forest and Boro in the EFL Cup prior to encountering the colossus that is Manchester City were great David v Goliath moments.
But only one match can really win the accolade - Aston Villa 5-5 Nottingham Forest wins hands down from 28th November 2018 at Villa Park. Forest led 2-0 early doors, got pegged back, went 3-2 & 4-3 up surrendering the lead twice more, got a man sent off, went behind for the first time late on to an exquisite El Ghazi finish, but somehow snatched a point through Grabban against his former club in a manic climax. All that in the weird and wonderful company of Mr Ian Holloway alongside me, who mentioned - at various times - Disney cartoon mice that aren’t Mickey or Minnie, Scottish tongue twister scorelines and a chocolate liqueur drink enjoyed over ice in front of a roaring fire at Christmas that apparently bears a striking resemblance to a Villa midfielder. You can work it all out yourself if you put yourself in the mindset of Ollie. It was a brilliant, breathtaking 90-odd minutes of Championship bonkersness.
I even saw my mighty Blue machine live twice this season and (hopefully) sounded absolutely neutral as they came within a minute of winning 3-2 at Swansea before McBurnie had other ideas and then a very creditable 1-1 draw with soon-to-be-promoted Sheffield United at St Andrew’s. The 9-point deduction - which lets face it we all thought would be 12 - didn’t derail our Championship status and we now have to try and balance the books to stave off yet more punishment. So long Che, we hardly knew ye...
Whilst we’re on the punishment theme, even though I wasn’t there to see it live, the biggest moron of this season also featured my club in the shape of the Blues ‘fan’ who ran on the pitch during the Birmingham derby and tried to hit Jack Grealish from behind. Horrible horrible moment, utterly indefensible, and left the rest of the game almost unwatchable for me from that moment on. And despite unequivocally stating online within seconds that I did not stand with this disgusting individual and wanted him and his kind out of our club, the “whataboutery” wasn’t far behind in my replies. ‘Twas ever thus online. Most people don’t realise that you can see something written on Twitter that you don’t agree with, choose not to reply and then simply move on with your life.
Worst game I witnessed is easy. Southampton v Newcastle in the Premier League. No goals, no action, nothing. So there. 08717...
Best goal seen live for me this year? Well, Southampton do redeem themselves slightly here with 2 outstanding goals at Old Trafford from Yan Valery and James Ward-Prowse in a 3-2 loss to Man United. Valery’s blockbuster for 1-0 was still rising from 30 yards out when it clunked the stantion at the back of the net, whilst Ward-Prowse’s free kick for 2-2 was sublimely struck from 30 yards out...although Danny Rowe’s winner for AFC Fylde at Wembley today pretty much matched it for technique.
Worst moment? Trying (and failing) to get our broadcast equipment to stop breaking down and falling over at Southampton v Wolves...or getting back from a game somewhere to find I’d left the immersion switch on all day...”Alan’s Deep Bath” ahoy for the next 3 nights...brought to you by Dettol.
I get to work with some really brilliant pundits, all of whom are worth a mention...so I’m now bound to forget someone. Perry Groves is my usual Saturday wingman, a man of boundless good humour and excellent at remembering the jelly babies, if not as good at remembering to leave his car keys with his missus whilst she goes shopping in Leicester as he did one day, realising that his better half would not be able to get into the motor and would have to wait for him to walk back from the ground after full time to rescue her. They’re still talking...he’s fantastic fun to be around and loves a “...to be fair...” when starting to make a point. Thanks to his hard stares, I also now no longer describe a player as getting “gingerly” up from a heavy challenge.
David Connolly is someone I’ve worked with more and more on EFL and Champions League as the season has gone on. Leaves no stone unturned in his quest for knowledge on the teams he’s covering and can often be seen crouching underneath press benches making clandestine phone calls to scouts and coaches in his contacts book about “this young number 16 in midfield”. He locked his keys IN his car at Norwich somehow one Sunday - how you can shut a car door and lock it with the keys inside is a new one on me with these modern keyfobs and locking systems, but he did it all the same. Good work.
Adrian Clarke, man of Bovril, is someone I’ve spent time with at grounds and in underground podcast studios at times this season, and his self-deprecating air makes him so approachable. He, like David, does his prep diligently and co-commentates with an air of a man who knows lots about football, but has somehow never been to a live match, such is his enthusiasm for what goes on in front of him.
Sam Parkin is twice my size (and intellect) but despite my insecurities, he’s just a lovely gentle giant who also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all levels of the game. You name it, he knows it. Rarely wears a bobble hat to cover his bonce in winter either. Hardcore, Parkin-hardcore.
Neil Redfearn always seems pleased to see me oop North, but I soon thrash that emotion out of him. I don’t quite know how he’s not employed at a club in a coaching capacity just now, as I always learn things about the minutiae of the game when sat next to him. Hopefully his chance will come again, as I know he’s been in for a few things...ditto Simon Grayson, who somehow to me has a look of an unmasked Kendo Nagasaki without the ponytail round the back of the head, and like Neil, a wonderfully gritty, honest approach to co-commentary.
Micky Gray probably turned his phone off at around 10pm last Friday evening after Charlton won the penalty shootout to force a League One playoff final against Sunderland, just the 21 years on from...well, you know. He’ll probably be sporting a massive pair of shades like the visitors in “V: The Final Battle” to be as incognito as possible for the next week, but then he’ll open his mouth and that unmistakeable Mackem voice will give him away all too easily. Watching him negotiate his way into a cramped Burnley press box a couple of months ago whilst somehow not dropping his meat & potato pie into everyone’s lap was a sight to behold in itself. Very passionate co-comms and always laughing...not at my jokes though.
Chris Iwelumo has the kind of broad Scottish accent that reminds me of my Uncle Ian, who moved to San Francisco as a young man and lived there for the rest of his life not losing even the slightest hint of his Stirlingshire dialect. Chris is a native of somewhere in Cheshire these days and plied most of his footballing trade living south of Hadrian's wall, but he might as well still be living just off Sauchiehall Street. His enthusiasm is such that he cannot contain himself during a game and shouts out excitedly with 'OOhs' and 'AAhs' Bobby Gould-style when he thinks he's seen a penalty or a red card or a stray jelly baby (the last one's a lie). He's also likely to suddenly add you surreptitiously to his Instagram story whilst you're not looking...always a pleasure to be around though.
I only got to work with former Sunderland 'keeper David Preece a couple of times before he found a rather desperate way to escape me by taking a job in Sweden coaching at Ostersunds. Just like with Matt 'The Eyebrows' Murray, having a goalie alongside you for games brings a very different perspective as you might imagine - it's quite refreshing sometimes as you take in a game with a bloke next to you who spent most of his time on a pitch looking at how games unfolded tactically from a relatively fixed position. It seems to give former netminders an insight that really takes a commentary in a different direction. More 'keepers as pundits please!
The Skipper, Matt Holland, is someone who I’ve mentioned in previous witterings is one of the best I’ve worked with, but our press box encounters have been all too brief this past season - same goes for my old radio husbands Ray Houghton & Alvin Martin...but I have had a chance to lock headphones now and again with those guys, which is always good for the soul. And its a warm talkSPORT welcome to Claire Rafferty, who made her debut alongside me for Brazil v Czech Republic in the March international break and will be part of our brilliant Women’s World Cup coverage over the summer too.
I should also pay tribute to the team you don’t hear - namely the production staff at talkSPORT & talkSPORT 2 who keep the show on the air whilst I keep the car on the road. Young producer Caolan, who’s my regular talkSPORT 2 producer, is surprisingly upbeat for an Arsenal fan and his opening gambit of “AlrightDantshowsitgawin?’” down the line to me is now the stuff of legend. Clint over on talkSPORT is someone I’ve worked with for years and is as unflappable a match producer as they come - nothing phases him, apart from his beloved Spurs in tense Champions League semifinals. They’re all top people back at base - Jason, Izzy, Ollie (actually there’s about 6 Ollie’s I think at last count) Jeremy, Kate, Scott...all work around the clock to help me sound vaguely professional. Which is a tough gig.
Enjoy your summer, which still has loads of football, cricket, golf, darts and so on to keep us all enthralled. I’m off for a lie down til Augu...*phone rings* Hello? Oh hi Planet Rock - mid-morning cover you say? Starting tomorrow? A-haaaaa!!!!
Much love to you all - and keep right on.