No Punditry Intended

What is your dream job? And what are the chances if you getting close to it? Until a few Saturdays ago mine had been Jeff Stelling’s anchor role on Sky’s Soccer Saturday, but then I got as close as I’m ever going to get to it by appearing as the Hull City fan watching the Newcastle game on Setanta’s equivalent.

The Wednesday before the Newcastle home game I heard that Setanta were looking for a studio guest to talk about Hull City. I tentatively replied to the request not really knowing what I was getting myself into. The phone call from Setanta explained: I’d be in the studio with a Newcastle fan and we’d be watching the game together. I’d be with a couple of ex-pros, some betting expert and Setanta’s Jeff Stelling equivalent, Ashley House.

Great, I thought, I can’t be any less coherent than Paul Merson, any more annoying than Rodney Marsh, any more anonymous than Tony Gale. First, however, I had to get a friend to post me an early 90s tiger-skin City shirt to wear in the studio. So, 1.30pm on Saturday March 14, and I’m at Setanta’s Grays Inn Road office in central London.

Kenny dreams of Haribo

Kenny dreams of Haribo

My tiger-skin shirt got a few strange looks on the tube, but that aside my journey was the first time I’d given much thought to what I was going to do. All of my nervous energy had thus far been spent on worrying about the game itself and the ramifications of a City defeat. But what if City scored a last-minute winner? For a good two minutes after Manucho’s goal at Craven Cottage I’d been on another planet. I have no idea how I’d behaved other than my going absolutely mad. That’s fine when there are 4000 other people going crazy, but was it something I wanted to do on national TV? Also, a good few people had reminded me what a bastard I am to watch a football game with. I’m bad-tempered, foul-mouthed, unreasonable… Ah well, I supposed that this was why Setanta were getting fans in, so that they’d behave in such a way.

As I was waiting for my door pass in the Setanta reception, the portly figure of Kenny Sansom walked by. He had obviously just come from the local newsagents, as he seemed to be carrying their entire stock of Haribo sweets. Soon I was welcomed by some bloke in an odd-looking beany hat, and walked through to the studio area.

Having worked in the media for a while now, I’ve grown accustomed to how underwhelming newsrooms, TV studios and the like are. Walls, desks, computers, stress balls, dying plants, ‘zany’ messages blu-tacked to the wall, carpets badly in need of vacuuming. Setanta’s offices were no different, except in a corner, sat with a young lad in a Newcastle shirt, were Kenny Sansom and Dave Bassett. Conversation in the corner was at a minimum as everyone was enthralled by Liverpool’s demolition of Manchester United. Kenny Sansom looked at the Arsenal sheet and muttered something about William Gallas and Kolo Toure despising each other. When anchorman Ashley House came in the conversation quickly switched to the Cheltenham race meet, and this was to set a template for the rest of the afternoon. When Nigel, ‘the wizard of odds’ arrived, the betting talk intensified. Ashley House explained how he had money on both Hull and Newcastle going down. Within the next 10 minutes I realised that Ashley House had money on any sporting possibility likely to occur in the western world.

At 2pm the four professionals went in to the main studio area to start the show. Disappointingly, no one had even mentioned the shirt. It was almost as if men wearing animal print football shirts was a common sight in Setanta’s offices. For the next hour I was left chatting to the amiable Geordie, until the studio producer came through to mike us up and talk us through what to do. “Don’t swear” was the sum total of his advice. And I wasn’t one hundred per cent certain that I’d be able to adhere to that.

Upon entering the main studio area, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. We’d be watching the football on a load of TVs, very much like the ones you’d see any anyone’s living room, except you’d never position your sofa as far away from the TV as we were going to be. Still, it was much better than the temperamental Iraqgoals feed I’d have otherwise been relying on. As soon as we’d got sat down, Ashley was questioning me and the Geordie about our team’s chances. Josh the Geordie started things off, and then the questions were fired at me. All of the witty comments I’d planned, all of the words my friends had challenged me to say on air, all of the intelligent insights I’d been trying to memorise on the tube journey on the way down disappeared in an instant. I might have well just had said “I fink we done well and will stay up”. I really can’t remember what I said, but I know I’d immediately gone into football cliché mode, trotting out the drivel I usually castigate TV presenters and pundits for coming out with. Before I’d had time to recover, Ashley was then asking for a prediction. Now I don’t really do Hull City predictions. I certainly don’t do predicting Hull City are going to win. I’m not superstitious, but I also don’t like to tempt fate. So I suppose I am superstitious. Quickly, the amiable Geordie jumped in with a “2-1 to
Newcastle” and my tribal mentality kicked in. Thinking “Ah, you think so do you you fucking Geordie twat?” I managed a quick “1-0 to Hull”. Ha. Take that Josh. I’ve predicted that your team are going to lose. Shit head.

My next words on air were “Yes, get in!” as I leapt out of my chair. Obviously Geovanni had scored. Ashley came straight to me. Now this was difficult. I had to compose myself and say something vaguely intelligible while still in that post-Hull City goal haze. Fortunately the goal was quickly replayed and I just talked through it. I’d initially attributed the cross to Daniel Cousin (racist) but other than that I was happy with more description. More importantly, I hadn’t sworn. That fuck for that.

Straight after we went to a break and Kenny got the Haribos out. He threw a handful over the desk to Josh and myself and we gratefully scrambled round for them. Very briefly I thought to myself “Is this what my life’s become? Scrambling around for Kenny Sansom’s discarded raspberry soft fruits like I’m his bitch? Not only that, but I’m delighted to be doing so?” The surreality of the situation had never entirely escaped me, but this moment saw it really kick in. Then Dave Bassett started chastising Kenny on his choice of sweets to snap me out of it. Good old Harry.

As the game descended into the tepid affair it was never likely to emerge from, I started to observe the host Ashley a bit closer. Anyone who has watched the Sky and Setanta Saturday afternoon offerings would probably have had Ashley House down as a poor man’s Jeff Stelling. That’s harsh, as Jeff is probably the finest broadcaster to have worked in sport for the past 20 years or so, since Des Lynam and Barry Davies were in their prime. But on studying someone doing my dream job, I realised that it was a job that was way beyond my capabilities. Knowing a few football facts and being able to dish out and take a bit of stick is perhaps 5% of the job.

Ashley House hedges his bets

Ashley House hedges his bets

You’re also reading out the scores, watching the games yourself, taking orders from the camera producer, the studio producer, having the ‘fact’ man feed you info on pretty much every goal that was scored, and, in Ashley’s case, stay up to date on how all your bets are going. During all this he remained calm and composed, and was nothing but friendly to myself and my Geordie equivalent. Indeed, when he was to later wrongly describe Craig Fagan’s overhead kick as being like “Pele’s effort in The Great Escape” I found it easy to forgive him.

Correcting his film mix-up didn’t even cross my mind. If I’d been watching at home I’d have been indignant with rage upon hearing such an error, putting my foot through the TV and sending Ashley House the bill. Having seen that he was approximately 3,000 times better at his job than I could ever dream to be, I could let it pass. Anyway, back to the game. My next task was to describe how the game was going. As I was doing this Geovanni broke and won a free-kick near the edge of the Newcastle box. Ashley decided that they’d stay with me for the free-kick. All of a sudden my fears kicked in. What if we scored? Obviously I’d go mental, but how mental would I get away with? Sadly, Geo put the free-kick wide, and my dignity remained intact. Well, whatever dignity a man in a tiger-skin shirt on TV can hope to have.

The next ad break came and as we were scrambling around for Kenny’s Haribos, Newcastle scored. However, within seconds of the goal going in, Josh was bemoaning the fact that the goal had been scored on the ad break, denying him his moment of glory on live television. What kind of a fan was he? There is never any negative to your team scoring. Ever. As soon as the ads were over, Ashley went to Josh, and then asked me for my perspective on things. It’s rare that I speak to anyone within five minutes of City conceding a goal, so I just pointed out that we should have closed Nicky Butt down quicker and that the cross was the type of cross that good teams defend. Kenny Sansom quickly agreed with me. Despite the setback on the pitch I was beginning to feel a bit more comfortable and confident.

Half-time was a bit dull. Ashley is reading out the half-time scores so you have to sit there in silence under very hot lights. Once the game started, however, things brightened up a bit for both City and my role as a ‘pundit’. Manucho’s chance, which went straight at Steve Harper, wasn’t the greatest opportunity we’ll ever have, but I could kind of tell that Ashley wanted me to make it sound that way. In his defence, people don’t really want to hear grown men in loud football shirts going on about how terrible the game the Setanta Sports producers have picked out is. I tried to put a bit of gloss on it, and afterwards Ashley reminded everyone not to miss the chance on Setanta’s ‘Midnight Goals’ programme. I really hope no one watched Midnight Goals just to see Manucho kick a ball tamely at Steve Harper. That would be a terrible thing to happen to anyone and I’d hate to be partially responsible.

Just as Ashley had finished drumming up support for the Midnight Goals programme, he, finally, decided that my shirt warranted a mention. Why it had taken so long I don’t know. After he’d described it as a “terrible, terrible shirt” Kenny Sansom piped up that he thought “Rod Stewart had walked into the studio” and Nigel the Bookie said “I thought it was Benny Goodman”. I’d imagine that this is the first time Benny Goodman has ever been mentioned on a live sports results show. Happy in this knowledge I took the ribbing in good humour.

You won’t need me to tell you that the second half was a bit drab. And dressing up the game became a bit of a chore. Mendy’s terrible non-cross to Manucho aside, I was struggling to find anything to vaguely interesting to talk about. Thankfully during the ad breaks Dave Bassett and Kenny Sansom, who thus far had been friendly but quiet, seemed to take an interest in all things Hull City. Dave Bassett wanted to know why Folan wasn’t getting a game. I tried not to say he’s not good enough, but kind of got that across. Dave then said that he needed a “bit of Billy Whitehurst in him”. For the next two minutes I had a golden opportunity to question one of Big Billy’s former managers about the many rumours that have surrounded Mexborough’s finest. Yes, he did send him on to destroy an entire French team in a pre-season friendly. Yes, he did send him on to “scare the shit out of Neil Ruddock” when Razor was roughing up Brian Deane. “I’ve never seen Razor look so terrified”. Once Dave got going with the anecdotes it was hard to stop him. It was a shame the programme got in the way of them, really.

The game petered out, and I wasn’t as nervous as I normally am as close games reach the final minutes. Newcastle looked more dangerous, but neither side looked like they had the guile or skill to score. At the final whistle, Ashley asked me if Hull were safe now. This is a bit of a ludicrous question at this stage of the season, but instead of boldly answering in the affirmative, I just told him that I’ll only accept that City are safe when I see us kicking off in the Premiership next season. And with that, it was time to go. Kenny and Dave both came over to shake our hands and tell us how well we’d done, as did Ashley and the Bookie guy. For such seasoned pros, they’d been incredibly welcoming to us. All that was left for me to do was reflect upon what, at the time, seemed like a decent point, say goodbye to the very nice Geordie bloke, and then turn on my phone to read the dozens of abusive texts from my friends and family that had been watching.

It would be quite easy to be blasé about such an experience, but I found the whole thing highly exciting to be part of and fascinating to observe. I’d strongly recommend it to anyone should you get the chance. And it’s really not as easy as it looks. While I felt I did OK, I know that I was a long, long way from being what anyone would class as “good” at such a role, as I’d felt I would be when watching Paul Merson struggle to pronounce the most straightforward of foreign names on Sky. As for my dream job, I think Jeff Stelling’s position, and Ashley House’s for that matter, are pretty safe.

Rich Gardham