Hoping For A Double Deflection
OK so we are notionally covering the whole of the World Cup. The big selling point of talkSPORT’s dedication to the tournament was our proud boast that we were to cover Every Game Live and most importantly, communications issues aside, without any interruptions. This was actually more than the other side could boast, their agnostic commitment to other sporting events meant that they were forever dipping out of matches to cover horse races, or dumping even big knockout games onto digital platforms because of scheduling collisions with Wimbledon or Grand Prix races etc. Having said this, when it came to the early stages many of the games were just a background distraction to the only World Cup story that mattered – the fate of the England team.
I think it is now approaching seven years since I’ve watched a competitive England international match from the comfort of my own home or at the very least outside the confines of the office. Instead I’ve always been a work, be it at the controls of the desk or masterminding the production and presentation of the coverage. From this first hand point of view I can tell you without fear of contradiction that nothing even comes close to inspiring argument, debate, opinion and passion amongst both our presenters and the wider listening audience than the fortunes (or otherwise) of the England football team. An England match is like a ratings gift, an instant tune-in point for many who cannot otherwise watch it and an immediate focus for reaction afterwards. I’ve produced shows on the most mundane of England fixtures that can and indeed have stretched deep into the night. If it is England then it matters to a vast hungry audience who at times do not even seem to need the prompting of our phone number.
It is actually a matter of some considerable regret to me that my spell at the coal face of sports broadcasting hasn’t coincided with a major tournament run for any of the other “home” nations. World Cups and European Championships are the domain of the England fans with the only token Scottish contribution coming from those who seek to gloat at their misfortunes or the odd brave soul who will confess to being an England follower from north of the border and can offer a neutral’s post-match perspective. I’ve no doubt that the commitment of Scotland fans to their side in a major competition would be every bit as noisy and vociferous whilst the team were playing – but would the after-match reaction to a bad result be quite as soul-baring, would the sense of disappointment and frustration be quite as palpable, or do Scotland fans have a more realistic view of the level at which their side can play? I’m hoping one day I get the chance to find out.
As will be evident to anyone reading this now, England’s 2010 World Cup was only just above the level of abject failure. Whilst they didn’t quite suffer the first round humiliations of other European football powerhouses such as Italy or France (although it was at times a close call), their first encounter with a side that was what we in the business call “any good” saw a total on field humiliation and an inglorious tournament exit at the first knockout stage. Here lies the broadcasters dilemma, for when England are progressing it is a quite wonderful thing with our hype and expectation able to continue for a few days more, but when England are woeful and on their way home it makes for some absolutely compelling, spellbinding radio.
We are used to England stuttering their way through the early rounds of tournaments, so the opening weekend 1-1 draw against the USA was not the total shock it might have been, especially given the scoreline was down to Robert Green’s infamous goalkeeping howler which gifted the Americans their equaliser. No, it was the second game – the Friday evening goalless draw against Algeria that exposed the poor form and baffling lethargy of our supposedly world-beating superstars – which kicked frustrations into high gear. England were bad, shockingly bad and the phones were ringing off the hook even as the referee was blowing up for the merciful release of full time. The listener reaction however was nothing compared to the anguished howls coming from our presentation lineup, people whose jobs required them to have an opinion on just about everything and who were in no mood to hold back that evening.
What else could have prompted me to find a keyboard and Tweet the following within minutes of the final whistle:
Actually no, sorry that was during the game when the suggestion that the match could turn into a Friday evening party in front of the big screens in the office was scuppered by a lack of food. No, the post-match Tweet was this one:
This was no exaggeration. Just about every voice we had available was live on the desk almost apoplectic with fury over what they had just witnessed. Mark Saggers was anchoring in the stadium on one line, sat next to him was Stan Collymore who had just been commentating and was theoretically supposed to be catching his breath before doing the phone-in, Adrian Durham was live on the line from our base in Johannesburg where he had been watching the match after presenting earlier in the afternoon and even Andy Townsend who had himself been commentating on the game for ITV made a point of striding over to our position in the press box to croakily sum up what he had just seen. It was breathtaking to hear. Grown men echoing the views and emotions of so many people across the country, almost shaking with fury at England’s failure to overturn a side who were regarded as the whipping boys of the group and should have been brushed aside with ease. This is that ten minute spell of magic:
Looking back I can enjoy this rather more than I did at the time. Wearing my producers hat I spent most of the above broadcast bellowing at the producers at the remote end that we were actually supposed to be discussing the match in line with a sponsored feature and that I wasn’t hearing very much of that on air. Try telling that to four men who have a great deal to say and are going to say it on their terms however, there are times when I have the cape but simply cannot fly.
Possibly even better was to come. England negotiated their final first round game against Slovenia with a much needed win, but Landon Donovan’s now infamous last kick goal against Algeria in their final group match meant that England had only qualified as group runners-up and were dumped into the lions den with a second round tie against old foes Germany. The first stage of the match was a roller-coaster of emotions even for the supposed neutral, England going two goals down but then showing some hitherto unseen spirit to fight back and only be denied the chance to equalise by a crushing refereeing mistake. As Germany’s fourth goal sailed in however it was clear that we were watching something that was pretty much new to all of us covering the game – a huge and quite humiliating defeat.
I’ve been in the studio for England’s exit during the later stages of several major tournaments – most notably Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006. Both were little more than unfortunate, defeat on penalties after a brave and battling performance. We hadn’t gone though but nobody could truthfully say that we deserved to go out. Reaction on the telephones afterwards was sad and numb. It was as if we’d cut the pack, drawn straws or flipped a coin to decide the game. Fate was against us and that was all that could be said.
This time it was different. This wasn’t bad luck it was bad play. The German side whom our pundits had spent the week reminding us were “not that good” had proved that they were not only good but a whole new level above our homegrown heroes. This time the presenters didn’t need to use fired up words and emotional language. Even with ten minutes to go before the end of the match we had calls six deep on the switchboard. Our audience knew it was their turn, knew it was their moment to explain where we had gone wrong and they simply could not wait for the cue to call.
It was that simple sight which summed up why I’m so proud to do this, why I knew we were creating magic with every moment on the air. We had built a platform for people to express themselves about a game they loved and set the stage for a major event in the lives of many people. For those who could not see the game in person we had helped them to hear what was taking place on the pitch. Even for those who were not with us during the match, we were there for them at the end having shared the experience with millions of others and were ready to let people react in disbelief.
Nice as it would have been for my abiding memory of this World Cup to have presided over England’s march to the final and ultimate crowning as World Champions, it is a close second to be able to say I was there to see what happened when England were utterly rubbish and get a glimpse of just what that meant to both the fans amongst our presenters and the fans who make up the millions flocking to us to have their say at that moment. Roll on our next England game.