My first vivid memory of Soccer AM was in a hungover stupor sprawled across a sofa at a mate’s student house in Birmingham in the late 90s. There was a man on television doing keepy-uppies with a giant cuddly toy sheep, there were lots of goals – then two people started wrestling in leotards by the Hammersmith flyover. It was charming and silly and kind of hazily endless – no matter what you did on a Saturday morning, it would still be on when you got in.
Around a decade later, it’s 16 August 2008, and I’ve spent the night staring at the ceiling. I am terrified. Soccer AM starts at 9. I’ve never hosted a TV show before. There was no audition, no screen test. My whole career has led to this point and I’d rather be anywhere else. I just about get my opening words out. The show happens around me. And to be honest, it does for months. Had social media been the force it is now I wouldn’t have lasted. But very slowly I vaguely learned what I was doing – I was lucky to be next to a brilliant broadcaster in Helen Chamberlain. Those enjoyable seven seasons are often referred to as The Glory Years ’08-’15.
It isn’t necessarily a surprise that Sky is dropping Soccer AM at the end of this season but it has taken me on a nostalgic journey thinking about the good times. Eighteen-hour days filming recreations of the John Lewis Christmas advert dressed as a penguin or a snowman in Helen’s ramshackle farmhouse. John Barnes’s baton twirling. (Speaks into dictaphone) sword fighting with Frank Leboeuf. Gaizka Mendieta and his Viennetta. The dance-offs. Gloves for Hatem Ben Arfa. Getting big in Belgium (Genk to be precise). Offering professional footballers a tenner if they did a certain celebration that afternoon and then watching Jonathan Walters doing it at Portman Road.
Occasionally you’d sit back, look at the sofa and think in no other world would Uwe Rösler, Dr Karl Kennedy from Neighbours and Mark Ronson be sitting next to each other. You would pop into the green room to see Kevin Hart in conversation with Bananarama while Wagner from X Factor and Brett Ormerod were having a cup of tea.
Critics often reduce the whole 30 years to laddish banter and nothing else. And a lot of it was – but that does the producers and crew a massive disservice. They were everything – writers, actors, stage hands, music pluggers, directors, editors – as well as doing the day job of football TV production. At our peak we got almost 750,000 viewers so while there were always more than 66 million people doing something else, when you were in that bubble it really felt like the whole world.
The show had an energy and a soul. Playing football in the studio with 10 seconds to go before everyone raced into position for the opening link. Sometimes the gags were brilliant, sometimes they were shit. But that was the charm. And there was always some football to show a minute later – the best goals, the showboat, the third eye.
There was no props department – just the youngest assistant producer with the help of someone on work experience. Helen and I had enormous Mr Tickle-like arms made out of papier-mache and chicken wire that cut your hands as you waved them about pretending part three was in all-new 3D TV.
There were jokes that didn’t make it. The week that Richard Keys and Andy Gray went we were expressly told not to mention it. I suggested a lifesize stuffed elephant in the studio that we didn’t mention for the whole show. It didn’t get through.
Some parts of the show have aged terribly. It’s not rewriting history to say I didn’t like the Soccerette part. My predecessors were quite alpha – they were good at it. I was sitting there with GCSE Latin and Grade 8 clarinet. A producer once sat me down and told me to flirt more. I did not have that in my locker.
Fortunately we got rid of it two years into my tenure. Perhaps had I been more experienced, or stronger willed, I would have campaigned to lose it sooner, but I didn’t; 2010 simultaneously wasn’t that long ago, but feels like a completely different time – that’s the excuse everyone uses right? It sounds silly now, but at the time I didn’t see it as part of a culture of misogyny in the game. To me, then, it was just a bit of TV – and one at which I didn’t excel.
The show did not always go to plan. One morning we (Chris) accidentally booked Shaun Williamson instead of Shaun Goater. Mel B left in an ad break to get some chicken, David Ginola yelled: “You fuck my wife?” repeatedly during a play fight with Johnny Vaughan – explaining it away by saying he was “just quoting Scarface” (though it was actually Raging Bull), and there will always be: “Stevie Wonder, if you’re watching, give us a call.”
Once someone shouted: “You’ll never be Lovejoy you mug” when I was wandering down the road minding my own business, and Twitter lights up now and again telling me I ruined it all. In reality you probably liked it best when you were young – it has largely stayed the same through all its incarnations – some guests, some football, some good comedy and some bad comedy. If anything has killed it, it’s social media. When I began no one had seen the funny own goal from League 2, or the slapstick defending from La Liga. Now everything is online before the game has even finished. Without all those clips it’s just a much harder gig.
Soccer AM changed my life – so this is categorically not an objective review. And not just professionally. Without that show I wouldn’t have had two months off every summer to wander around Central and South America. I wouldn’t have met my wife on a volcano in Nicaragua. I wouldn’t be in Australia, I wouldn’t have a son – certainly not this one.
I guess everyone’s lives have those Sliding Doors moments, but I can only be eternally grateful to everyone who played even the tiniest part. From Tim Lovejoy at the start all the way through to whoever counts down to the final second of the final show. These last couple of months will be weird for those working on it. A lot of people behind the scenes have been there for years and years, it’s a huge part of their lives. I wish them all well. May they go out in whichever style they want.