Thursday, 12 March 2015

Live TV pressure with Fergie and Houllier

Possibly the most camp Fergie picture ever!
I was the first touchline reporter for Premiership Plus, the package of top-flight games which became Setanta, ESPN and now, BT Sport.

Back in 2001, as Jonny On The Spot for the first dozen fixtures on the Premier League's own channel, I grilled Sir Bobby Robson, Gerard Houllier, Claudio Ranieri, Glenn Hoddle, Graeme Souness, Gus Poyet, Teddy Sheringham and ... Sir Alex Ferguson live.

Sir Bobby was the most engaging and enthusiastic of managers. He enjoyed being Toon boss so very much with nothing to prove, yet he achieved fifth-placed finishes.

I smiled along with his responses and in reply, he extended each soundbite by 30 more seconds grinning back at me, Ron Manager-style! My arm, stretched out underneath his mouth, became so oxygen-starved I had to swap midway through each one.

Walter Smith at Everton was welcoming wealth of experience. It's no wonder he was a trusted general for Fergie, even for a short-time at Old Trafford. I found Graeme Souness to be honest and engaging. 

Before Manchester United's game at Aston Villa, I entered the dragon's lair to do a live with Fergie. The challenge was to confirm for the first-time a backpage splash which the then United boss did not want to talk about at all!

You see, I had to stand up the abrupt exit of Jaap Stam to Lazio, a News of the World belter from that morning.

Stam's absence from the starting XI was because Fergie had shoved him out of Old Trafford!

As I prepared for the lights, Paddy Harverson, United’s Alastair Campbell spin-type warned me not to ask him why Stam had been ejected so suddenly. It was because the Dutchman had offended him in his autobiography. Stam accused Fergie of trying to sign him without the knowledge of his club, PSV Eindhoven.

The channel which became Setanta, ESPN and now BT.
My friend Gary Newbon, the legendary Central and ITV reporter stood by and gave me a friendly, "Don't be a hero, go easy with the questions, live to fight another day".

But I had to ask, how could I avoid it? So after a short negotiation with Harverson, who was much taller than me and used his height advantage menacingly, I did.

Fergie played the game and answered clearly.

I thanked Sir Alex on-air and when the lights went off but made the mistake of thanking him twice. He glared at me like Fulton Mackay out of Porridge. But I must say once he’d decided I was okay, he was fine. Particularly when he saw me again a few midweek days later at Blackburn

He recognized me and was totally disarmed. It was to be the last time our professional paths would cross but I got the impression that if you were trusted, he'd give you access and friendship not open to the wider world.

My few days with Fergie at the height of his career helped me enjoy the rest of his it from my seat in the stands.

Football in the steamy, adrenalin-fuelled matchday cauldron was an eye-opener.

I got sprayed with water by Rio Ferdinand while interviewing Robbie Keane live and got asked to "keep my distance" by Gerard Houllier at Newcastle.

I wasn't sure what the Frenchman meant. Did he mean physically or literally?

So in the ten seconds before the lights went on, I decided he meant both! I stood four steps back and arched my outstretched microphone arm under his mouth in the emergency room.

The Liverpool boss was constantly mopping his brow, sweating profusely. Little did we know it was because his heart was giving in. Six days later, he was fighting for his life.

After Leeds went top of the league with a home win over Derby, I found myself staring into Lee Bowyer's steely-blue eyes, wondering what kind of untamed animal lay behind them.

Shortly after 9/11, I had the privilege of sitting in the best seat at Goodison in-between the subs benches for the Merseyside Derby.

To my right, Robbie Fowler; to my left Gazza.

A highly-charged stadium was reminded through the PA system that football was after all, NOT more important than life or death - and both sets of fans observed an impeccable minute silence to the dead of New York.

And then the football started.

Phil Thompson jumped about the touchline at each challenge (calm down, calm down!) and Everton's Steve Simonsen fisted the perspex between us, strongly disagreeing with a smallish comment I'd made about a heated challenge by one of his teammates.

I loved being Geoff Shreeves for a couple of months - but he can have it. I experienced more than most in that short time - and moreso learned this:

The gentrified opinions of ex-players on TV are born of vague memory, not current experience.

As a refresher, they should go down to the tunnel during half and full-time more often.

Football is different behind closed doors. Very different.