Last weekend was a very difficult one for us all. Fabrice Muamba's collapse at White Hart Lane was one of the most shocking things you'll ever witness at a sporting event. Mercifully, at time of writing, Fabrice appears to be on the long road to recovery.
For a broadcaster, getting the tone right on occasons such as that, rare though they are, is absolutely vital. Suddenly you're thrown from the relatively flippant and frivolous discussion of a football match, to bringing news, truly, of life and death. ESPN's live broadcast team handled the disturbing scenes exceptionally well, cutting to a safe wide shot once it was clear that this was no normal stoppage in play, and dealing in fact rather than speculation. A great example to us all in how to respond when the unthinkable happens on live television.
The following day, I was commentating on the Chelsea-Leicester FA Cup tie, and the decision, rightly, was made to dispense with the normal pre-cut music "opener" and begin with an update on Fabrice's condition.
It was a weekend that I was proud to have a role, however big or small, in the wider football family. The sense of togetherness, and support for the man and his family was something I hope we can all learn from. I'm sure we all hope to see him playing in the Premier League again having made a full recovery.
As I've not blogged for a while, I thought I'd pen a few words about my season so far. It's been rather a mixed one, I won't lie. And one I won't be sorry to see the back of. Sometimes you worry as a commentator that you're pigeon-holed, that you're forever sub-consciously thought of as "the young lad" or whatever. I'm 34 now, and really hoped to have pushed on a little more than I have done, and seem to have plateaued in terms of domestic football opportunites over the past couple of seasons. Mind you, I am notoriously bad when it comes to being pushy!
Back in the summer I went to Mexico for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, and had a wonderful few weeks in the heat of the desert, in the city of Torreon. Uzbekistan's exciting young team won the group, and the hearts of the locals. And I even got to play on the pitch, as the media played against the stadium staff at the home of Santos Laguna.
These under-age tournaments are fabulous to work on - you really get a head start in getting to see and know players who will be the stars of the senior game in years to come. I was pleased to see Bilbao's Iker Muniain doing so well in the Europa League recently, and also win his first cap for Spain, having been richly entertained by his skills at the previous Under-17 tournament in Nigeria, 2009.
Torreon was swelteringly hot, but the teams based there adapted well to the conditions. I was lucky enough to commentate on all of the Uzbeks group games, from their opening day humbling 4-1 by New Zealand, the shock win over the USA, and their second round 4-0 hammering of Australia. Of their players, captain Abbosbek Makhstaliev and the main striker Timur Khakimov are players about whom I'm sure we've not heard the last.
Coming up in the next few weeks for me is a Premier League trip to Fulham, an FA Cup Sixth Round replay, as well as Bundesliga matches involving Borussia Moenchengladbach and Bayern Munich.
As for the summer, I'm still chasing avenues for Euro 2012, and can confirm that once again I'll be commentating at the Royal International Air Tattoo, and have one or two other airshows making enquiries into my availability.
There's no such thing as the "end" of a commentator's season now, but with the domestic season now over, I thought it was time to bash out a blog, reflecting on the last ten months or so.
This season I've mainly been working on the Football League, which is something I enjoy immensely. I certainly get as much job satisfaction, if not more, commentating on a top-of-the-table Championship game than on a mid-table Premier League game. As exciting as the Premier League can be, there's something very visceral and honest about the Football League, away from the hyperbole and hullabaloo, and for my money, it can be every bit as entertaining - plus our Football League commentaries go out live to the world, which always adds a little spice.
From the Championship, I'd say that probably the three best teams did get promoted. I only saw QPR once in the flesh, but the table doesn't lie - they were simply too powerful and well-organised for the majority of teams in the division. It'll be interesting to see how much money Neil Warnock is afforded to improve the squad.
Norwich, for whom I have a great affection after my four years at ITV Anglia, were a joy to watch. I was at Carrow Road to witness them rip apart Scunthorpe 6-0 in April, and saw them clinch promotion against Portsmouth the following month too. They play some wonderful football, whether that will be enough to keep them in the Premier League, I'm not too sure, but what they do have is probably the best young manager in the country - I rate Paul Lambert that highly. He's not always the most effervescent interviewee, but the job he's done at Norwich in less than two years in charge, is nothing short of remarkable. I have no doubt he'll go on to win major trophies as a manager somewhere, whether at Norwich or elsewhere.
Swansea are a pretty similar side to Norwich - they play some jaw-dropping football, especially at home, and in Scott Sinclair they had, for me, the most consistent player in the division. They, like Norwich, will have to strengthen - few of their squad have any real Premier League experience, but isn't it great to have a Welsh club in the Barclays Premier League?
I shudder to think how many miles I've covered over the season, but it's been tremendous fun. I ticked off some new grounds visited, including, belatedly, Elland Road, Leeds - really enjoyed my trip there on New Year's Day, though would have preferred a less stressful journey up there, with my iPhone alarm, like thousands of others did, forgetting to go off because of the change of year!
A couple of thoughts:
Best game seen: Newcastle 3-3 West Brom on the final day of the Premier League season was an unexpected gem, and it was a great experience to commentate on my first "El Clasico" in the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals.
Best goal seen: a close call between Scott Sinclair's solo versus Nottingham Forest in March, and Lewis McGugan's rocket of a free kick for Forest against Ipswich in October.
Worst game seen: without doubt Scunthorpe 0-0 Burnley in January. Eddie Howe's first game in charge was the mother of all stinkers.
Most bizarre game seen: the snowball fight with intermittent football between Ipswich and Leicester in December. Quite how the game started, let alone finished, in those conditions remains rather baffling, though in referee Stuart Attwell's defence, the ball always rolled true. Roy Keane's face when the players were taken off temporarily with his side 2-0 up was a picture!
In May, I appeared on ESPN for the first time, commentating on Serie A. It was an experience I really enjoyed - I've always had a real affinity for Italian football since growing up in a non-Sky house, where the only live Sunday afternoon football was to be found on Channel Four. It helped that the Juventus-Napoli game was a punchy 2-2 draw, and hopefully my "debut" was well-received, and perhaps more opportunities may come next season.
What does the summer hold? After the weekend's Euro 2012 qualifiers are out of the way, the games come thick and fast. Luckily I'm not really one for lounging on a beach, so I'll be busying myself with, among other things, the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Mexico, CONCACAF Gold Cup, and of course my annual "gig" at RAF Fairford for the Royal International Air Tattoo. If you're there too, then do pop over and say hello - you can't miss me, just look for the big white greenhouse-crossed-with-open-top-bus we commentate from!
And there we go, I nearly managed to get through a whole blog without mentioning Sepp Blatter!
Enjoy your summer - August'll be here before we know it.
It's been a couple of weeks since the world watched, open-mouthed, as Barcelona tore Real Madrid - Mourinho, Ronaldo and all - apart in El Clasico at the Camp Nou. Some performance. Some team. At the time the Twittersphere was in meltdown, proclaiming it the greatest display by any side in history, on a par with, if not better than Brazil '70. Such comparisons are as futile as they are impossible, but, for me, the real yardstick by which to measure the Spanish exhibition was actually just this Monday, when Manchester United met Arsenal at Old Trafford in the puffed-out-chested, hyperbolic, strutting Premier League.
Two of the best teams in England, stuffed with arguably some of the finest players the Premier League has to offer. Rooney, Nasri, Arshavin, Vidic, Ferdinand. What they served up was a match dripping in anxiety, tedium, and for the most part of a quality so far beneath what La Liga's Monday blockbuster had produced a couple of weeks earlier, to any neutral who'd observed both, any claim the Premier League might have had to be the world's best, looked plainly risible.
This season, it does appear that a genuine title race is developing, maybe with as many as five clubs involved - United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Tottenham, yet can anyone hand-on-heart say that this has been a classic season so far? How many matches jump out as those you'll remember for years, decades to come? The Premier League doesn't help itself - the dismissals this week of Chris Hughton from Newcastle (11th, and climbed to 8th on Saturday) and Sam Allardyce by owners yet to win over supporters are evidence for those who feel the Premier League and its clubs have lost touch with the fans. As are the empty plastic seats at grounds around the country this season - I was shocked at the number of seats left at Anfield a week ago for the match with Aston Villa, even for a Monday night fixture.
Mind you, the Premier League isn't the only competition with problems. The Champions League group stage conclusion last week was the soggiest of squibs. No suprises, no final matchday with any big clubs in jeapoardy, and little to suggest that UEFA's grandest club tournament isn't in grave danger of stagnation. Of course the round-robin element is here to stay, as, regardless of the paucity of fans in some of the stadiums (Real Madrid's Bernabeu was around 30,000 below capacity for the final match with Auxerre), and near-total lack of drama, as long as the sponsors and television contracts continue to cough up, we'll plod on with the same format.
I'm a traditionalist, and would love to see both the Champions League and the Europa League return to a true knock-out cup format, preferably unseeded. That won't happen, as it is far too risky to have a format where the star turns could be eliminated before Christmas. Far better, in the eyes of the football world, to protract and prolong, even if that comes at the expense of exciting competition.
Top-level football at the moment strikes me as being rather like one of those obese Americans we see on reality documentaries. Perfectly happy to gorge themselves on as many Dunkin' Donuts and Big Macs as they can gather, but there comes a day when they're too bloated and unhealthy to leave their front room, and by the time the crane has arrived, and the windows have been smashed, it's too late...
Amazed I managed to get through this blog without "going off on one" about the World Cup hosting "contest".
It's a fact of life these days, with ever-shrinking budgets for even the biggest broadcasters, that more and more television (and indeed radio) commentaries are done remotely, from a voiceover booth many miles from the actual venue where the game is taking place. We call this "off-tube", which I guess is a reference to the old Cathode Ray Tube monitors, which for my money, remain the best and clearest to commentate off, but are sadly now being replaced by the dreaded fuzzy LCD type.
Obviously a good off-tube commentary is one where the viewer never once suspects that you're not actually coming live from the stadium. The golden rule is that you never say you're there, but equally, under no circumstances do you say that you're not. The sound engineer has a vital role to play too - get the voice/crowd mix wrong, with the commentary coming through too crisp and clean, and it will be obvious that you're in a remote booth. The mix needs to have the commentator's voice fighting the "clean FX" underneath.
Is off-tube wrong? You'd probably be suprised how often we are using our monitors, even on-site. The key to a television commentary is that you talk to the pictures. Nothing looks worse than to have the commentator describing the on-field action, when the director is showing a cutaway of the manager, or chairman. Other sports rely on the monitors even more. Formula One commentary, while done on-site, will be done almost exclusively with reference to the monitors in the commentary box.
On-site is always best - you can never better having your own eyes able to see things happening off-camera, but as budgets shrink, the commentator in the modern age has had to adapt their style more and more to accomodate off-tube commentaries. The limitation of commentating this way is of course when the cameras miss things. For the 90 minutes you are reliant on the director, who is in turn depending on their camera operators. I was taught many years ago a simple mantra "when in doubt, say nowt". Never commit to anything (and indeed, the same rule applies on-site) until you are absolutely certain!
There are some terrific "off-tube" commentators out there. I rate Peter Brackley's Football Italia work in the 1990s as some of the best-researched and most convincing "remote" commentaries I have ever heard. Kevin Keatings is another I admire greatly. I like to think that I'm learning fast, and certainly so far, touch wood, no-one has ever complained that I've sounded "blatantly off-tube" or missed a major incident in a game.
Of course, I'm not going to "out" the broadcasters who do use off-tube commentaries, as I think with the public at large, there remains a certain stigma, as people expect commentators to be "at" the venue, but I hope this blog has helped to explain how and why off-tube commentaries are done, and why, in most cases they're not a bad thing!
Hello everyone, a new season and a new blog! I don't know about you, but does anyone else feel like there's not been any downtime this summer? My first Football League game this season came 25 days after arriving home from South Africa. Of course it all helps to pay the bills, but this year the start of the new season didn't feel anywhere near as "special" as it always has done before. This time, I'm asking for you to allow me an indulgence with this blog, as I try and raise a few pounds for an eminently worthy cause, and one especially close to my personal situation at the moment. On Sunday, 24th October this year I shall be running the Birmingham Half Marathon. I've never done anything remotely like this before, but am determined to give it a damn good shot. I want to finish in a respectable time - I don't want to come in behind the guys dressed as Scooby-Doo. Training has gone relatively well so far, and much to people's (and indeed my own) suprise, I've actually quite enjoyed it.
The charity I'm running for is the Alzheimer's Society. At the age of just 63, my father was diagnosed with this horrid disease just before Christmas 2008. At present, as we know, the illness has no cure, and it is wretched to watch the person, and personality, you know and love literally vanish before your eyes. He's still in the relatively early stages of dementia, and so the worst is very much still to come.
I've set up a JustGiving site where you may donate, should you choose, online. The site is at www.justgiving.com/danohagancommentator. People's generosity so far has been most heartwarming, and while it will be too late for my dad, maybe the research the Alzheimer's Society do might one day lead to an improvement in the treatments, and maybe even a cure.
Work-wise, it's been a very busy summer. Two days after arriving home from the World Cup, it was off to RAF Fairford for this year's Royal International Air Tattoo. Thank you to everyone for such great feedback on our commentary at this year's show - unlike football, it's really great to have the chance speak to the audience literally moments after we finish, to get some front-line feedback. I certainly hope to be back, with the same team, in 2011.
In terms of the "day job", I'm wondering if now might be the time to take on an agent. Having been out to a World Cup, now is almost certainly the time to stop being seen as "an up-and-coming youngster" and to make tangible progress. I certainly feel I'm at a crossroads in my career, and perhaps an agent could push me on, and maybe knock on doors I don't have access to. It's one to ponder, for sure.
Anyway, until my next blog, do give generously!
What an amazing month that was. Just back from my first FIFA World Cup, having enjoyed every last second of it.
South Africa was a tremendous host, and fully vindicated FIFA's faith in taking the tournament to the continent for the first time. The three stadiums I visited were wonderful and memorable. Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium will stay with me for ever, Cape Town's Green Point felt gigantic, and the more intimate Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth offered possibly the finest commentary position I've experienced.
Better writers than I have written about the poor standard of competition this year, and I'm certainly in agreement. Why did the big names simply fail to deliver? Wayne Rooney's showing was comfortably the worst of the superstars, but equally none of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Franck Ribery left South African soil with their reputations and price tags enhanced.
England, France and Italy's performances were the worst at a World Cup in living memory. Portugal, save for one drubbing of Korea DPR, were average at best. The African challenge, in the main, failed to materialise. Cameroon were shambolic, Nigeria undone by indiscipline, Cote D'Ivoire lacking in firepower with Didier Drogba less than 100% fit and South Africa simply too limited in ability, despite the fanatic support for the Bafana Bafana.
One of my great memories is getting back to my hotel in time to watch the opening game between South Africa and Mexico. Sitting on the bed watching the game, I became aware that the crowd noise and vuvuzelas seemed to be a little louder than it should be, and coming from somewhere other than the television! I drew back my curtain and was greeted by a crowd of 25,000 yellow-and-green shirted fans on the beach below watching on the giant screen. An awesome sight and sound.
Spain were probably worthy champions. They had the most technically gifted squad, and played some of the best football - if at times a little conservative in terms of pressing forward and going for the jugular. Much has been written of the Netherlands tactics and approach, and in the three matches I saw them, they never set my pulse racing, other than short bursts from Arjen Robben or Eljero Elia, when he came on against tiring defenders.
I saw the Dutch scrape past Japan 1-0, where Shinji Okazaki missed a tremendous late chance to equalise, then they came back to Durban to beat Slovakia, in a game where Robert Vittek could have scored enough goals to knock them out. I next saw them in Cape Town for the semi-final against Uruguay. I don't ever recall a five-goal match with so little incident. The Dutch were in the final, but this was as far-removed from Total Football as possible. Grubbily effective, its hard to deny that the van Bommel/de Jong holding midfield platform played an essentinal part in getting the Netherlands to the final. It speaks volumes when the holding midfielders are considered the stand-out feature on the team, though I was impressed by the aforementioned Elia, the terrific right-back Gregory van der Wiel, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.
The most exciting side at the tournament was Germany. I consider it a great honour to have seen Joachim Loew's young side three times, including their first game against Australia, where they announced their arrival in brilliant style. 2010 was maybe a World Cup too early for that squad, but in 2014 Mesut Ozil will be 25, Bastian Schweinsteiger 29, Thomas Muller 24 and Sami Khedira 27. Put your money on them NOW!
The Germans were involved in my favourite two games. I was thrilled to be in Cape Town to describe their "shock and awe" dismantling of Diego Maradona's Argentina, and then I ended my tournament with the thrills and the spills of the Third Place Match against Uruguay.
I was delighted to see Diego Forlan carry off the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player. At 31, this was probably his last chance on the World Cup stage, and his performances and goals finally laid to rest, in England at least, the wretched memories of his spell at Manchester United, which when you consider the fee paid, compared to the return on Dimitar Berbatov's cost, wasn't actually as bad as some commentators would have you believe. Spanish fans won't have been suprised at all by Forlan's World Cup. You don't win two Pichichis by being anything other than a world-class forward. I commentated on Uruguay's final two matches, in which Forlan scored two tremendous goals. I also commentated on their play-off qualification win over Costa Rica back in November, and had you said to me then, as they scraped through 2-1 on aggregate, that they'd finish fourth in the world, I'd have laughed in your face. But their performance in South Africa shows exactly what can be achieved when a team pulls together - take note, England. And enough of the nonsense over the Luis Suarez handball against Ghana. Show me ONE player in the world who'd not have done similar given the circumstances, and the split-second to make his decision. For his part, the referee did everything he could in terms of sanctions - first a penalty, then a red card. And handball carries a mandatory one-match ban, so the calls for a longer ban were nothing short of pathetic knee-jerk nonsense.
As many of you will know, I was working on the 3D broadcast of the World Cup - the first time it had been done. Feedback from everyone was excellent, and I came away from all nine games delighted with my own performance. Nothing is more offensive to my ears than a commentator who shows no passion, or just goes through the motions to pick up their fee, and I certainly felt that I rose to the occasion in every game. I felt that during the tournament I really matured as a commentator, and can't wait to get stuck into season 2010-2011!
Commentating for 3D requires a subtle change of style. I described it during the tournament as a halfway house between the TV and radio disciplines. The 3D effect works best on lower camera positions - pitchside and behind the goal, rather than the all-seeing "Camera One" overview we're used to in traditional 2D broadcasts. The result is that a lot of the time, the action is shown on the low cameras, meaning the viewer doesn't always see the "bigger picture" of what is happening off-camera, meaning as a commentator I need to paint a more descriptive picture than is the norm in 2D television - not quite as extreme as radio, but certainly more "wordy" than my normal TV commentaries. I think I'm now one of only two or three commentators in the UK to have worked on 3D broadcasts, and if and when the technology takes off, I would hope it bodes well for me to have been involved from the start.
So now the new season is only a few weeks away. As a freelancer I have no idea what the season holds for me in terms of who I'll be working for. July is always a nervous time. The World Cup was an incredible adventure - and definitely the highlight of my career so far.
What a day today has been! More exciting than a transfer deadline day, the rumour and counter-rumour about who was in and who was out of Fabio Capello's squad was terrifically exciting. The major suprises are Theo Walcott's omission, and Emile Heskey's selection at the expense of Sunderland's prolific Darren Bent. With the day's drama, I thought I'd best pen a blog...
The goalkeeping question is an intriguing one. You can make a case for all three. I'm a massive Robert Green fan, having worked for Anglia TV while he was developing at Norwich. A really nice guy, I remember once going to his house to film a piece with him, and he proudly went upstairs to fetch his England youth shirt for us to see. His save from Stoke's Gerry Taggart in Norwich's 2003-04 promotion season remains the finest save I have ever seen "live". He was unlucky four years ago, injuring himself just before the World Cup. I think he is probably Fabio's preferred starter, but only just.
There won't be a finer physical specimen at the World Cup than David James. He's 39 now, and yes he will make mistakes, but he also has the ability to make saves and reach balls that no other goalkeeper in the world can. He's got the experience too. I reckon the starting position is a very close fight between him and Green.
Joe Hart was outstanding against Japan in the final friendly, on the back of a blistering season with Birmingham. His club situation is a strange one - at Manchester City he's up against probably the outstanding goalkeeper in the Premier League since Peter Schmeichel's retirement. A full season of first team action on loan has shown exactly what he's capable of. His handling of a greasy ball in Graz was exemplary. Only problem as I see it, is throwing a keeper with only a couple of senior caps into a World Cup atmosphere. Bags of ability, and a definite first-pick England keeper for the future. 2014 or 2018 might be his time.
Defensively, I have concerns. Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Matthew Upson and Jamie Carragher, by their own standards didn't have their best seasons. Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson missed large chunks of the club season with injury too. Ledley King's fitness will always be a concern, especially with the quickfire and intensive schedule of a World Cup. I'd have taken Michael Dawson - there wasn't a finer central defender in the Premier League last season. It's a shame too that Phil Jagielka didn't return from injury sooner - he's another who finished the domestic campaign in imperious form. Jagielka's club-mate Leighton Baines will probably rue his declaration that he gets homesick. Not wise when a month in South Africa beckons. Stephen Warnock goes in his place, despite only having one cap, which came (according to my mate John Anderson - @GreatFaceRadio - on Twitter) two years ago.
The midfield decisions were arguably Capello's toughest. The headline omission was Theo Walcott. Taken, and not used, by Sven-Goran Eriksson four years ago, his hat-trick in Croatia proved the springboard for England's qualifying campaign. But his form for Arsenal has been patchy, and Chris Waddle's comments on BBC Radio Five Live that Walcott lacked a "football brain" threw the spotlight on him for the season's final couple of months, and Walcott's form suffered. Adam Johnson is another wide-man to be cut from the final 23, and his fairytale twelve months didn't quite have the ending he'd have liked - from Stewart Downing's understudy at Middlesbrough, to the World Cup. It just wasn't to be - I expect him to feature in the Euro 2012 qualifiers in a big way though. Shaun Wright-Phillips, Aaron Lennon and Joe Cole go in their places. All known quantities, and probably less "risky" selections than the untried Johnson would be.
In the central positions, Gareth Barry got the nod, despite his injury status. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and James Milner were no-brainer selections. Michael Carrick however has divided opinion this season. His form for Manchester United wasn't great, and indeed if Owen Hargreaves can stay injury-free next season, you wonder how regular he'll feature for his club. Were Hargreaves available for the World Cup too, Carrick's place would be the one under threat. Still, Michael Carrick remains a tremendous passer and a player who could give England's midfield a defensive edge in tougher games in the knockout phase. The same would have been true of Tom Huddlestone or Scott Parker though, with the coach opting for Carrick's experience. If Barry struggles with fitness, it's Carrick Fabio will turn to.
Emile Heskey is on the plane. I can't remember an England player since John Barnes who polarises opinion so much. Fabio likes him because Rooney is a better player with Heskey in the team. The statistics are telling - in ten games WITH Heskey, Rooney has scored nine goals. In ten games WITHOUT the Villa striker, Rooney's scored just twice. I read an interesting comment earlier this week, saying that England's team isn't about picking the eleven players who excel in their positions, but about picking the best eleven who gel as a team. Peter Crouch will be a terrific impact player from the bench, as he was in 2006, especially in the group games against the Algeria and Slovenia. Jermain Defoe goes as the fourth striker. It will have been a close call between Defoe and Darren Bent for the final striker slot, but Defoe just has more of a clinical edge in front of goal at this level. Bent is a fine Premier League forward, but Defoe has the "X Factor" which seperates the international from the good club player.
The final squad
Goalkeepers: David James (Portsmouth), Robert Green (West Ham United), Joe Hart (Manchester City).
Defenders: Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Jamie Carragher (Liverpool), John Terry (Chelsea), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Matthew Upson (West Ham United), Stephen Warnock (Aston Villa), Ledley King (Tottenham Hotspur).
Midfielders: Shaun Wright-Phillips (Manchester City), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur), Joe Cole (Chelsea), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Gareth Barry (Manchester City), James Milner (Aston Villa).
Forwards: Peter Crouch (Tottenham Hotspur), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Emile Heskey (Aston Villa), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur).
I was interviewed last week by the good people at dangerhere.com - I believe that will appear later this week as part of their World Cup podcast, and on Sunday evening I shall be venting forth on World Cup matters on TD1 Radio
Well done to England's Under-17s - European Champions after beating Spain on Sunday. As I said when captain Conor Coady lifted the trophy "England - Champions! How good does THAT sound?"...
My next blog on this site will come from Durban!
So, the World Cup is only four weeks away! I for one can't wait to get stuck in to South Africa 2010. Of course I'll be blogging and Tweeting in my spare moments from South Africa. In the meanwhile, I thought I'd pick out five players, aside from the blindingly obvious ones, who might just shine in the Rainbow Nation. Enjoy.
Alexis Sanchez. Chile/Udinese.
A proper South American playmaker or "El Diez". I was lucky enough to commentate on a large chunk of Chile's games and Sanchez stood out in a very, very talented side. He outshone even Mati Fernandez, a former South American Footballer of the Year. I'm tipping Chile as the unfancied side who might ruffle a few feathers, and Sanchez to have a tournament which will elevate him to the next level.
Xherdan Shaqiri. Switzerland/FC Basel.
A bold pick by the usually conservative Ottmar Hitzfeld. At 18 Shaqiri only made his club debut this season, and here he is now on the plane to a World Cup. Probably won't start many games, he's a super-sub even for Basel, but he'll offer the pace and trickery on the wings late in games when the opposition are tiring.
Jean Beausejour. Chile/Club America.
Another Chilean, and another I really enjoyed watching in qualifying. A powerfully-built right winger who often pushes up to act as a second striker. I had the pleasure of calling his first goal for the national team against Bolivia, and what a terrific header it was!
Christian Eriksen. Denmark/Ajax.
In March I commentated on Eriksen's Danish debut in a friendly in Austria. I think he'd only played something like FIVE Eredivisie games for Ajax at that point, and came on having only just turned 18 a few days before. He's Denmark's youngest cap since Michael Laudrup in the early 80s. Another who might not start many games, but can make a huge impact late on.
Nelson Haedo Valdez. Paraguay/Borussia Dortmund.
Another South American pick. I thoroughly enjoyed Paraguay's qualification campaign and Nelson Haedo Valdez was terrific. The goal below was the one which beat Argentina in Round 15 of CONMEBOL qualifying and put Maradona on the brink of missing the World Cup. Much will be on Valdez's shoulders in South Africa, as his regular strike partner Salvador Cabanas is still recovering from a gunshot to the head. Expect Haedo Valdez and Roque Santa Cruz to be a handful for most defences at the Finals.
Thanks for all your kind messages and Tweets about the blogs, especially those from Nigeria - it seems you really enjoyed reading them.
Next time I blog, it will, hopefully, be from South Africa!
Under a cloud, the Africa Cup of Nations kicks off in Luanda later today, but the tournament has made the headlines for the wrong reasons already with the appalling machine-gunning of the Togo team bus en route to their training camp in Cabinda. Three men lost their lives, and despite varying conflicting reports, Togo are almost certain to withdraw from the competition.
The local organisers as well as the African federation itself, CAF, must take a huge proportion of any blame for the tragedy. A quick Google of the Cabinda region will tell even the most unlearned of students of Angolan politics that the region is deeply sensitive, with the local sepratist faction still effectively at war with the main land-mass of Angola, though admittedly a cease-fire had held since 2006.
Cabinda is a territory seperate to Angola itself. It is an enclave landlocked by the Democratic Republic of Congo, from where Togo were driving when they were ambushed. The idea of hosting matches in the Cup of Nations there seems bizarre at best, downright inflammatory at worst. Imagine England winning the right to host the 2018 World Cup, and then deciding to host games on the Falkland Islands. Then multiply Argentina's anger by several notches and you're still probably nowhere near the feeling generated in Cabinda. Surely CAF had to agree to the local organiser's choice of venues? Certainly with the UEFA European Championship, the European federation has the power of veto over unsuitable host cities and stadia.
The sensationalist media has latched onto the atrocity and gone into overdrive, scaremongering over Africa's ability to host this summer's FIFA World Cup. Comparing South Africa with Angola is foolish, and is lazy journalism in the extreme. My occasional Cup of Nations co-commentator, and former Sierra Leone international, Leroy Rosenior spoke great sense on the matter yesterday, reasoning that you'd never say an ETA bomb in Spain meant London was unfit as the 2012 Olympic host, so why should an attack on Angolan soil smear all African nations with the same reputation?
The Angolan government, together with CAF and FIFA, claim to have increased security to more appropriate levels around the teams and the matches, and one can only hope this is true, although the group claiming responsibility for Friday's attack on the Togolese, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) has threatened further action during the Cup of Nations. Any such repeat, on whatever scale, would surely mean the cancellation of the 2010 Cup of Nations, and put the competition's future in doubt in its current format - especially given the suspicion with which some, though not all, European clubs and coaches view the tournament, and having to give up millions of pounds worth of players for a month, every two years.
Here's to a safe, and sporting Cup of Nations. The attack on the Togo squad is an indelible mark over this 27th edition of the competition, and while it can't be forgotten, lets hope the remaining fifteen teams are able to ensure that come the end of the month we have some spectacular football to look back on; to remember Angola 2010, in part at least, for the right reasons.
I make no secret that the Cup of Nations is my favourite competition, and the 2010 edition shall be my fourth as a commentator. The games start in four days time, and it promises to be one of the most exciting tournaments yet, with a host of potential winners and players to enjoy - some already famous, others less so.
As in Ghana two years ago, Cote D'Ivoire are much fancied. And you can see why. Top players in every position, and arguably all at or close to their peak. Didier Drogba, at 31, is the oldest player in Vahid Halihodzic's 23. Yaya Toure, Didier Zokora, Baky Kone and Salomon Kalou are all terrific and few of the squads in Angola have anything like the Ivorians sheer strength in depth. Theirs is a tough group, mind. Hosts and semi-finalists in 2008 Ghana have a strong group, and if Emmanuel Adebayor is in the right mood, Togo could spring a suprise in Group B too. You have to feel for Burkina Faso, who will rely massively on their one true world class player, Marseille's Charles Kabore, to give them a chance of at least competing with the superpowers in the group.
Group A is wide open. Angola are a very average team, but as hosts will likely overachieve. Mali and Algeria are the two class outfits in the group - Mali have some wonderful individuals, such as Barcelona's Seydou Keita, Mahamadou Diarra of Real Madrid and Modibo Maiga from Le Mans has looked good in recent friendlies. For the players they have, and have had in the past, Mali are perhaps one of the biggest disappointments in the Cup of Nations. 2010 could be their best chance for a while to go a long way in the competition. For me, second place in the group is between Mali and Angola. Malawi will have had a good tournament to score a point, and I'm suprised Kinnah Phiri didn't gamble and call on Tonny Chitsulo from the recent Under-17 World Cup squad as a wildcard inclusion - he looked like a terrific player, and certainly had the physicality to cope with open-age international football despite his youth.
I'm tipping Algeria to win Group A. Already on a massive high after qualifying for their first World Cup since 1986 (at the expense of their truly hated rivals, and reigning Cup of Nations holders Egypt), their squad is suprisingly full of well-known names, even if over half of them were born outside Algeria! Nadir Belhadj, Majid Bougherra and Karim Ziani are all guaranteed starters, and I have a feeling Abdelmalek Ziaya might become a star once the dust has settled on Angola 2010. He's a striker who was been prolific in the CAF Confederations Cup last year, form which has just earned him a move to Sochaux in France. His inclusion ahead of two established forwards, Hull's oft-mispronounced Kamel Ghilas and Rafik Djebbour is certainly a gamble by the coach, but given his recent form, it might prove a fruitful one. I'm sure England fans will watch Les Fennecs matches at this Cup of Nations with interest...
Group C contains the winners of the past two titles Egypt. The Pharoahs are the most successful side in Cup of Nations history, and if experience holds the key, then don't back against a hat-trick of titles coming in Angola. Essam El Hadary, Abdelzaher El Saqqa and Ahmed Hassan all have well over a hundred caps each, though are all in their mid-30s. "Outspoken" forwards Mido and Amr Zaki have both been overlooked by the coach for this tournament, with Mohamed Zidan and Emad Motab preferred as the strikeforce. One player missing through circumstance is arguably their most important. Mohamed Aboutrika, who scored the winner in the final in Accra in 2008, has a broken bone in a foot. Without him, a lack of creativity might be what derails Egypt this time.
Egypt and Nigeria should come through Group C relatively unscathed, though this is far from a classic Nigeria squad, with the legendary Kanu still an integral squad member. Mozambique won't trouble them, and neither should Benin, though Stephane Sessegnon, now of Paris St.Germain, is for me one of the most underrated midfielders in European club football at the moment - a proper pocket dynamo. Razak Omotoyossi impressed me two years ago when he was playing in Scandinavia. Since then, he's earned a move to Metz in the French second division, and his goals will be key to any Beninoise hopes of causing an upset.
Group D is where my commentary work centres in the opening stages. Cameroon are in terrific form since Paul Le Guen took over in July. Like Cote D'Ivoire they have great players from big clubs at good ages. Samuel Eto'o is playing in his 6th Cup of Nations, and is the competition's record goalscorer. He's still just 28 and is a class act, but these days Les Lions Indomptables are more than just Eto'o and ten others. Nicolas N'Koulou is a teenage centre-back already a first team regular at AS Monaco (and picked ahead of Tottenham's Sebastien Bassong for the tournament). Alex Song is in the form of his life for Arsenal this season, while Jean Makoun, Achille Emana and Stephane M'bia give Cameroon a real world-class midfield. Joel Matip may play only a limited role in 2010, but the German-born Schalke midfielder is so good, the German FA have practically begged him to reconsider his decision to opt for Cameroon. Barring mishap, Cameroon will cruise through to the quarter-finals.
Who joins them there is less clear-cut. Gabon were suprise challengers to Cameroon for a place in South Africa 2010, and arguably have their best team yet, led by Hull's Daniel Cousin. The Copper Bullets of Zambia, coached by one-time Cambridge boss Herve Renard, have a decent squad this time too, with plenty of veterans of the 2008 tournament in their ranks. 2004 champions Tunisia probably have the best chance of qualifying with Cameroon, though this is far from a "golden generation" as the Carthage Eagles regroup in the post-Roger Lemerre era. Fifteen of the squad are home-based, with 2004 survivor (and semi-final hero) Karim Haggui probably their best-known and most experienced player.
As usual, I'm looking forward massively to the competition - hope you'll all be watching!
So, we know the 32 teams who'll be in South Africa next summer. I had the pleasure of describing the qualification of the last of those nations, Uruguay, as they edged out Costa Rica in the CONCACAF/CONMEBOL play-off. It felt strangely sad to be commentating on the very last qualifier, anywhere in the world, for the 2010 World Cup, as it's a journey I've been involved with all the way, from Pyongyang to Paraguay via Bratislava and Melbourne, and one I've thoroughly enjoyed.
Looking at the list of nations, it's amazing as a freelancer just how many of the teams I've watched over the past two years. Across nearly 60 live commentaries, Algeria, Honduras, Mexico and New Zealand (plus the hosts South Africa) are the only nations I've not commentated on since the qualifying competition began. It piques me to hear a radio debate with pundits arguing who'll win the World Cup, when I'd wager that they'd probably not watched any qualifiers outside those involving England!
As for who I fancy to win the trophy, I have a sneaky inkling for Argentina. They were absolutely and shambolically dreadful in qualifying. Beyond awful. In terms of the games I commentated on, I endured them losing in Chile and Paraguay, being held in Lima by Peru, and then dramatically (and with a helping of good fortune) winning the return game 2-1 in Buenos Aires. They qualified in spite of Diego Maradona, not because of him. No-one is a bigger admirer of "El Diez" the player than I, but as a coach, things aren't working out. I expect the AFA to replace him with a new coach (Beckham's bud Diego Simeone is a decent shout) before the World Cup kicks off, and any squad containing Kun Aguero, Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez won't be too far from the prizes, if led and organised correctly.
Brazil will be a force, of course, but under Dunga they're very much a team built in his image, playing with a couple of holding midfielders in Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva. I like the look of Luis Fabiano as the spearhead in front of Kaka, and for once the team has a solid defensive line too. Lucio will probably partner Juan when the tournament starts, but in the recent friendlies Thiago Silva of AC Milan has impressed me.
The European challenge will come from Spain and England. The Spanish are a class apart in the UEFA zone at the moment, and if Torres, Fabregas and Villa are fit and firing, it will take a very strong team to stop them. A good argument can be made for England too, though much depends on the fitness of the team's spine - Ferdinand, Gerrard and Rooney. The quarter-finals has been England's stumbling block for years, but if any coach can take them to the semis and maybe beyond, it might just be Fabio Capello. And Capello's own nation, the defending champions Italy certainly didn't have an easy ride in qualifying and are certainly not the team of four years ago. France don't stand a chance, as long as Monsieur Domenech remains in charge.
Elsewhere, I'm looking forward to seeing North Korea. Of course we'll have to endure endless references to Pak Doo Ik and 1966, but having seen them several times in qualifying (once having to commentate on the first ten minutes of a game without a teamsheet), they're a very well-drilled outfit. Absolutely no flair at all, but breaking them down will be very difficult. Don't expect them to storm into three goal leads against the big nations this time around, but do expect them to make life difficult for whoever they play against.
From Africa, Cote D'Ivoire will be the strongest team, and probably the strongest African challengers for the title yet to emerge. It's very easy to cite Drogba as their main menace, but beyond him they have a raft of players playing in top clubs in top leagues. The Toure brothers Yaya and Kolo, Emmanuel Eboue, Bakari Kone and Didier Zokora to mention just a few. I don't see any of the other African sides doing especially well. Nigeria are very ordinary, especially in midfield, Cameroon don't have a golden generation like they had in the 1990s, South Africa themselves are struggling for form and have re-appointed Carlos Alberto Parreira as coach. Algeria looked nothing but perfunctory in beating Egypt to qualify.
At a World Cup, I love to watch the unfancied teams, nations like first-timers Honduras and New Zealand, who have qualified for the first time since 1982. They probably won't win too many games in South Africa, but it's refreshing to see "new" nations at a World Cup. One of the great weaknesses of the UEFA Champions League these days is that every season it seems to be the same cast list, while the World Cup can still occasionally throw in an unexpected qualifier, like the two I've mentioned here, plus the North Koreans and Slovakia.
And for those of you who like a cheeky wager, how about Chile? Coached by Marcelo Bielsa who led Argentina in a couple of World Cups in the recent past, he's developed a terrific young side, who only finished a point behind Brazil in the CONMEBOL zone group. Alexis Sanchez of Udinese is one of the players I'll earmark as a potential star to emerge from the tournament (Uruguay's Nicolas Lodeiro is another). Paraguay too will be a team who can mix it with the bigger sides, with or without Roque Santa Cruz.
We'll know the results of the group stage draw in early December, and before we know it South Africa 2010 will be upon us! I dearly hope, given my breadth of experience of the qualifiers, to be there as a commentator, but if not, like the rest of you, I'll settle down to enjoy a month of the best football on the planet.
This morning was the worst morning of my commentating career. Like a lot of us in this business, my recurring nightmare is being late for a game, miles from where I should be. That nearly happened today, through no fault of my own.
I spent the last three days in Kaduna, with very limited Internet access - hence no blogs. The craic with the crew was excellent. We had a quiz night, a round of golf and a "wrap party" barbecue in my time there. The problem was that once I'd commentated on Italy-USA on Wednesday, I had to leave on Thursday morning for Kano for my last match, Spain-Burkina Faso.
Transport had been booked for 8am, and the 2-3 hour drive shouldn't really have been a problem. But this is Nigeria. I waited for my driver and escort to turn up at the Kaduna hotel (which in itself is a story...). When it got to 8:15, I decided to call our security liason to see if he knew what was happening. Well, he did, and it wasn't good news.
It transpired that the right palms within the Local Organising Committee hadn't been greased with the right amount of money, so rather than have two vehicles, one taking crew 6 hours south to Bauchi and another taking me north to Kano, there was only one. And we'd have to share. Both crews games were 4pm kick offs, so clearly we'd not be able to get to both venues in time.
Somehow John, our security and transport chief in Kaduna managed to get a second vehicle, just as it seemed I was in danger of missing the game.
The drive to Kano was terrifying. First the armed police escort vehicle decided they needed to fill up with petrol, from the garage on the opposite side of the dual carriageway. While one got out and menacingly waved his assault rifle to control the traffic, both vehicles lurched and bumped across the central reservation and into the filling station. Once their vehicle was full, it was back the same way, with motorbikes and cars skidding to a halt just feet away.
My car was a little Hyundai supplied by the LOC, and the driver seemed to have never driven ANY car before, let alone that one. Stalls, missed gears and some worrying swerving around, but mainly over, potholes for three solid hours before we arrived in Kano city around 1pm.
All was fine, until a woman decided to drive straight into the escort vehicle at a gridlocked roundabout, swiping the sliding door clean off. Six angry, heavily armed police officers got out and manhandled the door to the side of the road, gave the female driver a very stern ticking off, and we were off again.
Three-and-a-half hours later I was in the Media Centre at the Sani Abacha stadium, trying to finish the notes I'd been unable to finish in Kaduna, when the entire electrical supply to the centre failed. Luckily I'd saved my notes to a memory stick, so the damage wasn't terminal.
The game was great. Spain were pushed hard by the Burkinabe in the first half and it was 1-1 after 45 minutes. After half-time Spain turned on the style and scored three more goals to repeat their 4-1 group stage scoreline against Malawi.
When the whistle blew for full time I was a mixture of elated, exhausted and melancholy. For all the chaos, muddle and hassle of getting around Nigeria in the course of commentating on eight games of football, I think I'll rather miss the place - Kano, at least. There's a genuine humanity about the people here. The games have been played in a wonderful, inquisitive, supportive atmosphere. Kaduna was a different story. There was tear gas at an earlier game, and in the match I covered there we had violence at half time when a couple of locals unfurled "We Hate America" flags. Kaduna felt much more hostile and intimidating; the hotel (such as it was) was embarrassingly shabby and the staff stopped at nothing to con and swindle their guests (one member of the party was quoted $50 for a portion of chips). Think Fawlty Towers but more cynical and shabby. Hot running water was a luxury for most rooms.
The high spots in Kaduna were the company. A really great crew, and a terrific social atmosphere. My first night meant I could have a proper catch-up over a steak and a few beers with a commentating legend - John Helm. Later that evening we had a great - and competitive - quiz night, with the prize a Uruguay team-issue polo shirt. Which I didn't win. In fact, I cost our team a share of first place by incorrectly crossing out Nicolas Anelka as the most expensive player in terms of cumulitive transfer fees, and insisting Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Real Madrid had surpassed the total. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Next day we played 18 holes at Kaduna Golf Club - the oldest (and probably worst-maintained) in Nigeria. The fairways are so unfair that the local caddies build you a tee out of grass, regardless of where the ball lands, just so you can hit the thing! Two of the holes are played across a main road, with no protection at all for the drivers and motorcyclists passing by. Health and Safety has yet to reach Kaduna.
Bizarrely on the course we bumped into the Italy management team, including 1982 World Cup winner Giancarlo Antognoni. I go to pieces on the local municipal if there's a couple of men and a dog watching me play, let alone when someone with a World Cup medal is six feet away from me!
I'm writing this final blog from the trip as I wait for my ride to Kano Airport. I fly with KLM back to Amsterdam at 11:45pm tonight, and from there should be back in Blighty in the early hours of Friday morning. No rest for the wicked though - FA Cup First Round on Saturday, and my home town Stourbridge versus Walsall, which I'm incredibly proud to be commentating on.
I hope you've enjoyed these Under-17 World Cup blogs as much as I have writing them. It's been an amusing trip, sometimes frustrating, but never dull, and hopefully the experience will stand me in good stead for foreign sorties still to come. Here's hoping the phone rings soon with an invite to South Africa 2010...
Really touching moment today. The lad who cleans my room at the hotel is profoundly deaf, so we have until today communicated via a system of smiles, waves, thumbs and shrugs. Today he pointed towards a pen and paper. On it he wrote: "I am deaf. If you can help me, give your playing shirt football". Well, assuming he's not a fan of the Wychbury Dragons team which regularly came third-bottom in the Stourbridge and District Youth Football League in the early 1990s, it appears he, like a couple of other staff members in the hotel, think I am indeed a player at this FIFA Under-17 World Cup. I wrote back that I am not playing, but that I will do my best to get him a shirt from one of the teams before I leave. He's a lovely guy, always smiling, and I can't begin to imagine the difficulty of living with a disability out here.
My other "to get" item is a vuvulzela. If you watched the Confederations Cup, or indeed any African-based football over the past couple of years you'll be familiar with the sound, if not the name. Come next summer's World Cup, I suspect the vuvuzela will be a global phenomenon, so I intend to be ahead of the trend. A vuvuzela is a garish plastic horn, around a foot long, which fans here honk incessantly from long before kick-off until well after the game has finished. I know some found them intensely irritating at the Confederations Cup, but they are a quintessential feature of the African football experience.
Tomorrow's games at the Sani Abacha will largely decide who goes through to the last sixteen from Group E. Spain take on the United Arab Emirates in the evening kick-off, before which the USA play Malawi. I can't see anything other than convincing wins for the Spanish and Americans. Defeat for Malawi will pretty much see them eliminated, especially as their final game is against Spain.
Of all the teams I've seen out here so far, both live and on television, Spain look the best-equipped to win the trophy. Iker Muniain and Pablo Sarabia have the potential to be massive stars. Koke, the captain, has something of Fabregas about him, and Borja is a classic centre-forward. I've yet to watch anything other than brief highlights of Brazil, but the only other real contenders so far have been Italy and Argentina, though the latter look to have a real weakness in their goalkeeper Martinez, especially under crosses.
Given Ghana's success in Egypt at the Under-20s, and Nigeria's winning of this trophy two years ago in Korea, the African sides have been disappointing so far. Nigeria were shocking for an hour against Germany before scoring three times against ten men, and yesterday they rather limped to a 1-0 win over a weak Honduras. The best African performance so far has probably been unfancied Malawi, who were desperately unfortunate to lose 2-0 against the Emirates, by a couple of sensational long-range goals.
Today marks the half-way stage in my stay in Nigeria. Can't wait for tomorrow's games!
Days 6 & 7
A week into my African adventure and finally the tournament is underway. Some terrific games already, though they're quite hard to find on local television. One game that was shown nationwide was the hosts wonderful opener with Germany. The Europeans stormed into a well-deserved 3-0 lead just after half-time, and Nigeria looked a poor side, then suddenly Germany had a man (can you call 16-17 year olds "men"?) sent off, and the Golden Eaglets scored three goals in seven minutes! Both teams hit the woodwork too in added time. Brazil were involved in a thrilling game too with Japan. The Japanese seemed to have battled to a point, only for their goalkeeper to punch a cross into his own net right at the end.
The following day saw me make my first trip to the Sani Abacha stadium here in Kano. I was collected from my hotel by a driver and an escort of no fewer than SIX AK-47ed-up police officers. In a blaze of flashing lights and wailing sirens we drove the 15 minutes to the stadium.
Even the most aggressive London driver would feel intimidated on the roads of Kano. I counted three near-collisions involving our convoy this morning. Motorbikes and mopeds are the preferred mode of transport here, I saw one father allowing his toddler to steer, and another riding one-handed, while the other held a live chicken.
Lighter moments aside, nothing quite prepares you for the sheer poverty on the approach to the stadium. Kano is a world away from the relative affluence of Abuja. This is the "real" Africa, and it is truly eye-opening to experience.
The stadium is home to Kano Pillars, African Champions League semi-finalists earlier this month. With a day to go before our first games in Group E, the crew were hastily rigging the TV facilities. My commentary position is excellent, giving a perfect unrestricted view of the artificial pitch. Height-wise, the gantry is probably similar to that at Craven Cottage, though I've never seen bugs next to the Thames quite like the giant green one which sat on the shoulder of our French Broadcast Venue Manager Alain as he showed me around the stadium.
Matchday was the hottest day in Nigeria so far. Our pitchside thermometers read 37 degrees at kick off for the opening game in Group E between the United Arab Emirates and Malawi. I was really impressed with the African team. They've never qualified for a FIFA competition before at any level, but they led the Emiratis a merry dance for long spells. Especially impressive were two of their forward players, Tonny Chitsulo and Bruno Milanzi. Chitsulo was so unlucky not to score a wonderful individual goal in the first half when he dribbled through the UAE defence, beat the goalkeeper but hit the post, something Milanzi had done earlier in the game.
It was the UAE who won the game with two incredible goals, the first a 35-yard freekick from Marwan Al Saffar the captain, and the second from near the half-way line, with the goalkeeper rather stranded. Malawi had two players sent off too as they rather lost their heads towards the end. Today was probably their best chance to get points on the board too, given that they face the USA and Spain in their remaining games.
The meeting between the two heavyweights in the group was a wonderful occasion. Sometimes as a commentator you can sense a special game is in the offing even before it kicks off. The stadium was rocking as it filled to its 20-odd thousand capacity, and Spain had a man red carded after only 63 seconds! Spain were 25 games undefeated before the game, but the prospect of playing 89 minutes with ten men can't have been good. Even less so when Jack McInerney scrambled the USA into the lead after only four minutes. But then Spain showed why they're such a wonderful team at this level.
The equaliser was a wonderful team goal. Iker Muniain, the youngest scorer in La Liga history, combined with Real Madrid's Pablo Sarabia to cross for "the new Torres" Borjan Baston to equalise from close range, and then eight minutes later Sarabia converted a Borja cross from an impossible angle to score a truly sensational goal for Spain.
As is so often the case the second half following a wonderful first seldom fails to live up to what's gone before, and in many ways that was true here. The USA should have equalised when sub Victor Chavez went clean through but saw his shot saved, but Spain held on to win. "Group E for excitement" as I said at the final whistle.
I loved ever second of my first "on-site" World Cup games. The USA-Spain match was one of those you never want to finish as a commentator, when you know you're "in the zone". Mind you, it nearly didn't finish. We had FOURTEEN minutes of added time at the end of the game after TWO floodlight failures in the second half!
Two terrific games to get my tournament underway, and some wonderful goals. The day was topped off with an impromptu kickabout back at the TV compound against the local Nigerian crew. Running around in 30 degree heat after a full day's work isn't really to be recommended. And my first touch, as usual, was shocking.
We now have two days off before "our" group resumes on Thursday.
Finally a word for my home-town club Stourbridge of the wonderfully-titled Zamoretto League. I was delighted to see they beat Buxton to reach the First Round Proper of the FA Cup, and even more delighted when I discovered they'd been drawn at home to Walsall. I'm guessing the game will be switched from The War Memorial Ground to Bescot, but even so, it will be a wonderful day for The Glassboys. One of my fondest football memories is watching them beat Dover in the Barclays Commercial Services Cup Final back in 1993. From memory Walsall signed that team's best player, Evran Wright, soon after. Arguably this FA Cup run is their finest hour since then.
Days 3 & 4
Left the hotel in Abuja at 5am this morning for a 7am charter flight north to Kano. The flight was put on for the Malawi team's benefit more than ours, but we were certainly relieved it was - the alternative had been a 10-hour road trip via one of the Local Organising Committee's minibuses. The flight was excellent, and contrary to the horror stories I'd heard about internal flights, the aircraft wasn't a rickety old crate, but instead was a brand-new Arik Air Boeing 737-800 with only 500 flight hours on the clock.
I'm already missing Abuja. The hustle and bustle of the FIFA HQ at the Hilton hotel was a terrific insight into how a World Cup is planned and run. The food there was excellent too. And I'm kicking myself that I didn't have the cojones to pose for a picture wearing Sepp Blatter's accreditation pass which was sitting on the desk next to mine!
Speaking of posing for pictures, I came close to getting my hands on the senior World Cup trophy yesterday, in the rather incongrous surroundings of the basement of the Luxury Nicon Hotel. Coca-Cola are taking the World Cup around Africa ahead of next summer's Finals, and although the posters said "10am-4pm", by the time our party turned up at 3:20pm the trophy had long gone. As I quipped when we discovered the trophy had gone - "just like England in a World Cup, so near to the trophy, but yet so far!"
Kano is the Africa you expect. The Africa you see on the news. The poverty here is palpable and upsetting to Western eyes. The city is built entirely of low-rise huts, many of which are in poor repair. That said, the welcome from the people here has been totally and without exception warm and friendly. Football, as ever, is the common link. Counterfeit shirts they may be, but on the ride from the airport to our hotel I counted Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea shirts, and a spot of AC Milan graffiti. Kano is noticeably warmer than Abuja - we're just south of the border with Niger and not far from the outskirts of the Sahara. Pollution is a problem here too - the city has a scent of four-star petrol fumes that stays with you constantly.
The hotel here in Kano isn't great. It makes you appreciate what we have in Europe. I'll never not appreciate a Travelodge again! There was a moment of high farce on arrival this morning. I checked in and the jolly young man on reception insisted he personally show me to my room. All well and good so far. What wasn't so good was that when we opened the door, it was pretty obvious from the pairs of shoes and pools of clothes on the floor that the previous guest hadn't yet checked out!
Unlike multi-denominational Abuja, Kano is in the Muslim, Sharia-governed region in the north of the country. The hotel sells no alcohol, and my room has a prayer mat and arrow pointing the way to Mecca.
Kano is pretty much a no-no for nightlife, so I'm pretty much confined to the hotel until the open training sessions and the matchdays. It wouldn't be so bad, but the entire production team are based in a different one! Stir crazy, and still four days to the opening matches on Monday in "my" group, Group E. I've brought a pile of books to work through, as well as hard-drive full of films. Things have gotten so desperate I've begun to watch the Star Wars prequels I had hitherto pretended didn't exist. Who on earth thought Jar-Jar Binks was a good idea?
And when the films run out, there's no shortage of football on television in Nigeria. Watched plenty of live Champions League and Europa League so far this week, and there's promised coverage from the Kenyan Premier League to come this weekend. Might drop them a showreel, that's one league I've not yet worked on!!
My next update hopefully will come after the initial group games - if the technology is willing, I may even be able to upload a couple of photos too.
Hi everybody, here's the first of my blog entries from the FIFA Under-17 World Cup!
Flew into Abuja on Monday evening. One one side of the plane we had an amazing African sunset, while on the other side the dark clouds flashed with an equally stunning thunderstorm. Getting off the plane, the first thing (apart from the giant green insect hopping along) to notice was the heat. Despite the storm it was still around 30 degrees. After finally clearing immigration, and sorting out that our bags were on the van going to the right hotel, we boarded the Honduras team's coach for the transfer to the commentators accomodation.
The coach ride was as surreal as things get. While the chirpy Honduran squad played their Central American samba-infused-with-hip-hop at full blast, the coach driver decided he'd quite like to listen to his highly-religious Jim Reeves CD. To the unititated what ensued was a musical "mash-up" of the top of the Honduras hit parade with Jim's Christian Classics. The effect was faintly ridiculous. I looked at the Honduran player I was sat next to, we both rolled our eyes and I switched on my iPod.
Decided on an early night after the long trip, so flicked on the TV before I went to bed. What did I see, Premier League highlights of Villa-Chelsea, with my mate Gary Taphouse commentating! Small world, indeed!
Working in the Hilton today - FIFA have taken over a whole floor, which is a relief as the hotel I'm in doesn't seem to have working wi-fi. Working girls, yes - and lots of them - but not working internet. Amazing how much we rely on the web these days! I felt quite lost without it yesterday. Most of the teams are staying in the Hilton, Honduras and Argentina arrived last night.
The rest of the day will be pretty chilled out I think - doing a bit more prep while I have computer access. Tomorrow we have a commentator briefing at the Hilton, and then on Thursday I head north to Kano. My first commentaries are on the 26th, Malawi v UAE, followed by USA v Spain.
Hope to update this as regularly as I can!
Hello everyone - high time to write my first blog of the season, seeing as we're about to move into October!
For those of you who haven't been following me (and why not!) on Twitter, I can reveal that later this month I'm heading to Nigeria for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup. It's something I'm really looking forward to, having covered several of these tournaments before but never "on-site". I hope to blog and Tweet from the tournament, but won't know if this will be possible until I get there and find out what internet facilities we have.
A condition of being allowed a visa to enter Nigeria is an up-to-date Yellow Fever vaccination, something I'd never had before. I must admit to being a little disappointed by the size of the needle - I was expecting something enormous, like something out of Frankenstein, but in the end I barely noticed the injection. I'll leave it for you to make up the obvious joke... And my visa application wasn't helped by the fact that I managed to put my passport though the washing machine a couple of months ago when I got back from holiday. Anyway, all my paperwork is now sorted, so I'm ready to go!
I'm going for a couple of weeks, during which time I'll be covering the group stage and a couple of the knockout games. I was asked to go for longer, but as any freelancer will tell you, it's very hard to take time away from the Premier and Football Leagues during the season. Freelance paranoia about other people taking your work is a constant worry.
I was asked the other day whether I enjoy freelancing. The answer is a qualified yes. The freedom is brilliant - working 9-to-6 at Anglia during the week was my idea of hell, but the insecure nature of freelancing certainly has its ups and downs, and when the diary's looking a little blank you do invariably come to question your own ability and position. Sometimes I do think I should be a little more pushy when it comes to chasing work, but that's not really in my nature.
Another innate concern is the shifting of TV rights. Us freelancers have to chase the contracts from broadcaster to broadcaster, and often producers at channels will have their own preferred "favourites" which can be frustrating, when you know that you're as good, if not better, than the people being used, but in this business we have to remember that one man's Frank Sinatra is another's Glenn Medeiros. The key is not to take rejection personally.
On top of my Premier League and Football League commitments, you'll be able to hear me on the final rounds of South American World Cup qualifiers in October. I'm rather delighted to be commentating on Argentina's game with Peru - a game Maradona desperately needs to win to keep alive their hopes of reaching the World Cup. I worked on their last game, a 0-1 defeat in Paraguay, and believe me they are a far cry from what we've come to expect. Amazing that a side containing Mascherano, Messi and Aguero can look so disjointed.
Before I go, I'll point you in the direction of some recommended reading. My friend and colleague John Anderson has written a book about his adventures as a radio sports reporter and commentator. From what he's told me over the past couple of years he's been writing it, it should be guaranteed to raise a smile or two - it's published by Know The Score books and as well as the usual retail outlets can be bought direct from the publisher.
Catch you all soon!
Job done! Got home from Fairford yesterday having completed my first Royal International Air Tattoo as Senior Commentator. I'll be honest and say that when I made the short trip to the Cotswolds last Tuesday evening, I was terrified by what lay in store. As I said when interviewed on BBC Points West on Friday, this "gig" was completely outside my usual "comfort zone", but thanks to a great team around me, I think we managed to pull it off!
So what happens on the non-showdays? Our commentary team - myself, Ben Dunnell and "Spiv" Gair - base ourselves in the Flight Centre. We have our own desk, and arriving display crews are brought to us for a chat where we discuss the finer points of their routine, their background and their aircraft. This is also where we check pronunciations - we'd never have guessed that Whenuapai in New Zealand is actually pronounced "Phu-en-u-a-pai"!
When we get the chance we can also nip outside to watch any rehearsals, and our desk is next to the Flying Control Committee and Flying Display desks, meaning we get to know the inside story on what the crews want to do in their display, and more importantly, what they've been allowed to do - often the two are rather different...
Friday is rehearsal day - for the aircrew and for us. We'd never worked together before, and the other two guys had barely done any broadcasting before, but within a few minutes we seemed to click into gear, and by the end of Sunday's show, we all felt like we'd really accomplished something. The feedback we've all had since the Tattoo has been wonderful, and is hugely appreciated.
And on the Sunday, the kind on-air tribute Sean Maffett paid us really made us feel at ease with what we were doing. Certainly he was under no obligation to say it, but it meant a lot to all three of us, to be following in such illustrious footsteps.
Would I do an airshow commentary again? Yes, definitely! Met a few show organisers over the week, so it could be a case of "watch this space"...
But now it's back to the day job - a busy pre-season continues this week with a couple of commentaries in the World Football Challenge competition in the USA, involving Chelsea and the two Milan sides. Then there's an early August game in the German DFB Pokal, before the Coca-Cola Football League and Barclays Premier League start. Barely seems a blink of an eye since the last season finished, does it?
As for ambitions this season, well, this year marks 10 years in commentary for me. I'm still pretty young to be in the position I am, but I really want to raise the bar this season - as I felt I was doing towards the end of the last one, so here's hoping for a few seven-goal thrillers to get stuck into, to really showcase what I can do!
Thank you so much for the e-mails and messages through this site - as you know I try and reply to them all!
Anyway, until the next blog, you can keep up to date with me via Twitter (@danohagan).
Roll on the new season!
As always, thanks for so many kind words via email since my last blog. Quite a few of you have asked me how I prepare for a game, and whether I have a set routine. The answer is that, yes, I do, and I thought that in this latest entry, I'd give an insight into what that routine is.
I've become quite the preparation junkie - there's probably an element of OCD in my obsessive note-taking, but I've yet to meet any commentator who doesn't have at least a passing fascination for the trivial and the mundane. The more obtuse the snippet or statistic, the better!
Preparation will start anything up to a week before the commentary - any earlier and the information ceases to be fresh in the mind. I try to watch DVDs of the teams recent games - something especially important when researching overseas clubs and international teams. Recently my viewing took in games involving North Korea, Iran, Australia, Bahrain, Bolivia and Chile - freelancing certainly broadens one's football horizons and knowledge. Wherever possible, I try to watch the matches with commentary in the team's native language. I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to proper pronunciation,
The next stage is the most time-consuming, and can easily take anything up to two working days to complete. This is the drawing up of what I refer to as my "match sheets" - one of which is an A4 grid containing a brief profile and relevant statistics on every player likely to feature in the game. I also leave a couple of slots blank, as frequently managers and coaches surprise even the best-researched of us, by throwing in an untried junior, or a player coming back from long-term injury on matchday.
Like other commentators I know, my match sheet is something of a labour of love. Clarity and neatness are essential! The sheets are always hand written - the information sticks in the mind so much better than when using a computer. I only use a certain kind of gel-ink pen, which I buy in bulk at the start of each season, and any mistakes are either Tippexed out, or if a big error, means starting again from scratch. Yes, I know - again it's my OCD.
On the back of this sheet I will make a note of the lineup and team formations and shapes from the previous couple of games - websites like football-lineups.com are absolutely priceless for information like this. In the age of the internet, researching pretty much any team from any league or competition is a relatively straightforward business. I'm certainly glad I'm commentating in 2009 and not 1979, as without the internet a job like mine would be much, much more labour-intensive. Commentators today are massively fortunate with the resources at our fingertips. Would it have been possible, even 15 years ago, to research the Uzbekistan national team, watch video of their last few games and get written confirmation of their squad in the matter of a few hours without leaving home?
In tandem with the above sheet there's a second A4 sheet, divided into two halves. This sheet contains all the talking points, historical statistics and items of general interest which I can use during the commentary. Recent gems include notes on Bolivia's dreadful away record in World Cup qualifying (currently 4 points from a possible 105) and the story behind Australian coach Pim Verbeek's pledge to sing the national anthem live on television now the Socceroos have qualified for South Africa. Even during the most turgid of games, its unusual to exhaust everything written on these sheets, sometimes maybe 50% or more of the notes made will go to waste, unused, especially for a live game where I'm working with a co-commentator, or for a Premier League game cut down to a seven-minute highlights edit. It can be frustrating when you're driving home that night, kicking yourself for not using your killer stat, but usually it means that the game was so exciting, there was no chance to use it!
The match sheets are then put into a plastic envelope until matchday, and the announcement of the teams. At Premier League games we're privileged to be allowed into the dressing room area to get first news of the team lineups when the respective managers hand them in to the referee an hour before kick-off. At this time, I will mark off on my sheet players starting the game with yellow marker pen, and the substitutes in pink. This is also a good time to check pronunciations and preferred names of players I've not seen before.
Once the game is over, the match sheets are updated with the actual match data: result, yellow and red cards and formations. These sheets are then filed away with the match programme at home in a series of binders for future reference.
I'm probably guilty of over-preparation - especially when some games will amount to only a few minutes of broadcasted footage, but without this level of preparation I do feel somewhat naked and ill-at-ease. It is possible to commentate with less, or in some cases the bare minimum research, as has happened a couple of times in my career, once when diverted to a different game at short notice because colleagues have been stuck in traffic, or in one case having to do a live Champions League semi-final at six hours prior warning! Nothing beats the security-blanket feeling of sitting down (or standing, as I prefer when on-site) with reams of notes in front of you.
I hope I've answered any questions you may have had about how I prepare. Others will have their own systems, but like most things, it's a case of whatever works best for you!
On that note, I'll sign off for the summer. I've had a great 2008-2009, with some great matches, fantastic experiences, and terrific days with some great people. This is, without doubt, a wonderful job to have.
Season 2009-2010 will mark my tenth anniversary as a television commentator, and I remain as ambitious and hungry as ever. Hopefully the new season will see my career continue to develop - my personal target is simply to keep improving - I am, after all, barely 31 and ten years ago couldn't have dreamed to have reached this level at this point in my career. Next season's aim is to move closer in consistency of performance to the more established names in the industry, and of course to expand my client base further.
Have a great summer!
So, here we are in the dying embers of another season. I'm writing this the day after Burnley won promotion to the Premier League, and a day before the Champions League final in Rome. For me, all that remains before the summer break are some World Cup qualifiers in Asia, South America and of course Europe.
After that comes what I call the "months of misery" waiting for next season's first fixtures and commentary rotas to be drawn up. It's always a horribly nervy time, to wait and hope that you're part of the plans for the following season. Show me a freelancer who doesn't worry and fear the worst, because I've yet to meet one!
So, on reflection what have been my personal stand-out moments from the games I've commentated on during 2008-09? I've thoroughly enjoyed the season, and had the great pleasure of describing perhaps the goal of the season - Cristiano Ronaldo's 35-yarder away to Porto in the Champions League. For the sheer occasion, commentating on the Manchester United-Arsenal semi-final in the same competition was quite an experience too. In the Premier League I enjoyed my first trips to Hull's KC Stadium and the Britannia Stadium, Stoke. On the international front, I've had a great time working on the World Cup qualifiers, with Poland's 10-0 win over San Marino a game that really stood out, simply for its sheer strangeness! On an entirely personal level, being at Molineux as a fan to see Wolves clinch promotion back in April will stay with me for a long, long time.
This summer though, I am doing something rather unusual, and branching away from my football comfort zone. I have agreed to lead the on-site commentary team at RAF Fairford in July, for the prestigious Royal International Air Tattoo. It's something I was approached about back in November of last year, and was thrilled and honoured to be asked. RIAT is the biggest military airshow in Europe, indeed the world, and commentating on this event is probably like being asked to cover a World Cup Final as your first football commentary.
The show takes place on the weekend of the 18th and 19th of July, but my commitment is to the full week, where I'll be meeting the display crews as they arrive, getting the inside information to hopefully bring a fresh, vibrant and informed commentary to the public on the show days. The crowd at Fairford will be ultra-knowledgable, so I'm well aware that my commentary will need to be every bit as well-researched as a football one.
We have a three-man commentary team, comprising myself, Ben Dunnell, editor of Aircraft Illustrated magazine, and Wing Commander "Spiv" Gair, former Commanding Officer of 99 Squadron, RAF.
For anyone planning to come to Fairford, I should point out that for the first time the event is ticket-only. Tickets can be purchased online at airtattoo.com as well as through other outlets prior to the airshow. And if you do come to RIAT, then do pop by and say hello!
Enjoy your summer!
Hello to you all, and especially the readers of the Digital Spy forum - nice to know you're reading this blog. I really will try hard to update them much more frequently from now on.
I'm on FA Cup Fifth Round duty this weekend - let's see who's the first forum member to spot which game I'm commentating on!
This season's FA Cup has been terrific. Some wonderful stories to savour. I had a rare Saturday off for the Fourth Round, and had a long afternoon's drive broken up by listening to the always-excellent John Murray on Radio Five Live, commentating with Graham Taylor on the Kettering-Fulham tie. That sort of match can only happen in England, and only happen in the FA Cup. A proper throwback tie- non-Leaguers giving Premier League rich kids a proper scare. And how nice it was to see Fulham give the tie their full respect by naming a first-choice side, and Kettering not to give in to thoughts of money and stage the game at their own Rockingham Road ground (I played there once, many years ago in the qualifying rounds of the FA Youth Cup- got a creditable draw, but lost the replay on penalties!).
I'm a Cup traditionalist, but can't help but look at the model in Germany. The early rounds of the DFB Pokal are weighted so that the lower-league side is always drawn at home against the Bundesliga big boys. And in England it's always so much better when the minnows are at home, a crowd shoe-horned into a modest ground, and the millionaires met by a real in-your-face bunch of battlers shouted on by a packed house. In recent years, the best cup ties have tended to see the underdogs at home - Burton Albion holding Manchester United, Rushden and Diamonds drawing with then-Premier League Leeds, and this season Blackburn and Fulham given rough rides by Blyth and Kettering. Of course Havant and Waterlooville's game at Liverpool is a real exception to that rule.
Looking outside at the snow this week, it's hard to imagine summer but I do have a rather fun non-football project lined up for a few days in July. Not sure I can reveal publicly exactly what it is just yet, but it's probably as far removed from my football "comfort zone" as could be possible- nerve-wracking certainly, and involves stepping into the shoes of a true legend, but hopefully it will prove to be very enjoyable too. I hope to be in a position to say a little more in my next blog...
Some readers of the blog have tracked me down on Facebook - now I'm on Twitter too. To follow me on Twitter, do a search for "danohagan"...
Enjoy your football!
Welcome all, definitely high time I wrote another blog entry, as several of you have pointed out to me!
2009 has started very well for me, adding a couple of new competitions to my list, namely the German DFB Pokal and the Arabian Gulf Cup of Nations, the latter of which involved spending the first two weeks of January in the Middle East. I'd go as far to say that the Gulf Cup was the most challenging, but also probably some of the most fulfilling work I've ever done.
The Gulf Cup of Nations is held loosely every two years, these days involving eight countries. It's not an officially-sanctioned FIFA competition, and thereby the usual conventions which make our media work that little bit easier, such as an English-language press office, comprehensive website, on-line squad-listings and shirt numbers were "luxuries" I'd have to go without. I've never covered a tournament where I've literally had to try and second-guess the coach and his squad selection!
My first commentary was the opening game- host nation Oman versus Kuwait. Confirmed team sheets and squad numbers arrived in my grubby hands ten minutes before "on-air". A problem when covering teams in that part of the world is knowing which, of the FOUR names each player has, is best to use. The researcher assigned to the game did his best to help me out, but even so, for many of the players the names I was using didn't correspond with the names on the back of the player's shirt! FIFA get around this thorny issue for World Cups and the like by issuing a list with "shirt names" on it, which at least means every commentator is calling every player the same thing. Anyway, that first game finished 0-0. Goal-jinx O'Hagan had struck again.
In total I commentated on seven matches in the competition, with my personal highlight being the final group game between Qatar and Yemen. Yemen were already out, having been hammered by holders UAE and favourites Saudi Arabia in their first two games. Qatar had, on paper, a strong side bolstered by a couple of naturalised foreigners and coached by Bruno Metsu - the long-haired chap who'd taken Senegal to the World Cup last eight in 2002 - they were all set to become the latest team to make light work of Yemen, or that's how it should have been.
Qatar scored early, a header from a corner, only for Yemen to win a shock penalty just before half time, which their one real quality player Ali Al Nono put away. And so it stayed, until we reached 90 minutes and the fourth official held up a board showing SEVEN extra minutes, even though there'd been no excessive stoppages in the half at all! Still Qatar couldn't find a way though, and then in the 97th minute they won a rather questionable free-kick 25 yards from goal, and the referee decided to send TWO Yemen defenders off for protesting. Up stepped the substitute midfielder Majdi Siddiq to score perhaps the goal of the tournament, a spectacular free kick, and one which meant Qatar had reached the semi-finals. It's moments like that, when as a commentator you're able to seize the significance of the moment and convey in your voice just what the pictures MEAN to those in them and watching them, that makes this job so fulfilling. Every season there'll be a couple of moments like this, buried among the myriad regulation 0-0 draws and 1-0 wins.
My Gulf Cup ended with the semi-final between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Saudi won 1-0 and the game was in truth rather poor. Oman went on to win the final on penalties, but by then I'd swapped the 25-degree-plus heat of the Middle East for the chilly gantry at West Bromwich Albion on Premier League duty.
As always your comments and feedback are more than welcome. I can't promise to reply to everything sent, but I'll do my best!
And then there were eight. Not so much the Champions League but more an extension of the Premier League, with "our" Big Four in the mix with one each from the Turkish Super Lig, Italy's Serie A, Spain's Primera Liga and the German Bundesliga. Surely the law of averages suggests that this year the trophy is coming to an English club?
Well, not so fast. One of the Premier League sides will fall when Arsenal meet Liverpool. I've been asked for my opinion on this game an awful lot since the draw was made, and I just can't see beyond Liverpool. Has O'Hagan gone loco? Didn't Arsenal teach Milan a lesson in the San Siro? Hasn't he seen just how damn good Cesc Fabregas has been in the competition this season? Well, yes I agree that Arsenal have been superb in the Champions League this year, playing some truly out-of-this-world football, and with a pronounced cutting edge too now that Adebayor has really found top gear at the club, but something has been nagging me all the way through the competition, and ever since these two were paired together- Rafa Benitez just knows how to play this competition, and has the knack of masterminding the two-legged tie. It might not be pretty when these two clash (cast your minds back to the recent Liverpool-Chelsea Champions League encounters), but I just suspect that at the end of it all, it will be Liverpool in the semi-final, and in with a chance of a third final in four years.
How about Chelsea then? I commentated on their Matchday 1 game with Rosenborg back in September, the game which saw the end of Jose Mourinho's wonderfully colourful reign at the Bridge. That night Chelsea looked anything but potential Champions League finalists. Rosenborg's modest squad (with an abysmal away record in the competition) contained them and I don't recall their keeper, Lars Hirschfeld, having an awful lot to do, yet since then Avram Grant has steadied the ship, and then some. Who'd have thought back in September that they'd still be in the thick of the Premier League title race with seven games to go? They may have lost the Carling Cup final, but this Chelsea side showed against Arsenal this weekend that for all the big names and big salaries, there is a ton of team spirit there too, and in Didier Drogba they have a player who genuinely thrives on the big occasion. They should see off Fenerbahçe with relative ease, especially with the fillip of having the second leg at home, but Fener in their own stadium are more than capable of building a lead to bring to London, and the brilliant Brazilian Alex (the Fenerbahçe one, cripes this is going to be confusing…) is wonderful playing in the hole behind Deivid and Chelsea old-boy Mateja Kežman. What odds Kežman returning to the Blues and scoring the vital away goal I wonder? Or ex-Sheffield United player Colin Kazim-Richards, London-born, inflicting some damage across the two legs? I'm due to commentate on the first leg, and am already looking forward to it immensely.
Manchester United against Roma, again! The draw the police in both Manchester and the Italian capital would surely have wanted to avoid. I'll stick to commenting on the football here though. I can't see beyond United for this game, and not just because of last season's 7-1 Old Trafford win at this stage. United are simply too strong for Roma. Sir Alex has already gone on record saying that the current squad is among the best he's ever had, and praise doesn't get much higher than that. Cristiano Ronaldo on current form is a shoo-in for World Player of the Year, Wayne Rooney looks to relish the competition at this level too, and defensively Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand could easily pass for Bruce and Pallister at the peak of their powers. Roma haven't really impressed me in the competition so far; I covered the Old Trafford meeting in the group stage and was thoroughly underwhelmed by them. Fair enough they knocked Real Madrid out in the last round, and they do have some talented individuals, not least Francesco Totti (and the romantic in me would love to see him crown his career with a Champions League winners medal) and Manchester (well, Ashton-under-Lyme) born Simone Perrotta, but overall I just see United as being too strong across two legs. A colleague who watches far more Serie A than I says Roma are much-improved since they last met United, but I'd be very surprised if Sir Alex's latest European run ended here.
And so to the final quarter-final. Barcelona against Schalke. This season I commentated on Barcelona's first group game, against Lyon in the Nou Camp. They won 3-0 that night. It could have been six, seven or eight. Ronaldinho might not be flavour of the month at the Catalan club these days, but any squad which contains his name, plus Deco, Léo Messi (sadly almost certainly out injured), Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto'o and Yaya Touré, not to mention certain future world stars Giovanni dos Santos and Bojan Krkic has to be considered very seriously as potential winners. I'm notoriously rubbish at sporting predictions, but I came off air after that first group game and said to my producer "that's this year's winners sorted, then", and I stand by the assumption that if Barca click, then not only will they breeze past Schalke, but they'll be the side everyone else has to beat to get their hands on the trophy. The Germans have done brilliantly to get this far, but I'm sure even the most die-hard Königsblauen fan would tell you that they got the worst possible deal when the draw was made. Especially with the second leg in the Nou Camp!
Enjoy the games!
So, you've discovered my website then? This blog section is where I'll be posting all the latest news and information, as well as offering some insights into the work that I do.
For my first blog I'll be talking about some of the most memorable moments I've had in the business so far.
September last year marked my tenth anniversary in the industry. My first commentary game was a Premiership (as it was then) match between Tottenham and Blackburn Rovers at White Hart Lane. I was commentating for BBC Radio Sports Plus, which was the forerunner of Five Live Sports Extra, and had got the opportunity as my "prize" for winning Five Live's "Young Commentator" competition. It was a 0-0 draw. Ho-hum. I was working with Paul Walsh, who'd only just retired from playing, so I guess it was one of his first games too. I was very nervous, and when I listen back to the tapes now I cringe, and I'd like to think I've improved a lot since then.
The best game I've commentated on is a tough one to call. Last season's Champions League semi-final second-leg between Liverpool and Chelsea wasn't really a classic, but the drama made it a terrific night. I always enjoyed covering the East Anglian derbies in my days at Anglia- Leon McKenzie's two-goal debut in December 2003 sticks out as being especially memorable for the occasion as much as the quality of play. In the Premier League, Fulham's 3-3 draw with Manchester City this season was a bit tasty as well. Internationally, this year's Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final between Cameroon and Tunisia had a bit of everything too. But overall I'm going to plump for a choice between two games, both in the FA Youth Cup from earlier in my career. In second place is my first-ever commentary at Old Trafford, and one of my very first live TV commentaries- Manchester United beat Scunthorpe 8-0, and Daniel Nardiello hit four goals. I think I still have the tape somewhere, though I don't have a VHS machine to play it on! But the best game I've commentated on was United's tie in the next round, when they lost to Nottingham Forest at the City Ground after extra-time. I seem to remember Craig Westcarr scoring a dubious penalty to win the match. In those days the coverage was quite rudimentary. We had only two cameras filming the action, one on the gantry into which my microphone was plugged, and a second on the halfway line. The tapes were taken back to base and then edited together, and slow-motion replays added. Of course there was no monitor to consult, so getting stuff spot-on first time was essential!
My worst experience in football journalism? Well there've been a few along the way- when on Anglia duty being physically thrown out of Craven Cottage for sneaking in to grab some interviews on the day Norwich went down is right up there (though we did sneak back in AND get some excellent stuff on tape!). Also there was the time a cameraman and I were nearly trampled to death under a mass of rioting Bordeaux and Nantes fans in the road outside the Parc Lescure. Commentary-wise my worst experiences have tended to be technical ones- equipment breaking down, and satellite feeds dropping out. At the recent Africa Cup of Nations, twice the host broadcasters nearly missed goals, cutting back from replays just as the ball was crossing the line! Those kinds of things keep us on our toes. I never tend to moan about technical problems, these things don't happen on purpose, and will always happen, so it's a case of getting on with the job and taking the problems in your stride as and when they do arise.
Favourite ground visited- all of the Premier League grounds are a joy to work at, but in terms of occasion and character I have to say seeing Brazil play in the Stade de France on my Eurosport live debut in 2003 takes some beating. The Philips Stadion in Eindhoven and the old Olympiastadion in Munich also rank pretty highly, as did the little home of SpVgg Unterhaching who I literally decided to drop in on, unannounced in 2000, while in the vicinity on MUTV business and do a feature on "Munich's third club"- they couldn't have been more accommodating, even though the cameraman and I spoke absolutely "nein" German!
So that's the first blog- hope you've enjoyed reading it. If there's anything you'd like to read about then don't forget you can drop me a line and maybe it will appear in a future blog.
Finally, I must thank my good buddy Dan Butcher for putting this website together- everything you see here has been created by him, from scratch. Excellent work.
Thanks for reading.