I love that this season is starting in September. It’s always felt like the best time for a fresh start, to coincide with the change of seasons and the new school year. I’ve already stocked up on stationery for work and have a rainbow of coloured pens and highlighters. I much prefer to work off paper and find that the information filters through better if I write it down, but it usually ends up on an iPad for practical reasons. Sadly, evolution hasn’t yet caught up with my need for more than two hands to hold a microphone, steady a strong-willed umbrella in a gale, balance a sheaf of papers and still retain the capacity to handle the microphones thrust at me by departing players and managers.

The first live game back for me is at Anfield for Liverpool v Leeds. I can’t think of an opening-day fixture where the absence of fans is going to be felt more keenly. There’s a school of thought that the historic old grounds are never really empty. That they hold the energies of past atmospheres and ghosts of previous games and while that description suits my overly romantic nature and may well have an element of truth when completely unoccupied, I can tell you that on a Covid matchday, it’s a load of rubbish.

I was at Villa Park for the first game of the restart and the only word to describe the experience is strange. It’s not just that you can hear every kick of the ball or every utterance from the pitch or dugout, it’s that the whole rhythm has changed. There isn’t that surge of noise and collective energy in the buildup to kick-off, or the increasingly desperate clamour in the final 10 minutes. Our matchday routine has changed too. Now, if we’re there at all, we turn up no more than an hour before and go straight to our presentation point masked, temperature checked and slick with anti-bac.

In safer times, for a Friday 8pm kick-off I’d be there from 1.30pm, mainly to provide moral support to our producer as he tries to talk Gary Neville down from his more extreme suggestions. “Can we do that interview on the roof, Jack?” For a 5.30 kick-off on a Saturday I’d arrive in time for the second half of the lunchtime kick-off, chat to our producer, then watch the three o’clocks from the NBC Winnebago, which they very kindly share with us. It is extremely glamorous and doubles up as the place where we have our hair and makeup done.

I miss the company of our makeup artists as much as their brilliant work but at least I do have some experience of applying my own lipstick so can fashion a very amateur version. On the other hand, I have very much enjoyed the reaction of the men to the lack of professional grooming, at both ends of the vanity scale, from the pundit who scooted off camera five minutes before a programme to ask his wife to hide his eye bags to Roy Keane’s Doc Brown lockdown hair.

Kelly Cates and Gary Neville interview Leicester’s Jamie Vardy in the rain after a game at Southampton.

Kelly Cates and Gary Neville interview Leicester’s Jamie Vardy in the rain after a game at Southampton. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

At the moment we can’t always be on site. Studio presentation lends itself more easily to slick, polished television but I love the controlled chaos of being pitchside. There’s a greater sense of actually being at a game of football rather than “presenting” but more than that, when we are able to be joined by players and managers, we’re in their office space. It’s not an interview room or press conference room, which can feel like you’re on media turf, and I think you get a sense of how much more relaxed the players and managers can be.

And while there will always be an important place for “proper reporters”, I love the difference in the answer given to someone who has played. There’s a shorthand between people who’ve worked in the same industry and shared similar experiences.

I try to balance the different work I do and, in theory at least, they all feed in to each other. I double up on my prep time for the weekend by working on a preview show for the Premier League’s international coverage with Ian Wright. We’ve worked together for, I think, seven years, since we started on 606, and at one stage were working together three times a week. He’s exactly the same on and off camera, as is everyone I work with. Whatever people think, none of them have an on-screen persona. At the very most, it might be a version of themselves but there are no fake opinions or emotions.

Games that I’ve worked on stick in the memory more firmly than those I’ve watched from my sofa, although that might be down to wine. With the BBC Radio 5 live shows I work on mostly being on Tuesday, it’s a chance to cover the Champions League, the big Championship nights, and EFL Cup matches.

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It’s all from home at the moment, hooking up the box of tricks they’ve given me to the internet and hosting a few hours of radio from my kitchen table with a running order and any live games on my laptop, keeping an eye on our guests on a Zoom call and frisbeeing plates of pasta across the table to the kids in the first half. Working with Zoom can have its challenges, though. During the Football Show with Sky during lockdown, a chat with Claudio Ranieri was cut short by Signora Ranieri replacing him on the call when she accidentally logged in from her own laptop. She was cut off before we got her thoughts on Leicester’s title-winning season.

When the current Premier League champions start the defence of their title I’ll be there, less than three weeks after working on the Champions League final. It’s been the shortest of close seasons, the conditions are still far from ideal and we’re all desperate to get fans back in the grounds. But I still can’t wait to get back to work.

source: theguardian.com


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