Why the Love?
Now 22 years into his broadcasting career, he must be pretty close to being a household name these days, at least amongst the football cognoscenti. Odd now to think he was on Radio 1 for a few years.
He orbits both the mainstream and the niche, in that he does high profile BBC1 & 2 gigs such as fronting this week’s FA Cup game on BBC1, but also a lot of 5live things like the Monday Night Club which relies on knowledge, intelligence and genuine passion for the game, which are very much for the connoisseur.
He’s the voice of Saturday afternoon football to many of us radio addicts. He’s not just a football dude, though, many enjoy his NFL work and 5live requires a deep and broad range of knowledge of all sports.
As you’ll see, many of the comments that came in on social media say his strongest card is his everyman quality. It’s an interesting concept and one worth pausing to consider for a moment. Because while being an everyman implies an everyday or commonplace quality, in actual fact being a bloody good TV and radio presenter is anything but everyday or commonplace.
Let’s get this right. It is a very hard job, made to look easy by the very best. You’ve got people in your ear that you have to listen to, you have to also listen to your guests while thinking up intelligent responses and paying attention to your running order. That all sounds very like patting your head, while rubbing your tummy, while playing keepy-uppy with a tennis ball. That is a special talent and one that everyman certainly could not do. Rather than being an everyman, this is an elite performer.
So perhaps it would be more accurate to say he’s simply down to earth and without any side. I think that is his appeal and the reason so many of us feel so comfortable in his company. There is an absence of glamour and a presence of Lancastrian street smarts, which is very appealing. And like all the stars in this gig, you feel as if you’re seeing the real person and that the media persona isn’t a veneer or fake in any way.
Surely the only presenter that has a degree in French and Business Studies from Hull University. He is incredibly well-regarded by his broadcasting colleagues and that speaks of a man who works hard, puts a huge shift in and prides himself in being any good. But despite that, there’s no hint of overbearing ego or self-aggrandising.
Indeed, he was keen to say to me that ‘It’s not about me’ when talking about the shows he works on. He’s right in one way, clearly he is there primarily as a facilitator, but it really IS about him as well. He is an important part of the entertainment. We all know how unbearable a programme can be when the presenter is no good, or fancies themselves overly. He adds good stuff. He’s often the most articulate man in the room. The fact he downplays this speaks very well of him.
While he always seems casual and relaxed, I often wonder if that is because he is so well-prepared. It’s a bit like playing lead guitar – something I know a little bit about – when you’re really in the pocket and confident about what you’re doing, you stop thinking and just go for it on instinct. It is the best of all feelings.
In the past, there were presenters who just asked prepared questions and were less bothered by the answer than by wanting to ask the next question. Mark is the opposite of that. On 5live and MOTD2 especially, it always feels like a natural conversation when talking to pundits or players and that’s not happened by accident. It is the product of research and an ability to think on your feet and improvise.
What I’ve always liked about Mark is how he walks a tightrope between accepting what an ex-players says, not disrespecting them, but challenging them to justify themselves when there’s an especially egregious mind-in-neutral, hive mind statement made.
Then there’s the laughing. He does a good barking laugh. Laughter is a much underrated quality in sports broadcasting. Y’know, football and more broadly sport, is supposed to be fun. And he makes it fun.
He’s a martyr to the checked shirt and stubble combo, which pleases so many of us who also find it very easy to fall into the just-slept-in-a-skip appearance, even when wearing a £2000 Armani suit.
Looks the sort of chap who, when required to wear more smart and tailored clothing, would be soon be found grumbling about being uncomfortable, pulling at his collar and loosening his tie in the manner of a man at a wedding he wishes he’d never been invited to, his wife nudging him in the ribs and quietly admonishing him, all the while.
What The People Say
There was a huge digital post bag of people wanting to pass on their praise and enjoyment of Mark’s work. I think the comments as a whole comprehensively appreciate the qualities of the man. I’ll start this section with extensive comments from media colleagues.
“I used to try and get alliteration into the headlines. Or ridiculous play on words surrounding players, just to see if he’d read it. So I’d say to him: “If so and so scores, would you read this……” Then I’d read out the nonsense play in words and he’d laugh and say no. But it became a thing.
Then one Sports Report I’d written “It’s Surprise Surprise for QPR as Sylla’s winner gives them their first points of the season”. And he hadn’t read through it beforehand and so when he got to it, he must have seen it, started to read it and then apologised
half way through!! All with a smile on his face. Small things like that are what keep production teams working for people like him” – Simon Clancy, former 5live editor.
“Re Chappers, it doesn’t matter which sport you cover when you are on with him he is always interested in what you are saying and will get the best answers from you. A very generous broadcaster and a top, genuine chap” – Iain Carter, BBC
“I was the Sports Editor at BBC Radio Newcastle at the time and we were looking for a cricket reporter to cover Durham when I was asked to consider Mark. He turned up to the interview in a pair of ripped jeans!
“However, we were soon left with no choice that he was to get the job. He breezed through the interview and its mock 30 second match reports…he was an absolute natural. From that moment, 20 years ago, we have become close friends and for a brief period I actually moved in with him and his now wife, Sara, in London. He loves a post it note!
“He is a wind up merchant of the highest order and he likes to get me going and we do argue but at times he feels like a brother because I know he looks out for me – more off air than on-air! He’s always had a love for all sports and that comes across with his accomplished versatility and authority when presenting on either TV or radio.
He has an ability to make you comfortable both sitting alongside him but also as a listener. He is still a scruff bag at times, like he was at the interview all those years ago but he scrubs up well on the box and I’ve watched with real pride how his career has gone from strength to strength” – Ian Dennis. BBC.
“Has the rare ability to ask questions as a fan but maintain an incredibly high journalistic standard. He always knows his stuff without sounding like it’s been googled that day. A natural sports but turned broadcaster. He’s warm, intelligent, sharp & extremely knowledgeable. He’s one of my best mates I the business so I’m biased but he’s top drawer” – Darren Fletcher, BT Sport and BBC.
“I think he is the absolute best. He covers every sport with the same level of knowledge and interest, making everything seem worth watching or listening to. He uses what he knows to ask the right question rather than back up his own opinion” – Kelly Cates, BBC, Sky.
“I think the most important thing is how he wins the (ex-) players’ respect. He asks the questions he has to ask, but he does so in a way, and with an authority, that doesn’t seem to rile them. That’s harder than it looks. He’s also assiduous in letting you know that he’s enjoyed working with you, and passing on praise, even if it is not at all warranted (which it isn’t, in my case).
“He is a genuinely lovely man, though I often worry that he either never sleeps or never sees his family. Also, he used to be Chappers on Radio 1, which is too often overlooked, and not mentioned to him nearly enough. He’s been with an entire generation of people as they migrate from R1 to R5. He is a cultural touchstone in a v-neck jumper” – Rory Smith. New York Times.
“Consistently asks the right questions in the right order, and therefore shows the benefit of having an actual, high-quality journalist in charge of hosting a leading sports programme” – Sachin Nakrani – The Guardian.
“He’s a nice fella. Hope this insight helps” – Max Rushden. Guardian Weekly, talkSport.
“One of the few, presenters who doesn’t accept cliches/platitudes from guests or pundits. He challenges them to be insightful and show their workings. And you can only do that if you’re knowledgeable on the subject yourself. That’s why he’s so good” – David Preece.
And here’s some comments from his audience:
“I met Mark in 2006 (or 2007, can’t quite remember) when he was DJ’ing a University of Essex freshers gig in Colchester. When a boozed up 18 year old me spotted him and wanted to chat, he couldn’t have been more warm. Lovely bloke!”
“Not only a great football presenter, challenges cliched and lazy lines of thought from ex-pros and pundits. Magnificent at presenting other sports too. Seems like a top bloke and that’s what really matters”
“Reassuring voice, deserving of the big jobs at BBC sport”
“One of the few presenters who genuinely listens to the people he’s talking to and gets them to open up about it. It’s a great radio skill. Although I much prefer his beautifully passive-aggressive 2-ways with Ian Dennis”
“He never throws his colleagues under the bus, but he does demand they explain themselves. That takes knowledge of the sport, but also confidence in yourself to do and it’s not always easy”
“You can’t fake his everyman appeal. He’s a genuine fan of sport who asks good questions but more importantly appears genuinely interested in the answers”
“He elicits more interesting answers and insight with the word “Really?” than most presenters manage with the whole English language. Asks the right simple questions and then the right tricky ones.”
“Gives a sense of warmth in his presenting which makes you feel you’re in the pub sitting around talking over a drink. His interaction with Denno is great value as you can feel they’re mates as well. Top class”
“He is the latest in a long line of truly gifted BBC sports journalists following on from the likes of Coleman and Lynam. The word journalist should be seen in its most positive in this instance. He has a clear love of all forms of sport and those that are involved in it and he was great on Radio 1 and wears some nifty black microcords”
“He’s brilliant at getting good responses from his guests/pundits. He seems to know them really well to know what questions to ask. He isn’t afraid to ask “simple” questions if it’ll get an answer from them”
“He asks questions I like to hear the answers to. Seems simple enough but not enough presenters do it.”
“He’s great – no nonsense, unimpressed by fame/bulls*t, clearly has respect of ex-players, authoritative broadcaster, interested in promoting the subject not himself – a great moderator of discussion, elevates discussion beyond the bland – personifies all that’s good about 5live”
“He made the Scott Mills show good. I can’t think of any higher praise”
“Usually comes off as affable fella who you would enjoy sitting and chatting with at a match. Still miss his podcast with Poll and Day and Meredith.”
“He’s seems like the kind of fella it would be nice to have a pint with. And that he’d pay his round!”
“Just matey enough without being full of TalkSport. Nice easy style but not afraid to call out the ex pros when they need it. First rate anchorman”
“He’s so good, that he almost had me watching NFL. Almost. Love Chappers. He’s the best”
“He has moved from being a sidekick on radio 1 to the voice of sport on the radio and I can’t imagine many have done that”
“Simply brilliant at what he does. He presents in a friendly and affable style, but crucially he challenges his guests on their opinions. Not in a confrontational manner, but he encourages discussion, rather than just allowing people to talk at him. I think it’s a rare talent”
“Has that happy knack of bringing out the best of those around him”
“His speech at the SJAs mentioned Simon Thomas, who he doesn’t know, and I thought that was a nice touch. Always good to be a guest on his shows as he’s done his research & you get impression he’s actually interested in what you’re saying!”
“His speech following the Manchester attack was incredibly moving. Plus he’s always brilliant on the Monday night club”
“He gets the balance of being a presenter and getting on well with pundits without too much mateyness. He also has his opinions but knows when to give them and when to leave it to the pundits”
“The best around at what he does. Consistently good but especially enjoy him on the Monday Night Club on 5live. Extra credit for speaking out against Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes back in 2002”
“Capable of covering multiple sports on TV or radio in a way that few others ever have. The variety and breadth of shows he fronts is staggering when you think about it. Never met him but feels like a friend, no higher praise for a broadcaster”
“The best sports presenter of his generation”
Mark is only 44 and as vaunted as he is now, even more lofty sunlit peaks of sports broadcasting surely still lie ahead.
Massively experienced, hugely respected and widely loved, we will be enjoying his talents for decades to come. I really hope he stays at the BBC and will always do radio because it is very much a medium he excels in.
But I imagine at some point soon, possibly Netflix or Amazon Prime will start covering football and they will have big bucks available for a star presenter and Mark will be one of the star names at the top of their list because he automatically installs integrity and class. So let’s appreciate him as a national broadcaster while we can.
I shall leave the final words with former colleague Simon Clancy as it perfectly sums up the man’s qualities:
“I was his editor for six years, have done 50 or so Sports Reports with him and made two major BBC radio documentaries with him. By god he’s good. He works hard, he cares about the output and the staff and on air he understands what makes good radio. How to get the best out of people.
“He has a way of not saying anything that allows people to just talk. He can go 15 minutes without saying a word and yet you’ll get compelling radio because of it. It’s HARD to be a presenter and not put your ego out there. Very few can do it. He asks questions that
the listener – I believe – want to ask, he’s not afraid of challenging people, he’s not afraid of calling people out when they need to be but he’s also not afraid of empathy or upset – his voice cracking at the Europa League Final after the Manchester bomb.
“I sat in a hotel room with him in rural Montana as he quizzed Tyler Hamilton about the drug regime he and Lance Armstrong had been on and it was one of the most compelling 90 minutes of my life. I was nervous about going on a trip with him – a high pressure week in the US – but we laughed so much and made so much good radio. And it was that way because we sat for two hours in a cafe and went through notes and questions.
“I’ve been at Olympic Games with him, at the Masters when Jordan Spieth had his meltdown at Amen Corner and he handled it incredibly. There’s a moment when he captures the changing of the big scoreboard to take Spieth’s name off it and put Willett’s on at the top and he builds it and builds it and builds it and then let the noise of the crowd tell you what people were feeling. He didn’t need to say a word.
“I worked at the BBC for almost a quarter of a century and along with Ned Sherrin and Fi Glover, he’s the best presenter I’ve ever worked with. Just don’t ask him about Tyler Hamilton’s dog. Or Emma O’Reilly’s!”