A Love Letter to… one of the best of the new breed of ex-player pundits employed not because he had a glittering career nor a famous name but because, well, he’s good. That’ll be Danny Higginbotham, then
Why the love?
After starting out at Manchester United, he was certainly one of the well-appreciated, committed and hardworking infantry at mid or low ranking top-flight clubs, mostly beginning with the letter ‘S’.
Was one of those players who it was hard to dislike due to general perspiration levels and commitment to the cause. Very much the reliable good quality meat and potatoes, rather than the expensive, unpredictable exotic fruit. The fact his autobiography was called ‘Rise of the Underdog’ tells you everything about how he viewed his own career.
Was player of the year for Derby in their record-breaking relegation season, making him the only player to emerge from that campaign with any degree of credit.
Played international football and got three caps for Gibraltar. Which feels kind of hip and cool!
Moved into doing media work upon his retirement four years ago, after writing a couple of newspaper columns. Quickly became clear he wasn’t someone who was just looking to fill up a couple of hours between golf games. You can tell instantly whether a new ex-player pundit has done work or is just hoping his career in the game will somehow automatically make him understand what is going on.
Owns an absolutely classic Lancastrian surname which research suggests means:
“Habitational name from a place in Lancashire now known as Oakenbottom. The history of the place name is somewhat confused, but it is probably composed of the Old English elements ǣcen or ācen ‘oaken’ and botme ‘broad valley’. During the Middle Ages this name became successively Eakenbottom and Ickenbottom, the first element becoming associated with the dialect word hicken or higgen ‘mountain ash’ or the personal name Higgin.”
History is great.
Danny is attracting a lot of positivity for being straightforward and well-researched from people who are tired of the ex-players bluffing it with bluster and banter.
Pleasantly soft Mancunian flavour to his accent but without a hint of “you’re twistin’ my melon, man” or the droning, nasal “yeah, buzzin’ mad for it” about it, which is to be welcomed. Seems to pick up most of his gigs on TV for Sky, which is fine, but some more radio work would go down well. Radio is the natural home for the thoughtful thinker. He has done talkSPORT, I believe, but I’ve not heard him in that context. Would love to hear him on the 5 live Monday Night Club, or the excellent Friday Night Social with Darren Fletcher and JJ.
Has become a regular on Sky’s The Debate this season. Conducts himself in an unusually calm, even-paced manner. You never get the impression he’s making anything up off the top of his head. I suspect that this is because he’s done his work and thus is in command of what he wants to say. He’s emerged as something of a serious student and we always need one of those to counterbalance the shouty types and the PFM theocracy.
I think this clips shows his talents really well. Here Danny is articulate and talks in detail and has facts at his fingertips, whereas Timbo deals largely in generalisations and vague assertions, without any actual analysis. This gulf is the basic divide in modern football media.
Danny’s performance on this week’s discussion, with two of our best and most lovely football media people, was also such a good example of his talents and made for a great show. This is football discussion at its best and it’s so good to listen to a discussion which is intelligent and rational.
Quite a rugged, gritty, handsome sort of chap, with pleasingly soft dark brown eyes, and a hint of the maverick Northern detective who is not afraid to break the rules to take down the bad men, in this photo.
Often favours the heavy stubble look that, for no good reason at all, used to be called ‘designer’ in the 80s. I never understood why. Spectacularly substantial, one might even say rubbery-looking, ears. My missus took one look at him and said “you know what big ears like that on a fella means, don’t you?” She’s a typical Geordie, though. Mind always in the gutter.
Still possesses the ex-defender’s lean, snake hips and broad shoulders which means he wears a suit well. Tends to favour the plain and undemonstrative. Looked good on Wednesday’s The Debate in a light navy 2-piece. I’ve yet to find a picture of him wearing anything patterned or striped. This may be due to wearing a lot of red and white striped football shirts for most of his career at Stoke, Southampton, Sunderland and Sheffield United, which is surely enough to burn out anyone’s retinas.
What the people say
It wasn’t a bulging post bag this week and the fact that I didn’t get a lot of comments pro or anti tells us something interesting, I think. If you clown around, are wilfully controversial or confrontational, or spend a lot of time laughing rather too loudly in the name of banter, you can quickly make a big impression on the public. Oh yes. You can easily make a name for yourself. You will be divisive, but you will get known, if that’s what you want.
However, if you adopt a more grown-up approach, it will take you much longer to sink into the wider consciousness, especially if you’re not a regular terrestrial broadcaster. But you stand a much better chance of having a longer career. To my mind, it is clear there is only one long-term path to walk in this industry. And even those who started out as a ‘character’ have realised this: doing work and being any good is the way to go. Everyone tires of the ones that play it for laughs or just want to stand out by being annoying. That approach actually feels quite old-fashioned now, and in a football media so dominated by relentlessly downmarket, deceitful and dumb tabloid newspapers and websites, which so sour the public mood, we’ve never needed quality broadcasting more. It counterbalances the bilge.
One of the north east’s great football journalists, Anthony Vickers, of the Teesside Gazette, got in touch to give me an excellent insight into Danny’s working methods:
“He does his own research. He always rings me before a Boro game to talk over the issues, players, recent games etc. Most just go by the recent stats, which gives you an outline, but not the nuances. When he calls he asks interesting and technical questions: which midfielder sits and which ones push on; where does the width come from; how do the defence mark up for dead balls etc. It makes you think about a lot of things that you tend to take for granted.”
Anthony tells me that this is not at all typical of every pundit, so we’re left to conclude that Danny is a man intent on doing the job right. We are the beneficiaries of that and that’s exactly what all his fans enjoy about his work.
TalkSPORT and Planet Rock broadcaster, Ian Danter, confirmed this to me too:
“Danny did his first radio show as a pundit with me on talkSPORT a few years ago, and I could tell within 15 minutes that he was prepared for anything I might throw at him and spoke with great authority on tactics and much more. When you finish a show knowing that you’ve learned something from your brand new co-host, you know he’s going places. Always a pleasure to see him in the press room.”
This is also something BBC man Dan Walker enjoys about his work:
“What I really like about Danny is that he gets it. He realises that his CV lacks the silverware of some so he has worked his backside off to make sure his analysis, tactical awareness and insight is spot on. He has a real gift when it comes to explaining detail, he’s also a really nice bloke.”
Rory Smith of the New York Times observed Higgy at work too:
“We did 5 live together once while he was still playing, at Sheffield United. He was just starting to get into the media. He called me the next day, and asked loads of questions about what sort of thing a pundit needed to do (he may have been overestimating my wisdom) to be good, and how to make that transition. He wanted to do it, but only if he could do it properly. That’s still the case, I think. He’s really keen a) to learn and b) to be good at his job. While he was at the Stoke Sentinel, he wrote his own columns, which is extraordinarily rare, and I know at the Indy he took a huge amount of time to research what he was talking about. The best thing, though, is how much he loves it: loves watching teams, loves watching games, loves finding out new stuff. There’s no sense that he’s doing it because it’s what you do when you retire. He’s doing it because he enjoys it, and he wants to excel at it.”
Steve Wyeth, BBC and BT commentator, also got in touch:
“Danny is a pleasure to commentate on games with. He’s brilliant at communicating his knowledge and experience to the audience, and enhances that insight by being incredibly well prepared. Most importantly, he’s always first to get the brews in.”
And it’s no coincidence that all these reasons are also why viewers and listeners admire him too.
‘He doesn’t resort to stereotypical and lazy comments most pundits and commentators do.’
‘I like the fact that he has more insight into the realities for smaller clubs. So many pundits played at massive sides, and you feel like they don’t really see the full picture in a way someone like him does. He gives more insight into ‘how the sausage gets made’, as it were.’
‘I’d like to see more of him. Brings the same solid, committed, level-headed diligence to his punditry as he did to his playing career.’
‘He’s basically Martin Keown after he had been left too long in the tumble dryer.’
‘Mixes being an intelligent modern pundit with sounding like an old school one, which is great. Tactical analysis, whilst describing a nippy winger as a ‘flyer’ is very much my cup of tea.’
‘Danny is a rare breed. Didn’t have a glittering career, winning loads of things, but is still allowed to be a pundit. Not from the say what you see school, thankfully. Intelligent, doesn’t shy away from upsetting people and, most importantly, informative. Tells you the how and why.’
‘Danny is great. Insightful, doesn’t act like it’s beneath him to interact with people on Twitter and is an ex-Blade for extra bonus points.’
‘Definitely one of the better newer commentators/analysts, seems to use his experience to give a good insight into the matches, and just comes across as a nice bloke. Plus it always helps that he scored against Newcastle when he played for Sunderland.’
‘First came to my attention doing some astute tactical analysis on MUTV. He speaks with a passion for the game and a clear understanding of the player’s view in his punditry.’
‘Second best thing to come out of Gibraltar, after The Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock.’
‘I think he’s very good at his job.’
‘He spoke brilliantly on The Debate the other night about the situation at West Ham. Great knowledge of the situation and gets what it feels like as a fan.’
At just 39 years old and already getting consistently good reviews for his work, it is hard not to think that we’re witnessing the blossoming of a pundit who will be ploughing the football furrow for decades to come, hopefully with ever-increasingly high profile roles.
It’s a tough world to break into, with so many big names already in situ, names that seem impossible to dislodge. In that regard, he’s already done a great job in already getting a foothold, and just as he did as a player, he’s achieved this through hard graft and dedication. That is to be hugely admired, especially in a world where fame is given a voice, despite all too often talking loud and saying nothing.
His understated, relaxed, calm and easy style would be suited to presenting sports documentaries and to doing interviews. In short, he need not be restricted to punditry exclusively as his career develops. One thing is for sure, we can look forward to more excellent insight.