A Football365 love letter to… Jacqui Oatley

Matt Stead

Why the love?
After getting her start at BBC Leeds as a sports reporter and commentator, she’s become a well-established, highly respected presence covering football in a presenting, interviewing and commentary capacity, and has worked on lots of other sports too, both on TV and radio. On Sunday she did 606 on 5 live with Chris Sutton. It was typically excellent, but then this is someone whose standards never, ever drop below that. She’s a broadcaster who always brings an air of control and calm to proceedings but without ever being stiff or overly scripted.

Loved not just for the high quality of her work but also for her campaigning zeal in promoting, encouraging and supporting women playing football and sport more generally. This has taken some degree of bravery because, as we know all too well here at F365, as soon as you raise the issue of gender in almost any area of society – especially football – you can’t do so without attracting the opprobrium of people driven insane with your “PC bullsh*t” and “virtue signalling”. One critic once memorably berated me by saying that he was sick of having “women literally rammed down my throat”. This despite the fact that all any of us have ever wanted is fairness and equality, and surely to be against fairness and equality is not a good look on anyone.

There is clearly some steel to Jacqui and she isn’t prepared to give an inch to the idiots. Even in the past week she was reporting those who were abusing and threatening Michael Oliver and his wife on Twitter. She’ll also take to task any sexist who dares to cross her path, all with an acerbic wit. For example, someone once wrote to a Sheffield newspaper to say: “If women want to commentate, report or be a pundit or presenter that’s fine, but in your own sport.”

Her response?

The thing is, it can be very, very draining to fight these sorts of fights. It is far easier to just ignore them because you know you’re never going to change someone’s whole cultural and political outlook on Twitter and you open yourself up to considerable abuse trying to do so. And yet, who wants the idiots to occupy the land? Anyone who is prepared to dish it out deserves special respect and it surely speaks of someone with a strong sense of right and wrong who isn’t prepared to walk by on the other side. Respect for that. It certainly has inspired me over the years.

Every revolution needs its leaders and Jacqui has certainly been at the spearhead of the deconstruction of football’s entrenched patriarchal attitudes and outlook. She was awarded an MBE in 2016 for services to sport and diversity and it was more than well-deserved as a recognition of her work behind the scenes championing the role of women working in football, and of women’s football.

Superhero skills
Only a small trace of a Codsall accent, one has feeling she could drop into a full Jim Lea, Black Country accent at any moment. Indeed, she absolutely should. That apart, I’ve always thought she’s a clear, concise communicator. There’s no umm-ing and errr-ing. Never seems hurried either and is hugely experienced at dealing with pundits of varying quality in the studio.

Her career is littered with firsts. She was the first female darts presenter, the first female presenter of Sportsweek 5 live, the first woman to commentate on a football match on British network radio in 2005, the first on TV too on Match of the Day in 2007. This turned into what my Yorkshire mother would have called “a right broo-ha-ha, our John”, as some conservative viewers protested that she didn’t sound like a voice that they were used to and that was upsetting to them. It wasn’t to do with being a woman per se, they said, it was just that she sounded like a woman. Ah, right.

That seems a long time ago now. Back then having women on TV even talking about men playing football was decried and sneered at by some, but today with the likes of the BT Sport Score show last Saturday having gender parity for contributors (if you exclude presenter Mark Pougatch) for what was, as far as I know, the first time, such sexist attitudes are finally being slain and buried.

In 2015 she made #8 on the Independent On Sunday’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Sport list. In the words of Sue Mott: “A campaigner for the women’s game, she tweets about where to buy tickets, the pricing structure, and so forth, and insiders praise her influence, behind the scenes, to galvanise greater television and radio coverage. She is also on the Women in Football board.”

All of this stems from a deep love of football from an early age. She could’ve been a player but a dislocated knee cap ended her playing career for Chiswick Ladies Football Club.

A big Wolves fan and super-brainy, I’d wager she is the only person working in football media that has a degree in German and a Postgraduate Diploma in Broadcast Journalism.

She’s so articulate about the game. Here’s just one example, when asked about women playing football in 2013 by politics.co.uk. “In your opinion, what are the main differences to men’s football?”

Her reply was the perfect summation of the situation:

“People involved in women’s football tend to get annoyed by the comparisons made between the sports, and I suppose what they mean is that of course there’s not the same amount of money in the game, nor should there be, because it’s a young sport, relatively speaking. Without dredging up the history of the sport, women were effectively banned by the FA from playing in England for nearly 50 years up until 1971, it wasn’t seen as ‘lady-like’.

“So we’ve just got to get on with it now. The FA this year is celebrating 150 years, whereas the women are celebrating 20 years of being under the FA umbrella. Because of all this these comparisons are not really welcomed, because there are such differences, and the women’s sport hasn’t had the same advantages: football in this country has been traditionally dominated by men.

“But in terms of the actual play, there’s no difference in skill – if you have a five-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy they’ll be exactly the same. Of course there’s a difference in patent power, like you’d get in the men’s 100m final and the women’s 100m final – it’s all relative. But it’s just as exciting, the race is just a second or so longer…there’s no difference in skill, and the way they train. Women focus more on the skill and men on the actual pace, but equally some girls are extremely fast. When people are watching men’s football and then start watching the women’s game, they’re not going to be like: “It’s the same game”. Of course it’s not, women are different physical specimens and some of the women they’re watching are having to work in a care home for the rest of the week, or doing other jobs – so it’s just not a level playing field.

“But in it’s own right, in my opinion – and I watch both – it’s just as exciting as a sport. It’s still football! It’s about getting the ball in the back of the net and there. there’s no difference.”

Boom! There’s your class 101.

And finally, if you doubt her passion for the game watch this. Her tension followed by the emotional release is one I’m sure we’ve all felt.

Style guru?
Women are judged, sometimes wholly, on their appearance to a far greater degree than men. Actually, men are almost never judged wholly on their appearance, beyond ‘banter’ about a garish tie. If you doubt this even for a moment, search YouTube for Jacqui and you’ll find a video titled ‘Jacqui Oatley | Womens FA Cup Final | 140516 | Legs | Heels’. She also features on something called ‘British TV Babes’. Astonishing but unsurprising.

Jacqui tends to go for strong plain colours in smart, largely unstructured tailoring. I imagine her wardrobe contains a lot of linen, cashmere and crisp good quality cotton. Also likes a leather jacket.

What the people say
Perhaps more than anyone else I’ve featured, Jacqui gets a lot of praise for her role as a mentor and general encourager of broadcasting and sporting talent. It’s clear she’s had and is having a very positive effect on people. In a profit-hungry world that is so concerned with self-aggrandisement, frankly, that is a beautiful thing and inspiring in and of itself.

‘Not just a pioneer, but a supporter of those looking to crack the industry. Could easily have walked away after the infamous Fulham commentary, but used criticism as an opportunity to give doubters the middle finger and prove she had earned her spot. One of the best on our TV. I could go on and on about Jac. I’ve known her 5-6 years and I can’t speak highly enough of her. Meticulous in her planning and prep, respected hugely by those around her, and knows her stuff (I’ll let her off supporting Wolves).’

‘Added her to my Twitter feed a few months ago. The quality of football coverage I saw went up immediately. Knows her stuff, passionate about the less glamorous areas of football, and rightly not afraid to make her opinion known.’

‘Love Jacqui. Can still remember the ridiculous “uproar” when she was brought into the MOTD commentary box (11 years ago!) and since then she’s been a trailblazer for more women’s voices in not just the men’s game but also helping lift the status of the women’s game. Top class.’

‘She’s ready for primetime.’

‘She’s done so much to advance women’s football (and women’s sport) over the past few years and also shown her class in the commentary box and in the TV studio. Must be one hell of a grafter.’

‘Professional. (Fan of Ossett Albion’s pies too)’

‘Excellent presenter, done so much to advance women’s sports too, I always feel she knows a lot more about the teams and the tactics but let’s the guests talk and when they resort to cliches doesn’t let them away with it, she’s raised the bar in that respect.’

‘Her gentle winding up of that insane West Brom Fan on 606 last week (with only him not realising she’s a wolves fan apparently) was hilarious.’

‘I remember the absolute disgust of my then father in law at her debut on MOTD.  I think she’s amazing.’

‘I’m involved in a Forest fanzine and Jacqui gave me time she didn’t have, which seems to be her nature, for an interview about women’s football. Her passion is tangible and her insight invaluable. Always grateful. It was a pleasure and a privilege to talk to her.’

‘Has a voice of authority. Sounds like she would organise a fantastic picnic.’

‘She’s an excellent broadcaster. The amount of stick she got in 2007 was staggering, ridiculous that she had to go through that to pave the way for others.’

‘I was lucky enough to meet her a few times when I was covering games for the League Paper. She couldn’t have been friendlier to a young, crap journalist. Helped me feel more confident in a job I never really had the confidence to do well in just by stopping to chat. She’s a star.’

‘Presumably it was once weird to have a female Prime Minister – now it isn’t. Similarly, in part thanks to Jacqui’s excellence, now we have both men and women commentate on football.’

‘Let’s just once and for all forget all the rubbish about ‘wimmin’ in sports broadcasting. Simple test should always be: are they great at their job. And Jacqui Otley is absolutely superb at any brief she is given. End of.’

‘She’s smart, charming n very well informed. I like her views, I like her on my tv, I like her.’

‘Dear #bbcfootball bosses, please send me back to St Mary’s again soon. #SaintsFC a dream to watch: waves of passes like ripples in water.’

‘She wrote this… lovely turn of phrase.’

‘A consummate professional who can glide seamlessly from radio to television & between sports. She brings great enthusiasm & knowledge to her many roles.’

‘She’s suffered more than most from trolls. Yet when Buffons comments led to the ref & his wife receiving hate mail she didn’t hesitate to call him out for it, knowing they’d turn on her too.’

‘A calm, composed intellect in the face of constant adversity. I feel like I’m watching someone who isn’t likely to fawn over an ex-pro regardless of their nonsensical ramblings.’

Future days
In no small measure due to Jacqui’s example of how to fight the power, the wall of maleness which blocked the progress of women in football broadcast media for so long is being dismantled. At long last, girls can see women doing jobs that were once only held by men and can thus be inspired to do likewise. It is a quiet but powerful revolution that is unfolding right now, almost month by month. But it takes real guts to be a revolutionary, especially in the field of gender, because all you’re asking for is fairness and equality. You don’t really want to have to make such a big fuss, or be thought of as trouble, or some sort of humourless ballbreaker. But if no fuss is made, no change is made. And in the process, because you do encounter some dispiriting absolute rotters, the path of least resistance must always be tempting.

As one of the outriders for this revolution along with others such as the late and much missed Helen Rollason, along with Ellie Oldroyd, Claire Balding and Gabby Logan to name just a few, it is impossible not to see a bright future for Jacqui. It would be no surprise at all to see her elevated to the highest profile positions in football media and to excel with the kind of cool intelligent ease we’ve become so accustomed to. As an excellent communicator with a tremendous breadth and depth of knowledge, she’s modern, progressive, caring, passionate and intelligent, all of which would make her a tremendous Minister for Sport. But then, there seems no room for breadth and depth of knowledge, nor someone who is modern, progressive, caring, passionate or intelligent in the government. Quite the opposite, if anything.

This column has documented many, many brilliant performers who make our football lives enjoyable, Jacqui is that too, but is also making a difference. Long may that continue.

John Nicholson