You know him from Football Italia and Guardian Football Weekly, and you will soon know him from The Totally Football Show. Daniel Storey spoke to the quite lovely James Richardson…
You came out of nowhere into the mainstream football consciousness when hosting Italian football on Channel 4 at the age of 26, which seems like everybody’s dream. How did that come about?
It was huge coincidence really. I knew somebody that worked at the production company and they knew that I spoke Italian and was looking to get a job in Italy, and I had a girlfriend that was from Rome. So I put myself forward and got it.
It was the perfect blend of showing the UK something exotic when there was so little football on TV, wasn’t it?
I think that there were a few things. Firstly the fact that there no other live football on terrestrial television. Secondly that it was Italy, which was really important because it was the perfect place in terms of scenery and also was the best league in the world with the best players on the best teams. Thirdly because we’d just had the World Cup there, which had enthused the whole idea of the San Siro and the Stadio delle Alpi, so it it was a nostalgic glamour for those recent experiences of a World Cup in which our team actually did well.
The impact of that World Cup is imprinted on English football, but so is that show. It was almost like doing a spin-off of a successful film. You had Italia ’90, and then people got to see more of that every week.
And to what extent did Paul Gascoigne play a part in that?
Gazza was really important for the programme. To have him back playing having been out for 18 months was great, but he was also representing Britain on the biggest stage of all in Serie A, up against the biggies.
I think what made it easier was the fact that he was away from home so he was out of that bubble. He did still live within another bubble of friends and family from Newcastle, but he was and still is a very down to earth kind of guy, friendly and generous with his time and energy once you could nail him down. The issue was getting him to show up at the time he was meant to. Paul loves to perform and so for us it was great. He was a really nice guy who I enjoyed working with.
The 1992/93 Serie A Capocannoniere list included: Giuseppe Signori, Roberto Baggio, Abel Balbo, Gabriel Batistuta, Roberto Mancini, Jean-Pierre Papin, Marco van Basten. Was that when club football peaked?
It is crazy when you look at the sheer concentration of players. Mind you, we are moving in the same direction now when you look at some of the squads being put together.
It was a magnificent time and what was really nice is that in the years that followed Milan having their lock-hold on things it was so competitive across the board. It wasn’t just a couple of clubs. Juve were really struggling for a time and then came back. You had Parma with their slightly shady millions – as it turned out, Lazio were doing well, Roma were too, Fiorentina were a real force. And then you had Inter and Milan. That made it so good, that it wasn’t just a couple of clubs.
Now we’re used to seeing so much of players either through social media or on Youtube or on various shows, but at the time these were players you saw very infrequently, either on the odd European night or during major tournaments every couple of years. In that sense we probably don’t appreciate how easy it is to see great players.
How bizarre does or did it make you feel to be a fairly integral part of television culture for that decade?
Certainly that shows the impact of the show. I was never expecting it to work out that well for me on it. When I first started I was pretty sure that I would be dragged back kicking and screaming to England. For whatever reason it worked out well.
For me it was very strange. I think if you speak to most people who get associated with something it is quite a curious feeling in that it almost means that you are something more than you are. It was pretty bizarre, because I never thought I would end up as the face of anything. That said, I don’t think it would have worked for anything other than Italian football because it was such a clean slate for everyone and so it was okay to have someone like me presenting it. I don’t know if that would have worked if I was doing the Premier League.
At the time it didn’t feel weird at all to be on television because to all intents and purposes I wasn’t. It was only when I’d take a trip back to England every couple of months and people might recognise me, that the reality of it became clear. I was just a guy working and living in another country.
That coverage stopped in 2002, and you went off the radar a little bit in terms of TV football. So how did it feel when Sean Ingle at the Guardian asked you to do a podcast during the 2006 World Cup?
I was writing for the Guardian anyway and I knew Sean really well, so when he suggested they were going to do this thing around the 2006 World Cup I thought it sounded interesting. I didn’t necessarily think that it would be a successful idea, because I had visions of it being me sat alone in some studio trying to link up reports on the phone from different parts of Germany where the games were being played, but actually what it was was pretty different to that.
It more or less started with the format that it continued with all the way, a group of people sitting around talking about the football had just happened and the football that was about to happen. I did not think “This is a brilliant idea”, more “Yeah, I’d do that”.
With hindsight, why do you think it did resonate so quickly?
I think that this and other podcasts really highlighted that there is another appetite for coverage that doesn’t necessarily fit into traditional sports broadcasting, that there is a slightly esoteric fan out there with interest in other things. They might have different views and not think that the Premier League is the be all and end all of everything.
Also, they appreciate the slightly irreverent and even cynical look at it. As I say, lots of podcasts have done this because it is such a democratic medium, in the sense that it is pretty easy to take part and set it up.
Podcasting is a very low expectation medium. You put something out, and if someone wants to listen to it they can. There’s no pressure in terms of time, so they can listen at exactly the moment they wish. A lot of people listen on their commute, and I think they would be delighted to listen to just about anything to avoid staring at adverts on the tube.
It’s a really informal, easy to access format, that with the rise of social media has grown with a real intimacy with the audience. Whereas before you would watch a programme, now there’s more of a two-way process. I think there’s a real feeling of community and intimacy, which might be related to the fact that you generally listen to it on your own with your headphones. The bottom line is that there were a lot of people interested in football who weren’t interested in hearing about it in the traditional way.
It was also coming out of that 90s, lad culture generation, which is how until then football had been sold to the general public. Maybe the Guardian Football Weekly offered the antidote to that?
Absolutely. One of the main reasons for the success is because Sean Ingle and his cohorts Scott Murray and Barry Glendenning at Guardian Unlimited had already established a style and tone in their football coverage. Because they were on the pod from the word go, they established the tone of our show as well. Things like the Fiver, that humour and terminology, was just immediately imported into Football Weekly.
The fact that it was the Guardian was massive in that. Perhaps if it had gone to the BBC or someone else we may have seen a different approach, but the Guardian already offered what I’ll call a ‘sideways’ glance.
And now Guardian Football Weekly with James Richardson is no more in favour of a new project with Iain Macintosh [Muddy Knees Media will produce The Totally Football Show]. Does having a new project stop anything going stale?
I think we talked about how important the Guardian was at getting the podcast going and the opportunities that it gave. But I think it became apparent in recent years that there was only so far things could go in terms of going out and covering tournaments, that kind of thing.
It was ten years, and we wanted to make some changes this summer and the changes we wanted to make had the unexpected consequence of causing a split. I’m not a particularly bold person, so the notion that it might be good for everyone to have a change and freshen up sounds good to me. Iain had some great ideas, and this seemed a fertile place to continue together.
But it’s not as if I woke up and thought “This is stale, I need to kick it over and destroy it”. We just wanted to do things for ourselves, and once the idea of trying something new has been floated, it changes the way you think about doing the same things as before. Having said that, nobody should expect anything revolutionary. We’re still going to sit around and chat about football.
Speaking to a friend about you, and that’s less creepy than sounds, they say that what you do well is to combine being friendly and informal with being professional. Is that what you’re always aiming towards?
It’s not an aim in that I sat down and thought that I’d try to sound friendly, but if you’re broadcasting then you’re effectively borrowing someone’s time, so I always try to ask nicely and not assume too much. It’s nice to be informal because, after all, it’s football. I think we’re all here to try and enjoy ourselves.
The first episode of The Totally Football Show will be recorded on Monday, August 7. You can – and should – follow them on Twitter here.