John Nicholson meets…commentator Darren Fletcher

Date published: Wednesday 29th July 2020 7:43

Darren Fletcher has been broadcasting since 1993 on local radio in his native Nottingham. He joined 5live as a commentator in 2004 and BT Sport in 2013. As well as commentating, he also presents the excellent Friday Football Social on 5live at 7pm every Friday. I caught up with him last week to talk about the business of football broadcasting.

Darren Fletcher: Everything has changed since the lockdown. Everything. We’re operating in a very different way now. It’s a weird time in the business because everything has changed and we don’t really know what, post-covid, the industry will look like. We’re all working from home or working remotely now and it’s changed so much about how we do everything. It’s a testimony to the industry that it’s adapted so well, so quickly. It has to be done this way right now, so we’re just getting on with it. Hopefully, most of the audience don’t even realise how much things have changed.

John Nicholson: Do you think these changes will become permanent and you won’t be required to go into a studio as often to present a show and your BT Sport director might be working remotely for TV broadcasts? It sounds like a more efficient way to work and might save money too, which is presumably attractive to businesses.

DF: Everyone is always looking for more efficient ways to make outside broadcasts. They’re big expensive things to have to put on. So I’m sure some of the changes will be permanent as technology advances. I have a bit of kit that I plug into my computer at home which turns it into a mini-studio and as long as the room is sound-proofed properly, the listener wouldn’t know I was not in Salford or London.

JN: So the BBC just sends that kit out to you and Jermaine and whoever your guests are, they plug it in and you’re all linked together?

DR: Yeah and we get a Zoom call going so we can see each other. It works really well. Actually, for the Friday Social it’s been a good development because it’s easier to get great guests on when they can just do it from home and don’t need to come into the studio. Radio pays so much less than TV, so if someone has to go out of their way and make an effort to come in, maybe they won’t bother. But just doing it from home is easy. So it’s been good in that respect.

JN: Your Friday show is one of my must-listens. You get such interesting guests. The likes of Matty Upson, Clinton Morrison, Micah Richards and Rob Green were all on before they got into media work more regularly.

DR: They use us as guinea pigs! We get them on and when they’re obviously really good they go on to get other work. We had Micah on before he’d done much broadcasting. Everyone loved him and he’s everywhere now.

JN: It’s the same with the out-of-work managers you have on, I’ve noticed. They always go on to get a job a couple of weeks after being on.

DF: (laughs) We’re great at getting people jobs. It’s a good show to do because we’ve got two or even three hours to really talk about things. We can go much deeper. Shorter clips have their place, but if you want to really explore a subject, you just need the time to do it. We had Michail Antonio on. He was great and he gave us a fantastic story about when he was at Sheffield Wednesday and he just couldn’t score headers. The coach took a look at him and realised that he was closing his eyes when he headed the ball. So he taught him to keep his eyes open and as soon as he did, the goals started coming. Now that’s a good example of the sort of detail and interest you can get when you’ve the time to just let the conversation flow.

JN: It must help that you and JJ are good pals.

DR: It does. We can actually really get stuck into each other if we disagree about something, because we’re mates, in a way you couldn’t do with a guest you don’t know. He’s so good. I believe he’s one of the best readers of the game out there. I really do.

JN: There are a lot of changes happening in the industry, not just technical. There’s much more diversity than was once the case.

DR: There is and I think it’s a good thing. I really do. But there’s bound to be casualties along the way.

JN: Such as Mark Pougatch and Clive Tyldesley?

DR: Clive’s a pal of mine. He’s my go-to man for advice. He’s been so helpful over the years. I don’t understand why ITV have taken the main commentator’s job from him. I think they’ll regret it at a big tournament like the Euros next year. I feel sorry for Sam (Matterface) because he’s stepping into Clive’s shoes and good luck to him. He’s a great commentator and of course this is a big chance for him, but everyone is talking about Clive.

JN: What did you make of the recent report about how commentators use different words to describe a player depending on the darkness or lightness of their skin?

DR: I grew up in a very diverse community on a council estate alongside people of all colours and creeds. I went to a very diverse school. It’s not something I really think about. All I want to do is describe what is happening. If you know yourself as a person…I’ve always treated people the same.

JN: It was reported in the Guardian that BT are sending everyone for subconscious bias training. Have you had any of this yet?

DR: No. No, I haven’t. I think the idea is everyone in the organisation will have it at some point. I don’t know what it entails, but anything that can make you do your job better has got to be worth trying.

JN: One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is the level of abuse anyone involved in football broadcasting gets on social media. It tends to be pundits rather than the commentators but even so. How do you cope with that?

DR: Social media keeps me on my toes. I’m very thick-skinned and abuse doesn’t really bother me. If after a game you put your phone on and you’re getting absolutely hammered for some mistake you’ve made, then fair enough. I use it to try and get better. If it’s just people saying you’re shit or an idiot, obviously I just ignore that. But, yeah, pundits really do get the worst of it. I wish people could just remember that we’re real people, not just some character in a movie or something. I know a couple of pundits who have really been badly affected by the volume of criticism. It’s really got to them. I’m a strong person but I’m not bulletproof. But I’m the luckiest man I know. It’s a privilege to have this job. I just love football.

JN: So the abuse doesn’t really affect you?

DR: Not usually. Mind you, there was one time early in my career. I was doing my first Champions League final Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid. It was the biggest game I’d ever done and I was really nervous. After the game I put my phone on and I’d got an absolute battering from Alistair Campbell, (the Labour spin doctor). That always rankled with me. He should’ve known better. Talk about glass houses. It’s stuck with me ever since. It taught me a lesson about what sort of world I was getting into. I never bear grudges but I do over that. I just wasn’t his cup of tea, okay, fair enough, but I almost pitied him for feeling that he had to go on Twitter and hammer me. I’ve never met him but if I ever do I’ll give him both barrels about that. It still pisses me off.

JN: I do wish people could just stop and think about the person before being so horrible. It’s just football, after all. It’s not like you or your co-comm are setting public policy or have any power.

DF: Yeah, like I said, we’re not characters, we’re people. I’m very self-critical anyway. I’ll go over every game I’ve worked on. Funnily enough since lockdown, I’m not really happy with the standard of my performance. I’m trying to dig deep to get back to where I want to be.

JN: How are you finding crowdless games?

DF: There’s no feeling in the stadium, nothing to feed off. Before a game I’d get a sense of the atmosphere but there isn’t any atmosphere now. It does make it harder.

JN: Do you ever have any discussions with management about how you’re doing. About your form, if you like, or are you left to your own devices?

DR: It’s the kind of industry where you only hear from anyone if you’ve had a bad day. If you’re doing OK, you hear nothing. So it’s hard to take criticism if it comes, when you don’t also get the praise. There is a huge lack of feedback in the business. Huge.

JN: But plenty on social media.

DF: What annoys me is when people say ‘oh it was better in the past’. You can’t compare today to 35 years ago. Everything is different and the degree of exposure totally different.

JN: Everything is far more informal today.

DF: It is but you’ll always get people who don’t like you, don’t like how you do the job, that’s inevitable but it doesn’t mean you’re not any good at the job. My favourite was Brian Moore, but it didn’t mean I thought anyone else was rubbish. Social media makes instant judgement really easy and it can unfairly influence and affect careers.

JN: I think some people assume being a commentator is easy. I’ve tried to do it and it’s really bloody hard. I don’t know how anyone does it. Just pronouncing all the player names is tricky enough, not letting out a swear word tougher still and that’s before even trying to describe the action at speed.

DF: You’ve got to do your research. It’s just part of being respectful as a human to get someone’s name right. Take Toby Alderweireld. You hear his name pronounced in so many different ways. I just say it how he says it. Simple as that. There’s no excuse for not knowing a name.

JN: You’re unusual in being both a presenter and commentator. They’re two quite different jobs.

DF: I see them as all part of the same job really. It’s just talking about football at the end of the day. I love working on 5live. To me it is the gold standard of broadcasting and I feel privileged to work on it. I’d like to do more, in fact.

JN: Some are critical about changes that are being made, such as getting rid of Mark Pougatch and trying to appeal to younger people with shows like The Squad. I’ve heard people say it’s going downmarket. I don’t think that’s true. Not every show is going to be right for everyone.

DF: Exactly. All I’d say is as long as standards are being upheld, I’m all for change and for attracting different audiences. I’m all for diversity. I think it’s great to hear more different voices.

JN: Does it matter to you if there’s a big audience or a small audience for a game you’re working on?

DF: Not really. It’d be great to work on a massive game, of course, but you’ve got to have the professional integrity to do the job to the same standard, whether it’s an audience of one or millions.

JN: Finally, Darren, how do you see football going in the coming years? Do you know if BT Sport are going to bid for broadcast rights again later this year?

DF: No, I don’t. Everything is up in the air, isn’t it? Nobody knows how it’s going to play out. Whether Amazon will go for more games, maybe there will even be some free-to-air games on Sky. I just think the whole covid situation has thrown the industry into a spin. Whatever happens, there has to be a better distribution of money down the leagues. I had a spell as a director of Notts County and you get to see just how short of cash clubs are at that level. I would like to see more money trickle down from the top flight because if there isn’t, I can see a number of clubs disappearing.

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