With the new Premier League season about to kick-off, Layth Yousif recalls a busy 48 hours with Sky Sports shadowing roving reporter Johnny Phillips, author of ‘Saturday Afternoon Fever, A Year on the Road for Soccer Saturday’.
Jeff Stelling is two desks down looking me straight in the eye. He is making a joke at his expense featuring an interview he did with Jurgen Klopp. Olivia Godfrey politely smiled at me in the canteen earlier and that evening I meet Paul Merson and Emile Heskey. Welcome to 48 frenetic hours in the world of Sky Sports and their reporter Johnny Phillips.
Friday 10am -1pm: I sit with Phillips as he and “Editor” Matt put together a piece for tomorrow’s Soccer Saturday show highlighting Norwich loan signing Kei Kamara. The emotive piece details his early life in Sierra Leone where he played football under the shadow of bullets, to playing College football in the States at the same campus where LA Galaxy train, and where he met David Beckham.
It was reassuring to know the congenial Phillips feels the same as many of the two million fans who regularly watch the show. The Liverpudlian said: “I still feel like a kid in a sweetshop. I love my job. I told the producer that we had a lad with a moving backstory who was worth talking to and he agreed. I took a cameraman up to Norwich, did the interview, wrote it up and as you saw spent Friday morning editing it.”
What I saw was two professionals pouring over the piece in an editing suite in Sky Centre. At one stage there is even a debate about the sound levels of a ball hitting the net. Johnny reads the words he has written in a microphone that immediately gets transposed onto their work. When a line doesn’t work he quickly tweaks it without notes.
“We have a system called where every second of every game since the Premiership started is packaged into bite sized chunks, with all the actions labelled and then given a unique reference number”, he tells me. For the Kei piece they need Norwich footage of him. The system displays the minutiae of what we as viewers at home take for granted in dry language: “00:01 Chris Hughton shakes hands with David Moyes. 00:03 Hughton sits down”.
2pm: Sky have a sound system which is an archive of every song recorded bar the Beatles (due to licensing restrictions). For Phillip’s Luis Suarez piece opening Soccer Saturday, he debates a little-known post-punk bank and their 1979 song called ‘There’s a cloud over Liverpool’ to be played on the package. In most professions blokes talking about obscure independent bands would be told to get back to work. Here, it is work.
Johnny says: ‘I love the freedom of being able to cut a VT like Kei. Apart from the enjoyable mechanics of editing and producing it, he’s had an interesting life and was a pleasure to chat to him’.
What about those players who are, shall we say, less captivating than the Norwich forward? “You just have to be professional, do your best, and try and engage with them to get a quote. It can be quite hard sometimes”, he says diplomatically.
What makes a good story for Johnny are the characters behind the headlines. “I am just finishing off a book detailing unsung people and players who are every bit as important as the big stars”.
Such as? “Remember that lad down at Swansea, James Thomas?” he asks me, continuing, “called up for Wales away to Azerbaijan, 2002. Didn’t get on. Swansea beat Hull 4-2 on the last day of the 2002-2003 season and Thomas scored a hat-trick to stop them being relegated to the conference.”
“Soon after, James got a bad injury; never hit the heights again and now works as a Swansea ambulance man.” It should be a film I suggest, “Exactly!” Johnny replies, “We did a piece on him – what struck me was that he didn’t have an ounce of bitterness”. Phillips revealed that his (Irish-born) dad actually came up with the name of the book: “Saturday Afternoon Fever”.
4pm: Stelling is again studying his stack of notes. His legendary powers of recall are the programme’s lifeblood. He mentions the Hartlepool supporters who are traveling to Crawley the next day dressed as Penguins. “Last year it was Smurfs!” he booms in obvious delight.
Stelling looks in rude health and obviously loves his trade. He is also good company. Yet I am slightly disconcerted when raconteur Jeff uses an expletive, it’s like hearing your gran swear.
Johnny tells me a little story about Jeff and the boys’ Christmas party last year. “We went to a restaurant in Liverpool. There were loads of couples there, but as we walked in all these blokes stopped eating and stared at Jeff Stelling instead!”
“Dowie’s such a bad dancer” he adds, “he actually looked like David Brent”.
6pm: With a balanced Suarez piece canned, Johnny arranges it so I can sit in the studio gallery as they film Fantasy Football.
7.30pm: Emile Heskey is talking about his best XI. I ask Darius Merriman, the shows Associate Producer whether guests overrun. “Yes”, he replies, “we’ve had it where someone has taken five minutes and is still talking about their left back”. What happens then? “We get them to hurry-up”, he says laconically. The show is eventually in the can with viewers none the wiser about the controlled chaos behind the scenes. Is it always like this I ask? “It’s the most stressful hour of the week”, confirms a visibly relieved Darius.
Saturday 11am: I meet Johnny at Euston Station to get the train to Northampton. We travel up with pensive Barnet supporters. “You feel for the fans on a day like this”, he tells me.
If Barnet win they are safe from relegation. It’s already been a traumatic week for Bees fans, as they played their last game at Underhill after 106 years of history.
We meet the cameraman and walk onto the pitch. “We need to grab 30 seconds with Edgar Davids”, Johnny asks a man in a Barnet tracksuit who has wondered past.
“Sorry, no”, comes the reply.
“How ‘bout his number two” Phillips inquires.
“Yes Ollie”, Johnny blags as the man nods and sets off to fetch Ollie. A desperate search through the match programme reveals Ollie to be Dutchman Ulrich Landvreugd. “No wonder they call him Ollie”, says the cameraman with a smile.
Interview done we set up for Johnny to give regular match updates. “I would much rather not feature if the show was great TV with Merse going bonkers over a cracking goal” he tells me. “The last thing I would want is to give a “ticker-tape” report. I try to explain things with a little colour”.
“But I remember “drying” at a Coventry-Burnley game. I described a Wade Elliot cross into the centre where Robbie Blake scored. But I couldn’t recall his name. I said “Elliot crossed the ball for, er, um – who did score Jeff?”
3.00pm–3.52pm: A tense scrappy first half. Phillips watches the game like a hawk. He is resolutely unflappable on camera.
4.28pm: At one point in the second half whilst preparing to go live on air he loses his feed just as Jeff Stelling makes what can only be described as a honking noise whilst referencing the Hartlepool penguins.
4.31pm: If Barnet don’t lose, Wimbledon are down. But in the 68th minute Roy O’Donovan scores for Northampton. Johnny has to go straight back on air to describe the goal, coping with the noise from celebrating Northampton fans. Guttridge adds another five minutes later. 2-0.
Cobblers fans sing “bye-bye to the Football League” to their Bees counterparts. Locked out Northampton fans on the grass bank above are celebrating. It’s that kind of day. Over the headphones Stelling reads out results and their consequences.
4.57pm: The final whistle goes. Barnet are relegated from League Two. Their players and fans are simply devastated. I spot a young Barnet fan in tears. A middle aged man says kindly. “Chin up young fella”.
Phillips does his last piece and takes off his headset. Mischievously I ask Johnny what Beatles song springs to mind. Quick as a flash he comes back with “you say goodbye, I say hello”.
6.15pm: Davids strides onto the pitch to meet assembled hacks. Looking impossibly cool in a brown linen suit with red slip on deck shoes and gold Cartier sunglasses he is asked: “Is this the worst moment of your career”. Davids replies deadpan: “I have lost a Champions League final”. Johnny gets his interview after the pressmen have finished, and we are done.
6.35pm: We grab some light refreshment at the Working Mens Club next to the train station. Johnny tells me modestly, “I have been lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. I feel very privileged to do what I do. I try to never forget that”.
Johnny Phillips’ book “Saturday Afternoon Fever” is now available.
Follow Layth Yousif on Twitter @laythy29