Saturday, 29 October 2016


John Inverdale - his media career started in Lincoln

WHENEVER he hears the song, Going Underground by The Jam, high-profile BBC and ITV sports presenter John Inverdale is transported back to Lincoln coach station.

That was the Top 40 song he heard being played as he was preparing to make his way back home to Bristol after landing his first job in journalism - as a cub reporter on the Lincolnshire Echo.

It was in the early 1980s, and Inverdale,  who had just graduated with a history degree from the University of Southampton and a diploma in journalism from Cardiff Institute, had been finding it particularly hard to land his first reporter's job in the wake of turmoil in the newspaper industry following a showdown between the print unions and the new Thatcher government.

"I wrote to every UK newspaper listed in Willings Press Guide, but to no avail," he told an audience in Cleethorpes. "I even got the cold shoulder from a title in Stornoway."

Then, from out of the blue, came an interview offer from the Lincoln-based newspaper.

"The first question, the Editor asked me was: "What does Market Rasen mean to you?"

"Horse racing," I said.

"You've got the job,"came back the reply, after which the rest of the interview was to settle the formalities.

Unusually for a young man, Inverdale had been a racing fan since teenage years - partly because of a sustained period of illness which kept him off school (like John Cleese, he went to Clifton College).

In those days, racing was the only programme screened on daytime TV, so he used to follow the action from Kempton, Sandown, Thirsk and elsewhere.

He became so enamoured that, some time later, he bunked off lessons and caught a train from Bristol to the Cheltenham Festival, praying that he would not be seen by anyone who knew him. 

Opposite him in the carriage was a man whose face was hidden behind the broadsheet racing newspaper, The Sporting Life. When he lowered it, horror of horrors, who should the man be but his English teacher?

Master and pupil were equally embarrassed but they struck a pact - "if you don't tell, I won't tell" - that they sustained to the rest of Inverdale's time as a schoolboy.

To this day, he remains a racing enthusiast and rates National Hunt racing his second favourite sport after rugby union - with the Six Nations rugby tournament and the Cheltenham Festival as the highlights of his sporting year.

For Inverdale, a pretty mouth-watering annual calendar it is too, starting with the Australian open tennis in January and taking in other top events such as Wimbledon, athletics  and Ryder Cup golf.

This year has proved particularly special because it also incorporated the Rio Olympics and scintillating  Ryder Cup action where the fervour of the crowd brought out the best in some of the players, with two particularly memorable matches.

There was an audience of about 100 for the highly entertaining pie and pea supper event held at Cleethorpes cricket club.

Inverdale spoke highly of the inspirational on-field leadership  of the likes of Michael Vaughan (cricket) and Martin Johnson (rugby union), plus the entertaining laugh-a-minute personality of Boris Becker (whom he predicted, may no longer be coach of Novak Djokovic for much longer).

John McEnroe is also a great raconteur, not just about tennis but also about  his other interests, including wine and music. But, because he is so self-absorbed, he might not be best company if you were within him for an hour in a stuck lift.

Inverdale  spoke entertainingly (if slightly ruefully) about an eight minute slot he had during one of his BBC interview shows with footballer Sol Campbell, then captain of Spurs.

The club's, Alan Sugar, had only just sacked Swiss manager Christian Gross, so having Campbell  as a guest was particularly topical.

But the footballer, who had earlier refused to share a sofa with the two previous guests, Wimbledon. champion Goran Ivanisevic and gymnastics Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci, stonewalled all questions about Gross' departure.

"I don't want to talk about it - these things happen in football." That was about the limit of Campbell's responses.

Nor was he much more forthcoming about an underwhelming England performance in a recent  international against mediocre  opposition.

In response, Inverdale determined not to ask the footballer about a. newly-launched DVD that Campbell was keen to promote.
Sol Campbell - uncommunicative

But, with the "conversation" threatening to dry up, a voice on his earphone him told that there was two minutes still to fill.

Inverdale found he had little option but to ask about the DVD - at which point Campbell became suddenly loose-tongued and effusive. 

"I hated myself afterwards for giving him the opportunity," revealed Inverdale. "I had given in and let him beat me. Thinking about it today still makes me angry."

It is common practice now for TV sports coverage, especially football programmes, to be hosted by past or present particpants. 

Inverdale  acknowledged that their firsthand insider  experience of sport was invaluable, but he said there was also a role for  journalists who, through their training, knew how, why and when to ask the sort of questions that sports participants might shy away from - the questions most likely to prompt revealing insights.

Of the analysts he admired, he expressed particular respect  for rugby union's Jonathan Davies  because he has a knack of seeing in advance what is going to happen. 

"If Scotland aren't careful, Ireland are likelyto score in the corner," he once said. And, sure enough, moments later, that is just what happened.

During a lively question-and-answer session, Inverdale, who is chairman of Esher rugby club, near his home in Kingston-upon-Thames, also spoke of his admiration for England's head rugby union coach, Eddie Jones, the demise of England's football team, the Allardyce  affair, the corrosion of athletics and cycling by drugs, security at football grounds and  the future of sport in a TV-dominated age.

He suspected that the decision of golf's governing body to award broadcasting coverage rights to Sky may have backfired.

Although the transfer generated  a short-term cash boost, the profile of the game has suffered because events such as the Open are now watched by 800,000 viewers compared with between three and four million when it was on BBC TV.

Inverdale was quizzed about an incident when he famously landed himself in hot water (especially with feminists) by describing 2013 Wimbledon ladies' singles champion Marion Bartoli as "not a looker".

The following day, he had the unsettling experience of having photographers camped outside his front door - a case of the media  turning on one of its own. 

"It was not a pleasant experience," he said. "Bartoli has since become a good friend. My remark was misinterpreted.

"I was praising her for her determination. She didn't have the the long levers of Maria Sharapova  or the strength of Serena Williams, but she showed what could be achieved through sheer determination."

More recently there was an incident when Sir Steve Redgrave walked out of a studio he was sharing with Inverdale during Olympic coverage of the rowing.

It was reported in the tabloid Press as having been the result of a bust-up between the two men, but, according to Inverdale, it was nothing of the sort - it was prompted by Sir Steve's frustration that the rowing coverage would have to be cut short because time was overrunning.

Of his time in Lincolnshire in the early '80s, Inverdale said he loved the county's skies and always volunteered to carry out reporting assignments in places such as Boston and Sutton-on-Sea because he enjoyed the drive east from from Lincoln.

On summer weekends, he played cricket for Lincoln on both Saturdays and Sundays. "No wonder I didn't have a girlfiend," he quipped.

Then, when he did get a girlfriend (by now he was working for BBC Radio Lincolnshire), he was heartbroken when the relationship ended.

To help him get over it, he went  with a group of pals to Cleethorpes - his first visit to the resort - where they succeeded in their dual intention of watching the carnival and getting drunk.

"It was a blisteringly hot day in August 1983," he recalled.

Now married to Jackie and with two Chelsea-supporting sons, aged 24 and 22, plus a daughter who works for Nike, the 59-year-old follows  Southampton and Lincoln City, but he also has a soft spot for Grimsby Town.

He said he was  full of admiration for fans who would be getting up at 6am the next day to make the long trip for match at Yeovil.

"Even if Town lose 2-1 to a hotly-disputed goal in the last minute,  fans won't regret having made the journey,"he said. "That's the passion of sport for you."

Inverdale also had an amusing anecdote about playing in a celebrity cricket match against a team captained by  Eric Clapton in what the legendary rock guitarist had announced would be his last match.

Inevitably most of the crowd wanted Clapton to score plenty of runs in his final innings, but he skied the second ball to cover where Inverdale was fielding.

"The ball was so high that the broadcaster  had time to ask former Test player Mark Ramprakash, fielding at mid-off,  what he should do.

"Drop the ball!"came back the reply.

The advice was taken, allowing Clapton to prolong his innings till he reached 20 or so before losing his wicket.

Inverdale acknowledged that he had been very "lucky" in his career, but there was one misjudgement for which he  is still kicking himself.

He turned down an offer to cough up £5,000 for a half-share in the racehorse, Make A Stand.

With its winnings approaching £1-million, it was a decision he came to bitterly regret - not least when he found himself commentating at the 1997 Cheltenham Festival, when the horse was running in the prestigious Champion Hurdle.

Although the horse was owned by his close friend, Peter Deal, this was a race that Inverdale did not want the pocket-sized chestnut to win - it would have been rubbing further salt into the wound.

"Even as I was describing the action, I was inwardly praying for it to fall."

But Make A Stand, trained by Martin Piper, surged to a famous victory, further enhancing the sour lemons taste in Inverdale's mouth.

"I try not to think about that horse too much," he said. "But If only . . .

"I could haven been £500,000 richer!"

* Photo of Sol Campbell: Stefan Schafer via Wikimedia Commons

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