In the BBC sports presenter’s memoir, The Love of the Game: Parenthood, sport and me (W&N, £16.99/Audible, £19.99) , he explores the relationship between parent and child through the world of amateur sports. He tells us how they helped him address sexism and abuse and how he’s come to terms with being beaten by an eight year old.
When did you realise that you weren’t going to be the next Bryan Robson and decide to be a sports commentator and presenter?
I think I realised before I left primary school. I had been playing in goal and when I asked to come out I was put on the left wing, out of the way. I think that was a clear indication that I wasn’t viewed as the all-action, brave, inspirational midfielder that I imagined myself to be. With regards to the broadcasting side of it, I wanted to work for Radio 1 from around the age of 13 so that was when I realised I wanted to go into the industry. The sport strand came later, at university.
What would life have been like for you if your first son Ben hadn’t become keen on sport?
Life would have been great and a lot less hectic. It is easy to assume that because of the job I do, I pushed Ben and his two sisters into sport but I really didn’t. As I say in the book, it was all about trains in the first few years. Because sport was always on in the house, that may have had an effect, but I wasn’t drilling him with a ball in the garden every day.
What did you feel when Ben, aged eight, bowled you at cricket?
A mixture of hurt, both physical and mental because the ball had careered off my knee into the stumps, and pride. His joy at bowling me was great to see and not unusual but I knew that it was different because I hadn’t ‘tried’ to get out to him to give him a boost. He had done it genuinely. I had tried to hit the ball and just missed it. I look back on the day fondly, because it was the start of father-son games getting a bit more competitive. Although I doubt whether the rest of the family enjoys that competition! I also look back on it fondly because I could still see the ball when he bowled it at me back then. Five years on, he is so fast, the ball is just a blur if I face him now.
What did it mean for Jessie as a swimmer to have her older brother so keen on sports?
A huge amount. She measures herself against him constantly. She wants to reach targets quicker than he did so that drives her on. But, and this is the most important thing, she didn’t see any barriers in what she could play. If we went to watch Ben play football or cricket, girls would be in the teams he was playing with or against. So she has tried football and cricket. They have both competed against boys and girls and don’t see any difference. It really is refreshing to see that generation not differentiating. The sexism in sport that exists comes from older generations, not the children.
Why does football attract such anger from parents of players?
It is a simple game and the most popular game and therefore most parents think they know best when it comes to the sport. It’s harder for most to get angry at a judge’s mark in gymnastics because most of us have no idea what they are looking for from a beam routine, bar staying on the thing! I also think football is an angry sport in general. We have lost the idea that it is meant to be entertainment. It is meant to be fun! Opinions are jumped on, every story or decision is over reacted to and if you try to have any kind of a laugh with it, people just take offence. The behaviour of a minority of parents just mirrors what working in football can often be like on a daily basis.
On a very serious note, should parents be alarmed by the sex abuse scandal now emerging among football coaches?
I am not sure it is for me to quantify the level of feelings of parents up and down the country. I can only speak from our perspective and I think for us it has shaken us out of complacency. We realised that we hadn’t spoken to our kids about this subject for a while, if at all. And we certainly hadn’t spoken about it from a sporting perspective. We had said in the past that if people were to touch them down there or asked them to touch someone else down there then to tell us. What we hadn’t got into with them was the element of power – young boys with dreams of making it in a sport, and men using the dreams and the fears of not making it to abuse them. We have felt the need to tell our children that telling us anything would never ever stop them being a swimmer or a cricketer or a netballer. Coaches in youth sport have such power to make or break children and what we have witnessed over the past few weeks has been a sickening abuse of power.
I’ve still got my Gray-Nicolls scoop bat, inspired by David Gower. Do you still have your Mike Atherton-inspired one?
I do and it is still relatively unmarked due to my inability to put bat on ball.