FWA Q&A: James Ducker

JAMES DUCKER, Northern Football Correspondent of The Times, on Bruce Lee in the mixed zone…doing a chicken dance for Geri Halliwell…and drinking a £500 bottle of Disney wine

Your first ever job in journalism?
I did a week’s work experience on the Manchester Evening News sports desk about four months after starting at university in Sheffield. Someone must have been feeling charitable that week because they asked me back and gradually I started to do more and more to the point where I was working regularly in a freelance capacity on sport by the time I reached my third and final year at university. I remember having to ask the sports editor if he would write to one of my lecturers requesting more time to complete my dissertation as I’d worked almost non-stop one Christmas for the MEN and neglected my degree work in the process. Fortunately, the lecturer took pity on me. I can still vividly remember my relief. The MEN then sponsored me through a journalism diploma at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston and when I finished there I started as a full time staff news reporter.

Have you ever worked in a profession other than journalism?
No, I’m not sure any other profession would have me.

Most memorable match?
Difficult one that, I’ve been fortunate enough to cover some pretty great matches during my time on The Times. It’s a somewhat unoriginal choice but Manchester City’s dramatic 3-2 win against QPR on the final day of last season will probably stick with me forever, for numerous reasons. Manchester United’s 4-3 win over City at Old Trafford in September 2009 also left a mark on me, not because of the see-saw nature of the game and Michael Owen’s exquisite 96th minute winner in “Fergie time” but also because of Ferguson’s post-match press conference when he came out with all that stuff about “noisy neighbours”. Memorable match for the wrong reasons? England’s abject goalless draw against Algeria in Cape Town at the 2010 World Cup. God that was bad.

Best stadium?
Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion and the Bernabeu.

…and the worst?
Doncaster’s old Belle Vue ground. It wasn’t the worst stadium per se, but it felt like it in December 2005 – a few days before Christmas – when, with no power point and no internet, Arsenal were taken into extra-time and I had to file a big match report and back page splash via a copytaker in zero time. It should have been a great game to cover and the atmosphere in the ground was electric but I just remember it being complete misery. So my view of Belle Vue was forever (and probably unfairly) skewed after that.

Your personal new-tech disaster?
How long have you got? Things actually seem to have picked up technology wise over the past year or so but I will always remember being at the Nou Camp to cover the first leg of Manchester United’s Champions League semi-final against Barcelona in 2008 and Craig Tregurtha, my football editor at the time, coming on the phone an hour or so before kick-off and saying, ‘James Ducker, sure to be the busiest man at the Nou Camp tonight’. I didn’t mind that at all at the time. There was no wi-fi, or if there was I couldn’t access it, but my 3G was working fine so I was still pretty relaxed when the order came over: ratings of 80 words per man per team plus 30 words per substitute – in effect about 2,000 words – which needed to be filed about 20 minutes before the final whistle. And also a big technical breakdown in six separate 100 word chunks – so another 600 words. The first-half was fine. Then when I went to file some copy towards the end of half-time the 3G shutdown. The words “technical error” followed by a series of terrifying looking numbers and letters screamed at me. I faffed around in a state of nauseous shock for about 15 minutes – way too long, in hindsight – and then got on to copy. At those moments, you pray you get a copytaker who knows something about football. Inevitably, I didn’t. ‘How do you spell that again?’ was all I heard for the next 45 minutes or so. The conversation went something like this: Copytaker: “Can I just check, so that’s ‘Abigail’?”; Me: “No, it’s ‘A-BI-DAL’. A for alpha, B for bravo … You get my the idea. I got there in the end, just, but it was one of the longest nights of my life. At least Neil Custis and Ian Ladyman cheered me up later but attempting to recreate a scene from a Bruce Lee film in the mixed zone. I’ll never forget Laydo’s kung-fu pose. Priceless.

Most embarrassing moment in the job?
I was working at the MEN when the news editor suggested I should ‘audition’ for Pop Stars, one of the predecessors to X-Factor, and write a story on it for the next day’s paper. I’ve the worst voice imaginable so I was torn between trying to sing a notoriously tough ballad while giving the impression that I thought I was really good like a lot of lunatics on those shows do or just doing something silly. In the end I did a chicken dance while singing Jingle Bells in front of Pete Waterman and Geri Halliwell. She didn’t even laugh. She just looked at me with complete contempt. They later rang me up to request permisson to use the ‘footage’ on the highlights package but, regrettably or thankfully, I’m not sure which, my one shot at stardom never aired.

Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
Err, I’m not sure I should admit this but I encountered a Liverpool supporter once who was convinced I was Dietmar Hamann. He – the supporter that is – must have been smoking something. My close mates thought this was hilarious as they were always taking the **** out of me for apparently looking like him (No James, you should not have admitted this – Ed).

Most media friendly manager?
Wigan’s Roberto Martinez, by some distance. Very good manager, even better person.

Best ever player?
The best player I’ve seen live on a regular basis over a decent period of time is Cristiano Ronaldo.

Best ever teams (club and international)?
The current Barcelona and Spain teams in my lifetime. It’s hard to argue otherwise.

Best pre-match grub?
No contest. Manchester City all day and everyday. Even I could get fat dining there.

Best meal had on your travels?
It was actually not while away covering football but on a press trip to LA courtesy of Disney. I just remember eating like a king for a week at LA’s best restaurants and washing the stuff down with £500 bottles of Chianti with a group of equally disbelieving newspaper reporters.

…and the worst?
I had a sort of stew once in Riga, Latvia after which I was evacuating at both ends for the next 24 hours.

Best hotel stayed in?

I’m sure I’ve stayed in some nice ones but they all tend to blur into one in the end. Does that sound ungrateful?

…and the worst?
My last actually – an apartment in Kiev while covering the Euros that cost £360 a night but which I decided would make a perfect location for a low-rent slasher film.

Favourite football writer?
I can’t believe I’m bringing myself to write this but Danny Taylor on the Guardian writes a terrific feature. I accept cheques, Daniel, but no cash in the post please. For all round capability, my Times colleague Matt Dickinson takes some beating.

Favourite radio/TV commentator?
TV pundit would have to be Gary Neville. He’s injected some much needed quality and incisive analysis into TV punditry. I like Ian Dennis and John Murray on 5 Live.

If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
In some respects, I think we’re past the point of no return. Players and journalists are never going to have the relationship they once did for a whole raft of reasons and football clubs want more and more control over communications now as the sport becomes an ever bigger business. But I think it’s important there is a relationship between journalists and the hierarchies at all clubs. Of course, that relationship won’t last or work if there is not mutual trust and respect and that has to be built up over time but it would help to cut out some of the spurious rumours and duff information that routinely circulate.

One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
I’m not sure I can pick just one. A title fight between two great boxers in Las Vegas would be pretty special to watch as would the Wimbledon final or the 100m final at London 2012. I’m not a fan of American Football as such but attending the Super Bowl would be some experience.

Last book read?
I’m reading two at the moment – Stuart Maconie’s brilliant Pies and Prejudice and the last in the Millennium triology, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest.

Favourite current TV programme?
I’ve just finished Series 5 of Mad Men, which was probably the best yet. I’m two episodes in on Hit & Miss, which is very good.

Your most prized football memorabilia?
I used to love that kind of thing as a kid but I have no interest in it now.

Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?
I’d look at new opportunities opening up via social media and things like that rather than just focusing solely on trying to get into the media via traditional routes such as newspapers, radio or TV. The industry is facing some tough changes and challenges and it’s imperative you weigh up all of these things very carefully before deciding what avenue to pursue.

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