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“Can you do 30 seconds, Mike?”

Henry Winter, Football Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, looks back on the career of BBC chief football correspondent Mike Ingham, who retired after the World Cup.

Football hurtles back with indecent haste, but a friendly face – and familiar voice – will be absent from the Press room for the first time in 30 years.

Mike Ingham, the revered BBC chief football correspondent, has retired and his professionalism, perspective and journalistic principles will be missed by reporters, commentators, managers and players alike.

“I never intended to be a commentator,” recalled Ingham, who moved from Radio Derby in 1979 to BBC Sport on Two which evolved into Radio Five Live. “I wanted to present Sport on Two and then maybe Grandstand. For the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 they told me there wasn’t a role for the presenter on Sport on Two. People like Terry Wogan presented it. I was devastated. Mike Lewis, the head of radio sport, rang me just before he got on a plane for LA and said: ‘Mike, next season, we’d like you to go out on the road to be a football commentator.

“So I took a tape recorder to a few non-League games and sat at the back of the stand, practising. The first game I did that season was Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United against Watford with Graham Taylor, who became a great friend. The end of that season ended with me going to Heysel with Peter Jones and Emlyn Hughes for the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus. Heysel was horrific, a very numbing experience.

“My sister married an Italian. When I got married, half of the people there were Italians and I felt very close at that particular time to the Italians. That made it doubly hard for me to cope with. Peter was anchoring the whole thing. I had to keep going downstairs. This is a horrible thing to say, but I was counting the bodies, and had to keep coming back and say this is the latest figure.

“I saw blankets being pulled over people’s faces. A lot of the people I saw were built like weightlifters, huge stocky men, but they had still had the life crushed out of them. I don’t think the game should have been played. I was expecting the game to be called off but apparently they (Uefa) were worried about security.

“Peter grabbed my arm and said: ‘This is still a European Cup final.’ We did it. I don’t remember anything about the game. It was my worst moment in football without question. I wasn’t at Hillsborough. I was at Villa Park in 89, covering the Norwich-Everton semi. I remember interviewing Pat Nevin, who scored the only goal. Neither of us could really focus on doing the interview. We’ve often talked about it since.”

They worked together in Brazil where Ingham bowed out from the BBC after the final, drawing on all the expertise acquired during an ‘apprenticeship’ learning under masters like Jones and Bryon Butler. “Peter always said to me: ‘Light and shade’ and ‘don’t try to mention every player’s name, just an overview’. Bryon said: ‘Gears, gears, gears; just use the gearbox to build up (a move)’. Alan Parry was always fantastic on the radio doing the guttural. He said: ‘I always take a deep breath if I think something (like a goal) is on. Then I have the lung-power.’ Cliff Morgan always used to go on about ‘breathing, son, breathing, like the great opera singers’. He used to punch me in the stomach and say’ that’s where it comes from’.”

Ingham noticed a particular broadcast technique in Brazil. “One of the reasons why some of the commentators go “gooooooooaaal’ is so they can work out who scored. It gives them thinking time. My worst mistake was the last Euro final (2012) when I gave one of the Spain goals to Cesc Fabregas and not Jordi Alba over on the far side. I called it too soon.”

A rare mistake. Ingham has played eloquent witness to so many historic footballing events. “My best moment? Probably Liverpool in the (2005) European Cup final in Istanbul. They were out of it. We even said (Hernan) ‘Crespo wins the European Cup for AC Milan’. We had John Toshack in the commentary team and at half-time John said: ‘This is what he (Rafa Benitez) has got to do now tactically’.”
Toshack suggested Benitez should bring Didi Hamann on and push Steven Gerrard on. “He did,” continued Ingham.

“Alan (Green) and I took turns (22-and-a-half minutes each per half). I started the second half with it 3-0 to Milan and in my period of commentary, I got the three Liverpool goals. It was quite staggering. After the first goal, I said something like ‘Gerrard has given Liverpool a lifeline, something to believe in’. I remember the scenes afterwards. Although I’m not a Liverpool fan, there was an old tear in the eye that night.

“We then flew straight to America for England’s tour. We were in Chicago when Kieran Richardson scored (twice against the US). It was the only time when I finished commentating the first half and started the second half because I was so jet-lagged. I thought unless I get my bit out of the way I’m going to fall asleep!”

As well as chronicling historic times, Ingham also elicited the opinions of the history-makers. “I did the last radio interview with George Best. I went down to Champneys to see him. We’d always got on well. George was great mates with Denis Law and he knew I knew Denis. One day, I was covering the Scotland-West Germany game in Mexico (86) with Denis and we were walking up the stairs in the ground. There was this big kerfuffle on the stairs behind me, and I turned round and there was this guy giving Denis a big bear-hug. We walked on. I said: ‘Who was that?’ ‘Alfredo Di Stefano,’ said Denis. One of the great kicks for me was to sit next to people I grew up admiring.

“Which manager have I enjoyed interviewing most? Probably Cloughie simply because you had to wait about seven hours for the interview. If you had an appointment with Mr Clough at 11am at the City Ground you took that with a pinch of salt. He’d finally appear at 6pm with a squash racket under his arm and say: ‘Are we working?’ That was always his first line: ‘Are we working?’ With virtually any other manager you’d have given up but you knew it would be worth your while. Cloughie was always going to give you gold-dust.

“Cloughie’s probably the only manager – I guess also Fergie to an extent – where you had to think through every word of your question. You had to be so aware. If you said to him: ‘Brian, people will say…’ He’d say: ‘What people?’ Cloughie didn’t have any journalistic background like Graham Taylor (whose father wrote for the ‘Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph’), but part of him thought: ‘I could do your job, I’d be brilliant at doing what you do.’

“I always remember when he was doing a column in Derby and a local journalist, Mike Carey, was sent to ghost-write the piece for him. Cloughie was always thinking of what he was going to say. At the end of the second or third week, Carey walked in on the Thursday for the Friday edition and Brian looked up and said: ‘Michael, I’ve got your intro for you this week. Have you got your pen? I want to you to say for the first line: ‘What a week it’s been for saying ‘Bugger me’.”

“The managers I loved were the ones like Jim Smith at Portsmouth and Billy Bremner at Leeds who would sit and talk to you for an hour after the interview. And not just talk at you either but have a proper conversation. Graham Taylor was like that.

“Who was the most awkward manager to interview? That’s a difficult question.” Kenny Dalglish? “The thing about Kenny is I love him to bits. I’m a huge fan of Kenny and I know he listens to the radio as well! He was a challenge.” So was another Liverpool manager. “Joe Fagan was a lovely bloke, but was not going to get involved in any hyperbole. I remember interviewing him after they beat Panathinaikos to get to the (1985) European Cup final, saying: ‘What a moment for the club, Joe, and what a moment for you.’ He said to me: ‘Well, we’ve got to beat Ipswich on Saturday first’. That was hopeless for the morning interviews!”

Players? “I’ve enjoyed being host broadcaster at the World Cup and being able to meet the England players in a very intimate environment (around the hotel) and being able to scratch the surface with them. David Beckham always used to light up the room when he came in. Stevie G really, really grew into it. He has that charisma to him.

“One of the most interesting characters to interview, who opened up more when you got away from football, was Ashley Cole. We’d talk about music. Yet Ashley was always reluctant to do the interview.”
He wasn’t the only one. “Charlotte (Nicol, BBC producer) was always trying to get Scholesy to do interviews. It was like pulling teeth. She once said to Scholesy: ‘Would you rather have a tooth out or do a radio interview?’ ‘I’d rather have a tooth out,’ Scholesy said.'”

Wayne Rooney was always more forthcoming. “I remember interviewing Rooney for the first time at the Lowry in Manchester before Euro 2004. He was being almost minded (by five PR people). I’ve said to him since about the strides he’s made and the way we’ve seen him change each tournament. He’s a future England captain. He’s matured. He’s never, ever shirked his media responsibilities, certainly not with us.”

Ingham was present at England’s Baden Baden hotel before the 2006 World Cup when Rooney returned from a scan to declare himself fit for action. “I was slightly compromised. I was in a privileged position. We are in the England hotel. Are we supposed to be reporting on things we see? But it was such an instinctive thing. We were aware he was coming back. Sven (-Goran Eriksson) had said to Charlotte: ‘I think we’re going to have some good news.’ We knew Rooney was on his way.

“When he walked in, the kit-man was waiting for him. I was there, in reception. No one else was there. The kit-man put his arms round Rooney and said: ‘The Big Man is back.’ And then Rooney said: ‘The Big Man is back in town.’ He added that line. We had our little studio around the corner, we were live, and I went on and gave that quote. I know Rooney is slightly embarrassed about that quote. He’s possibly even tried to deny it but it was there.”

Ingham sighed when reflecting on England. “My first tournament with them was 1990 and they’ve gone backwards each tournament. I’m not sure how they’re going to turn it around. There’s a Catch 22. Every time there’s an under-achievement it makes it worse next time round. They’re not used to succeeding like the Germans. The problem in Brazil was that we went to Portugal and Miami with everything geared to the first game. It was such a kick in the stomach when they didn’t get anything against Italy. When I looked at them close up in the tunnel against Uruguay before the second game, I didn’t fancy them.

“England teams of the past had substantial characters like ‘Butch’ (Terry Butcher), Peter Shilton and Bryan Robson and you could never have accused their England teams of a mental fragility. There are few characters there now and we expect it to get worse with Gerrard and – we expect – Frank Lampard calling it a day.

“The hope coming to Brazil was that the younger guys would not be carrying that baggage from previous tournaments. I fear now that having been scarred by this tournament whether they can get it out of their system.” They need to become fearless. “Look at the way Costa Rica stepped up to take the penalties in the first shoot-out against Greece: bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

“Look at the way Italy recovered from losing a semi-final and a final on penalties (90 and 94): they then won a World Cup final against France (in 2006). If they can do that, why can’t we? I always remember Terry Venables saying to me when he was managing in Spain that ‘the difference between Spain and England is that England have this mental strength, Spain sometimes don’t’. It’s a complete role reversal.”

As he starts his retirement in the West Country, Ingham admits to certain concerns about the profession he graced for so long, such as the occasional haste and excitability of some behind the microphone. “With commentary now, there’s a tendency sometimes to treat every game like the World Cup final. If you do that, there’s a credibility factor because when you get to the World Cup final where do you go?”

As for the BBC, Ingham mentioned: “I mourn the passing of the correspondent editorial at the end of Sports Report. It was two minutes on an important issue. Like Paul Hayward with a column, I’d go away and write and it was the final word. Everything now is 30 seconds. It doesn’t matter what the story is. It can be ‘Alex Ferguson has left Manchester United, can you do 30 seconds, Mike?’ Or ‘the Grimsby manager has resigned, can you do 30 seconds, Mike?’ This mythical 30 seconds. There’s never been more air-time now to talk about sport and yet I never hear that considered voice piece.

“I will also miss the camaraderie with the Press. To an extent we were competitors with the Press but right from the start, from the days of Jeff Powell and Steve Curry, I was embraced. I’ve always been grateful for that.”

Just as the Press has always been grateful for Mike’s wisdom and company.

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