Busman's holiday at Darlo
We've just had a bumper weekend of three live international matches on BBC TV - England v Andorra and Brazil v Argentina on ONE, and Germany v Ireland on THREE. And, to my slight embarrassment, I wasn't involved in any of them.
In my defence, we only had the England game in the schedules when I originally asked for the weekend off to go to my friend Guy's wedding in Teesside. And I did stay in the loop by getting to a match: Darlington 1 Torquay 1 on Friday evening, to be precise.
One of the strange things about this job is that most of us on the production team get to see less football in the flesh than we did before we worked here. We're usually working at weekends, so mostly only get to go to midweek matches. Even when we cover live FA Cup ties or internationals, we're watching a screen. Only in a van outside rather than at home or down the pub. I've sat in car parks outside games talking into people's earpieces from Canvey Island to Yokohama!
As someone whose team went up and down the divisions when I was young and free enough to follow them home and away - and as someone who has lived, at various times, in the North East, Manchester, Oxford and London - I've managed to go to most league grounds in the country even without making a concerted effort to join the 92 Club. It was only a casual lunchtime conversation when John Motson was completing the 92 a couple of years ago that made me realise I'd watched games at 80 or so myself. So it seemed reasonable to set a target of going to the rest around work commitments. So, for example, I went to Blackpool for a cup tie on a Saturday before we covered a live game in the North West on the Sunday.
Unfortunately, it's a bit like painting the Forth Bridge - every time you get close, teams move to new grounds, and others come up from the Conference. So, at the start of this season, I was on 87. The missing five were the new grounds at Arsenal, Darlington, Hull and Swansea, and new old boys Accrington Stanley (where I'd edited a Cup victory against Huddersfield from the car park, but not seen a match). Anyway, that figure's now four, though with Doncaster, Shrewsbury and MK Dons all due to move in the near future, it's bound to go up again.
Darlington was actually the second ground I ever went to (after Ayresome Park) and I had a real affection for their old home at Feethams. You went straight from the town centre through the turnstiles, then walked round a cricket pitch to reach stands that were pure Victoriania. About the only thing Victorian about Friday night at their new out-of-town pad were the natty hooped socks the home team were sporting. The ground is a testament to the grandiose (some would say deluded) plans of former chairman - and current HM prisoner - George Reynolds. It's on a par with all those new grounds like Stoke and Derby in the Championship, and is actually better than one or two I can think of in the Premiership.
Unfortunately, they have the same problem in TV terms as near-neighbours Middlesbrough and Sunderland in that the camera gantry is in the very busy main stand looking out at the less-populated stands. In Boro's case, when the crowd is four or five thousand short of the 34,000 capacity, all the gaps are where the cameras are pointing. I find myself repeatedly pointing out to Southerners that an average crowd of 29,000 is actually incredibly high for a town with a population of 130,000, but to no avail. In Darlo's case, if you're watching a Football League round-up, it looks as if there's almost nobody there. At least 80% of Friday's crowd of 4007 were in the main stand which houses the gantry. It may only be cosmetic, but it definitely affects wider perceptions, so it may be worth thinking about moving the camera position across the ground. Just a thought, if anyone influential is reading this!
Speaking of crowds, I was impressed that the PA announced that there were 142 Torquay fans in attendance, and that the home fans duly applauded them. I haven't seen that happen before: I don't know how many had come all the way from Devon as opposed to being northern-based, but it was a remarkable turn-out, and one which was rewarded with a very hard-earned away point. It was good to see an ex-Premiership stalwart in Micky Evans putting it about for the away side, and to see Julian Joachim still looking sprightly for Darlo. And as always over the years, the A66 connection persists, with Darlington fielding three ex-Boro youth players in Russell, Close and Cummins, and another - David Hodgson - as their manager.
I've managed to get to three games so far this season, which is not bad considering I've edited four MOTDs as well -Spurs v Sheffield United on the first Tuesday and Aston Villa v Newcastle on the second Sunday of the Premiership season and now Darlington. I've just realised that the acronym of Spurs, Aston Villa and Darlington spells SAD, and to be fair, my fellow MOTD editors and I have occasionally been accused of an unhealthy trainspotter-like addiction to our favourite sport!
That said, I think someone doing my job should be across football at all levels, and getting out and about occasionally proves useful, particularly at FA Cup time. A couple of seasons ago I'd seen Yeovil play just before they drew Liverpool in the Cup, and was able to tell our commentators and pundits with reasonable confidence that they'd not only give Liverpool a run for their money, but would do so playing decent football. And they duly did. I'm not sure anyone took any notice, but it gave me a certain satisfaction afterwards!
Anyway, no weddings this week, so it's back to Macedonia v England highlights on Wednesday night (1040pm BBC1) and an appetising-looking Premiership MOTD on Saturday.