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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tales from the terraces

My footballing anecdotes always go down very well at dinner parties, as do my stories of the Eurovision song contest or the minor European royals.

Back in the early eighties, when I was a reporter at BBC Radio Devon, they needed someone to cover Plymouth Argyle. The radio station was based in Exeter and the sports producer was not very inclined to come to Home Park for mid week games, lowly Third Division minnows that they were then.

So I started covering them, which meant going to Home Park every Thursday and getting the team news from the manager (has so-and-so recovered from his groin strain? What do you think of your chances against xxx?) and then providing commentary on the matches.

I was something of a novelty then - there were no women football reporters. When I first appeared nervously in the Home Park press box, there was an audible groan and negative body language from the male hacks present.

They were ruled by Harley Lawer, the undisputed expert on PAFC and writer for the Sunday Independent. So when Harley kindly gave me some feedback on my first commentary, which had rendered the others silent, they treated that as a signal to be nicer to me and let me share the bag of broken biscuits that appeared at half time.

I was doing quite nicely in my new set-up. When Bobby Moncur resigned as manager, I was the first to get the story, and even though he wouldn't tell me on tape why he was resigning, it made me sound very Jeremy Paxman-like as I kept repeating the question.

Another time, I was on duty in the Exeter newsroom on a Sunday when the call came to interview the new manager of Torquay United, Dave Webb, formerly of Chelsea. I wasn't very pleased about this; it was near the end of my shift and it meant a journey to Torquay. When I got there, Webb kept me waiting for an hour. The first thing he said, when seeing there was a "bird" waiting for him, was: "Do you know much about football, love?" I gave him a steady look, and, mindful of Chelsea and Torquay's positions in the league - both very poor at that time - replied: "Yes, do you?" One of my press box cronies liked the anecdote so much it appeared in the diary column of the Western Morning News with the headline "Gail's pointed question."

Back to Plymouth Argyle and the death of my footballing ambitions. The team was thrust into the spotlight when they found themselves in the semi finals of the FA Cup. They were suddenly giant killers, and their star striker Tommy Tynan started asking for money for interviews (not that Radio Devon had any money). I had reported on their progress in all the matches running up to the semi-final. I'd travelled to West Brom, I'd been to St Mellion to cover the team's training, I'd interviewed some of their wives. But then the powers that be at Radio Devon decided they needed male talent (or otherwise) to cover the semi final, so I was relegated to the supporters' train.

We lost 1-0 to Watford at Villa Park; robbed as it were; and there were many tears on the trains back to Plymouth from Smethwick. I was even more gutted to learn that one of the male reporters who covered the match, David Willis, had missed the goal. He asked his colleague, Allan Urry, what it was like. "Bit scrappy" was the reply. Willis later asked Watford manager Graeme Taylor about the goal. "Bit scrappy I heard," said Willis, and was promptly put in his place by Taylor. "Absolutely ridiculous comment. Absolutely superb corner crossed by Barnes...." etc. The comment made its way to the annual Christmas tape of bloopers.

Back in the studio the following day, I carefully put together a 3 minute package, using "You'll never walk alone," and lots of wailing fan inputs, and put my football career behind me.

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