This sporting life
By Ollie Baines
You’ve gone from Blue Peter to Sky Sports. Why the change?
Well, first and foremost, children’s television and, in particular, Blue Peter is a young person’s game. When I watched it as a kid, presenters like the legendary John Noakes presented the programme into his 40s. Now it’s a very different world, and I knew right from the day I got the job that this was no job for life and that it might only last five or six years. But I also knew when I got the job what I wanted to do next. I love sport, and I wanted to do something I cared about, and sport was one of those areas. So while I was having the most unforgettable time on Blue Peter, I was also pushing to do more sports films on the show as well as starting to do some bits and bobs for BBC Sport, like reporting on events such as the London Marathon. What it meant was that when, sadly, the time came to say goodbye to Blue Peter, I was clear as to what I wanted to do next. I never wanted to suddenly get to the end of my time on the show and think, what now? In the end BBC Sport weren’t prepared to take a gamble on a former kids’ presenter; thankfully Sky were a bit more open-minded.
How did you get into presenting?
Well, basically, I caught the bug when I was at university. I thought about it before a few years before, but it had never been much more than just a thought. A few years before I went to uni I volunteered for a charity project called Radio Cracker. It was a project run by the Oasis Trust, and it was essentially a load of local radio stations being set up for one month, in the run-up to Christmas, to raise money for the projects Oasis was involved in. I ended up doing a weekly show at our local church in the early 1990s with a guy called Tim Vine who some of you will know has gone on to become a very successful comedian. This was the moment I got my first taste of presenting.
Then, I went to [the] University in Birmingham and got involved in something called Guild TV which was essentially a TV station with all the proper equipment, a multicamera studio and gallery. I used to do a show on a Friday lunchtime called The Lunchbox. Although pretty much no one watched it, it was a great thing to do as it taught me the raw elements of what it takes to be a television presenter, working with an ear piece, learning to listen to a director and a producer and all [the] while talking to a camera. At that stage, I thought there wasn’t a huge amount of merit in this, but it was a great thing to do, and I caught the bug and thought ‘this is what I want to do’. I gave myself three years to get into TV, and Blue Peter was the gig I wanted. To cut a long story short, it took me three and a half years to get it. I came out of university and ended up writing about 200 letters to various TV and radio stations and production companies just to see if someone would give me some work experience. I moved down to London and ended up selling suits in Selfridges on Oxford Street to pay the bills while getting runners’ jobs at CBBC and LBC Radio on my days and evenings off. During this time, I applied for Blue Peter twice and didn’t get anywhere, but I finally got my dream job on my third attempt. It was certainly worth the wait.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in television?
Start now. The opportunities now are vast to get yourself doing stuff. For instance, a young guy called Jack I know through the club I support, Norwich City, has started up his own Norwich City YouTube channel, and he’s someone who is grasping the new opportunities that particularly the internet offer. So I always tell people, just start now. Write blogs, write match reports if sport is your thing, start a channel. Your YouTube channel might not get many viewers, your blogs might not get masses of readers, but you’re doing something; you’re getting experience; you’re honing your skills, and that’s the key thing. Don’t wait until you finish school or get out of university, start now and then one day, if you see that all-important job you want, you’ll have all you’re going to need in terms of experience to be in the best position to go for it.
What’s it like broadcasting and presenting live on Sky Sports?
There’s nothing like live TV and covering live football, because you never really know what’s going to happen. You can put a running order together, write a script for the build-up, but once the match starts, you don’t know the outcome, and that’s part of the fun of it. I love live TV, and it’s funny sometimes, because after the live show we often have to record a highlights package, so you’re off-air, but for some reason when you stop doing live TV, it suddenly becomes more difficult. I think that’s because when it’s live, there’s a switch in your head that says “you’ve only got one chance” – if you mess up, everyone is going to see it. There’s no second chance. Wherever you do live TV, it’s so immediate, and I love the adrenaline rush of it.
What was it like being at the play-off final last season as a Norwich City fan, but also presenting the programme at the same time?
A big, big challenge. I did the League One play-off final the day before, which Preston won. As I headed back to my hotel on the Sunday night, I could see one or two Norwich fans arriving at the Wembley hotels, and on some of the stalls around the stadium, Norwich and Middlesbrough flags were starting to go up and I remember thinking “flipping heck, I’ve got to present this thing tomorrow”. I just felt under huge scrutiny because I had to sum it up well for the Norwich fans, but also, I had to equally sum it up for the Middlesbrough fans too. I remember it really hitting me about ten minutes before going live on-air. We were initially told our pitchside ‘studio’ would be in front of the Middlesbrough end, but one of our regular pundits, Peter Beagrie, used to play for Middlesbrough, and some of the Boro fans haven’t really ever forgiven him for leaving the club, and so he wasn’t too keen to be positioned there and neither was I, so thankfully we were allowed to present the game from the green and yellow end of Wembley.
I remember shortly before going on-air, looking up from our studio position and seeing the banks of yellow and green, and there a few rows up from where we stood was my sister, my brother-in-law and their three kids. I was standing there and for a moment just felt very emotional, but then I had to take the emotions out of it because all of a sudden we were about a minute away from going on-air. Fortunately, the professional switch that presenters have, worked, and I was able to do the job I’m paid to do. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to be invited to the celebrations after the game at the hotel, so it was a surreal day but utterly amazing.
Favourite Norwich City player of all-time and why?
I think Darren Huckerby has got to be up there, but I’m going to go for Iwan Roberts. Not because I know him now, but when he first arrived at the club, he found it really difficult to settle, and he was really under the pump, as it were, but after that initial period, he answered his critics emphatically and became a Carrow Road legend. He epitomised a proper Norwich player, and who can ever forget that toothless grin as he wheeled away in goal-scoring celebration?
Best interview you’ve even been involved in?
It would probably be an interview with Floyd Mayweather Jr a few years ago on Sky Sports News. It was after his Ricky Hatton fight, and he was set to come to the Sky Sports studios for an interview. So we had a live camera ready in the car park awaiting his arrival, so we could get a shot of him coming in. He arrived in this endless fleet of Mercedes cars, and he was in the back of one of them, fast asleep. He kept Georgie Thompson and myself back in the studio waiting for ages, and so by the time he arrived on set we were dreading it as he just didn’t look up for any conversation, let alone an interview. But to our surprise, it turned into a really fascinating, interesting and engaging interview. He was self-deprecating, which I didn’t expect, there were certain things I did expect, but he was just fascinating. For me he has been one of the best pound for pound boxers out there for many years, and somewhere deep among his brash nature, there was a really interesting character.
Moving towards the faith side of things, can you tell us how you became a Christian?
Well, I grew up in a Christian household, and my dad’s a vicar. So Christianity was always part of my life growing up. God was just a natural part of family life, and in my younger years, I never had any real reason to doubt it. But I had an amazing moment when I was seven years old, where I was nearly killed by a lightning strike in Norfolk. It was a defining moment for me for a number of reasons. We had gone out for a family walk near where we lived in west Norfolk. Like most young boys, as soon as I found the first climbable tree I was up it. To cut a long story short, it started to rain while I was up the tree, and while myself and the rest of the family were … getting shelter from the tree, my mum wanted us to move. Three times she asked, and so eventually we did what she asked. About 30 seconds after moving, there was a sound like a tornado jet coming through the forest, followed by a huge bang and a loud thud. The tree I had been sat in seconds before had been blown in two by a lightning strike.
We were not surprisingly very shaken up by this, and so later that evening some close friends of ours came round to see how we were doing, and they asked my mum why she felt so strongly we had had to move away from that tree. Her reply was this: “I heard a voice that said ‘move and move now’ and I believe it was God.” That to me was the moment that God and my faith became very real. Some people no doubt will read this story and think it was nothing more than an amazing slice of luck, but for me it was nothing of the sort. There have been many times down the years when life has been tough, and I’ve found it hard, but I’ve never walked away from my faith and have often come back to that moment all those years ago when God became very real. You can run as far away as you like, you can mess up many times (which I have), but God will never leave you.
Is it difficult to be a Christian in your industry?
I found it easier on Blue Peter because it was a very different kind of television show to what I do now. It was a show that allowed me to do some stuff that related to my faith. It’s been harder in some ways in the football world, because sometimes it’s difficult to relate my faith to football. I’ll be honest enough to admit that sometimes when we’re sat there in the studio debating a big penalty decision in a game, I come away from work afterwards and think, does it matter? Of course, it matters to the teams, to those watching at home and to me as a football presenter, but in the grand scheme of things does it matter, where does what I do fit in to what my life is all about? I tend to think we are all where we are for a reason, but for the time I am working as a sports broadcaster; it’s about being a light in that place, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I see my faith being of use in the way I view the game; in a world driven by money and fame, I try and be a godly person in that environment. I often don’t get it right at all, but I try.
Recently I went away to a Christian event called Focus, and it was a great time, and I left feeling much better about my faith after a difficult couple of years, and it got me thinking, a lot of people probably don’t even know I’m a Christian. So I decided to put it on my Twitter profile. It doesn’t sound like anything particularly major, but it had occurred to me that in my profile, where I say who I am, I hadn’t mentioned the most important part of my life. Was it because I was ashamed? No, I’m not. Was it because I was worried what people might think? Actually, yeah, it probably has been in the past. But I thought, I don’t care anymore, that’s who I am, so I’m going to do it. I’m a husband. I’m a dad. I’m a Sky Sports presenter. I’m a Norwich City fan, but I’m also a Christian.
We saw on Twitter you were at Focus this year. What did you make of the Christian festival?
It was amazing. We went with some friends, and I was a bit unsure about going, if I’m honest, but another part of me knew I needed to go. All the teaching was what I needed to hear. I sat there thinking “this person and, more importantly, God knows what my needs are right now”. There’s a woman, Jo Saxton, who was amazing, and she spoke so well, and it was just what I needed. I would describe the week as “a small taste of heaven”.
And finally, do you have a favourite Bible verse?
I do. I like Isaiah 40. I sometimes think in life we lose sight of the size and awesomeness of God. The amazing thing about our faith and Jesus becoming [a] man is it means we can have that intimate relationship with him, and it is an amazing truth. There’s that verse, Isaiah 40:18, and it just reminds me of the awesomeness of God, and I find it reassuring. We visited this animal park the other day, and we were inches away from all these different animals of all sizes, shapes and colours, and I looked at my wife and said, “How can people think this was made up of some cosmic explosion?” Seeing what we did that day was another reminder of God the creator and this passage in Isaiah is a great reminder of the majesty of God.