BY CHRIS CLARK
Matt Smith has been presenting football on our screens since the turn of the century, but how did this opportunity come about and what does his see the role of a football presenter as being. Also does he secretly celebrate when his side scores a goal and who will he be working for next season. I spoke to Matt to find out….
How did you become a football presenter?
It’s a slightly long story. I did a languages degree with no fixed idea with what I do with Italian, French and European Politics as a skill set. Towards the end of my 4 year degree, I really wanted to go back to Italy, as I had spent a year there during my degree, I loved it, and spoke the language. In a vague of idea of combining the two interests, I wrote to the newspaper correspondents I could see by-lines for and wrote to them looking for work. They replied, and said we cannot offer you a paid job, but come out here and we’ll give you some work as a junior. So on a whim I went!
What happened once you were in Italy?
Well I started working with them, and they put me in touch with the Associated Press, and I got a traineeship with them for 6 months and did some work for The Observer, Financial Times. I got a start.
Then the Financial Times suggested I should come back to London and get properly trained, so I did that. Obviously thinking that I was going to be posted abroad quite quickly, but that was never going to happen as quickly as young people wanted. Then through contacts at the FT and beyond I started getting TV work, and worked on a current affairs show on Channel 4, so it was all news.
So how did you transfer from news to sport?
I joined the BBC as a news reporter, but never with the express interest of doing sport. I was doing a slot on John Inverdale’s program on 5 Live, and we always used to talk about sport off air. He said to me, why don’t you work in sport, you seem a bit bored by news! So he got in touch with the head of 5 Live, and I ended up being seconded to the Sports department for 6 months and I loved it, and that’s how it began really.
It just took off from there then?
Yes, I did a few bits on Chris Evans’ radio show, then a bit more on other shows. It slowly built as I was getting involved in the sports show on Radio 5. The BBC launched their news channel, so there was sports stuff on there and BBC 3 and BBC 4, and I got opportunities to present sports shows on those as well. So doors were opening for me. Then the Premier League rights switched in 2001 to ITV, they approached me and said you’re the young fresh kind of presenter we’re after.
So you jumped ship?
Yeah, I jumped ship. I wasn’t moving along quickly along at the BBC and it was a great opportunity for me.
So that was it, you’re presenting football. Did you play when you were younger?
Yeah, I played to a decent standard.
No one ever says I was totally useless!
Haha, hope I wasn’t useless. Whether I would have made a living in the game is doubtful, but I used to play with Ian Woan and one or two others. Up to the age of 14/15 I was playing at a decent level, but the bridge to professional level was too much for me.
So when you were that 14-year-old lad, who was your idol, who did you think I’d love to be him?
I’m a Merseyside boy, and I’m on the red side. Liverpool was my immediate family’s side. It was Kenny Dalglish really; John Barnes as well. I used to love Ray Kennedy as well going a few more years back.
So when you’re covering a Liverpool game on TV, how hard is it to stay impartial?
I don’t find it hard, I’d say. You divorce yourself from that, you don’t watch the game in the same way. When sitting there with so many experts, you watch it in a more cold-eyed way. You don’t get caught up in the emotion of it.
But when the cameras are off you must be watching it as a fan?
No, not really. Obviously we are all fans really – of good football – it’s what makes your juices flow. But when you’re working, you’re looking at it in an analytical way. What shall we talk about at half time, full time etc. So you’re viewing it slightly differently than the normal fan.
You’re seen as the thinking man’s football presenter of choice, was that something you’ve cultivated or even thought of!?
I’ll take that! Haha. No not really, in my profession you just need to be yourself. Once you go down the road of being some kind of act, you’re making a rod for your own back. I’m sure everybody finds as they go along, some things work or don’t work. Ultimately you just have to be who you are.
Television is like a jigsaw puzzle, it’s very much a team game. The presenter is just another element of the jigsaw. There is a perception by some, who sit in the chair that I do, that they’re at the top of the pyramid. I don’t see it like that, I see it that every element goes together to make a good program.
I suppose it’s all about the football at the end of the day.
Oh yes, in live football, the crucial factor is the game itself. Let’s not kid ourselves it doesn’t matter who is sitting in the chair in the 10 minutes before, in-between, or the 10 minutes afterwards, but you want to do a good job and it’s an element of the equation. People tune in to watch the football, then after that it’s what the pundits have to say. So my job is to get the best out of the person sat next to you, and ask the questions the people at home want answered. Through time you build up a rapport with the pundits and know their strengths, so you know what questions to ask to get the best out of them. You haven’t got an inexhaustible amount of time though, you’re there to be a conduit really.
Do you find though with ITV, it is difficult to get the right level of analysis in that small timeframe?
At ITV, in the last 14 years for me, it’s a struggle. During a World Cup, you get more time, but when covering Champions League, Europa League and League football you are very tight for time. It can be frustrating for the people at home, and likewise for us. Conversely, there are some games you don’t want much time though!
Like Sunday, Ireland v England!
Exactly! There wasn’t a lot to say, but you don’t want to be so ferociously critical that you’re turning people off!
Going back to the rapport you have with the pundits, who do you think are some of the best you’ve worked with?
I think I’ve been fortunate to work with loads of good people. My current regular sidekick of the last few seasons, Gordon Strachan, has been fantastic. He sees all sides of the game, he’s very knowledgeable and has a very dry wit. I was bit apprehensive before working with him. As a manager, he had a reputation for being spiky and quite dismissive. He would say himself though, if you’ve got a microphone thrust under your nose 5 minutes after a game, you’re not in the best state of mind for it. He’s mellowed though, he’s really enjoying the Scottish job, and he brings a lot to the party.
Lee Dixon, Gareth Southgate, I worked with Andy Townsend for the last 14 years. All the pundits individually and personally they’re all decent fellas.
I was going to say who is the worst?
I have not had that kind of awkward relationship with anyone, I’m not just saying that and covering up, it’s just never happened. I imagine others have, but it’s never occurred with me.
Footballers and managers always say I’ve had a bad day at the office, when they perform badly is that the same in your profession?
I think you like to think, that you are your own biggest critic. With experience you have a sense of what you’ve done right or done wrong. In a job like this, you’ve got to be open to constructive criticism from your bosses and peers. It’s one of those jobs that has grown with the proliferation of coverage and you can’t please people all the time. Football can be determined quantitatively in how many goals you scored, how many tackles you make. In covering a game for TV or radio it’s a harder thing to assess in how it’s gone. People will form an opinion, and if they think you’re doing a good job, you carry on. But scoring a pundit or presenter it’s a hard thing to do.
I suppose brevity of career must be a good guide. You spent 14 years at ITV, so you must have been doing something right. But now ITV are going in another direction with their coverage, so what does the future hold for you?
I will work for BT Sport next season on their European Football. I’m really looking forward to that, it’s an exciting challenge. It’s football and competitions I’ve been working on for years.
Well you look at Champions League, and that is now the pinnacle of football.
I would entirely agree with you, as biased as I’m perhaps am. It’s the highest standard of football in the world. World Cups are incredible events that capture the whole world, but the football on display in the Champions League is incredible.
I’m really chuffed to be involved with these competitions and BT have shown they are here to say.
That’s excellent news for you and viewer, what would you say has been the highlight of your presenting career so far?
Gosh, there’s been a lot. A beauty of having a job which is hobby, there are many highlights. Indeed getting up to go to work each day is a highlight in itself. The fact that you’re allowed to do what you want for a living and it doesn’t weigh you down like many people’s jobs, I’m very privileged really.
Also, I was in Istanbul for the Liverpool game (European Cup final 2005).
You couldn’t have maintained your impartiality there?!
Haha…I think you could tell I was pleased at some point! The amazing thing was that game was incredibly one-sided at one point. AC Milan could have been 6-0 up at half time. Then by some miraculous means Liverpool pull back 1,2 then the 3rd. You were in a dream like state, but you still have to do a job and analyse it. Then when you finish you do sit back and think ‘wow that was something special’.
That’s a good place to finish. Thanks for your time Matt.
No worries, sorry for rambling on!
*Matt Smith will be on BT Sport in the 2015/2016 season bringing you coverage of the Champions League and Europa League. You can follow him on Twitter @msmith850