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Interview: Darren Fletcher

6 June 11 interview: Al Needham
illustrations: Rikki Marr

Darren Fletcher is the Arnold lad who gets paid to go to the World Cup and the Super Bowl, gets his feet under assorted press boxes for Five Live, banters with the entire UK about footy and hosts the An Evening With... nights at the Approach. And he knows Robbie Savage...

Sports broadcasters these days seem to be either ex-pros or frustrated sportspersons. Are you the latter?
Not at all. I always enjoyed playing football as a kid, but I never had a burning desire to be a footballer. I always wanted to do something along the lines of what I do now, though.

You got your start at Radio Trent.
Yeah, I did. I was in a job putting up suspended ceilings, funnily enough. And we'd put 'em all up at the Lyceum theatre in Sheffield, and they all fell down before the opening night. So it shows what a good suspended ceiling fitter I was. But through a friend of a friend, I ended up getting the opportunity to work for a fella called Tony Delahunty at Radio Trent who – through the various picky jobs that nobody else wanted to do – gave me the benefit of his knowledge and started to mould me into a broadcaster. He was the kind of guy who would throw you in at the deep end and gave you the opportunity to do proper work straight away. And I just learned everything I could from him. The first thing I ever covered was rugby union - Nottingham v Harlequins at Beeston, when Nottingham were in the top flight and Will Carling was playing for Harlequins. I had no idea how many points you got for a try and how many points you got for a kick. I covered a lot of East Midlands football.
 
The idea of Trent having a sports department is going to sound strange to a lot of our readers.
That was when they were part of a group called Midlands Radio - Leicester Sound, BRMB down in Birmingham, Trent in Derby and Trent in Nottingham. I was part of a four-man sports team. I think it's one of the saddest aspects of radio these days that there’s no such thing as a local commercial radio. They're all run from bigger cities. There's no local aspect. Think back to the seventies and eighties when Radio Trent was in its heyday and served the community and did everything a true local radio station does – everyone misses it, and it was really good to be part of that. I think local commercial radio is all a bit of a shambles.
 
There's a whole avenue of career paths in radio that have been blocked off now.
Absolutely. I mean, you used to be able to go in and help out and learn a trade. There were others who came in and helped out - one of whom was Jamie Hart, Paul Hart's son, who's gone on to be a very successful football agent - who would then put themselves in top position to get a job at the station when one came up. Now it’s a far more difficult business to get into.
 
You now seem to have to spend three years at Uni just to have a sniff at the opportunities you had.
Which I think is unfair. The crazy thing about it is that it doesn't actually prepare them very well for when they walk into a newsroom. They seem to work in a totally sterile environment, and then when they actually go into a radio station and see how it works they've got to start again. When I started at eighteen I knew absolutely nothing, but by the time my three-year apprenticeship was up, I was a hell of a lot more advanced than the people with a broadcast degree.
 
What advice would you give to anyone who wants in?
Journalism and broadcasting is a bit of a dog-eat-dog world. Everybody wants to be first, everybody wants to be best, there's a limited number of top jobs. I say to people that if they want to get into the business, ring and write to as many stations as you possibly can and get some actual hands-on experience.
 
What kind of access to local clubs were you getting back then?
It was great. Don't forget, this was before the Premier League. In those days, there weren't such things as press officers at football clubs, you'd just ring the manager. You'd ring the switchboard on a Monday morning, you'd ask to speak to Brian Clough or Arthur Cox for Derby or whoever, and you would meet them face to face. And when you went to the grounds you would stand in the car park and ask the players, whom you'd got a relationship with, if they'd do an interview with you. Whereas these days, it’s all done through press offices, who are totally guarded. It was a lot easier and a lot more fun to be a reporter in those days.
 
The general assumption amongst the general public is that is that the local media and local football clubs collude to hide all manner of dirt that's going on at the ground. Is that really the case?
Actually, when I was at Century FM with Garry Birtles, we tried to be as transparent with the supporters as we possibly could - particularly with our coverage of Forest. And I know that some of the things that we broadcast didn't go down particularly well with the club. They didn't like the fact that we would sometimes go against the grain, but I reckon you've got a responsibility as a broadcaster, to say what you think is right, and if you know something that is different to what is being reported, I think you've got to say it. It won’t make you very popular, but if you stand by those principles you don't really go far wrong. We always offered an opportunity to anybody from the club to come and refute any allegations we made or whatever we reported, and you'd be amazed how little we had to backtrack on what we had said.
 
Forest in the nineties must have been a nightmare to cover.
I think we had a situation at Forest, certainly during the Joe Kinnear era, where you didn't know from day to day what was going to be said next. I remember one particular story in the Evening Post with quotes from the manager saying he's trying to sign all these top class players like Dennis Bergkamp. Now I knew for a fact that this wasn’t going to happen – and there was more chance of me becoming Tony Blackburn - so we broadcast this. Now this didn't go down too well with the club, but it's your responsibility as a broadcaster to serve your listenership. One thing I've never been is a mouthpiece for a football club.
 
What was it like to cover Brian Clough’s final season?
It was very sad. You were sitting there watching this football icon - the man that I consider to be the greatest manager the game has ever known - fall apart at the seams before your very eyes. And because of the success he'd had, nobody could stop him, because he'd earned the right to do whatever he wanted. The one thing that saddened me was how Forest handled the whole retirement thing – how they just took it upon themselves to do the whole thing. You had a chairman in there who wasn’t a proper chairman, because the club was run like a corner shop at the time, who decided to end Brian Clough’s reign. I’m not saying that wasn’t the right thing to do, because obviously the man had to go at that point, but I don’t think Forest did it right. They could have handled it a hell of a lot better.
 
Are you a Forest man?
No. I used to watch Forest a lot, because they were local, but I don’t particularly have an affiliation to any club.
 
It must make your job harder if you have an attachment to a particular club, particularly when you're a national broadcaster.
I think it is when you're inexperienced. But you've got to remember I've been in the business ten years now. I think the first thing you learn is that you’ve got to be impartial and objective.
 
606 looks like an incredibly hard job. It seems that you have to be knowledgeable about the comings and goings of at least fifty clubs at the same time.
I think 606 is one of the best shows on the radio to work on because you can actually interact with the public. You can actually sit there in the studio and do your job and be two pints of lager away from being in a bar, talking about football with the lads. The other great thing is that it helps me cover a club when I’m commentating, because I’ve already spoken to the supporters and have an idea of what’s going on at the club – whether the manager is under pressure or not. 
 
Are there times when you’re listening to a caller bang on about football and you think: my God, it’s only a game, mate?
Oh yes. Absolutely yes. Sport now is life and death, isn't it? A lot more than it ever was. And I do think people take it far too seriously.
 
Do you not think it’s always been that way, though, and the media have just cottoned on to that?
I don't necessarily agree with that. I think the reason it is how it is now is that sport is now big business. Television contacts, sponsorships…there's so much more at stake. In the past, if you were relegated from the old Division One, you’d think ‘ah, we’ll be alright, wait until next year and we’ll be back’. Now, you get stranded with so much debt by being relegated that it can ruin you. There is so much money involved that top-flight football becomes a necessity as opposed to a want. Teams have to get in the Premier League and have to stay there, so I don't think you can enjoy it as much as a supporter nowadays. I mean, look at the Forest – Derby rivalry. Now I’ve seen those games as a punter, and as a reporter. And I can’t believe the nastiness that’s crept into that fixture over a short matter of time. If you’re round the City Ground or Pride Park when those two teams are playing, it’s horrible. And it never used to be that way.
 
Do you think it’s a one-way thing? Forest fans blowing it out of proportion?
No, I think it cuts both ways. It’s an awful fixture to be part of. It’s a real shame. But it’s not just the East Midlands – the Liverpool derby going that way. In the past, you’d see people in red shirts sitting next to people in blue, and there’s an edge to that now. Same with Villa – Birmingham. And these are people who are working in the same factory. It used to be banter in the factory and banter on the terraces, now it’s full-on hatred. In the past, if you were a Forest supporter and wanted to take your kids to one match, you'd take them to the Derby fixture. You wouldn't want them within a million miles of that game now. Isn’t that a shame?
 
You also host the nights at the Approach where ex-pros reminisce about their careers. You really seem to enjoy them…
I think they're fantastic nights. I thoroughly enjoy doing them. And the best thing about them is that they make an awful lot of money for Help the Heroes - which is the reason why we do it - and we have such a fantastic group of people who regularly support the nights. The one thing I can’t stand with that sort of night at other places is when people are expected to pay £50 for a plastic bit of chicken and cold roast potatoes and they listen to an ex-sportsman droning on. I cannot abide those nights. When we sat down and discussed the idea, we decided to so something a bit different – and judging by the numbers we’re getting I think we’re doing alright. And long may they continue.
 
Who’s been your favourite guest?
They tend to be different from each other. For example, the night with Peter Trembling and Sven Goran Eriksson was, particularly for Notts County fans, a very informative one, and the people there were enthralled by what they had to say. The flipside is when you have someone like Mark Crossley, who’s a fantastic storyteller and everyone splits their sides for an hour and a half. My personal favourites were the two nights we did with Stuart Pearce. I’d known him for many years at Forest as one of these guys who'd keep people at arms length until he really knows them. And on those nights he really let the people of Nottingham in. He's a fantastic storyteller, and surprisingly funny.
 
Do you think that the current generation of players – who are earning far more – won’t want to do this sort of thing in ten years time, or will they still want to talk about the good old days?
Yeah, I think so. If it's the right environment they quite enjoy it. We try and make it comfortable for everybody. We've got a good audience, that's the key thing – there’s no idiots in the room. We've got a good audience. We try to put on good guests. We're doing it for a good cause. And we do. I think what players don't realise is that when they finish, they do actually miss that attention. And just on occasion, to stick ‘em in a room where everybody worships the ground they walk on, they tell a few stories and make people laugh, they actually get a kick out of it. They enjoy it a lot more than they think they will when they get there. And yeah, I think there will be players in twenty years time with fifty million in the bank that’ll still be doing it, because they’ll miss the adulation.
 
We heard the Billy Davis night was a bit fractious. How do you handle moments like that, when you can’t exactly cut a caller off?
It’s not that difficult, really, because I’ve done the job for so long. It’s not a nice thing to do, but you just handle it. That night came at a time when Forest had lost in the playoffs, and Billy was the only one from the club willing to stick his head over the parapet, to his credit. I think there were people in the room who were misguided in terms of they expected him to be able to tell them, and what he was actually able to tell them. Because he was the only club representative, all the frustrations in the room were aimed at Billy, when in actual fact I don’t really think they were actually frustrated with him at all. He really bore the brunt that night, and the sad thing is I don’t think he’ll ever want to do another night like that, which is a shame because he’s very entertaining.
 
Robbie Savage. What’s he really like?
I think he's a great bloke. He's become a good friend of mine. A complete pantomime villain of a footballer.
 
Especially to people from Nottingham.
Off the pitch, an entirely different character. A family man… a good guy. It's like anything else, you've got to look beyond the cover. People see the long blonde hair, and they see the challenges, and they see the bling, and they think, he must be an arsehole. But he couldn't be further from it. If he plays for your team, you love him. If he doesn't, you can't stand him. When he was a Leicester player, Derby County supporters despised him. Now he gets the biggest cheers. When he's yours, fantastic. When he's against you, you can't stand him. As a broadcaster he's working hard to get better. It’s a pleasure to work with him.

He's very TalkSport in his delivery, isn’t he?
Well, I don't really know what that means.

He’s very…shouty.
Well, I don't really pay an awful lot of notice of that particular station. I had the opportunity to join them in the summer - I chose not to because I felt I was in the right place. If you mean that he's passionate about what he does, I would agree. Programmes like 606 need emotion; I can't think of anything worse than a phone-in where everybody agrees with everybody else. it wouldn't last two minutes. I think you need that edge. You need presenters who can challenge the callers, and callers who can challenge the presenters. I don't think he shouts as much as Stan Collymore, anyway.

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