Taking Football Weekly on the road is like a relaxed evening with old friends | Soccer
Jhis is Spinal Tap. Well, it’s eerily reminiscent of the iconic faux-rockumentary. The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast five-man lineup do another passable imitation of David St Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and his pals as we attempt to negotiate a maze-like web of dark passageways, strewn with props and cables, including the one leads from our dressing room to the stage. Having finally found our way, again with the help of a patient theater technician, Max Rushden wanders the stage while we wait backstage.
There’s no big announcement or fanfare for our host, just sneaking in. The hubbub of the restless, mostly male crowd is gradually replaced by cheers and applause. How he does this remains a mystery, but within minutes the mild-mannered presenter described by a Manchester United fan in the Belgian town of Genk as “everything wrong with modern football” whipped the crowd into a genuinely foaming frenzy. To raucous applause, he introduces producer Joel, who explains the rules – no recordings to protect the sanity of Guardian lawyers, every man for himself in case of fire and a polite request not to spoil the big surprise for future audiences – and introduces everyone. It’s showtime – let the 90-minute or so of high-octane, crowd-pleasing football talk begin.
With no musical instruments (OK, a musical instrument), little to no set-list and not even a smoke machine to lend a much-needed aura of mystique to the five middle-aged men who take to the stage, it seems disconcerting and flattering that in these difficult times several hundred people have paid real money – their own money – to come and listen to us do little more than chat about football, among other topics that arise. After all, it’s a service we provide for free three times a week on the Guardian Podcast, so the feeling of real guilt over the fear that our audience won’t get anything resembling value for money means we have at least a few media sets prepared. surprise pieces and an interval extravaganza up our sleeves.
We also tell the public which local inn we’ll be after if anyone fancy a drink; a revelation which recently led to two prominent but extremely friendly and patient staff at the Wellington pub in Birmingham being inundated with orders from an already inebriated crowd of thirsty people on what should have been a Wednesday otherwise quiet and uneventful evening.
Occasionally there are requests for autographs and selfies, which we are always happy to provide. Last Sunday in Manchester, a glassy-eyed young man who had just paid £20 for an official Football Weekly Live t-shirt designed by designer David Squires invited several of us to carve memorial holes in it with cigarettes, a request which was eventually granted, albeit reluctantly, when we established that he was not completely deranged.
They can be a strange and intense bunch, the Football Weekly audience. But they are our weird and intense audience and we wouldn’t have them any other way. After two and a half years confined to barracks, recorded remotely on Zoom due to the pandemic, it was a real pleasure to reunite the band for all eight Football Weekly broadcasts this summer in front of live audiences on the road.
Of course, The Guardian’s football podcast is far from alone in drawing crowds to sites to cater to what seems like an odd but welcome appetite for sports-related discussion. Designed during the pandemic, the socially distanced sports bar was a huge hit for Elis James, Steff Garrero and Mike Bubbins, who knew each other before Covid but met for the first time in the same venue at London’s Hackney Empire for a rowdy sold-out show that sometimes felt like a game outside Wales and during which bars in the old historic venue were drunk dry.
The trio quickly established themselves as Welsh national treasures, completed a national tour, had a presumably more sanitized TV series commissioned by BT Sport and promoted a show at the 5,000-seat Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff in next February. They’re a bold attempt at conversation in a cavernous upper level amphitheater, but their popularity is such that it wouldn’t be much of a shock to see the “House Full” sign light up for what could be a show. truly epic. Somewhere else, The Anfield envelope, Set menu, soccer hike, second captains, Totally football show and others also do a brisk living trade.
It shouldn’t work, but it does, mainly because the podcast audience is an audience unlike any other. Football Weekly’s mailbag cannot have been unique during the lockdown in receiving letter after letter from listeners, many of whom found themselves in dark places, who wanted to express their gratitude for helping them stay sane.
It was really our pleasure. The same people seemed oblivious to the fact that taping deals three times a week helped keep this podcaster and others at Football Weekly from spiraling into madness. They came to the rescue again last Christmas when I suffered a sudden family loss. The humiliating number of sympathetic messages from strangers who only know me to talk about football and off-road matters through their headphones provided more comfort in a dark time than they will ever know.
While modesty and an obvious preference for reporting amusing abuse keep us from reading too much praise sent in by listeners, a common theme from those who write to correctly point out how great we are is that listening to Football Weekly is like enjoying a relaxed evening at the pub with old friends. With three of our summer shows live and five to come, our tour is exactly that – a series of liver-punishing booze with dear old friends we finally have time to hang out with.