Being Richard Keys

IT’S not often I find myself thinking: “I feel sympathy for Richard Keys.” But I do right now, following his little incident at the Nou Camp during Arsenal’s Champions League exit.

Roy Keane’s favourite TV sports presenter was picked up on a foreign internet stream slating Theo ‘Don’t tell him, Pike’ Walcott (“you’ve been shite, son”) as Arsenal were thumped 4-1, when he thought his microphone was off.

Keys’ Captain Mainwaring-esque dismissal of Walcott as “a stupid little boy” in “daft pink boots” didn’t go out during Sky’s live broadcast of the game (a shame, really, as I might have been tempted to subscribe). But it was heard on the web by those who knew where to look.

Cards on the table: I’m not a fan of Keys. I think his little digs at the importance of the FA Cup since Sky lost the rights have been disgraceful – and make him, in my view, a salesman first and a football enthusiast second. (It’s hard to imagine the excellent Jeff Stelling employing such tactics.) At the same time, it would be unfortunate if he faced any consequences over this incident, because it’s the sort of thing that can happen to anyone in broadcasting.

And I should know, because it once happened to me. Not on the same scale (there was no report in the Sun), but it didn’t exactly reflect well on me.

Six years ago, I was commentating for local radio on a Macclesfield away game at Huddersfield. Macc were struggling at the wrong end of the Third Division at the time, and needed a win. They lost 4-0, and turned in perhaps their worst performance of the season. Few people watching the game would have given them much chance of escaping relegation to the Conference.

After the game, my co-commentator and I had an off-air chat to the presenter in the studio about Macc’s chances of survival. My co-commentator tried to find grounds for optimism, suggesting that he hadn’t given up on them just yet.

“Well I’ve given up,” I said, despairing at the performance I had just seen. “They’re fucked.”

What I didn’t realise was that the presenter in the studio was recording the conversation. I didn’t find out until a few days before the end of the season, when I went into the studio to present the station’s midweek football phone-in. Macclesfield, thanks to a change of manager and a great end-of-season run, had secured survival with a game to spare.

“We’ve been playing a trailer this afternoon to try to get a few more people to phone in,” said a producer at the station. “Perhaps you’d like to have a listen to it.”

And there, in almost all its glory, was my post-Huddersfield rant about Macc being ******, with only a bleep to protect the ears of the listeners. It had already gone out on the afternoon show. There wasn’t really very much I could do but smile and nod.

“We’ve been telling people that this is what you said back in March,” the producer added. Marvellous, I thought, as I waited for the Macclesfield chairman to arrive in the studio as my guest.

A microphone can get you into trouble, even when you think you’re off air.

I’ve been reading Ian St John’s autobiography, which is livened up by a spectacular story of how his broadcasting career was almost killed off at birth. Saint was commentating for ITV at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, where the coverage suffered from one or two technical problems – most notably during Scotland’s group game against Peru, when the commentary line failed.

After almost an hour of commentating to no-one, Hugh Johns lost his temper and stormed out of his booth, leaving St John and an engineer to watch the rest of the game. For a laugh, Saint decided to take over the commentary, berating Scotland for their hopeless performance.

“So and so’s on the ball now, the lazy bastard, and now he’s playing it to another useless bastard,” St John went on. What he didn’t realise was that the engineers were still trying to reconnect the commentary lines. Had they done so, Saint’s expletive-ridden commentary would have been broadcast to the whole of England. As it was, he got away with it, although he still received an almighty telling off from ITV’s head of sport John Bromley.

St John wrote that, ever since, he has treated a microphone like a live hand grenade. What he doesn’t mention is this: When he was a pundit during the 1986 World Cup, ITV kept a camera running on him in their London studio as Scotland failed to win a group game that might have taken them through to the knockout stages. They recorded his every explosion of temper at their ineptitude, then edited together the best bits and broadcast them on a subsequent edition of Saint and Greavsie.

Still, none of this will ever top Ron Atkinson’s infamous racist outburst of 2004. Now that really was inexcusable. That was a rant that deserved to cost someone their broadcasting position. Keys’ outburst, by comparison, was nothing.

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