The podcast that shows why footballers are much more than actors in a soap opera
Graham Hunter’s Big Interview show is a must-listen for those who share his love of the game
Football has become such a soap opera – big baddy Mou back to resume his feud with Pep the latest exciting plotline – that it’s easy to forget sometimes why we actually love the game: the ball and the thrills those with mastery of it can deliver.
It’s something football journalist Graham Hunter is trying to rectify with his Big Interview podcast. Though plenty of other football podcasts were around before, his takes a cue from the likes of WTF with Marc Maron and Nerdist, which have become hugely successful by conducting long-form interviews with comedians, musicians, actors, etc.
Hunter and his colleagues wondered why no-one was doing the same with footballers. If your preconception is that the average player is a monosyllabic halfwit concerned only with the latest Louis Vuitton toilet bag design, you'd be surprised with the fascinating insights the show has revealed from greats such as Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Graeme Souness, Harry Redknapp and many more.
About a year, and three million downloads later, it’s fair to say the idea was sound.
Hunter has had a long career as a football reporter in Scotland, England and Spain (his two books Barca and Spain are must-reads, though I must confess that I helped edit the first one). He has a bulging contacts book and a love for the game that’s palpable in every question he asks.
Though he “fanatically disagrees” with me when I suggest the likes of his employer Sky TV have turned the sport into a drama, he admits: “I think almost all media bear a degree of culpability in the current mood to seek headlines, polemic and to report football like politics: ‘He said this, what do you say about that?’
“We were sure that football had more, and different, stories to tell and we were optimistic that we would find the people who could speak for the football we loved.
“What is essential is that I never have, and never will, fall out of total head-over-heels, star-crazed love for football – and its people.”
This week, with perfect timing, Hunter sits down for a two-parter with Paul Clement, who was Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant at Real Madrid when they beat Atletico in the Champions League final in 2014 – a match repeated this Saturday in Milan of course.
The second episode, released on Saturday morning, is a minute-by-minute account of the day of the 2014 final. It’s an hour-long insight into something none of us are likely to experience.
From Clement’s nerve-wracking tactical presentation to the team (delivered by the Englishman in Spanish), to Cristiano Ronaldo’s words to him in the tunnel before kick-off, to the celebrations afterward, it’s the next best thing to an all-access pass.
Hunter, who admits “I didn’t know what a podcast was” (an internet radio show, if you don't either), is terrific at eliciting such fascinating details from his guests.
Former Lazio and Valencia midfielder Gaizka Mendieta’s in-depth exploration of what made him such a great penalty taker; ex-Chelsea star Damien Duff’s admission that he sometimes hires out pitches to play on alone now that he’s retired; Scotland manager Gordon Strachan revealing that he made his wife time him kicking a ball against his garage wall to work out how many touches young players could get in a half-hour practice session.
They’re titbits that might sound mind-numbing to those who don’t share Hunter and his guests’ passion for the game, but are manna to those who do.
“It would be impossible for me to build a hierarchy of favourite [guests] – I’ve come out of each interview feeling privileged by how we are treated and by how much has been shared,” he says.
“These guys relax, tell us fun things and, I think, come out of the chat having enjoyed it.”
The show raised more than £40,000 (HK$457,000) through Kickstarter to fund the rest of this year’s episodes and sponsors are coming on board. The feedback has been phenomenal and current players and managers are also starting to take notice.
“We don’t record these for the football industry itself but we do like the fact that people are talking to each other within the game and recommending it,” says Hunter.
“In due course, we hope, that’ll make it easier to get the frontline [still playing or managing] guests who are on our list.
“We have all said, at one stage or another, that this is our most enjoyable work ever. I’ve never experienced such massive, positive feedback. Some of which, I must tell you, has been uplifting beyond belief.
"In some instances, we’ve produced something that has helped people in the most awful and stressful moments of their life. There’s no price you can put on that.”