Football needs to open up

Round & About

Robbie James

Robbie James, has hung up microphone and presented his last Pompey Live radio show, but finds football leaves him with a sour taste

Football’s left me with an overarching sadness that a game with such a platform, can be closing itself off to so many potential fans.

Sure, rugby union still grapples with red trousers and tan brogues, cricket has begun its long journey away from elitism, and golf might still shout at you for not wearing a shirt and tie in the clubhouse; but football has more to sort than just awful haircuts.

I recently presented my final Pompey Live. Hosting a radio show across multiple platforms covering Portsmouth Football Club has been how I’ve spent most Saturdays for the last three winters. I’m proud of the many things we’ve achieved in that time, especially the increase in coverage of the women’s game and the number of female voices we’ve had on air.

It felt like the right time to leave. There’s other stuff I want to do (like eat cheese) and Portsmouth’s men and women won themselves promotion to the second tier of English football, so it felt like a natural moment to give it to someone else.

Having had some time to reflect, I feel sad and surprised at the sport as a whole.

My experience hosting that show was largely so much fun. Live sport is one of the world’s great thrills, and I will never get bored of broadcasting any kind of live sporting event. It also presented itself with some…be diplomatic Robbie, be diplomatic…interesting happenings.

When it was announced that I was going to become the new face of Pompey Live, the buzz quickly turned to eye rolls and many ‘’oh for fff’’ mutterings when photos of FOURTEEN year old me at a Southampton match emerged. A human with zero hobbies had found their way into my private Facebook account.

For context, Portsmouth and Southampton are notorious rivals, and have been for many a year. Thus ‘’he’s a Southampton fan!!!’’ (or a ‘’scummer’’, as is the noun chosen by Portsmouth fans…something I’ve been referred to more times than my actual name) became the overriding narrative, and quickly spiralled out of control.

This was an unfortunate start for everyone involved, but also the first glimpse I got into the devastating lack of empathy some football fans choose to possess. It was the catalyst which lit a fire that burned for my entire tenure, including false narratives, and some of the worst verbal abuse I could’ve ever imagined, including death threats to me and even more tragically, my colleagues.

I was a 14-year-old boy at a Southampton match. I loved sport. I also attended Portsmouth matches at that age. If someone offered me a ticket to a local game of tiddlywinks on a Wednesday evening I’d take it (providing there were walk on songs). Naturally, you cheer for the team that everyone else around you is supporting. Aside from some short spells of pretending to be invested in a team for the purposes of playground conversation, I’ve never really been devoted to any football team other than AFC Richmond (if you know, you know. If you don’t, watch Ted Lasso).

Football hides behind a giant wall with we’re the most popular sport in the world plastered across it. And it is. But it’s also the snobbiest sport. You must like this team if you live here but you can’t like that team if you live there. You mustn’t be happy for these people and if you are, you’re a traitor. You must take this rivalry seriously. Oh, and you must shout at the referee for doing their job. Is it any wonder that non-football fans respond with ‘’I can’t stand football’’ when asked for their take on the match last night!? It’s Marmite-esque, and I can see why. It doesn’t welcome you in and say ‘’here’s a fun thing you might like, consume it in any way you wish and don’t feel like it needs to be taken too seriously, we’re just here for a nice time’’. Complete nonsense.

The response to challenging any of the above seems to always be met with the same dispiriting line…that’s just football fans for you. Isn’t lambasting opposition players and fans maybe something we should look to cut out? Ah that’s just football fans for you. Why do we normalise derogatory chants towards the referee? Well that’s just football fans for you. Why, when you look around a stadium, do you struggle to set eyes on anyone but a white male? That’s just football fans for you. It’s not a welcoming environment for anyone who isn’t already in it.

I’ll also caveat the above by saying there are great people in football, and I had some lovely interactions. Not everyone who attends The Beautiful Game is there to abuse, or buy into football culture. I’m also aware my experience is nuanced, and Portsmouth still possesses an island mentality (yes, even in 2024 with the M27).

I’d need to make a lot of phone calls, read around 43 journals, and write a three hundred page book if I were to dissect tribalism and distinguish the way in which it’s weaved its way into football’s tapestry; but I can’t be bothered to do that and I have cheese to eat. In a very simple sense, it feels like this sport hasn’t even come close to catching up with the modern world, which I’m desperate for it to do.

Gardeners’ World is free therapy

Round & About

Robbie James

If you can’t afford a therapist…actually, even if you can, watch Gardeners’ World. It’ll do you the world of good says Robbie James

Last month I deployed myself on a giant rant about competitive busyness, and I promised to follow it up with something more joyful this month. I’m a man of my word (sometimes), so for April, I’m revelling in the tranquillity that is Gardeners’ World.

I had a sad day recently. I was anxious, worrying about everything, and generally feeling overwhelmed by the world. Thankfully that same day marked the beginning of the 55th series of the gardening programme. For the first time since (insert a long time ago), I found myself waiting for a TV show that wasn’t a sport to begin. I wasn’t watching something on-demand. Let that sink in… waiting for a programme to air on actual television. Remarkable.

Eight o’clock eventually rolled around, and when I tell you it was worth the wait… the theme tune was enough for me to feel ten times lighter. (I’m a complete nerd when it comes to theme tunes, and in case you are too; the theme is an arrangement of ‘Morning Light’, composed by Will Gregory and recorded by the BBC Concert Orchestra, obviously).

When I looked at the credits there were a team of five on Sound. I’d like to use this column to formally and openly advocate a pay rise for all of them. The hour is soundtracked by birds, secateurs slicing through shrubs and spades sinking into the depths of a vegetable bed. You notice the sounds, but there’s no sense of clumsiness or overegging.

There is of course one crucial sound I’m missing off the above list. The calm, reassuring tones of Monty Don. The only way I can describe that man (and Monty, if you’re reading this, please know I mean this in the best possible way), is a walking, talking log fire. The best broadcasters are the ones that you feel a personal connection with despite never having met them. If I had a problem or wanted to sink a few Earl Greys, Monty Don would be on my top five phone numbers I’d go searching for.

Another aid to the programme’s peace is in canine form, and it’s quite frankly a miracle I’ve got this far into the column without mentioning them. Previously Nigel and Nellie, and now Ned. A Golden Retriever of the golden (not white) variety. A very good boy following in the footsteps of Don, lying in the sun, avoiding descending forks while in pursuit of a tennis ball, was only ever going to bring a slice of joy to proceedings. A non-essential but also deeply essential ingredient.

The bridging of the gap between relatable and fantasy is fascinatingly done. Longmeadow garden in Hertfordshire doesn’t dazzle you like many things on TV are designed to do. You look at it and can see yourself having a garden just like it. That is, until you realise it’ huge, split into four separate gardens, has taken years to create. (Don bought the house in 1991), and probably only attainable for those with a very successful television career.

What I enjoy about Monty Don and more generally Gardeners’ World, is that you can consume it for whatever purpose you wish. If you’re a keen gardener, his deep rooted (I couldn’t help myself) knowledge is beautifully paired with personal preference. If, like me, you’ve had a bad day and want a metaphorical hug, they can do that too. Or if you’re OFCOM looking for a show to carry the BBC’s mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain’, Gardeners’ World is in sweet spot territory.

There’s a reason that so many of us benefit mentally from running, walking, or cycling. We’re in our natural habitat. We were created to eat, and reproduce, and that was kind of it (words of a philosopher). Scrolling your ‘For You Page’ on TikTok, driving your Skoda Fabia, and researching savings accounts, are not really what Mr or Mrs Inventor of Humans had in mind. (Admittedly, I doubt televisions came up in the initial boardroom meetings either).

In essence, Gardeners’ World allows us to feel like we’re outside when we’re in. It allows us to feel in touch with nature all from the comfort of our nylon sofa. One hour of Gardeners’ World is one deep breath for your brain, and I think you should try it.

 The most English Scotsman?

Round & About

Robbie James

Robbie James shares his love of his ‘homeland’ in his new TV show and invites you to join the journey up north

I’ve lived all but two years of my life in the south of England. I grew up near Winchester. Winchester! It doesn’t get much more English than middle class, oat milk flat white, Schoffel wearing Winchester. I’ve since moved to Farnham. Farnham! Middle class, oat milk flat white, Schoffel wearing Farnham.

Ok so maybe I’ve had a fairly English life so far, but at heart, I feel very, very Scottish. I know, you’re rolling your eyes as you await me to tell you about my great aunt’s, cousin’s, labrador’s, dressing table’s Scottish heritage, but let me explain.

My grandparents on my mum’s side came down to Aldershot from Glasgow when my grandad (Papi as we call him) was in the parachute regiment. Ever since, my family has been settled down south, but they’ve never lost their love and impassionment for Scotland, and that’s rubbed off on me. 

Watching Scotland play in the Six Nations from their south coast home has formed the nucleus of all major family events. Hearing stories of Jack & Betty’s less than glamorous upbringings in the Glaswegian tenements has humbled us through the years, and near enough everything I have in my life is thanks to their relentless hard graft. But anyway, we’ve always been brought up to be aware of our Scottish roots, and to feel them.

So when Travelxp asked me if I’d like to host a TV show taking you around Scotland for 10 days, I immediately said yes. We filmed it at the back end of the summer and it was the most fun. It felt like a form of homecoming, which even I struggle to comprehend given I’ve only ever lived in Scotland to study at Heriot Watt University for two years, but I feel at my most content in Scotland. 

Every country has a mixed bag of people; but the self-deprecating, warm, charming and often downright mischievous sense of humour from Scottish people is something I can really get on board with. The landscape is also just beautiful to the point where I feel drained from the emotion it somehow brings out in me. So romantic, curiously personable, and yes really cold, but that’s fine.

I think the show covers all bases when it comes to exploring the country. We of course take you through some of the most emotive landscape the UK (and in my opinion, the world) has to offer, but we also head into cities, touch on Scotland’s often traumatic history, and you bet we learn the bagpipes (which by the way is one of the hardest things to do, lots of blowing, to the extent I nearly passed out).

I think it’s important not to force any kind of #content down anyone’s throat. No one trusts a sales rep, so we wanted to give you some ideas of things to do if you’re visiting Scotland, but they’re only ideas. You’re grown up and can plan your own trip, you don’t need me to tell you how brilliant every single cafe or walk in Scotland is, because it’s not. That’s not the case anywhere, except maybe Farnham…or Winchester. Uh oh.

Watch Robbie James in 10 Days Scotland, which airs from 25th November exclusively on Travelxp.

Making small steps

Round & About

Robbie James

Columnist Robbie James says we still have a long way to go – but we can take tentative positives from the recent situation surrounding Luis Rubiales

Aside from filming a new TV Show in Scotland, trying to deal with summer being over, and watching Driving School (which is my new favourite TV show that you need to watch because it’s beyond funny), I’ve spent a lot of time digesting the complete madness of the Luis Rubiales case.

It’s one of the most mind boggling, head spinning, saddest stories I can remember (and think about the last few years of news).

I’m a white, straight, privileged male – I have absolutely no idea what Jenni Hermoso must be experiencing, nor how the rest of the Spanish team must feel, who put so much hard work into achieving something so incredible, only for it to be overshadowed by this mess.

Whilst it’s horrifying and utterly bizarre – the outpouring of support I’ve seen for Hermoso recently must give us some hope that whilst we clearly still have so far to go in terms of addressing the gender imbalance, we are making small steps forward.

Would this story have seen such coverage five or ten years ago? I highly doubt it. These sorts of stories have often divided opinion in the past, but this time it feels like the vast majority of people are in agreement that Rubiales has done a terrible thing. Things seem to be improving to the extent that more men are willing to stand up against those who discriminate or act upon archaic ideologies. And this is the demographic that needs to step up.

It’s not enough to just ‘not agree’ with these things. We need to be so much more proactive than we have been in the past when it comes to championing women.

Similarly with sport. If you like football, great. Watch Women’s football. Shout about Women’s Football – it’s people like us who need to play a part in swinging the pendulum into equilibrium. Plus, women’s football is genuinely brilliant, and these talented people deserve the attention. It’s lazy to just watch men’s football because it’s so accessible and the ‘done thing’.

I’m aware this comes across as very ‘do this now, and now do that’. We’re all a work in progress but if it didn’t preach this here this would be a very hypocritical column. Anyway, back to Driving School (seriously, watch it for an injection of joy).