Dan Walker on Crawley Town, the good in football and following in the footsteps of a broadcasting hero
- Credit: Archant
Crawley-born presenter Dan Walker’s 2016 has been a personal best. Now he has rounded off a year in which he’s taken his place on the famous BBC Breakfast sofa and covered the Olympics in Rio by publishing a book about football.
BBC presenter Dan Walker’s parents had a few clues as to what kind of career their young son might pursue. “I remember my mum once slapping me round the head when I was in Tesco commentating on some poor old lady in the grocery section,” he says.
Mum privileges aside, it’s difficult imagining anyone wanting to do him an injury today. Leaving aside his towering 6ft 6in stature, the presenter is thoroughly good company.
Presenter of Football Focus since 2009, Crawley-born Dan took over from BBC Breakfast’s Bill Turnbull on the famous red sofa in February. And this (exceptionally busy) year alone he’s notched up some memorable broadcasting moments. Who could forget the unexpectedly lovely moment bride-to-be Maria crashed Dan’s Rio Olympics coverage this summer?
Thirty nine-year-old Dan is a lifelong supporter of Crawley Town, his mum and dad still live in Ifield and his brother lives in the area so he has plenty of opportunities to return. He was a pupil of Ifield Primary, then Three Bridges Middle School and finally Hazelwick while his dad taught at Holy Trinity School before joining the ministry 25 years ago.
Despite leaving Crawley at 18 to go to Sheffield University, Dan credits his childhood in the town with instilling in him a passionate love for sports. “The first game I went to was in an FA Cup preliminary round in, I imagine, 1986/87. Crawley Town were two-nil up against the mighty Merthyr Tydfil and lost by three goals to two. I suppose I was hooked from an early age – I loved it. My dad used to take me most weeks with a friend of the family.” Even at that early stage Dan found himself fascinated by statistics, football tables and trivia. It’s something that has stood him in good stead in his work for Football Focus and covering tournaments such as the European Championships. It has also led to the publication of 2014’s Football Thronkersaurus and his new book Magic, Mud and Maradona, which he worked on in his downtime from the Euros and in Rio. For the latter he has concentrated on cup football, nuzzling close to the beating heart of the beautiful game. Each chapter starts with a story or anecdote – many silly, some serious – using it as jumping off point for statistics and trivia. He says: “There’s so much bad publicity about football at the minute and so much of the stuff that is written is negative, about corruption and about money in the game. I wanted to almost remind myself and others about the things I love about football. People recall Danger Fourpence, Bongo Christ and the stories about mascots and all those sorts of things that make you think ‘Do you know what? That’s what I love about football.’ It’s to remind people this is why it’s important, this is what we love about it, here’s a few stories for you to read on the toilet for 10 minutes a day.”
It’s a light-hearted tome, but it’s clear that for Dan sport means much more than scoring goals. As a youngster he had trials with football teams – football came easily to him because of his height – but “as I grew up a little bit and got to 14 or 15 I realised that I was in fact distinctly average. There’s a small part of me that still thinks somebody is going to come in and offer me a multi-million pound bid but I very much doubt it’s going to happen.” He still plays five-a-side in Sheffield most weeks and loves golf.
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Even as a spectator, though, “I think a lot of the disappointment in sport is important in your growing and development process. I look back at the failures of England in major football tournaments, things like watching Eddie the Eagle in the Olympic Games or Linford Christie in 1992, England losing in the semi-finals in the 1990 World Cup, Euro ’96 … all those sorts of things are very much the fabric of me growing up. Almost without knowing it sometimes it plays quite an important role in the person you turn out to be.”
He still finds it “surreal” that he is now on the front line, as it were: “When you’re covering World Cups and my broadcasting hero, Des Lynam – this was his job. I’m now responsible for introducing someone to a game in that way. I’ve sat in a studio next to Thierry Henry and Alan Shearer saying ‘Right guys, what do you think of that?’ when there’s millions of people watching back at home. That’s a massive responsibility but also something I feel is a privilege and it’s amazing to be a part of it.”
Through work he’s become friends with some of the sportsmen he most admired (just take a look at his Twitter page). The tragic loss of Gary Speed in 2011 hit Dan hard. The Welsh footballer and manager was on Football Focus the day that he committed suicide. “He was speaking about what was happening in the future, fixtures that he was playing in, his family. He was asking me questions about my family and we were planning to play golf together. The next day I get a phone call and someone says ‘Gary’s gone’. You’ll never get your head round that. I don’t think I will ever understand what he was going through, what was happening in his life, but on a basic human level I just miss him. He was a friend and he’s gone.”
He’s become increasingly aware of the curiously intimate position of being part of the television backdrop to people’s lives since joining BBC Breakfast, with its seven million viewers. “I get stopped regularly by people in the streets saying ‘I watched you in my pants this morning’, which is still disconcerting. But the fact that people let you into their house at that time, it’s quite a close relationship and it’s something I need to jealously guard and take care of, and make sure that I do that job to the very best of my ability.”
He has to wake up at 3.20am on BBC Breakfast days (Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays). How is he coping with that? “Hard drugs. No, I’m joking. I’ve never been a big sleeper. At the minute I’m operating on a ridiculous four-and-a-half hour’s sleep, which isn’t ideal, but I’ve sort of got into the routine now. My wife says I’ve got crow’s feet for the first time I my life, but maybe that’s just because I’m getting old, I don’t know.
“I’ve sort of convinced myself that I’m going on holiday every day. If you’re thinking you’re off to Portugal or wherever then you’re legitimately very excited about getting up. I’ve got four alarms and I’ve only got to the second one so far.”
One of the reasons the job appealed so much was for practical and personal, as well as professional, reasons. The early hours mean Dan is able to spend more time with his children (ages nine, seven and six), and with wife Sarah. “Most days I can be home to pick them up from school. I want to watch my kids grow up so if my only sacrifice is to get up at 3.20am three days a week then I’m more than happy to do that.”
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