Into the fire
Everyone wants to get involved in football; especially at a young age. I was 1 of many naive enough to actually believe that 1 day I could go on to be pro. I had dreams and aspirations of playing in front of sold out crowds at Wembley. But instead I found myself at the age of 18, scrambling for any sort of freelance work I could get and finding it very difficult to make ends meat.
My Mum and Dad stepped up once again. Retired now, they'd both ran a hugely successful graphics design company in the heart of Birmingham for the best part of 30 years. They'd both been through their struggles in the past. Mum often told me of how they had no furniture when they moved into the house in Birmingham because they simply couldn't afford it. My Dad made a bold move at the age of 23 and started up the business and Mum joined a few years after to manage the finances. The company grew and grew and was 1 of the best recognized graphics design studio's in the city. My Dad's reputation in Birmingham was very good, in fact he still gets job offers to this day but is enjoying retirement far too much. They both worked extremely hard for what they have. My Dad when asked about it often tells the story of how he worked 72 hours straight to get jobs done. They called it a day last year and now share their time in the UK and their penthouse in the south of Spain (as well as a few weeks a year in Kansas City). Dad had become a very good photographer and it was a service he offered alongside his companies graphics work. He offered me work here and there, where I would travel back and forth with him to different destinations across the UK as his photography assistant. I'd help set up the lights and the on site studio; I learnt a lot and enjoyed it. I did a work placement in a photography studio when I was 15 and i'd always had an interest. I was paid like any other junior would be which gave me more of an opportunity to catch trains and actually have a social life of some sort. I would help dad 2/3 times a month and continued to work for Shropshire's Beacon Radio on the weekend and help out in the studio. My girlfriend at the time, Lauren said to me "I don't understand why you don't just do that". She had a good point, but I had so much drive in me to do what I actually wanted to do and be involved in football.
Mum and Dad in the 1980's
Things were still frustrating for me. However I continued to cover both AFC Telford Utd, Shrewsbury Town and QPR when the schedule allowed me. I remember having an opportunity after a few months to move across to 'Beacon Radio' and provide reports for Walsall FC for the evening. I did so and I remember seeing and meeting quite a few names that i'd been familiar with having listened to football on the radio for a long time. I had been continuing on and quietly doing Ok. I made mistakes, but I was bound to, I was 18 with no real training. The e-mails kept on backfiring, "no thanks, we don't have anything" or "keep it up, you'll get there but we can't offer you anything". I remember doing a commentary for QPR's stadium feed and at the end of the night I spoke to the press officer, Paul, who informed that they'd not be asking me to come back as they'd decided to hire someone for the role. I was left a little frustrated but understood that they'd obviously found someone they deemed better, but i'd gotten what I needed from it; a commentary demo.
Like most weeks I went into the studio to help out and i'd previously asked the main commentator (who most weekends covered WBA and Wolves) if he could have a look at my demo. We sat down in a recording studio and he took a look with me. What I was about to experience (despite all the previous disappointment) was the most saddening moment of my career so far. The commentator said to me "honestly, you'll never be a commentator". Once again, my heart sank. These were people that i'd looked up to and again I was told to "give it up kid". He continued, "to be honest, I know people that don't want you here, I certainly don't want you here. I can recommend you to Walsall or someone to see if they've got website commentary available but right now this piece you've given to me is you asking for a full time commentary gig and with the greatest respect, thats not going to happen". I was being slowly torn down, bit by bit and could feel the lump in my throat getting larger. "I can't believe Stu keeps using you because if it was me, i'd make sure you were never used again". He then continued with words of encouragement, but to be honest my head was in such a place at that stage I paid no notice. I tried desperately not to cry in front of this guy and as a tear crept down my face I even tried to cough and look down away from him. I'm sure he noticed the tear as I desperately tried to hold it in and he patted my shoulder as he walked out and said something else, but again I paid no attention. I grabbed the equipment from Stu (I was covering a road game that weekend) and got on the bus. I wept and I wept good and proper as well. I was struggling, that was clear but to hear some of the words that were just said to me was the last thing I needed. I had to speak to someone about it. I phoned my best mate in the whole world, Carl, and we went for a beer in the local pub so I could get things off of my chest. Carl and I have known each other since we were about 4 years old. We grew up playing football and video games together. We went to the same schools, had season tickets at Aston Villa together and at times did several work experience projects together. My dearest best, most loyal friend in the world was once again there for me.
I received a phone call from Stu the next day. He was fuming with what had been said to me. It was clear the commentator had thought it was a bit of a joke on my behalf and was boasting about it to several fellow employees. Some of which laughed with him i'm sure, but Stu gave restored some of my confidence (which was destroyed at this moment) and told me of some national commentators that had asked who I was and were full of praise for my work. Saturday came and I found myself on a train to Derby where i'd be covering AFC Telford Utd away at Alfreton Town. I received a phone call from Stu. We were due to have full commentary on Shrewsbury Town that afternoon but for some reason the equipment wasn't working. Stu explained this to me and also said "we need you to do full commentary today". I was full of excitement, my 1st ever radio commentary. Yes i'd done stuff for QPR, but that was stadium feed and website if I was lucky. This was my 1st genuine radio commentary and I couldn't wait to get on the air.
|Alfreton Town's main stand and the scene of my 1st commentary|
It also became apparent that Shrewsbury Town were on a bit of a play off run in League 2 and they got a big win away at Rotherham Utd....
Both teams ended up in the play off final in their respective leagues and I was there for both. My 1st year as a commentator/reporter and i'd be give the opportunity to be involved in 2 play off finals. George and I split commentary with Rob Palin up north at Gateshead where AFC Telford would loose 1-0 and fail to gain promotion to the Blue Square Premier. The other play off final was at Wembley! I didn't get to commentate, the game was much to big for a mere 18 year old. The main Wolves and WBA commentators came in for it. However, George and I provided plenty of material pre game talking to fans and getting plenty of build up.
I had major up and down moments whilst with Beacon Radio but i'd certainly learned a lot and gained more confidence and composure on the air. I also learn at times you require 'steel skin' in this industry. I look back on my time there with fond memories however. Especially that play off weekend and our award winning coverage with very little sleep but lots of fun with Stu and George. I owe a lot to those lads. George taught me so much as a commentator as did Stu who I especially owe a big thank you for keeping faith and sticking with me when I was so young.
For those wondering, Stu has actually just launched his own radio station and is the main man at 'Stafford FM' which I highly recommend you check out. George for the past 2 years has been the main commentator for Signal Radio's Stoke City coverage in the EPL and continues to dazzle the listening audiences in the midlands. I look forward to the next time I see those boys. I owe them so much.
I received a phone call during the off season from Stu saying that Beacon Radio wasn't going to be covering football anymore due to financial reasons. However, what was around the corner for me, most certainly came as a welcomed surprise....
A new chapter
It was 2009 on a mid week summer afternoon. I'd not long got in from a kick around with the lads and my phone rang. "Hello, is that Callum? This is James Bond here" (seriously, this happened). I started to laugh and quickly responded, "alright, who's pulling my leg". James responded "Callum, this is James Bond, sports editor at BBC Radio Shropshire". I responded, "oh... really?! What can I do for you?". For those of you reading and still laughing, yes, his name really is James Bond and this most certainly wasn't a prank call. Although, I do chuckle to myself at times thinking about this day. James responded with, "well, actually I think its more what we can do for you". A few months before that i'd applied for a training course with the BBC and applied at BBC Radio Shropshire as well as several other local radio BBC outputs. Shropshire was a market I was familiar with after covering AFC Telford Utd and Shrewsbury Town for the past 8 months. James informed me that out of several hundred applicants i'd been chosen to join BBC Radio Shropshire for a 5 month training course (which i'd be paid a little for also). James quickly boosted my confidence even more, "We were very impressed with your application and experience but actually we are more then familiar with your work at Beacon (radio) and would be delighted if you'd join us for the next few months". Obviously I accepted. "Great!" he said, "we'll see you Monday morning". A few hours passed and my phone rang again. "Hi there is this Callum? Its Paul Walker here from BBC Radio Sheffield". I had no idea what to say other then, "Hi there, what can I do for you?". Come on, it worked last time! Paul continued, "sorry mate, I've had a nightmare, its been so busy with (Sheffield) United and Wednesday and their season. I saw your e-mail a few months ago". I'd obviously continued to e-mail day in day out to see if there were any opportunities anywhere in the country. "Callum, we actually need a reporter to cover Chesterfield in League 2 at the moment and I was wondering if you'd be interested in that". I remember speaking to my Dad about it. I'd also received a phone call from Stu at Beacon that day saying that there was a possibility that they might be covering football after all and I would be given much more of an opportunity to commentate. My head was all over the place. In the end after an hour or so of thinking, how on earth could I turn down a proper reporting gig with the BBC. I accepted and all of a sudden within an afternoon my professional life had turned upside down.
Before I could start my work I was sent down to Bristol for a 2 day training course (BBC Blast was what it was called) with the BBC and about 70 other people who'd been chosen for their regional station. The 1 thing which I did notice was how many people were shocked that i'd not attended university and gotten to this stage and that i'd already got a regular reporting gig. I met some good people that day, many of who have gone off to do separate things away from sports reporting but some have done very well. I'd learnt during this time that a man called Charles Runcie had recommended that I be on the program (I'd e-mail Charles even before i'd joined Beacon Radio). Charles was and still is the head of regional sport for the BBC. He was aware that i'd been picked up but thought this would be a good opportunity to continue to learn. There are many, many people I need to thank for how far i've come and Charles is right up there. He gave me the push into the BBC that I needed and we keep in touch as often as possible.
I remember heading up to the studio’s at BBC Radio Sheffield. I was given my very own ISND kit (which was a 1st) plus a BBC jacket to make me feel even better about myself. Paul introduced me to the sports team of Andy, Seth and Rob (as 'the young lad') and several others around the office, "he's only a pup" he said. I was 19 and the youngest reporter in the country for the BBC at that time. Signing the paperwork made it all very real. It was a casual contract (which means I would be called upon when needed) but it was a contract none the less with the BBC.
|BBC Radio Sheffield newsroom with Paul and Andy|
I headed down to Torquay Utd (on the south west coast of England) for my 1st game and the start of the season. I remember meeting several of the journalist people who cover the team that day. Paul Fisher, the club and website commentator, Phil Tooley, local newspaper journalist and 'Mr. Chesterfield FC' himself. I also met a lad called Chris who was there commentating for the local radio station 'Peak FM'. He seemed to be having trouble getting a connection and was scrambling through all sorts of wires and equipment. I couldn't stand to watch so I gave him the wire he needed and helped him get connected. I couldn't help but think of that horrific day i'd had in Bournemouth last year and spotted the similarities. What i'd have done for some help that day. Jay and Sinead, who produced the show were in my ear and gave me cues as to when i'd be going live. I was only providing reports (as I did most of my time at BBC Radio Sheffield) into the main show. Usually the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, United or Barnsley would be the main commentary and the fans of teams such as Rotherham Utd and Chesterfield would be updated through regular reports. We'd commentate off the air regardless so the producers would have some audio to use throughout the show. I always enjoyed commentary but reports were good fun as well, particularly as i'd be reporting for both BBC Radio Sheffield and BBC Radio Derby (due to Chesterfield's geographic location). For those wondering, thats when I 1st crossed paths with a lad called Ross Fletcher (now the voice of Seattle Sounders) who would be commentating on Derby County. I remember getting my 1st report out of the way and felt it went well. Not to long into the game Torquay Utd scored and my commentary was something along the lines of "Rendell with the header! Inside the 6 yard box doing his due diligence on his debut for Torquay Utd!". Jay, the produce said in my ear, "good, very good, well done mate". I remember leaving Plainmoor (the stadium) pleased with my efforts. I went on to continue and learn from my time at the BBC. Paul, my boss would call me once a week to go over how he thought I did and give me advice. For me that was huge at that point in my career. Paul was and still is to this day the best local BBC Radio commentator and he would often be called up to national radio (BBC Radio 5Live) and national TV. To have someone like that showing me the ropes point me in a very good place.
|My BBC ID|
|James Bond gave me a|
way into the BBC
I continued my work during the week with BBC Radio Shropshire also. James and his fellow sports journalist Nick Southall would always make sure I had things to do. I remember heading to the AFC Telford Utd press day with both James and Nick before their season started. It was nice to be in a familiar setting again, speaking to people i'd interviewed last year. Much to my surprise I saw 2 old friends, George and Stu were there grabbing audio as they'd been told they had 1 more season to cover football at Shropshire's Beacon Radio. I remember having a beer with them over lunch and thoroughly enjoyed the catch up.
|During my BBC travels I ended up back at some|
very recognizable places
James involved me in the footballing output much more then I had originally expected and often attended Shrewsbury Town media days and I continued my work up in Sheffield as well. Occasionally but rarely Paul would send me off to cover some of the other teams as well. I remember covering Rotherham Utd and Doncaster Rovers on several occasions but I was still only 19 and big roles were out of the question. I obviously made mistakes, but learnt massively from those errors. There were a few times when an individual would say to me "you have to be better, this isn't silly boy radio anymore". I made myself better in an almost punishing but rewarding way. I dealt with John Sheridan at Chesterfield (some of you may
recognize the name from his playing days at Sheffield Wednesday with John Harkes). He at times would rub people the wrong way with his hard nosed approach to things. I always seemed to have a fairly good relationship with him and found him fine to work with.
I had just about finished my time with BBC Radio Shropshire and had been promised work with a company called IMG that are associated with 'Premier League Productions'. PLP as they're known to most are the company that provides English Premier League commentary worldwide. So people like Fox Soccer and now NBC Sports will pick up their commentary feed when they don't have any commentators on site. However, that broke down due to the woman I had dealt with and her resilience to process my details. I was then dealt another blow. I'd spoken with a lad called Graham McGarry at BBC Radio Stoke about some potential freelance work; but there was a problem. "I want you, I do, you're background is already very impressive..... but I just can't pay you". That old nightmare that had haunted me in my previous endeavors has come up again. I had to decline. I even drove to Stoke to have a meeting with Graham but we just couldn't figure it out.
The 09/10 season was coming to an end and i'd picked up a few lower league freelance gigs around the BBC Radio platform with the likes of BBC Radio Manchester and BBC Radio London. I'd covered Chesterfield for the year as well as filling in here and there elsewhere. It was the final day of the season and Chesterfield after 139 years would be moving to a brand new stadium.
Gone were the days of being crammed into a tiny wooden press box with a side helping of spider webs. However, Saltergate had so much character and was 1 of the oldest stadiums remaining in the football league. It was a pleasure to be involved in so much of its last active campaign. I spoke to so many of the Chesterfield fans about their memories of the place. 1 man who said he's just turned 90 was 2 years old when he came to his 1st Chesterfield game and hadn't missed at home game since! I was covering Burton Albion - Grimsby Town that day and watched Grimsby drop out of the football league for the 1st time in 117 years. Throughout my 1st season with the BBC, I learnt so much, made contacts and gained a reputation of some sort. I remember quite often i'd introduce myself to fellow reporters around the grounds and they'd respond with "ooohh, so you're the 19 year old". People knew me and I couldn't wait for that 2nd season.
|Saltergate 1871 - 2010|
New home of Chesterfield FC
After once again e-mailing throughout the summer i'd gained a number of new contacts and had started the pre season well with a few match reports for the regular crew. However I was once again struggling for work during the week. I remember getting very, very frustrated and thinking of packing it all in. I was tired, i'd been sending e-mails for the past 6 years. I'd obviously gotten a decent gig but regular work was hard to come by. I often thought, "did I make a mistake not going to university? Do I have to start all over again?". I told Mum and Dad that I was going to give it up after 6 months if nothing came up, their response... "no you're not". Suddenly things started to change for me. My BBC agreement allowed me to freelance elsewhere and thats exactly what I started doing. I got to the point mid way through the year where I felt quite comfortable. I'd just turned 21 and I was working the
weekends for the BBC whilst helping out throughout other BBC outputs in the week. I was also providing audio for 'Absolute Radio' who'd recently acquired the EPL radio rights. A friend of mine Rob Daly who I'd met covering Chesterfield as he became the new 'peak FM' commentator also gave me a helping hand. He worked as a reporter for a company called 'Perform' who had ties to PLP but also provided outlets with commentary of european games. I'd started to do television commentary, which was great for me. I then landed a gig helping out ITV Central (local TV station in Birmingham) thank to a lad called Steve Clamp. All this freelance work came in very suddenly and quickly but still, my main source of income and work was the BBC.
|Working down in London|
|Commentating for 'PERFORM'|
My life was busy, I was freelancing all over the place but the 1 thing I kept on enjoying more then anything was covering League 2 football. I once again followed Chesterfield up and down the country and made some good friends along the way. Rob (who had helped me with the gig at PERFORM) who continued his work for 'Peak FM' and also covered Swansea City in the Championship for 'Swansea Sound' and Paul Fisher, the Chesterfield website commentator. At times, it felt like I was watching football up and down the country with my mates.... and to be honest, I was.
|Rob squeezed in at Southend United|
Little did I know what was around the corner for me, but we'll get to that a little later. However 1 of the most exciting days of my professional life came on the January transfer deadline day when I was asked to help cover the midlands area of England for PLP. It was to this day the craziest day of my working life. Rather appropriately I was at the press conference for Michael Bradley as he was introduced by Aston Villa. I was working with a well known reporter called Ivan Gaskell who had years of experience of covering these kinds of days. I had a tip of from an agent I knew that something was happening at WBA, so I drove down to their training center to be told to come back later as they had nothing to announce. Wolves had then signed a GK called Adriano Basso, I raced over to their training center for a quick interview. Then I headed over to Birmingham City who'd just signedObefemi Martins (now at Seattle Sounders) on loan. The evening started to shadow the sky and the deadline loomed. Once again I headed back to WBA to hopefully break the announcement of a new signing. They'd failed to get the deal done. What a day that was in my pro life. During this time as well i'd met several people i'd worked with and for in the past. I saw a certain individual at the Aston Villa press conference who i'd worked for at BRMB. I went over to introduce myself. Maybe he'd forgotten me, it had been a few years. "Oh I know who you are, what are you doing here?" he asked. I had great pleasure explaining to him what I was doing there and who i'd been working for. I'd also met a lad called Steve Clamp who I'd been helping out a little at ITV Central. We had a good chat that day and I ended up going to a lot of mid week press conferences for him. I loved it. I was doing all of this, mixing with Premier League journalists for radio and TV coverage in the week and covering Chesterfield and others over the weekend.
|Awaiting Michael Bradley on transfer|
I was asked to cover the Women's FA Cup Final by BBC Radio London a few days after that. It was at Nottingham Forest's stadium (about 45 minutes from Birmingham). After I did the game I received a phone call from Paul who was very complementary of my work and once again gave me several pointers. This was the winning goal that day...
|Dad managed to snap a pic of|
me covering Villa - Arsenal
I was then asked to cover Aston Villa - Arsenal. I remember the sports editor of BBC Radio London, Pete Stevens giving me a call and saying "Callum, can you go to Villa Park for us on Tuesday night?" he asked. I completely forgot Villa were playing as I was deep into research for a Wednesday night game I was covering. I responded to Pete "Ye sure, is there a reserve game or something?". He responded with "No you doughnut, Arsenal play Villa, do you fancy it?". I obviously was delighted and despite the game ending 0-0 I enjoyed every single minute of it. To my surprise I wasn't bias towards my beloved Villa at all and received a bunch of praise from the producers back in London. Everything was going very well and it had been for some time now. I had so much on my resume and I was active in so much around English football. After ITV Central sports news was read by Steve Clamp he spoke of Gerard Houllier and his thoughts ahead of their match this weekend, "Gerard Houllier gave his thoughts to Callum Williams". A mate of mine text me and said "mate, you're all over the place!".
It was christmas eve 2010 and I was sat in front of the fire going through my boxing day game notes and research and saw an e-mail pop up in my inbox. The context of that initial e-mail would change my life. It was a team from MLS (not Sporting KC) who'd heard my voice and said.. "Callum, we'd really like to talk to you".........