It is not often that Geoff Shreeves is interviewed. Usually it is the Sky Sports man asking the questions of managers and players post-match. Rarely is he in the spotlight, even if nowadays his outstretched arm and microphone are two instantly recognisable aspects of Sky’s Premier League coverage. And yet today the interviewer is the interviewee, if only for half an hour.
Shreeves is keen to emphasise that he does not look to be the star. He does not aim to catch out his interviewees, nor does he want to cosy up to them too much. Curiously, he chooses a cricket analogy to describe his role, likening his job to that of a bowler.
“People say it’s a strength of a touchline reporter that they ask tough questions, but I couldn’t disagree more. Whether it’s radio, newspaper or TV, the most important thing about the question is the answer.”
“It’s not about me, I’m irrelevant. It’s about getting the best possible answer.”
He is hugely enthusiastic, and with good reason for someone who became a touchline reporter “by accident,” in his words. He played football at an amateur level and was friends with a few Arsenal players of the George Graham era, but started off in property rather than sports broadcasting. When the housing crash of the late 1980s arrived, however, he was left at a loose end.
It just so happened that his friend’s brother Mick Luckhurst, the former NFL player, needed a researcher to help American TV stations TNT and CNN cover the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Shreeves jumped at the opportunity, and couldn’t believe “how exciting, how challenging and how much fun” it was.
He networked as much as possible at the tournament, and after a few freelance jobs he has not looked back since. While there have been far bigger names in the Premier League, Shreeves is one of the few people who can claim to have been there from the start of the competition – this August marks 25 years since he became a full-time employee at Sky Sports, the same year as the advent of the league.
With so much experience behind him, it is hardly surprising that Shreeves has encountered every type of player in his interviews.
“Money aside, in my experience 80 percent of players are absolutely normal people in the way they behave. 15 percent are phenomenal people who have a spark of personality and are great fun to be around, and 5 percent are not so generous of spirit, but it’s the 5 percent that attract the most publicity.”
The subject turns to Raheem Sterling, a player who probably falls into the 80 percent of “normal people” but is so often preyed upon by the British tabloids as if he were part of that dreaded 5 percent. Shreeves is staunch in his defence of young players like the 22-year old Manchester City and England forward, who he describes as a “smashing kid” who “cares about football and living his life right.”
“Think of all the things students do at university. If their families found out about some of them they’d probably have a word, and in most cases they’d support them and agree it’s part of growing up.”
“The difference is when you’re in the public eye those misdemeanours are reported, a lot of the time grossly exaggerated and actively sought out by sections of the media that go seeking big stories. These are young people, and young people make mistakes sometimes.”
As Shreeves acknowledges, he too can scarcely afford to slip up, as shown by that post-match interview with Branislav Ivanovic.
It is impossible not to bring up the infamous incident with the then-Chelsea defender, when Shreeves informed Ivanovic that he would be missing the 2012 Champions League final after picking up one yellow card too many. The Serb looked distraught, and social media seized upon the moment to label Shreeves a bully.
Among the titles of the clip on YouTube are ‘Geoff Shreeves attempts to make Ivanovic cry,’ ‘Geoff Shreeves crushes Chelsea’s Ivanovic’ and ‘The moment Geoff Shreeves destroyed Ivanovic’s soul,’ but the reporter says the reality was rather different.
“Most people don’t know the full story behind it, and it was nowhere near as heartless or cruel as it appeared – it never was my intention for it to be that way.”
“Branislav and I spoke about it afterwards and there was no problem at all. When he scored the winning goal for Chelsea in the Europa League final [a year later] I texted him saying ‘Well done Branna, fantastic. Delighted for you, at least now you’ll remember Chelsea for that goal and not for that f*cking interview,’ and he replied saying he appreciated it.”
Of course, Shreeves is not just known for his interviewing style, and many will recognise his voice from his pitch-side updates during big games. He argues this kind of reporting offers something which ordinary pundits and former players and managers in the studio cannot.
“As a touchline reporter you’re the director’s antennae, their eyes and ears because you’re on the ground. You feel the mood and you’re the first point of contact. It’s different through a lens.”
The game has changed radically in the 25 years following the arrival of the Premier League, and Shreeves admits as much. There was once a time when he could call up a club’s training ground directly to speak to a player. Now there are press officers, liaison officers and far more “layers,” as he puts it.
There are also far more cameras. Those who are in the studio can see almost every part of the action on and off the pitch, and can even interview players and managers post-match from the comfort of their armchairs. Given all this, is there still a need for the touchline reporter? Shreeves certainly seems to think so.
“There’ll always be a need for journalists, because people have to ask questions. Even if we got to the stage where every athlete had the ability of presenting, they could only speak with their own agenda which can’t go unquestioned, so there’ll always be a role for reporters.”
Many football fans, including this writer, see Shreeves’ role as the dream job. Although he stresses it is not all plain sailing, it is clear from his energy that he cannot quite believe his luck. Too often pundits and commentators sound uninterested, as if they would rather be anywhere else than a Premier League stadium. Not so for the touchline reporter.
“There’s more to it than meets the eye – it’s not all laughing and joking with the top players. It’s challenging but I wouldn’t swap it for anything. I still like it as much as I did when I first started.”
So, what advice would he give to those who aspire to be in his position?
“Every day is a school day – you can learn something new every day. It’s about being able to set the story and about asking the questions which get the best answers.”
Photograph: Sky Sports