“It was totally life-changing for me, I was so lucky to get it. All my other mates had proper jobs while I would occasionally recreate the John Lewis advert and spend the day dressed as a penguin,” reflects sports broadcaster and all-round good guy Max Rushden on his ‘glory years’ at Soccer AM.
The Oxford alumnus has enjoyed a fruitful time in the industry since his first knockings around at BBC Cambridgeshire twenty years ago, and has been able to forge a career from his expert ability to talk nonsense about football.
It was no surprise, then, that much of the interview was populated with discussions on how best to consume beans on toast, or existential pontifications over what footballer he would choose to survive an apocalypse with. In the end he settled on James Tarkowski, with the likes of David Seaman, Paul Merson and Matt Holland failing to make the cut.
But there is a deeply moral and thoughtful side to Rushden beneath his effervescent personality. He recalls the early days of his broadcasting career doing serious news reports on the tele, such as murder trials, which is a far cry from what listeners are accustomed to hearing on Football Weekly and talkSPORT these days.
“I’m capable of broadcasting about serious things, which is ostensibly easier than trying to be funny,” he tells Palatinate. “If I’ve ever succeeded in that it’s not for me to say.
“I can’t ever complain about my job to anybody, because I get paid to watch football. I don’t even have to go. I also don’t really need to analyse it.”
Football Weekly listeners especially enjoy the honesty and transparency that he fosters on the podcast, helped by the misanthropic approach of sidekick Barry Glendenning. He invariably strikes a healthy balance between taking football deeply seriously, whilst recognising the folly of getting too ensnared by its more illusory and dry aspects.
For example, Max doesn’t profess to know about the majority of the footballing world, nor indeed care about what the outcome is between Southend and West Ham U21s in the EFL Trophy; he simply doesn’t see this as an issue.
“There’s a lot of football, and you can’t watch all of it. I don’t know how, say, Girona did on the weekend and, to quote Barry, ‘I don’t care!’
“There are a lot of things you need to take seriously in the game – racism, homophobia, discrimination, misogyny, corruption – and I want to talk about those things seriously. But whether Conor Coady has a good game for England, or whether Grealish gets on the pitch or not, I’m not going to get angry about that. I hope we win but it won’t keep me awake at night.
“I also don’t think there’s enough brutal honesty if a game is shit. Fans aren’t idiots, and if a game is shit you should be able to say ‘that was shit’. If you portray every football match as breathless and extraordinary then you can’t get excited when it genuinely is very exciting.”
He recognises, for example, that he would struggle to be a Dave Jones type of broadcaster – compelled to force the theatricality of a Sky Sports production. Rushden’s occasional dispassion and indifference to certain aspects of the game can, however, invite criticism from the purists who can’t handle their beloved game being trivialised.
Conscious of the fickle and venomous atmosphere of social media, he strives tries to block out the vitriol as best he can, remaining authentically himself and transforming the hate comments he receives into whimsical song montages on Instagram.
“Bosses have wanted me to be a bit ‘laddier’, but I’m just a bit of a nerd, and if someone on Twitter wants to call me a bellend there’s nothing I can do about it. Not to appear like some sort of rhino-skinned hero, but I just don’t care, it’s just funny. You’re allowed your opinions on me, that’s absolutely fine.”
“Football fans are not forgiving, and so if you make a mistake, or you expose your lack of knowledge on something, you can get stressed about that. But I’ve accepted that whatever team I’m talking about there will be someone listening who knows more than me. If you don’t know something, you just don’t know it, it’s not a crime.”
Rushden acutely recognises, though, that having such thick skin isn’t so easy for everyone in sports broadcasting, especially young female presenters due to the sexism that still exists in the industry. At Football Weekly he is central to the process of embracing prospective female talent, but knows that there is still a long way to go.
“If young up-and-coming female broadcasters made the same mistake that I made they’d get hammered for it, and no one would care if I did it. For that reason, I’ve seen some young female broadcasters try and say everything they know when they don’t need to.
“I think it’s changing slowly, but if you ask any established female broadcaster it’s not changing quickly enough. The criticism they get is much more intense, and we are judged differently, and that’s really depressing.”
It is this very awareness of the pitfalls of the world he operates in that makes Max so refreshing to talk to. He also spoke well on the non-glamorous side of footballers’ lifestyles, and remains deeply concerned by their treatment in the media and the amount of mental health support they receive after they retire.
“The longer I’ve spent with footballers, the happier I am not having to be one. Being a footballer is not an easy path to happiness and can be a very lonely existence.
“When you’re injured rehab can be soul-destroying, and I think retirement for footballers is a nightmare, you know I’ve seen it a lot. Everything’s done for you, everything’s provided for you, then when you don’t matter they don’t have time to deal with you. You’re thrown out the door and that’s it.”
Tied up with this is the alarmingly symbiotic relationship between football and betting companies, which is something that, as Rushden was keen to stress, footballers are not impervious to. Just recently Nicholas Bendtner opened up about the ruinous impact of his gambling addiction, and as a member of the ‘industry’ this is something that he massively struggles with morally.
Just recently there was a poignant moment on the podcast where he openly addressed listeners and fellow guests, having accepted money from a bookmaker. It pricked his conscience as he agonised over the decision for weeks, and has consequently decided to never engage with that sort of thing in the future. He feels totally comfortable with that decision, but does not profess to be ‘some sort of hero’.
“We’re all probably hypocrites as people, there are probably lots of things I do indirectly without thinking about them. If you work in this industry you will indirectly do stuff with bookmakers all the time, but I can actively make the decision to not sign up personally with one to promote it.”
All he really aims to do is live life with integrity whilst doing the things he loves: broadcasting, bringing joy to people, and embracing the ‘serious fun’ that is football for as long as he can.
This includes keeping close tabs on his beloved Cambridge United, who regrettably he doesn’t watch live as much as he would like to anymore, but is delighted to see them thriving this season in League Two with former Norwich stalwart Wes Hoolahan pulling the strings.
Max will also keep playing football on a Saturday, which has been an important staple of his life for 18 years now. He has recently penned an exciting move from Polytechnic Fours to Polytechnic Vets, as he reflects on the evolution of his playing style over the years.
“For a few years I was Teddy Sheringham, then as I got a bit dirtier, and a bit worse, I became Kevin Davies. And for the past two years I’ve been Eric Dier as I’ve gone back into holding midfield and occasionally centre-back.
“I’ve recently joined the over 40s side and I’m the youngest player there, it’s so exciting. So in many ways I’m Kylian Mbappé now, apart from in an actual footballing way!”
Image courtesy of Max Rushden