By Nick Friend
On the back of his recent appointment as ITV’s lead football presenter, sports presenter and Hatfield alumnus Mark Pougatch speaks to Palatinate, revealing all about his time at Durham, his love of cricket and the life of a journalist.
“When the boss says ‘And we want you to go to Australia to cover the Ashes for seven weeks’, you know you’ve made a pretty good career choice.”
This line is symptomatic of Mark Pougatch’s attitude towards everything I throw at him. His love for journalism – and more specifically – sports broadcasting, is obvious.
“I was interested in the media from the age of 12 when I heard Test Match Special on the radio while playing cricket in the garden with my dad,” he explains. “I thought to watch cricket, be paid and eat cake sounded like a winning formula.”
Whereas others in his profession have somewhat stumbled into the world of sports journalism, for Pougatch, the pathway was clear. In his last year at Durham, he took on the role of Palatinate Sport Editor – a job that, according to his memory of it – appears to have changed for the better.
“We used a very ancient system of ‘cut and paste’, nothing computerised of course, and it took a full twelve hours to get the pages ready in one go.” In the long run, however, the days spent toiling in the Palatinate office have been hugely rewarding.
With Adrian Chiles joining Andy Townsend and Matt Smith in leaving ITV – possibly in anticipation of their reduced broadcasting rights in the upcoming years – Pougatch has moved in to fill his shoes.
“It’s a huge opportunity to be asked to front ITV’s football coverage and with the Champions League knockout stages coming soon, I’m very excited about the upcoming games.”
The appointment has brought praise from many, including Guardian sportswriter Barney Ronay, who described him as a ‘good presenter and crucially not embarrassing or annoying.’
With every answer he gives, it is difficult to dispute Ronay’s observation. He sees his work on Sports Report as “the pinnacle for any sports broadcaster.”
“I listened to Sports Report as a boy while my dad cleaned his shoes for the week ahead,” he tells me. “I still think about that every Saturday at five o’clock. That music, Out of the Blue, is some of the most famous in this country. In an ever changing, fast-paced, technologically complex world, it still – remarkably – holds its own with great style and presence.”
Pougatch’s enthusiasm for his job is infectious and the commitment that goes into his work is palpable from the way in which he talks about his profession.
“It’s better than working for a living. It’s hard work (if you’re doing it right) and you need huge stamina, but going to Stamford Bridge on a Champions League night is not exactly like going to the office for the day.”
‘Work hard’ is Pougatch’s mantra. He describes it as the best piece of advice that he has ever received. He expands, giving his own advice to aspiring young journalists.
“Work hard,” he repeats. “Be curious. Listen, watch and read all sorts of different outlets and decide for yourself what you like and what you don’t; what works and what doesn’t. Make sure you have a thick skin and even more stamina. Be prepared for anti-social hours, missed parties and motorway food.”
It is for these reasons that he makes a point of defending the role of pundits. Often maligned – most recently with Jose Mourinho’s attack on Sky’s unnamed Diego Costa critic, Pougatch is at pains to emphasise the skills required.
“Pundits have to work hard at their job. They have to know what the current trends are, who all the players are and their histories. That sounds blindingly obvious but you’d be surprised.”
Although not necessarily a household name to non-radio listeners, Pougatch’s work with BBC Radio 5Live has seen him present from the most major of sporting events from around the world.
He can’t pick an individual highlight but recalls Mo Farah’s 5,000 and 10,000 metre double victory at the London Olympics as a “gigantic effort and stupendous achievement against a backdrop of a crescendo of noise.”
Pougatch though, is, at heart, a cricket fan. His recollection of England’s 2005 Ashes win at The Oval is testament to his passion for the sport.
“When Flintoff was out just before lunch on the final day I really thought the Australians would win the match and keep the Ashes. Then Pietersen launched that assault on Brett Lee and the faster the Aussies bowled the further he hit them. It was a brutal, instinctive counter attack and given what was at stake, thrilling beyond words. And you knew the entire country was watching and listening. The last time England had won the Ashes, I hadn’t even been to Durham yet!”
Durham, he says, has been “hugely important” in his life.
“I made many lifelong friends and one lifelong wife! I’ve always thought the collegiate system means you do get to know people very well.”
Indeed, although working in an industry that does not necessarily lend itself to sociability and spare time, it is an accolade voted for by his peers that gives Pougatch most satisfaction.
“The people you see in tunnels and press boxes, they know what it takes to make a living in this business so I was very pleased.”
The award shows the high regard to which Pougatch is held within the most competitive of industries. ITV’s decision to leave some of Britain’s most watched events in his hands is testament to his professionalism.
His final piece of advice is the most valuable and embodies the way in which he speaks about his career.
“It’s a brilliant life,” he assures me. “Enjoy it, relish it, don’t take it too seriously and be prepared for the knock backs but bounce back.
“Oh and did I say – work hard.”
Photographs: Mark Pougatch