Long before Vicki Sparks became a regular commentator for the BBC, she found herself immersed in one of English football’s most infamous moments.
“I must have been eight. I heard a lot of shouting, and it turned out it was half-way through the penalty shootout between England and Germany at Euro 96.”
“I’d never experienced any football before. My Dad explained what penalties were, and what football was, in 30 seconds. Then Gareth Southgate missed that penalty. Having watched 30 seconds of football in my life, I was hooked.”
Who knows what Vicki Sparks’ career could have looked like if England did not make it to the Euro 96 semi-finals or, on the flip side, if Southgate did convert his career- defining penalty?
Sparks then started going to games with her father. It was watching her local club (a closely guarded secret for most commentators) that she really fell in love with the beautiful game.
“It’s the sense that within that 90 minutes, it really matters what happens. The euphoria when your team scores a goal and the despair when your team loses – you know that it doesn’t mean that much, but it feels like it does.”
One thing is for certain, Sparks is a storyteller. A Durham alumna, throughout her time as an English undergraduate at Collingwood, Sparks found time to star in plays, be a college sports reporter for Palatinate and play a big part in Durham’s Christian Union. When we sat down with her at Maiden Castle before Christmas, her love for the University, and the city, was clear. Yet, perhaps most importantly, Durham gave Sparks her first taste of the airwaves.
“It was amazing, I loved Durham. Me and three friends did a show called Sport Weekly on Purple Radio. It was a national look at sport from a fan’s perspective, full of very terrible puns. But for me, the best moments were spent with friends, down on the Racecourse after exams in first year, playing some football and enjoying a BBQ.”
Whilst at Durham, Sparks had work experience with BBC Surrey and BBC Newcastle. She left Durham just as the BBC was moving its headquarters to Salford, leaving Sparks with a tough career choice.
“Because a lot of people didn’t make the move to Salford, London and the South became incredibly competitive. I thought it’d be better to stay up in the North East and pursue the work experience route at BBC Newcastle. My primary objective was to find a job that would also give me free food, and The Picnic Basket was my favourite sandwich shop in Durham, so I got a job there.”
“I gave myself two years to get a paid shift at BBC Newcastle. If I hadn’t done that within the first two years, that didn’t mean I’d have given up on this dream, but it meant that I didn’t just say ‘right this is definitely what I’m going to do’ into my 40s and still not do it.”
Of course, Sparks did get her paid shift and the rest, as they say, is history. Now a regular commentator for 5Live and Match of the Day, she has some great advice for those looking to follow her into the industry.
“Any work experience you can get is important – it’s an industry that’s about building contacts. The other thing I’d say is create your own experience. There’s so much that you can do to enhance your own skills. Put it out online and even if nobody else watches it, or reads it, you’ve done it.
“I used to go to Sunderland Women’s, sit in the stands with a Dictaphone, and do my own commentary. You had to shut out that people were looking at you a bit weirdly, but you got to be at a live game, practise your commentary and listen to it back.”
Practise clearly makes perfect for Sparks, who still tries to listen back to every piece of commentary she does today.
“It seems like the best approach to analyse your own work and most broadcasters I know are their biggest critics. There are objective things that make a good commentator, and then there are subjective things.”
“For radio, it’s so important to know in every 30 seconds ‘are they going to score?’. I always found that I just wanted to know where the ball was listening to radio, so that’s what I really focus on. You’ve got to look at the really basic things – how often do you mention the score, how often do mention the radio station, how good is your geography on the pitch, how well can people picture what you’re saying, how can you add colour into what you’re doing?”
Despite spending her life watching football games, often twice when reviewing her own work, it’s clear that Sparks’ love for football shows no sign of waning. We talk at length about England’s men’s and women’s teams hopes at their respective major tournaments in 2022, and she’s surprisingly optimistic for someone who’s first taste of football was that fateful day at old Wembley.
Sparks suggests, “Gareth Southgate has created an environment where they can achieve. On the world stage, they’ve got a lot of competition, but they have a potential that might take them all the way. With the women, England have got a great chance. It’s going to be one of the most competitive women’s tournaments in the history of the game.”
As so many Durham students do, Sparks has also fallen in love with the North East, a place she still calls home, and its footballing scene. We talk about the rise of women’s football in the region, with Sunderland Ladies and Durham Women in the WSL Championship and Newcastle set for a quick rise up the ranks.
“Look at the number of players in the England team now that have roots in the Sunderland academy — it’s been a training ground for some of the best players that England Women have ever seen. Hopefully the women’s teams are going to be plugging into that massively.”
Of course, Qatar 2022 does not come without its controversies. Amnesty International have raised questions over migrant worker’s rights in the region and Qatar has faced many criticisms over their human rights record.
Sparks tells us, “For me, sport is a celebration of all that is good about humanity. It’s one of the reasons why athletics is one of my favourite sports – it’s the elementals. How fast can a human run? How high can they jump? How far can a human throw? There’s something so pure about that.”
“If we separate human rights from sports, then I think we are doing both human rights and sport a disservice. As journalists, our job is to ask questions and cover all aspects of an event.”
“FIFA and the Qatar 2022 Local Organising committee have been pretty clear about the potential of the tournament to transform worker’s rights within the region. As journalists, we should saying, how much has that happened? We have the ability and the power to ask those questions.”
From the terraces with her Dad, to the Picnic Basket in Durham, to commentating at the 2018 World Cup and on Match of the Day, Vicki Sparks’ love of sport has never faded. Whilst telling the stories of football games up and down the country, Sparks’ own narrative becomes all the more charming.
“I grew up listening to 5live and watching Match of the Day. It’s easy to get caught up in the rhythm of what I do. Occasionally, I do just stop and think ‘wow I get to talk about football and get paid for it.’ I enjoy every minute of it. Honestly, I would be happy doing this for the next fifty years.”
From the ear-to-ear grin across her bespectacled face, you can tell that this is someone who gets to do what she truly loves every day.
Image: Vicki Sparks