Friday, 14 May 2010

Sports Industry Awards

Someone asked me earlier in the week if I am now a little bit obsessed by Sir Alex Ferguson, and do you know what, I am beginning to think he is following me around. I was at the Sports Industry Awards last night, and there he was again. That makes three meals I've had with him in a week. Of course, I told everyone I saw at the dinner, for most of the night. Remarkably, though, Sir Alex didn't mention me in turn when he made the acceptance speech for her Lifetime Achievement Award. I guess he didn't want to namedrop.

I have to say that the Sports Industry Awards make for one of the best evenings in the calendar, and I was delighted to get an invite from Tim Lawler, the Chief Executive of SportsAid - the charity which produced the remarkable hit-rate of having supported 18 of Britain's 19 Beijing gold medallists when they were nothing more than promising youngsters.

Because SportsAid was the event's benefitting charity, my evening started through the VIP entrance, rather than fighting through the crowds. Walking up the red carpet, surrounded by snapping photographers, is an experience. I'd imagine so, anyway. Unsurprisingly, I didn't actually find out: the bouncer advised me to 'wait until they've had the chance to get some clear shots of Annabel (Croft)' who was walking in ahead of me. And of course, having done so, I then marched down to witness them peering my way, quickly working out that they had no idea who I was, and taking the few spare moments to look down at their digital screens and check out what they'd snapped to date. Still, it was a bit of fun.

It also meant that once I'd got inside, I was in the little area roped off for the rich and famous, and given that there were plenty of them and it was not a huge enclosure, I can say with absolute honesty, and not even having to pretend a teeny bit, that I was rubbing shoulders with them. Half, it seemed, had been at the League Managers' bash the other night: well, Fabio Capello, Brian Barwick, and the aforementioned Glaswegian, at least.

When I walked in, all of them of them were standing in a little circle which also included Alastair Campbell and Brendan Foster, but Barwick was having none of my brazen attempt to break into the group. As I greeted him, he told me to say hello to my dad - who was, he said, "one of the sports true gents and a proper, proper bloke" - and then promptly turned his back on me to talk to the others. He's a big man, Brian Barwick. There's no getting past that back. It's almost as wide as I am tall.

Never mind: there were plenty more to see. In a week that has seen me recapture lots of moments of my youth, I then spotted a chap called Steve Walford, who, back in the days when I would trail around behind dad at a football ground a week, worked as a liaison officer for Match of the Day. I made a beeline for him, only to discover as I got to him that he was talking to Michael Lynagh, the former Australian fly-half.

I once interviewed Lynagh back in the days when I was working for Five Live at the same time as we were trying to set up Betfair, and it made for a reasonably amusing story which almost saw me lose both jobs at once.

There was a gathering of rugby greats at a lunch at the Rubens hotel in Victoria, and Five Live sent me down to get as many short interviews as I could get. But, they said, on no account miss either David Campese or Michael Lynagh. Doing so was on pain of... well, probably not working for them again.

At Betfair, though, we were having a bit of a crisis. I can't remember why, now; I just know that we were having a lengthy conference call, and my input was required. So there I was at the Rubens Hotel, waiting for the rugby lunch to break up, and trying to do this call somewhere quiet so that no-one got annoyed with me. The place I found was one of the phone booths in the hotel, which is clearly not intended to be a booth for someone on a mobile, but a booth for someone without a mobile, who needs a phone. No matter: I was in it. Anyone needing a long-distance call would have had to go elsewhere.

Every few minutes, I would poke my head out of the booth to see if the lunch had broken up. On and on it went, so after a few "every few minuteses", it became "every five minutes" and then, "every seven minutes or so". You'd think that the longer it went on, the more frequently I would check, not the less. But I was into the call, and you can guess what happened next.

How long it was between the penultimate and the final check, I'm not sure. But, it almost goes without saying, it was too long: the lunch had not only broken up, but half the guests had disappeared; among them, of course, Lynagh and Campese.

Crisis! And not just for me, but back at TV Centre. Lynagh, aware that he had been asked to do an interview, had called them. Where was this bloke they had asked him to meet? My editor that day had tried to contact me; but of course my phone was engaged. As I hung up on the conference call (which, at least, had just ended), my voicemail called me immediately. Three messages. The middle one was "where the bloody hell are you?"; the others, set either side, formed a linear progression from polite enquiry to outright abuse.

Thankfully, Lynagh appeared, moments later, and we did our interview. He, in turn, then called Campo, who had gone to his room. We ended up doing his interview sitting on his bed.

Back to last night, though, where we were lucky enough to be on a table right at the front. It was a hugely entertaining evening: Martin Bayfield, as compere, was as brilliant as ever (even if, inevitably, he re-told half the jokes he had made doing the same job on Monday for the LMA); Betfair was nominated for a sponsorship award for its Fan versus Fan campaign, which was some achievement; Clare Balding came over all weak-kneed after meeting Alastair Cook; and Alastair Campbell got booed.

The highlight for me, though, must have been the moment when Fabio Capello made a short speech, after making a presentation, which left everyone scratching their heads in utter bewilderment. He was absolutely, 100%, impossible to understand. When I woke up this morning to hear on the sports news that the England manager is considering a complete change of tactics before the World Cup, I was left wondering: is he really? Or is it just that the team have spent his first couple of years not understanding a word of what he tells them?

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