Thursday 18 April 2002

From Ian McCulloch

Those of you out there fortunate enough to have Sky satellite dishes sprouting from your roofs, will know that along with the multiple angles, the player-cams and the myriad other gizmo's that are there to help you get even more enjoyment out of watching your favourite football team, there is something called FanZone.

Fed up with listening to the polished tones of a neutral unbiased professional? Well this is for you - two proper fans locked together in a little room and instructed to tell it like it is. It might not be the same as standing on the terraces, but it's as close as you're going to get without leaving your sofa.

So who are these people given the responsibility of representing the mighty Whites in front of the watching millions? Fulham Today caught up with lifelong Fulham fan and regular FanZone commentator Derek Wheeler to find out what it's all about....

Derek, can you explain exactly what FanZone actually is?

"For every live game that Sky show, they offer a number of features that you can access via their interactive channel - you can choose which player to watch, you can call up all the stats - and they've also got this thing that they've been running for about two years called the FanZone.

They get two supporters from the clubs who are playing, and they're put in a room together to watch the game. The idea is really as though I've gone down to Craven Cottage to watch a game and the person sitting next to me is a fan of the other side and we start chatting about our two respective teams."

How did you come to get into that?

"As it happened, my brother had an old school friend who was a producer at Sky. Normally they make the selection from people who have phoned or emailed in, but that's quite a high-risk strategy - sometimes people freeze, or they can swear too much, or they can start making inappropriate comments, start making insinuations about someone's sexuality, that sort of thing.

So they have to be quite careful. The first game I was asked to do was Fulham v Bolton last year, and because they had an older guy from Bolton they wanted a more mature Fulham fan to match him. So my brother's friend, the producer, said he knew just the person; they phoned me, I said yes, and I've been involved ever since. I've done four shows altogether now."

So what actually happens on match day?

"I thought at first that you would actually do the commentary at the game, but you don't, you're taken to the Sky studios over near the airport, and basically you're put together in a broom cupboard!

You have two TV's, a large screen one where you watch the actual broadcast, and a smaller one where you can see the production going on."

Are you given much in the way of preparation or guidance?

"They get the two fans to meet a couple of hours before the match, and what they're trying to do is create some sort of empathy between the two of you. From that, the producer's assistant who's with you can get an idea of how it's going to work out.

But generally, we're all anoraks anyway! We sit there with loads and loads of stats - we bring stuff along from the Club websites or from other sites, but really, you don't want to have too much of that. You're trying to make it flow, there are a few things you want to bring into the conversation, but you don't want to drown the audience in facts and figures.

Basically there's not really much more preparation than that. They rely on the fact that you'll know something about your team, and that you can talk!"

Does it get very competitive in the studio?

"I have to say that the one I enjoyed least was the one I did against Spurs recently, where their fan was a bit arrogant. The other guys I've worked with have been fine. You're not there to be clever with each other. They want some funny banter between you, but they don't want it to go over the top.

It's not usually competitive, although they have had some problems in the past; they have actually had a fight between a Manchester United fan and a Leeds fan!"

Do you find it difficult to always find something to say?

"Surprisingly enough, no, but they do you warn you about what happens if the game is over very quickly. So the Spurs game was quite difficult - you knew it was finished quite early, but what do you do? Do you sit back and let the Spurs fan gloat or do you start making silly comments?

What I did then, my daughter had challenged me to get five words into the commentary - one was couscous; I got that in when I said, "Here's Ouaddou, he's from Morocco, he likes couscous." Another was lizard; we get emails coming in when we're on the air, and the Spurs fan was getting quite upset because there were a lot of them saying Hoddle should resign, and I said, "You get some right lizards on the website." And another was brouhaha; that was easy, I just said, "Did you see that brouhaha between Malbranque and Freund at Tottenham." I don't think the Spurs fan was happy about it, but I got all five words in."

Any embarrassing moments that you'd like to share with us?

"There was one, when we were commentating on the Fulham-Bolton game, when Boa Morte got sent off for spitting. The Bolton fan got very excited by that and said something like, "Look, that Boa Morte has just spat in his face, that's very dangerous what with all this aids and stuff going round," at which point he realised what he was saying. The producer's assistant was sitting there open-mouthed, and the guy quickly starts covering up, "Not that I'm saying things about Boa Morte," he says!

There are a lot of jokes and funny things that come out during the game. What the producer relies on is that most football fans have got a wealth of funny stories and anecdotes that they can bring to the occasion."

You obviously enjoy doing it?

"I love it, but the issue Sky have got, is that they're starting to build up quite a big cadre of commentators, and what they don't want is a situation where the public can say, oh it's Fulham, therefore it must be Derek Wheeler, they don't really want any individual to do more than two or three per season."

Moving on to you, how long have you been a Fulham fan?

"Since 1957, Notts County, 5-2! My earliest memories are of us being promoted in 1959, and I remember the 1962 semi-final when my dad took us to Villa Park. The reason that we're all Fulham supporters is that my Father, after the war, went down to Millwall, when he lived in Lambeth. He had his pocket picked, and his old army mate said to him, you don't want to go there again, we'll take you down to Craven Cottage. And it's all carried on from there."

And finally, any advice for any budding commentators?

"If any Fulham fans want to get involved in FanZone, they should be aware that they have to be confidant enough to keep the commentary going no matter what. They should have a few things ready to say about the team that they can bring into the conversation at any time.

But it's a fun day. You can earn yourself a bit of pocket money, they come and pick you up in a nice car, you meet all the celebrities in the studio and it's all very enjoyable.

The one thing they tell you to do, is don't be Andy Gray! They don't want straight commentary, they want things like the conversation we got into about which team has hit the post the most this season, that kind of stuff."

Thanks Derek. I don't suppose there are many of us out there who haven't said at one stage or another that we could do better than whoever it is spouting forth on the radio or television. It's quite another thing to actually be given the opportunity and have the bottle to go through with it. What fills me with admiration the most though, is the thought of having to sit through the spectacle of Fulham losing at home to Spurs, and not being allowed to swear!