Net Busters

Wednesday 23 January 2002

Ian McCulloch continues his look behind the scenes at Craven Cottage...

I had to spend some time out of the country last year. The pain of having to miss some of last year's thrilling promotion push was difficult to endure, and to be honest the only thing that kept me half-way close to sanity was the Fulham website. To be able to get my daily fix of news and views was fantastic, but the most wonderful thing was being able to listen to the live commentaries. It didn't matter where I was, I knew what was happening. What a lifesaver.

Full of gratitude I recently caught up with those wizards of the Internet, Paul Thorpe and Jim McGullion to find out exactly what goes on behind the scenes to bring us those fabulous match day commentaries. From Putney to Peru, from Tooting to Timbuktu, the wonders of modern technology have brought each kick of every ball to all the far flung brotherhood of Fulham fans, whether they be locals unable to get to an away game or ex-pats relocated to some distant corner of the empire and desperate for some news, any news, of their beloved Whites.

At times it's quite difficult to comprehend just how remarkable a service this is. Go back three or four years and tell someone that no matter where they were in the world they would be able to hear ball by ball live commentary of their favourite team, and they would laugh. But it's here, it's happening and it's now something that an awful lot of people have come to rely on. But is it something that we now all take for granted? Don't forget this is a very new technology, and it's still having to graft itself onto the sometimes old fashioned world of football.

Paul and Jim are clearly very proud of what they do, and also very eager to explain why, for reasons outside of their control, it's technically not always as perfect as they would like it to be. Paul explains.

"Home games are different from away games. Obviously at Fulham the set-up is already there in place; we've got our two regular seats, we've got our own telephone points, we've got our own dedicated power points and everything's ready, so we never have any problems at Craven Cottage.

"But for away games, we book the seats, the electrical and telephone points, the three crucial areas, and quite often, one or more of those three will be missing or broken. I imagine a lot of the supporters will think, how on earth can that happen, these are professional football clubs? But the reality of it is, in three games out of four there will be a problem of some sort.

"Basically, anything can go wrong, and just because you've booked everything with the club, it doesn't mean it's going to be there when you arrive. If you can imagine the match day situation, half an hour away from kick-off, nobody from the home club is around and when you do find someone they don't know what you're talking about, it's an absolute nightmare. That's one of the reasons why Jim has gone so grey! I call him Bobby Robson"

One of the big problems for the boys at the away grounds is that a lot of Clubs, like so many companies these days, outsource all their technical work to outside companies. The upshot is that matchday officials (often just stewards) won't have any idea what to do about electrical or telephone problems. Jim takes up the story.

"The phone lines, in particular, are quite often run by an outside contractor, so if you go to someone from the Club with a problem, they don't have a clue what you're talking about. It really can be very frustrating, and very rarely does it ever work like clockwork.

"Home games we've pretty much got down to a fine art now, but away games are fraught with difficulties. And once you've had a problem, it puts pressure on you the following week and it all starts to build up on you. You've got the journey to worry about; we had coaches that didn't make it to Liverpool the other month. You've got the traffic to contend with; how early do you set off? What do you do if you get stuck in a jam? So you've got to get there in plenty of time, and you've got to hope your pass is there. You'll go to the ticket office, the ticket office will send you to reception, reception will send you to the press office - nobody will have your ticket!

"At Tottenham, for instance, a big Club, I asked three different stewards how to get from the press-room to the press-box, and they all sent me in different directions. I'd never been there before, so I was wandering around, until I happened to see someone who I knew was a journalist, and I followed him until we got somewhere!"

There are contingencies if problems persist, but these will usually have a detrimental effect on the quality of the output, something that Paul is particularly unhappy about.

"There are other methods that we can use to get the commentary pumped out, but the quality won't be as good and that's not we're about. We trying to put out a quality product here, but it can sometimes be very, very difficult. You obviously hope the supporters understand, but from their point of view, sitting at home anywhere in the world, it's very difficult for them to visualise just how tough it can sometimes be and I understand that.

"One game that stood out for me, was last season at Gillingham. It was an unbelievable situation, we were actually sat amongst Gillingham fans in the home end of the ground, which was the only place where we could get a live telephone point, and even then we had to run an extension cable about thirty meters long, and I had to sit with the lap-top on my knees. We tried to use the toilet at half time, and they wouldn't let us! I told them I'd never experienced that before and all they could say was "Well you've never been to Gillingham before" - What a horrible place."

Don't get the impression that this is moaning for the sake of it, this is a case of two professionals concerned that everyone understands how much they really care about what they are doing.

"All we're trying to do is get across in a fairly light-hearted way that it's just not as simple as it may seem," says Jim, "There was one game we had, for example, where the guy sitting next to me put his seat down on my modem cable, slicing it in half. Now I didn't know that, all I knew was that I'd been disconnected and had no idea why. So I checked everything. The modem connection into the PC was still there, the plugs were still in, the mouse was still connected, the microphone was all right, I couldn't work it out. So in the end I followed this cable through, and of course there's only about two feet of it left, dangling in mid-air. I felt a right wally! It's those sort of things that are completely out of your control.

"You can get to a ground and say that you've ordered a phone line and an electrical socket, and they say they're there, and of course they're not. The phone line's there, but the power point's somewhere else, three rows behind you. So you sometimes have to have leads and cables all over the place, which people can take out, trip over, tread on. Press boxes are so tight.

"The other thing of course is that the Internet is a temperamental thing in itself. You can get disconnected at any time for absolutely no reason, and again you've got no idea why. All you can do is re-connect as quickly as possible."

Paul intercedes here to point out that Jim supplies the commentary at away games on his own, Paul preferring to be amongst the fans, something that is very important to him.

"I don't want to miss out all the time on being able to watch a match properly," he says, "I don't want to lose out completely on being a fan."

Jim agrees. "You do miss out. Home games aren't as enjoyable for Paul as they would have been if we weren't doing this. It's a great thing to do, we love it, but you don't get the same pleasure as when you're just watching the match. On the odd occasion when I'm not commentating, like the FA Cup games, you do realise how different it is and how much you're missing.

"The thing for me, is that all the problems are at away games, and because I'm the only one there everyone is going to think it's down to me. People can be very critical at times. I think that most people, most of the time, love it, but as soon as anything goes wrong a small minority will be quick to get on your back. It could even be down to their own computer, but they're on the message board straight away."

As Paul says, there are a hundred reasons why things can go wrong at both ends.

"There are a lot of different things or combinations of things that can make the commentary slow or disappear at the users end, and if they assume it's us not doing our job properly then I just put it down to their disappointment. It's like any supporter coming out of a game where their team has been thumped and they'll spend the journey home moaning, but you're only having a dig because you care and love them really."

"I think we're just trying to get over that we're doing our best," says Jim. "One of the other things is that there is a delay factor on the Internet, about 40 seconds, so we've had people saying that Sky have said the game's kicked off and I haven't. So they're straight on the message board saying that Jim isn't even watching! They think I'm still in the pub or something! You have to laugh, but deep down it hurts."

"It can be a bit soul destroying at times," laughs Paul, "But what is important to remember is that we're not professional commentators, we're just two guys trying to do our best for our fellow Fulham supporters."

Which brings us on nicely as to what the boy's backgrounds actually are. Jim kicks off.

"I've only known Paul for a couple of years really, but we've obviously been Fulham fans for a long time. I've worked in regional press for a while, in advertising sales, and going back to the early eighties when I worked on papers in Wimbledon, Putney and Fulham, no one wanted to cover Fulham. By and large, the football reports were done by fans, so I started doing some of them - they couldn't get anyone else to go!

"I then got on to doing away games, and when ClubCall started I did a few reserve games and then got onto home games and that's how I came to be where I was. And then I got to know Paul, and when he set up the website I used to do some bits and pieces, and then when the opportunity came up to do some commentaries, Paul said what do you think? And we gave it a go.

"My biggest problem has been getting to every game, but, touch wood, I haven't had to miss one yet. But that's really how I got to be here; first and foremost I'm a fan, which I've been since the mid sixties. I love it down there, always have done, and to be doing this now is great. I really enjoy it.

"I've got no formal training, I suppose ClubCall was my grounding. The thing about that was there probably weren't that many people listening, but now the demand is frightening, and as Paul says, the disappointment if people can't get the connection is huge. There must be thousands tuning in for the average game."

"It's sixty or seventy countries," interjects Paul, "And at the moment we're averaging between three and five thousand listeners a game. For an away game it's up to five, and then the demand's down to three for a home game. But a big percentage of those are the ex-pats, and that's one of the biggest pleasures I get out of this, being able to bring Fulham and those people back closer together.

"I think the website in general, and the matchday commentary in particular, has rekindled a lot of people's interest in Fulham. Perhaps when they emigrated or whatever, they had resigned themselves to leaving Fulham behind, but now they're only the switching-on of a computer away. They can have conversations on the message-board, listen to the commentary, and Fulham is a part of their lives again, which I think is brilliant."

"And it's coincided with the resurrection of the Club," says Jim, "with Mohamed Al Fayed taking over, Keegan then Tigana, promotion after promotion, if they hadn't had the website it would have been very difficult to have felt a part of it."

Clearly both these guys are overwhelmed by the power of the Internet and the sheer scale of what it can actually do. This is still a relatively new technology, and as Paul says, it has really been a huge learning curve for everybody involved.

"I'm the Internet Manager, and it didn't really dawn on me how powerful the thing is until we went to America with the team last Summer. The first thing I did when I got there was to power up the computer, and there's the website, exactly as I left it in England a few hours ago! That might sound mad, but it really does bring it home to you how phenomenal it is. The power of it is unbelievable."

Earlier in the season, it had been mooted that the TalkSport radio commentary be used on matchdays. Much to the boy's pleasure, the overwhelming view of the fans was that they wanted things to carry on as they were. Paul explains what happened.

"It was put to the supporters, but something like 75% of the people who voted wanted to keep Jim and myself. I think really it's because they know we're fans. If they're hurting so are we. Our commentary might be a bit off the wall, but they know we love the team and the Club. The reason I chose Jim for this was that I knew he was a staunch Fulham fan with Black and White blood running through his veins, and that meant a lot to me. I couldn't sit there and do a commentary with a Chelsea fan sitting next to me!

"The passion that Jim can put over during a game, you can't buy that. That night at Blackburn last season, for instance, Jim started crying and shouting out all the names of old players and managers, his brothers, sisters, and anyone else he could think of. It was quite a speech! The emotion and years of frustration came to a head. Boy, is that a night we'll never forget."

Jim laughs at the memory.

"I don't know where all that came from," he says, "And I think that's why people enjoyed it. It's spontaneous and from a fan. There's no way you could stage anything like that. From a professional point of view, TalkSport or any other radio commentary would probably be preferable, but the bottom line is that if you can't get to an away game, and you want to hear what happens, you want to hear it from a fellow Fulham fan. Perhaps if there are too many technical problems they might start to think the other way, but at the end of the day they would like to listen to somebody they would consider a mate. Someone who's watching the game from the same perspective as their own.

"I was at Anfield the other month and I had Jim Proudfoot sitting behind me. He's a great commentator, but...It's nil-nil and we're getting towards the end and we're digging in, and it wasn't a pretty game, but I'm saying it looks like we're going to get away with a point here, and don't forget this is Anfield, this is the top team in the country, and then all of a sudden I hear, "And Chelsea have scored!" And I very nearly turned round and said something to him. Because he's doing Fulham commentary and he's more concerned with goals going in at Chelsea than what's going on here. Sod Chelsea I thought. A Fulham fan's not going to enjoy that, is he?"

Paul stops laughing long enough to get a word in.

"The thing I will say about Jim, he's not just a pretty face as far as Fulham are concerned, he's been offered a good job at a radio station to cover Charlton's games."

"No there's no appeal for me there," says Jim, "It's nice, but at the end of the day I couldn't do it. I remember sitting with Steve McGhee years ago, having a cup of tea in his room, with the lawnmower, and things were looking really bleak, just before the Orient home game it was. And I remember saying to him, if Fulham went out of business, which potentially could have happened, I wouldn't watch football any more. I'm not a bloke who could go and watch anybody else; I wouldn't go and watch a neutral game. I've had the opportunities to do other things over the years, to go into football journalism properly, but I would have been sent to cover other games, and I'm just not interested.

"All we want to get over is how much we love doing this. When things go wrong it's not because we don't care, and it's not through want of trying, believe me."

It's hard to think back just a few short years and remember what is was like before the Internet. Paul, of course, set up and ran his own Fulham website in the days when most people were still wondering what the world-wide-web thing was all about. As he says, it wasn't all plain sailing when he moved to Fulham.

"When I first came here, it was just me. And although the site was big, and updated regularly, I don't think there was really a lot of strength or quality to it. For the first year of me being here, the restrictions I was working under sometimes meant that I was doing eighteen-hour days, and it was a real struggle. At one time I thought my health was in danger of suffering through it. Certainly my private life was in danger of suffering. The job was all consuming. The kids started screaming when I came home because there was a stranger in the house!

"But now, since we've progressed into the Premiership, my budget has gone up and a big part of my job is co-ordinating all the contributors. Of course, we have Dom (Guerra) on board who is an absolute star. He's a real unsung hero and works his socks off for the site. We get an average of a 100 emails a day, and we end up having to answer those in the evenings. So it's a really massive job, but it's become a lot more manageable now. We have a great website, a good back-end system, and I think we've put together a quality team.

"I'd like to think that we could build on that. The Chairman has backed our ambitions for the website, as have the Board of Directors. I think they realise now how much work goes into it. Something like 75% of all mail-order merchandise is sold through the website, which is massive. It's a fantastic medium, and I'm proud to be part of it, but the real strength is in the contributors and the views of the people who come on day-in, day-out to use it.

"I'm quite experienced on the Internet, I've been using it for seven years, and for a new industry that's quite a long time even though it's still at an embryonic stage. To be honest, I think you'll struggle to find any website, sporting or news, that is updated as often as ours or is as fresh as ours.

"The only thing that worries us slightly, is where do we go from here? The Fulham Today daily newspaper style concept was quite groundbreaking, but what's next? Our challenge now is to come up with something that will take us a stage further. Everything we've done had been copied. We've been first with virtually everything - the first Club with an official message-board, the first Club with audio and TV, the first Club with the Daily Paper concept. It's up to the supporters now to tell us what they want, so that we can keep this website up there with the very best."

In terms of getting feedback from the fans, the guys tried a live phone-in the other month. The response was enormous and the reaction very positive. It's typical of the innovative approach of the team that they are constantly pushing out the boundaries in their efforts to supply the supporters with the best in entertainment and information that there is. Paul was pleased with the experiment.

"We thought the phone-in was successful. We both enjoyed it very much and it was great to talk to the supporters, and it's something we'll do again. Don't forget we're not in a professional studio here, we're just sitting in my office, wires and leads everywhere so again I'm very concerned about the technical quality of what we put out."

He shouldn't worry, it was superb. I had it on in my living room, and to have a few hours of a radio-standard programme devoted to my favourite subject was absolute bliss.

So that's the Fulham Website. If there is a better service provided for football fans anywhere then I'd like to see it. When you look at the dedication, enthusiasm and talent of the people behind it then it's really no surprise that it's as good as it is. Fulham fans everywhere should consider themselves very lucky indeed. And don't forget, this is a service that provides everything, goals and all, absolutely free of charge.

Finally, Paul tells an amusing little story about Fulham's visit to France in the summer. It's funny, but it also perfectly highlights how traumatic it can actually be for the guys behind the scenes getting us that vital piece of commentary.

"We travelled to France for a pre-season friendly," says Paul, "I don't speak a word of French and everybody at the Club knows that. So someone that shall remain nameless gave me note to give to the Press people at the stadium so that I could get to me pre-booked seat. I'm under the impression that it says something like: "Hello, my name's Paul Thorpe from Fulham Football Club. I'm the Club's Internet manager, please supply my press-pass, seat and telephone connection, etc, etc."

"What this note actually says is: "Hello, my name's Paul Thorpe, I am a raving lunatic and a danger to myself and the rest of the general public. I also need to empty my colostomy bag..." Well it wasn't funny at the time!

"Eventually I get to my seat and commentating on those sort of away games is a nightmare at the best of times anyway. There were no team sheets and they played a lot of their reserves who I had never heard of. A French journalist realised during the commentary that I didn't know any of their names, and he wrote the team down for me. It still didn't help, I couldn't understand his writing - I could only make out one name, Lopez!

"So I ended up saying number four is passing to number five, that sort of thing - it must have sounded awful. But again, I defy anyone to get to a friendly away game in France ten minutes before kick-off, have no team-sheet, to be told that they'd completely changed their team, and sound professional! I reckon' even John Motson would have come a cropper."

The perils of the website commentator. And you know, I don't think we'd have it any other way, would we?