Off the bench, on to the sofa

Ten years after it began, 'Soccer AM' has become a cult preview show for fans of the beautiful game. Co-host Tim Lovejoy tells Ian Burrell how creating a fictional TV channel was his ticket to a dream job
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The Independent Online

But even when trawling the deepest outposts of his imagination he surely could not have foreseen things turning out like this. It's not so much the bizarre turn of fortunes that has seen Ken Bates turn into Roman Abramovich and transform Stamford Bridge into the home of the English champions. It's more the fact that he's hanging out with film stars such as Ray Winstone, rock stars such as Noel Gallagher and presenting shows on television and radio.

The start of the football season this month marks the 10th anniversary of his partnership with co-host Helen Chamberlain on the cult Saturday morning Sky Sports show Soccer AM, part of the pre-match routine of professional footballers up and down Britain. He also this month begins a new show on Virgin Radio, presenting a three-hour programme on Sunday afternoons.

Away from the studio and the quick-witted banter that is his on-air trademark, Lovejoy is a thoughtful programme-maker with outspoken views on the broadcasting sector.

"Too many people go on radio and just read what The Sun had written that morning. Who cares?" he says as part of a wider attack on the paucity of original material on many shows on television and radio.

"Two things that are the worst things I've ever seen. One is lookalikes, the worst comedy I've ever seen. And the other is when a DJ says 'A survey out today...'. Why can't they do their own survey? I find it very frustrating when people don't put any production values into their work. The people who do it know who are they are."

Lovejoy credits Chris Evans (with whom he worked on The Big Breakfast early in his career) as being the man who taught him that the quality of a programme is directly related to the amount of groundwork that has gone into it. "I learned more off Chris Evans in the month I worked with him than I learned off anyone else," he says. "As a presenter, the more you put in, the more material you have to work with. So many people just turn up and wing it. Chris Evans never winged anything."

Lovejoy's route to The Big Breakfast was a circuitous one. First he left Austin Reed to try to make fast money in the financial sector. "I was rubbish at it. I hated it," he now admits.

Then late one night, in a restaurant after a club, came a moment which, if not quite Damascene, was the kick-start to his career as a broadcaster. "This man said to me 'You look unhappy, you should follow your dream'. It sounds like a Hollywood movie but it's true. I went away and thought 'What the hell am I doing? I'm obsessed with TV and radio'."

Lovejoy made a show-reel by pretending to work for a made-up channel, Cable London, filming vox pops and interviews with unsuspecting minor celebrities. "It was all about being wacky," he says scornfully of early Nineties television. "That was the time in those days - 'We are on TV, we're all crazy and we just don't care'. Sadly some people still make TV like that."

Lovejoy's bonkers antics were enough to get him a job on MTV as a stand-in movie reviewer. "I was hopeless at it," he says matter-of-factly, adding that he is not a big cinema-goer. But at least it was a bridgehead to a researcher's job on Big Breakfast.

Some cynical terrace veterans see Lovejoy as part of the post-Euro 96 era of millionaire players and armchair supporters. But that's not accurate. As a young producer he quickly became "frustrated" that his frequent suggestions for football-related items were met with indifference or rejected as being insufficiently wacky. One Lovejoy piece that included an early interview with a young David Beckham was rejected because the footballer had not been dressed in a Red Devil's costume. "Everyone seemed to think football wasn't of much interest to people. So I wrote to Sky for a job," he says.

In 1995 he was offered a presenting/producing ("player-manager") role on the fledgling Saturday morning show Soccer AM. ("It was a cross between a kids' show and a chat show.")

A decade later, the show is still running. He admits that when he first saw tapes of the show's presenter, Helen Chamberlain, he thought: "I've got to get rid of her." He says: "They just used her in a bad way. She had so much personality but they just hadn't let it come out." He now thinks - "and I've worked with a few girls" - that Chamberlain is "the best female presenter on TV". "If you look at the whole package: personality, skills, the whole lot. She's absolutely fantastic."

A key moment for the show was when Robbie Fowler, then at Liverpool, came on the show and allowed Lovejoy to indulge in "banter" over a Chelsea victory over the Reds. For the uninitiated, Soccer AM is nothing like highlights-based Saturday morning football forerunners such as BBC1's Football Focus.

Sketches include a penalty shoot-out at a funfair-style target, with commentary by a Liam Gallagher lookalike in a parka. A recent item, Temptation Ireland, showed a man in a pub guzzling the leftovers of a pint of Guinness and appeared to owe nothing at all to the beautiful game. "The further it's gone, the less in-depth about football and the more about entertainment it has become," says Lovejoy.

The success of Soccer AM has led to several spin-offs for Lovejoy. He worked as a DJ on London-based radio station Xfm. "Radio is a lot looser [than TV] and there are very different skills. A lot of people who cross from TV to radio don't realise that."

More importantly, he was given his own music and chat-based TV programme Showtime. It was dropped by Sky One after one series. "I think it's really sad. Sky One could have owned live music. What we did was special, a really interesting concept and some great guests," he says. "Sadly the people that watched it weren't as many as there should have been. I think TV is the only industry in the world where you spend a million and a half pounds on a programme and not let people know it's on."

But he is back stronger than ever. Virgin Radio, which has also bolstered its roster with star signing Christian O'Connell, has given him carte blanche with his Sunday show, he claims.

Meanwhile, the footballers continue to queue up for the Soccer AM couch.

"I've upset two players, taking the mickey out of them. Ridiculous comments. Cheap, rubbish, humour. I later met one of them and he explained to me how I'd upset him because 'people watch Soccer AM and will believe the rubbish you are saying'. I thought, 'I like these people, what am I doing?' From that day I decided not to do that.

"We know a lot of gossip and scandal about players but never put it on TV. We like the fact that when footballers tune in they know we are the show that will look after them. Footballers are lovely people."

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