6 May ~ Why Paul Gascoigne can be credited with the idea for Gazzetta Football Italia. Continuing our 25 years of WSC special, in 1993 Philip Cornwall interviewed James Richardson, presenter of a new football programme on Channel 4, at a time when Gascoigne, David Platt and Des Walker were playing in Serie A, and people had doubts over Silvio Berlusconi

How did Chrysalis come to do the programme in the first place?
Chrysalis and Paul Gascoigne had done Gascoigne – the Fightback together. And Paul said to the producer, Neil Duncanson, that it was a shame that nobody would be able to see his games. So Neil asked the Italian Federation, who said that Chrysalis couldn't show just Lazio's games, but they could cover the whole league if they put in a bid. Sky weren't expecting it and promptly lost the contract. It all happened over a really short space of time, which is one of the reasons I got the job.

Did you consciously try to make your style different from other presenters, or is that just the way it worked out?
It probably helped that I didn't grow up watching a lot of football television. I don't get off massively on Saint & Greavsie, for example. So there wasn't much danger of me falling into that trap. When I did my first week's work out here, I was told to do a screen test, doing whatever felt most natural. So I stood there on a terrace above Genoa, my arms going like windmills, and started talking and walking. I don't know why, but I find my mouth moves better if the rest of my limbs are going in conjunction. I'd have been in real trouble if they'd said, "No, don't do it like that." That's all I could have done, really - either that or else be very, very stilted.

How long is Chrysalis' contract?
We're likely to still be here next year. The Italians haven't yet worked out who's going to own the international rights for Serie A football. We signed a one-year contract but RAI (the Italian state television network) only had their contract for one year, so that was all they could offer us. If we are here, then we will have a presence in the stadium. Italian football has many attractions – one of which is the tremendous atmosphere. The thing is to have the commentary team plus our own camera so we can take our own shots of the things going on. We'll have me in the stadium, saying, "Here's one team," cue feature, and "Here's the other team"; then "Here are the commentators," and we'll have them standing there in blue blazers, saying "Chuck, you gotta believe this, it's gonna be a tough game for those red and blacks..."

The Sunday game competes successfully with the rival attractions of Sky and lTV. How well has the Saturday morning show done?

It is a really difficult time of day, but we've been getting close to a million viewers. Our average is about 800,000. I've no idea how good that is for one season – I'm used to satellite where two people is a boon. I didn't know what figure to expect, but the fact that it is the highest rating show ever on a Saturday morning for Channel 4 probably isn't a bad indication of success. Generally, one of the nicest things about this season is that it could have easily failed. Then, we'd have looked back and said, "Oh look, it's obvious why: because Milan dominated, it only looked like getting interesting at the end, so nobody really got into it." Whereas we've had a tremendous success this year, despite the fact that we've never been able to put on a match and say, "This is a battle for the title" except perhaps the highlights of the Inter v Milan game a couple of months ago. It's caught on, in spite of the handicap of the most one-sided season in ages.

The three Englishmen have played a prominent part in the programmes, especially Paul Gascoigne...
Paul, as I said, is credited by Neil Duncanson with the idea. We needed to convince a TV network that it was going to work, and get some big audiences to start with. Lazio's first game, even without Gascoigne, got over three million viewers. But a lot of our biggest games have been those that haven't involved the English. It's obvious now that the audience are very involved because of the football, not because there are a couple of Brits running around. However, Gascoigne is a focal point of interest, also for the Italians. Even the Roma fans, who hate anything to do with Lazio, think he's a great player, but one who by a stroke of sheer bad luck for him, and them, ended up at the wrong club. In terms of Paul's work for the programme, at the start of the season he was very suspicious of journalists, and thought he had enough on his plate. But pretty soon he realised that it didn't take long to do, and, indeed, one day said to us that he liked the show because it gave him a chance to put his side of the story. He's a really nice guy, generous and unpretentious. Every now and then he talks to the film crew in Italian - and they've understood what he's said, after some days' reflection. But he knows more than enough Italian to get by on the football field.

David Platt is still respected, particularly for what he does for England. Hardly an article goes by without mentioning his goalscoring record for England but commenting that Juventus use him as a midfielder. He's also admired for knuckling down and not complaining about this. And, of course, for what he did at Bari. Des Walker has not been followed as closely as the others, but while he hasn't done well, part of the problem has been that areas of the British press have enormous difficulty dealing with sophisticated or complex reactions - he either has to be brilliant or terrible. He has played some blinders, but only in the middle - when they've played him outside, he's always gone back into the middle anyway and someone's got behind him. But it's not what Sampdoria paid all that money for, or waited two and a half years to buy. Most Italians feel that he was too expensive - given the quality of Italian defenders and the importance of the system above individuals at the back, they don't think he was worth it.

Finally, what stands out after a year of the programme?

If there was one thing I could change, it would be believing so much of what the Italian papers say. I can only stand Tuttosport once a week but it's always good for a stupid headline. I think they learn never to edit anything. Gazetta della Sport normally give a two-line comment about each player, but when Roberto Baggio scored at Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Cup Final First Leg, his said: "The fields are green, the Borussian stands are now empty. The sky is clear; it's both clear and yet far away. He started off slowly, but he found a voice as sweet as Caruso's, and as tender as Gigli's. His detractors are distracted." But I believed them when they said Bergkamp was going to Milan not Inter.

Secondly, the tangentopoli corruption scandal, which has torn Italian society apart, has affected Fiat badly and this is supposed to have held back Juventus this year. A few Serie A presidents have been arrested, so football has been hit quite seriously. Berlusconi's brother has been arrested. But I don't think football is any more crooked than some other areas of life. Everybody asks, since Berlusconi runs everything in Milan, how could all this have happened without him knowing. I imagine that he is an intelligent enough man not have become involved in anything... but the name everyone is waiting for is Berlusconi.

And thirdly, the extent to which Lazio has a deeply po-faced, unrelaxed environment. You look at Roma training and they're having a good time. Lazio training is a serious business. Lazio fans are sad people (I'm a Roma fan). Their songs are so unimaginative. They sing It's A Hard Day's Night, but don't go to the bother of coming up with new words for the song. It's just "La-La-La Laaaaaziio", which is one of the most pitiful things you can ever hear a group of people singing. But Gascoigne does bring them to life. Someone recently said to me, "It is strange that it took an Englishman, whom we always think of as cold, island-dwelling Northern types, to let us rediscover the joy of football." After he burped when asked a question, we went to interview some Lazio fans and they said yes, that was what we needed more of, players burping at microphones.

Comments (4)
Comment by Paul Rowland 2011-05-06 15:24:27

Is this the same James Richardson who now does that "Football Weakly" podcast thing on the Guardian website? Well I'll go to the foot of our stairs. 1993 eh? Crikey.

He must be a lot older than I thought he was....


Comment by caleyi 2011-05-09 10:14:28

Good piece. What amazes me is that none of the big broadcasters have tried to emulate the brilliance of the Italia coverage - a competent and engaging journalist/broadcaster introducing and prompting intelligent discussion about the match and the past week, introductions to the towns/cities the teams came from, a few key moments in the club's history, their big players, story of the season, all great pieces which C4 managed to do in some limited broadcast time, yet Sky and especially ITV continue to be obsessed with revisiting some tedious fabricated controversy with ex-pros who have absolutely nothing to say. and why can't one of the minor broadcasters pick up Bundesliga / Ligue Un / Serie A now, and do something with it ? (ESPN shouting at you doesn't count)

Comment by Analogue Bubblebath II 2011-05-09 15:55:34

God, Italian football was so good back then.

Gazzetta and RTE's Monday night highlights show were the two best sporting programmes on television.

Comment by robw 2011-05-10 12:44:03

James Richardson was so utterly brilliant presenting Gazzetta. Wonderfully produced show.

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