90 Minutes In The TEN Studio…

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Atishay Agarwal writes on his experience of visiting the Ten Sports studio in Dubai, where Joe Morrison and his team do their stuff…

Dubai is a city of unmistakable, in-your-face grandeur. From the moment you land in the UAE’s most popular destination, you’re almost made to feel inferior, inadequate, and in awe of the sheer brilliance that surrounds you.

While the country isn’t traditionally a footballing hotbed in any sense, the large expatriate population (over 80%), especially in Dubai, makes football the most popular sport in the city, at least when it comes to the European game.

Apart from the love for the European game, India does have another little football connection with Dubai, which resides within one building in the Dubai Media City. Taj Entertainment Network, or TEN, has its studio here, and it is this studio from where Champions League images (among other tournaments) have been reaching your TV screens in recent years.

Having never witnessed live telecast of a football show from a studio before, writing to Joe Morrison, the much-loved football presenter at TEN, was too tempting to resist. Joe has endeared himself to football fans in India since he became a TV ever-present on Champions League nights some years ago, and was typically casual and matter-of-fact in his reply. So I headed to the swanky Media City for lunch at a nearby café with the TEN presenter, which was to be followed in a few hours by a visit to the studio for C2K Extra Time.

The first thing that strikes you about the Englishman is that he isn’t uptight or formal in the slightest, but at the same time, he will make you take him seriously. When I insisted that I pick up the cheque for lunch, his instant response was, “Ah, you’re a journalist; you don’t want to be bought.”

It is such offbeat yet uniquely amusing remarks that have seen him carve out a niche for himself on Indian television, and even garner a personal fan following of sorts. Conversation at lunch centred around football, and particularly Indian football. It brings me to why Joe Morrison is different from any other football presenter we’ve seen on Indian television before – he seems to genuinely care about where Indian football is going. While others talk about Indian football purely out of curiosity, one can sense that he shares the general sense of frustration with the stagnancy of Indian football, like we do as fans.

However, he zeroes in on what he says is the biggest deficiency in Indian football, and which holds the key to a better future. “You need a hero,” he exclaims, “and the rest will simply follow”. He goes on to add, “You can build as many academies as you want, and bring in better facilities and what not, but real footballers, the best footballers, are first made in the backyard, on the street, and they will come along only when they have that hero.”

It’s a fair enough point. But what can we do except fold our hands and wait for that long-awaited hero to turn up? “You have a hero already”, he says, before revealing the name, almost to imaginary drumrolls in my head – “Gurpreet Singh”.

The conversation ended abruptly as the only Newcastle fan I’ve ever met was required at his office, but I held on to the topic in my mind as I visited their office a few hours later, half an hour before C2K Extra Time went live on air.

As it so turned out, I happened to bump into Budgie while waiting for the elevator. True to his on-screen persona, the man was in a yellow suit and a black t-shirt, looking as outrageous yet nonchalant about it as ever. After I introduced myself, he led me to the green (read: make-up) room, where Mr. Morrison was being made as pretty as possible for the show. “That’s the other, not-so-cool part of being on TV”, he joked, and turned back instantly to receive a few more brushstrokes on his cheek.

It was a co-incidence that the February issue of 90 Minutes had profiled Gurpreet Singh, so when Budgie began flipping through the copy I handed him, his eyes lit up at that page, and he burst out, “This young guy of yours has so much talent, but time’s running out for him. The coaches at Wigan liked him, and something could have happened, but his club back in India won’t let him go.”

Budgie went on about how Gurpreet has barely gotten playing time this season for the Red and Gold, all the while seeming as if he was talking about his own protégé. Meanwhile, Joe added from the make-up chair, “On the first day of his trial at Wigan, he made a terrible mistake in the very first minute, which led to a goal. It was the worst possible start, but then, a few minutes later, he came out and made up for it with a stunning save. It showed guts, it showed character. It showed he had what it takes. He impressed the coaches there.”

In the view of both, Gurpreet could potentially go on and play in one of the better leagues in Europe, but only if he is coached the right way immediately. Unfortunately, both think it is now almost a lost cause.

I caught my first glimpse of Carlton Palmer as he walked into the room in shorts and snickers, after what must have been a run or workout of some kind. He’s easily the most soft-spoken of the three, which might not always be the case on TV. Budgie and Joe on the other hand, kept up their verbal sparring throughout, with the make-up girl often having to take sides.

About to witness a live telecast, I was under the impression that the studio, producer included, would be a house of panic before and during the show, but I couldn’t be more wrong. Jason, their Aussie producer, was as cool as they come, and everyone in the studio was mostly calm, smiling, and content.

Maybe the reason for it was Annah Jacob, the young lady (of Indian origin) who hosts the Gossip Girl segment on C2K Extra Time, and was the cynosure of all eyes in red. Budgie, never one to hold back, also turned out to be quite the smooth talker when chatting up Annah, and things did get a bit ‘spicy’ when talk turned to his suit, leading to inevitable jokes about bananas, which I’d better leave out of this.

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Carlton walked in a few minutes before they went on air, and everyone was set to go! While most football programming on TV aims to be serious and intellectual, the team at TEN have their own way of doing things, which often polarize the audience. While topics of discussion on the show that day seemed to be decided in advance, all three kept things mostly spontaneous.

‘Captain Marvels’ was the subject of the ‘Legends Debate’ on the night, and almost all the names were thought of on camera. There was absolutely no discussion about it off air. Even the tweets that Joe read out during the show were picked at random, and at that very moment. It is one of TEN’s biggest successes – the way in which they have interacted with their audience and kept them engaged. While other channels have begun giving Twitter importance as well, they do so in a more structured and rigid manner, which makes the whole exercise redundant anyway.

The trio switched off during breaks, casually joked with one another about what could have been avoided or said earlier, and switched back on as soon as the cameras rolled again. Budgie, for all those who might be interested, is almost exactly the same on and off camera. Even during telecast, he’d make a comment and then search for eye-contact with people standing behind the cameras to share a childlike smile. It was as if he didn’t even know he was on national television. The constant joking and one-upmanship among the trio kept the entire camera crew in splits as well, as they constantly laughed sheepishly while behind the lens.

Once the show was over, Carlton gave most pages in the magazine his scholarly glance, while Joe was particularly impressed by our “Remember The Name” section, in which Marcus Haydon runs the rule over some of the upcoming youngsters you may not have heard of. For all their outspokenness, both Carlton and Budgie came across as extremely courteous, likable and genuine people off camera; people you’d like to watch football games with.

After I thanked Joe for everything, he put me on the spot: “What do you think of our content Atishay, honestly?” It took me back to the interview I’d done with him for the magazine over a year back, where I asked him about how difficult it was for him and the team to follow John Dykes and ESPN’s act. My answer was on the same lines.

“You guys might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the best thing you’ve done is stay true to yourselves. You know what you’re trying to achieve. You haven’t tried to be anyone else, which in turn has won you several fans over the years. You focus on entertainment along with analysis, which also attracts viewers who are new to football”, I replied.

Joe shot back, “You know which is the best compliment I’ve received while working here? It was when a young boy told me that his mother loves our show. That’s a win for us.”

It surely is.

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