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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Jake Humphrey: ‘Would I go back to football broadcasting? Probably no’

Jake Humphrey doesn’t like being interviewed.

“I get the fear,” says the former BT Sport presenter as we take our seats by the window of an unnecessarily dark coffee shop in London’s Mayfair. Humphrey moves the conversation swiftly on to talk about the challenges and frustrations of having limited time to hold in-depth conversations with pundits or players during his time fronting BT’s football coverage, and how much he values the differences in that respect between television and podcasts.

But as we talk more, the subject of “the fear” returns.

“I still get triggered with things like this,” he says of his interview with The Athletic, “because my head goes, ‘You have this great conversation, you’ve been really honest. What headline do they pick?’. Because that can then just bring me more heat, more hate.

“In some ways, it makes you think, ‘What’s the point even talking about this stuff?’. But then I think I should talk about it, because this is a lived experience that I wouldn’t want someone else to live.”

Humphrey’s lived experience is one of strange contrasts.

He has been trusted with some of the biggest jobs in sports broadcasting, covering Formula One, Euro 2012 and the London Olympics for the BBC before helping launch the BT Sport channel where he spent 10 years hosting their Premier League and, later, Champions League coverage before leaving last summer. He’s built a successful production company, Whisper, and co-hosts the High Performance Podcast, which has been downloaded more than 100million times and has been trusted by some of the biggest names in sport as a space where they can speak more openly than ever.

Humphrey started working for BBC Sport in 2005 and began anchoring its F1 coverage in 2009 (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

He has also been subjected to a maelstrom of criticism and abuse on social media, something he blames partly on the “vitriolic” nature of football.

“That is part of the magic of football”, he says. “People bloody care about it. But it’s hard when you’re just going to work to try to earn your money and pay your mortgage and feed your kids, and you’re getting pelters from people who assume you hate their football club, or that you’re not very good at your job.

“That ground me down. I’m just not very good at dealing with that sort of stuff. I remember saying to Gary Lineker, ‘How do you deal with that?’. And he said, ‘I don’t care about it, it bounces off me’.

“I would go, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna feel the same’. But I just couldn’t. I never felt comfortable with that sort of criticism, because I don’t understand it. For someone to think I’m not very good at my job is fine but some of it strayed into bullying territory.”

There is a belief — wrongly held, says Humphrey — that anyone who steps into a high-profile role presenting top-level football is all ego. Smug. Arrogant. Conceited. Or, at the very least, hyper-confident.

“Trust me, that is all a fucking act,” he says. “It really annoyed me when someone would go, ‘He’s so smug, I can’t stand him’, or ‘He absolutely loves himself’.

“You couldn’t be further from the truth. But you can’t argue with those things. You just have to let them go. At times it felt like… I was a bit targeted.”

It’s fairly unusual to see presenters walking away from lead presenting jobs in football like the one Humphrey had at BT Sport. He says it was history repeating itself, after he left behind another coveted role at the BBC where his contract included presenting programmes such as Match of the Day 2 and Sports Personality of the Year, and major events: Olympic and Commonwealth Games, World Cups, European Championships and F1.

Saying goodbye to the BBC was a life decision, he says. His wife was pregnant with their first child and he couldn’t countenance the time away from home those jobs would entail.

A decade on, he says it was a combination of factors that led to his departure from BT Sport. He’d been there a long time and “gets bored quite quickly”. There was also the growing sense of discord he’d started to feel between the deep conversations he was having on the High Performance Podcast and the quick-fire, hot-take nature of football broadcasting.

“When I started High Performance, I started talking more and more to people about empathy and understanding and thinking about the shadow you cast and the legacy you leave behind.

“Then it was hard to have conversations about dropping footballers, sacking managers and criticising referees. I wanted to say, ‘Hold on, we don’t know what mental health challenges that person has, we don’t know what personal issues that person’s dealing with. So instead of guessing and trying to say something outlandish just to get social media likes and clicks, maybe we should have a more thoughtful approach’.

“But that’s not the way that world is geared.”

Humphrey before the 2023 Champions League final between Inter Milan and Manchester City in Istanbul (Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

Finally, he points to the rebrand of BT Sport to TNT Sports that was set to take place before the start of the 2023-24 season.

“There was this sense, from my conversations with them (the channel), that I was the constant from the very beginning. And if you wanted to make it feel like something new and fresh, a new and fresh presenter as your lead host was a very simple way to do that.

“It just no longer felt right.”

Six months on, does he miss it?

“There are elements I miss. I miss the challenge of being a broadcaster. I miss the camaraderie of hanging out with my friends, the amazing pundits, co-commentators and commentators and producers and all the people who make it happen.

“But I don’t regret it.”

He talks about spending his Saturdays watching his son, Seb, play football. Spending Tuesday and Wednesday nights at home with his family instead of travelling to European games. He reels off a list of memorable moments that he is grateful to have witnessed and worked on: Liverpool winning a European trophy; Manchester United winning a European trophy; an all-English European final in Baku (Chelsea’s 4-1 win over Chelsea in the 2019 Europa League); hosting the FA Cup final to achieve a childhood ambition.

“If I carried on another 10 years, what could I do that’s different? Nothing. I sometimes see my fellow presenters doing the same thing they were doing 10 years ago, and that’s fine for them, I’m not thinking that what I’m doing is right and what they’re doing is wrong. But having those same emotions, those same experiences, those same conversations in those same stadiums and the same hotels and the same nights out is not growth and change. And it’s just not exciting.”

Humphrey is nothing if not on brand with the High Performance message. He has recently released a book, the third under the High Performance banner, called How to Change Your Life: Five Steps to Achieving High Performance, in which he writes that “high-performing people challenge themselves by seeking change, so they can realise their potential”.

In previous interviews, Humphrey has said he never felt comfortable in football. Asked why he thinks that is, he talks about the barriers between the media and the sport making him feel like he was “always on the outside looking in, rather than on the inside trying to get people closer than ever before”.

“I came from a world of Formula One,” he continues, “where you’d travel on the same planes, you’d be in the pit lane with them and in the same hotels. In football, everything felt like a challenge to try and get more access. We would be live at pitchside and there’d be someone from the football club taking a photo of how many people we had by the pitch and saying, ‘You need fewer people than that’. And that blew my mind. We’re covering this for the whole world. Why is this a problem?”

On top of that was the negativity from certain sections of social media.

Why did he get it so badly?

“It was weird,” says Humphrey, “because half of the criticism was, ‘He’s so boring’. And the other half was people being triggered. You can’t be both. Either I’m a boring, vanilla, dull presenter, or I’m doing things that you don’t like. I suppose I tried to bring a bit of personality to the conversation. I tried to bring a sense of humour. I tried to be fair and honest. I tried to ask slightly challenging, slightly different questions.”

The London Olympics in 2012 was among the major events Humphrey presented on the BBC (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Not all of the criticism was linked to Humphrey’s work on screen. Some of it stemmed from his determination to spread what he believed were messages of positivity, such as his annual note reminding students not to let their exam results define them: “In 1999, I got E, N, U for mine. Things haven’t turned out too bad,” he wrote on Twitter in 2016.

When one response claimed “BT Sport viewers may disagree”, Humphrey bit back: “My bank manager may not.”

More recently, his posts about what he calls “world-class basics” and how he tries to implement them into his everyday life and random meetings with strangers on train journeys who tell him how inspired they have been by the High Performance Podcast have been the source of some mirth.

“I want other people to see what I’ve done and believe it’s possible for them as well,” he says about his posts. “To realise they can do the thing they really want to do in life. And I don’t think that it’s toxic or dangerous to tell people that if you have a dream, you should try and chase it because what’s the alternative?”

It is, he says, largely on Twitter that he receives such negativity, and that he now uses it a little less. Though he says the reaction to him has probably changed now that he’s no longer talking about football.

“I was talking about something that people feel really passionately about, something that divides people like very few other things. So maybe it was a natural consequence. I’m not an ex-footballer, I’m not an expert. I’m not loved by a certain fanbase.

“I’m just a guy who’s pitched in and got lucky enough to speak to Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Cesc Fabregas, all these amazing legends of the game. Maybe if I was watching me, I might be a bit triggered or a bit envious or a bit angry that I get the chance to do it.

“I don’t know, it’s probably a question for someone else to answer. All I know is that I always did my best. And maybe the truth is my best wasn’t good enough. I love doing it. And I don’t think I’m necessarily bad at it… it’s a good reminder that even a slow drip of criticism over time is hard.”

Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were among the pundits Humphrey worked with at BT Sport (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

His story, he says, is no different to that of any other broadcaster — “If you’re in the public eye, you’re fair game for criticism” — and says that some of the feedback was useful.

“I really liked it when people said, ‘I think this question was shit’, or ‘I think you should have asked that’, or, ‘I thought that was awful’. And often I would think, ‘You know what? You’re right’. I’m not sitting here saying, ‘Woe is me, I can’t cope with constructive feedback or criticism’. It’s when it crosses a line into nastiness, into abuse. That’s when it becomes a problem.”

Humphrey would see the posts after games and choose to stay away from social media for a few days waiting for the storm to pass. He says it never got rid of the feelings that came with it, though.

“It affects your performance too,” he says.

He raises the topic of female pundits and the wave of abuse that has been sent their way after the social media attacks of a certain ex-footballer with almost three million followers on Twitter.

“There’s all these blokes on social media picking up on every tiny, nuanced, minuscule mistake that someone makes. There are male pundits making far bigger mistakes all the time, yet the female pundits know that one tiny slip and they’re gonna get criticised for it.

“You’re trying to say that these people need to be perfect but, at the same time, you’re setting such a high bar that you know it can’t do anything but affect them. We’re putting female pundits in an almost impossible position with that level of scrutiny.

“I have probably worked with hundreds of pundits over the last 10 years and the laziest and most bone idle and least interested are not the females. The female pundits I work with are the hardest working. They realise that they’re breaking down doors for others to walk through and they’re responding accordingly.

“It tells us everything we need to know about society that one tiny slip of the tongue gets pounced upon and used as an opportunity to bash people.”

In 2021, Humphrey finished his broadcast of Tottenham Hotspur’s 3-0 defeat of Leeds United by giving a one-minute speech in support of BT Sport pundit and former England player Karen Carney, who had been subject to online attacks after comments she made about Leeds were mocked by the club’s official Twitter account.

He came off air to a message from Carney thanking him for his support, and a new wave of abuse sent in his direction.

“I got a huge amount of criticism from football fans telling me that I’m woke and I shouldn’t tell them what to think. From that moment on, the amount of criticism I received increased and stayed higher, without a doubt.

“But women in the game need men to be advocates and to be allies, and you’re not an ally if you quietly say to Karen Carney at work, ‘I’ve got your back, don’t you worry’. You’re only an ally if you stand live on the television and make sure that you stop talking 45 seconds before the end of a programme to tell people how you really feel.

“I’m glad I did it. And if I had the chance today to do it again, I absolutely would.

“We have a huge, serious, increasing problem with social media abuse. It’s worse and more toxic than it’s ever been.”

Whether people like it or not, Humphrey is a success story. And the secret to that success, he says, is that he is an optimist who sees the best in everyone.

“The shadow you cast is really important. And you can go back through my whole career, and you try to find someone who hated working with me, or thought I was a dick or that I didn’t pull my weight or that I wasn’t kind or caring or didn’t look after them, and you won’t find that person. Because I was brought up right. And you have to treat people in the right way.”

His purpose now is to “lift other people up, promote other people, help other people. I would love to see what would happen if we lived in a society where we experimented with lifting each other up, rather than pushing each other down”.

How much of that purpose is a result of his own life experiences?

As a schoolboy, he was bullied so badly he changed schools. Just before doing his A Levels (which he failed), he lost his grandmother, Ena, to suicide. While working for children’s television in his twenties he suffered from mental health struggles that he describes as “really awful intrusive thoughts, triggered by anxiety. A bit of a mental health breakdown, basically”.

Humphrey spoke to The Athletic in London’s Mayfair (Ben Lowe/High Performance)

“I don’t think I’d be doing this now without those things,” says Humphrey. “It’s like an invisible building of your resilience that you don’t even know or see is happening. And it’s a really good reminder for me that just because something is hard for you, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.

“I look back on some of the criticism of my time at BT and think, ‘Just because it was hard for me, doesn’t mean it was bad for me, because it probably did push me down this road’.”

Though he is now free from the vitriol that can come with working in football, Humphrey isn’t necessarily free from the online criticism it brought, although it perhaps has more of a mocking tone now than an abusive one.

“I feel quite differently about the stuff that I post about now,” he says, “because football was me playing a role as a football guy, right?

“I don’t really tweet or share anything about it now, because the only part of my life that was related to football was doing that job. I love going to watch Norwich with my boy but apart from that, I’m not going to watch England away games or travel for European nights. I was never that kind of a person.”

Would he ever go back to football?

“It would have to be something really interesting to tempt me back. I love doing big events that test my skills as a broadcaster, but the constant, relentless, sausage-factory type approach of just doing football match after football match? Probably no, on reflection.”

He strongly believes High Performance is a “force for good” and that the podcast and everything that comes along with it will be his lasting legacy.

“TV presenters, they come and go. You’re just talking about other people’s success. I’m aware that if I’m not already forgotten as a football presenter, I very soon will be. And that’s fine, because this is the stuff I’d like my kids to be listening to in 20 years.”

(Top photo: Daniel Chesterton/Offside via Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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