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  • Writer's pictureRichard Fleming

An unlikely career which has so far lasted 35 years!

Updated: Feb 10

It will be 35 years in June that a wide-eyed teenager four days on from sitting his final exam at school would begin an unlikely journey in journalism that has led him from Auckland to Zurich, with many stops along the way.

Growing up in a sports-mad household, alongside three brothers, we threw ourselves into all and any activity, including athletics, badminton, bowling, cycling, cricket, darts, football, golf, rugby, snooker, table tennis and tennis.

We would be glued to our modest television set on FA Cup final day, immovable for the final rounds of the World Snooker Championship, fixated by the mix and majesty of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The University Boat Race, the London Marathon, the Grand National, the British Grand Prix, Wimbledon tennis, test match cricket, the Open Championship, the Masters, the SuperBowl … everything and anything was consumed. We gorged on sport.

And so, from an early age, though reasonably academic, I longed to have a career in sport. Like many, I had hoped that would be as a professional footballer or county cricketer. Like most, that hope was merely a dream which was dashed.

Without a doubt, though, commentating on a cup final at Wembley Stadium, a cricket final at Lord’s and a singles match involving Serena Williams on Wimbledon’s hallowed Centre Court suggest I’ve done alright.

Add to that, being in a team garage at Silverstone on a Formula One test day, to hurtling down the Cresta Run in St. Moritz doing the skeleton, to covering the London Monarchs at Wembley Stadium in the World League of American Football, to sitting ringside pen poised for boxing world title fights, to witnessing top tennis on the sun-kissed courts of Monte Carlo, to mingling with a world football who’s who at the Football for Hope match in 2005 (a Zidane XI vs. Ronaldinho XI).

From watching Farnborough Town’s first match in the GM Vauxhall Conference (now the National League) in August 1989 at Boston United, to commentating on Arsenal’s penultimate Premier League match – a 1-0 win at Fulham – in their Invincibles season, 2003-04. I was the BBC World Service voice for Giovanni van Bronckhorst's rocket in the 2010 World Cup semifinal, as well as the commentator welcoming fans to the 2004 coverage of the Africa Cup of Nations final in Tunisia. I called a 12-11 penalty shootout involving Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast and Samuel Eto'o's Cameroon in Egypt two years later.

Having started out at a local newspaper in Aldershot as a junior sports reporter, to being head-hunted by the BBC, to working at Arsenal TV, to spending a decade as one of the voices of Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States.

It has been varied and exciting and colourful and humbling and the stuff of boyhood dreams.

Surrounded by some of the world’s best broadcasters during 16 years with the BBC, I emerged with two World Cups, one Confederations Cup, five Africa Cup of Nations, a UEFA European Championship, a handful of FA Cup giant-killing runs, UEFA Champions League nights, testing trips to Ukraine, North Korea and Angola, as well as a few days in Slovakia, Qatar, Northern Cyprus, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, Malaysia and Montserrat – an idyllic island altered by a volcanic eruption.

There are marvellous memories from Mali and my first Africa Cup of Nations in 2002. There was a night listening to tales from the legend Sir Elton John before his concert in Vienna. There have been interviews with sporting (and entertainment) giants such as Pierluigi Collina, George Weah (before he became president of Liberia), Sir Stirling Moss, Malcolm Marshall, Justin Rose, Roger Federer, Enrique Iglesias, Kim Clijsters, Shane Warne, Franz Beckenbauer, Bernhard Langer, Rafael Nadal and Alan Ball.

This kid from a village in southern England, who ran the gauntlet of teasing and taunting due a speech impediment, found his voice on the BBC World Service, telling stories to a global audience from the San Siro in Milan, Camp Nou in Barcelona, or Old Trafford in Manchester.

I began as a writer and feared making the step into broadcasting, especially for the giant that was and remains the BBC. I then remained in local radio because the idea of working in London intimidated me. I pushed back against switching to television for the same reason. And yet I somehow managed to haul myself out of all and every comfort zone, stretching myself, exhausting the limits of my ability.

The incredible talent I have been privileged to have worked alongside, many who have become loyal and loving friends, has shaped me, supported me and guided me. Standards were high, so too were expectations, scrutiny, and accountability. You held yourself to a high standard and you were held to a high standard by others. You learned to embrace the challenge of bringing your best every day. You weren’t intimidated by being held to account. You rose to the challenge, unwilling to drop the high standards you’d worked for and set yourself.

There was a decision to be made around 2008-09, which was whether I was going to relocate with BBC Sport when they moved around 200 miles from London to Salford (near Manchester). Family matters made that decision for me, and I departed the BBC in 2011 and spent two years in the frenetic, ruthless world of the freelance.

All of this therefore made the next career move a little puzzling for those who had been following my story. While not willing to move 200 miles north in 2011, we were happy to haul a family of five almost 5,000 miles across a vast expanse of water to take up a television role in a new country.

The reason my call was answered by the Colorado Rapids in 2012, with a March 2013 start date, was that they were in desperate need of an experienced, respected and trusted football broadcaster to drag their coverage from the doldrums. I found myself operating in a familiar and yet unfamiliar world. Here I was as a sports commentator doing what I had done my entire career, and yet I swiftly discovered that working for a club and a league required a different approach to ‘storytelling’. I was a journalist being asked to operate like a marketing man. The shift was not without hiccups, but I did indeed drag the standard to a far more reputable level, despite the challenges.

I recall being asked in an interview early on what I would want to be remembered for after my time was up (I was only supposed to be in MLS for three seasons but lingered for 10). The idea of leaving a legacy seemed a tad pompous but I felt obliged to give an answer so stated that I would hope to leave the broadcasts in a better place than where I’d found them and believe the outstanding Marcelo Balboa and I did just that.

My aim when accepting the role in Colorado – and it was certainly the goal for then club president, Tim Hinchey – was to bring my vast experience to bear on a club struggling to be taken seriously locally and within the league itself. And while the chance to work in MLS and live in the wonderful state of Colorado was an attractive opportunity; and while the entire experience was fantastic for my family and I, and while the fabulous fans who became friends added to that experience, I was here to help but gradually went from being wanted and needed to just needed, to eventually being neither wanted nor needed.

Rarely a day goes by that I’m not reminded of the journey so far. I never underestimate the role family and friends - and colleagues who became friends - have played in that journey, and I certainly count myself very, very fortunate to have spent almost 35 years getting paid for watching sport, talking sport and telling sport stories. And I'm not done yet.

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Dec 31, 2023

35 years! I remember many a Saturday of being on the other end of the line as you snuck in a quick update on RFP. Happy days…

Tim B

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