STEVE WILSON: Surreal ex-SAFC boss Martin O'Neill and Robbie Savage's tears '“ the joys of a Euro 16 football commentator
“What do you do in the summer?” It’s something I’m often asked, and it’s a fair question to put to a football commentator.
Luckily for me, most of my summers involve doing just what I do in winter, spring and autumn. My answer is: ‘More football’.
Over the next month that will mean travelling around France for Euro 2016. I’ll be visiting many – maybe all – of the 10 venues and commentating at a rate of about a game every other day.
I started my Euros homework long before the final whistle blew on the Premier League season, but over the last month I’ve been swotting in earnest, researching everything from Albania’s right-back to the history of Saint-Etienne’s stadium.
This will be the 18th major football tournament I’ve covered, and the 15th for the BBC. Each has been memorable for different reasons, but this summer promises to be special.
What makes Euro 2016 unique is that never before have the British Isles been so well represented. England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have all qualified for the finals, generating unprecedented interest. If only Scotland could have made it a full house.
As usual England are followed by scepticism and expectation in almost equal measure. The last time they really impressed me at a tournament was the World Cup of 2006, when fans spoke of a ‘golden generation’. That generation has now long gone, without achieving anything of substance.
Roy Hodgson’s bold squad selection was a welcome surprise to many. I hope youngsters Delle Alli and Marcus Rashford are given the chance to show off their precocious talents on such a big stage. England’s game against Wales in Lens will be eagerly anticipated, but both countries should be wary of concentrating too hard on each other – Russia and Slovakia are not in Group B just to make up the numbers.
Wales’ opening game against Slovakia will be live on BBC One on Saturday night, and it’s my first assignment of the Euros. Once I’ve met up with my co-commentator Robbie Savage in Bordeaux, we’ll watch training sessions and press conferences from both camps and relish the build-up to Wales’ first match in a major tournament since the World Cup quarter-final of 1958, when they were beaten by Pele’s first ever international goal.
I covered Northern Ireland for BBC Radio 5 live for almost two years from early 2002, and never once saw them score a goal. I must have been an unlucky charm – as soon as I stopped covering their games, the goals came. Nobody could have envisaged they’d now have their highest-ever FIFA ranking and be playing in a European Championship, albeit in an incredibly tough group with Germany, Poland and Ukraine.
The Republic of Ireland manager, Martin O’Neill, worked for BBC TV at a few tournament finals. The ex-Sunderland boss is an intelligent and quirky guy – I remember a surreal debate in Berlin over who is the most famous person ever to come from Hull. (David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust-era guitarist Mick Ronson won the vote.)
O’Neill’s side are the underdogs in another fiendishly difficult group with Belgium, Italy and Sweden. The clash between Belgium and Italy on Monday night in Lyon already has my pulse racing – it’s my next game after Wales against Slovakia.
Predictions? France’s record on home soil is formidable, winning both the Euros in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998 as host nation. In Pogba, Coman, Martial and Griezmann they’re blessed with a wealth of young talent; this France team could definitely lift the trophy.
Poland and Austria are my dark horses to spring a surprise or two, and I reckon that Robbie Savage wiping a tear from his eye as the Welsh national anthem booms around the Stade de Bordeaux is an absolute certainty.