I don’t watch much television, but I listen to a lot of podcasts. This is partly because I’ve always commuted to and from work and/or the football clubs I’ve been part of via public transport and I find bus and train journeys much easier to cope with while wearing headphones. I think it would have been the Christmas of 2009 when I was given my first iPod and maybe a couple of months after that when I downloaded my first non-musical content.
There’s one show I’ve listened to consistently since then: the World Football Phone-In (WFPI). Part of the BBC Radio 5 Live overnight programme Up All Night, the WFPI does what it says on the tin; insomniacs and international listeners can talk about the Beautiful Game and it’s impact on the communities in which it is played with a rotating panel of pundits, each of whom covers a specific geographical region. There are two constants; the Rio-based South American expert, Tim Vickery and the host, Dotun Adebayo. Dotun and Tim are usually joined by an additional pundit and an eclectic mix of callers from all areas of the globe. Regular contributors can be given recognition through the award of a Brazilian Shirt Name; a nickname chosen by the hosts in concert with the audience but there are certain traps; if a new candidate expressing a liking for a suggestion, they won’t get it. There’s a micky-taking element to it – Dotun Adebayo’s is “Sergio Chocolate Biscuits” – but the originals have Shirt Names which are more respectful.
I’ve got to my point; recently, one of the ‘originals’ passed away. Cleo Sharp was an Arsenal fan who lived in Aldershot and had been known to get along to the Recreation Ground too. Her Shirt Name was ‘The Book’ because of her constant accumulation of football knowledge. Now, I never met Cleo, but I heard her on the show at least a hundred times. I can’t tell you how many; the WFPI is weekly, I’ve listened for about 12 years and Cleo was on almost weekly for at least the first half-dozen of those. She called in less often as time went on, because of her health, but her voice was instantly recognisable. She always began the same way “Good morning, Dotun. Good morning, Tim. Good morning [third guest, always by name]. She always asked a pertinent, timely and impeccably researched question, but never by launching into it. For those of us without her massive knowledge of world football, there would be a preamble, putting what she wanted to know into context.
And the WFPI community adored Cleo for those questions. That’s what great radio does – especially radio at odd times of the day – it builds a community. Thanks to social media and the fact it was on the BBC, so didn’t have to fight for advertising revenue, the WFPI built up a loyal following not just of night owls, listening live, but of day-shift workers like me, who would listen to the podcast on the way to work.
In recent months, the WFPI has been through some changes; it moved from its Friday/Saturday slot, where the live version was two hours to Monday/Tuesday and a much longer show. The podcast is now over two and a half hours long, which is a bit of a slog if your commute is shorter (or you’re working from home and dealing with many interruptions a day). The new slot also seems to have alienated some of the regular experts, meaning that there are weeks where Dotun and Tim are joined by “superfans”, as opposed to football journalists. I find the “superfan” episodes harder to listen to, to the point where I’m likely to just hit the ‘mark as played’ button as to press play. If I’ve got a 99% Invisible, The Allusionist or The Price of Football in my unplayed list, am I going to spend 150 minutes listening to a Dutch Manchester United fan pontificating?
That said, the WFPI has about much more than football and the longer format came into its own on Tuesday 25th January. The show was dedicated to ‘Cleo The Book’ with various tributes to her and a decision to retire her Brazilian Shirt Name; thanks to Cleo’s husband, Pete, it was decided that the number retired should be 4; a significant number in her life for many reasons and that worn by Kanu when he played for Cleo’s beloved Arsenal.
I had to listen to the show in chunks and I’m writing this almost immediately after finishing it, late on Sunday night. There were times when it made me cry; that’s the power of radio when it’s done right and the listeners are integral to the show, rather than consumers of it.
The last 40 minutes or so perfectly summed up why radio remains special and has a relationship with its audience that television just cannot have. As well as Sergio Chocolate Biscuits and Tim ‘Legendinho’ Vickery (because his knowledge of South American football is legendary; some American listeners prefer ‘Vickipedia’), we had sometime European expert Paul ‘Galatasarahs’ Sarahs, whose Shirt Name was influenced by his support for Turkish giants Fenerbahçe. The Galatasarahs was reading the sports news.
In the freewheeling final portion of the show, the callers included Joseph from Arkansas and the ‘Copper America’ a policeman named Neil who got stranded in Buenos Aires at the start of the pandemic and ended up calling in pretty much every week until he got home. Between them, these five disparate characters answered questions from other listeners, tackled some of the burning football issues and laughed uncontrollably. A lot. I’m aware that I might not be selling it brilliantly so go and check it out by downloading it for yourself.
That last bit and, indeed the whole show was brilliant because it felt like being sat around a big table in a pub, talking football with the people you only see in that pub, before you all go to watch a match. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t call in because I wasn’t listening live, it was just such a joy to hear familiar voices, enjoying themselves. This might sound funny, but I felt like I was part of that conversation.
Many, many, people, including me, will miss Cleo profoundly, even though they never met her. We’ll miss her because of who she was, what she stood for and because she found a community – the WFPI listeners – who thought the world of her. The show dedicated to The Book was brilliant radio and a testament to what makes the BBC special.
Rest well, Cleo. You’ll be missed.