TV football presenter, commentator and reporter Jacqui Oatley MBE is obviously a bit of a secret risk-taker. How else can you explain her decision to take her children to see her beloved Wolves play Albion on Saturday as a birthday treat, knowing the head-to-head record between the sides, currently 15 wins to four in our favour?
To make matters worse, Phoebe, 8, and Max, 5, who have the same birthday, will be attending their first game at Molineux, a ground where the Seagulls have traditionally done well against one of our favourite opponents – and will be more desperate for points than ever.
“Yes, their first Premier League game, against our bogey side,” she says. “But it would be nice if Brighton could give us the points, just to make their birthday. That would be the morally correct thing to do.”
Shall I have a word with Chris Hughton? “If you wouldn’t mind. He’s such a nice guy. I think he’d be happy to oblige, don’t you?”
Frankly, anything is possible against a Wolves side that has beaten Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool but also lost to Huddersfield at home and away.
“We’re very proud of that,” she laughs. “But we have lost 2-0 in the first match after every international break, which needs analysing. The Huddersfield home game was awful but the Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho midfield was getting found out a bit and the manager brought Leander Dendoncker in from the cold. He didn’t start a Premier League game until December 29 and had only played eight minutes. But adding him to midfield and switching from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2 has made a big difference.
“The relationship between Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota up front is special and those relationships are rare these days. They’re not exactly Steve Bull and Andy Mutch but they’re still a partnership and it works well from a counter-attacking point of view, which is perhaps why we have done better against the bigger teams.”
Mention of Bull and Mutch takes Jacqui back to her first experience of supporting Wolves. “It was in 1990, so I’d just missed the trauma of the Bhatti brothers, the club nearly going bust and losing to Chorley in the FA Cup, which is regarded among fans as the lowest ebb.
“Bull and Andy Thompson had just signed for a combined fee of £64,000 from West Bromwich Albion, our massive rivals, and were sitting in the stands thinking: ‘What on earth have we done?’ But that was the beginning of a turnaround.
“Back-to-back promotions ensued and that was when I started going. I went to an all-girls school where nobody really wanted to go to football, but then I moved to a sixth form that was almost all boys, right in the middle of Wolverhampton, with hundreds of Wolves fans around me and I could go down to the portakabin club shop at lunchtime.”
Molineux in those days was very different from the stadium that Albion fans will visit, and which holds happy memories of a 2-0 victory on Good Friday during the 2016-17 promotion season.
“It was very dilapidated then, with just two stands open, the new one miles away from the pitch with bright red seats for some reason, and the South Bank, where I stood, where all the singing was,” Jacqui recalls. “The club had run out of money during the rebuilding and it was a horrible place to watch football. In one game, two Sunderland players, Gordon Armstrong and [ex Albion star] John Byrne, were sent off over in the far corner between the two condemned stands and for a minute nobody knew what was going on because it was so far away.”
But the sight of Steve Bull in his pomp made up for the limitations of the backdrop. “Steve Bull is my favourite Wolves player by a country mile. Any fan from that era will tell you the same thing. When he scored it felt like two goals, that’s how special a Steve Bull goal was.
“He played for England in the World Cup and hit the bar against the Netherlands. It stayed 0-0 and you wonder what might have happened if that had gone in.” A bigger club might have bought him? “Well, they did try – Celtic, Coventry and Villa were in for him. But we idolised him. He was the blue-eyed boy, the one who literally spoke our language.”
Not that Jacqui has a strong Wolverhampton accent. “I haven’t dropped the accent, I never really had it,” she says. “I’m very proud of coming from there even if I don’t sound as if I do. My mum is South African and my dad isn’t from the area and has a very posh accent. It’s what you’re brought up with.
“It probably comes out more when I’m on the South Bank. But even in broadcasting it’s as if you can have every other accent but the West Midlands is somehow frowned upon. But I love the accent, even if I’m biased.
“It’s full of character and the people have a great, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour that maybe not everybody gets. People look down on us and think we’re a bit dim but nothing could be further from the truth. We’re down to earth and enjoy taking the mickey out of ourselves and everybody else.”
As she says, she was not held back in her broadcasting career by a yam-yam lilt, but in any case it was a while before she realised that it was what she wanted to do.
“After university, I fell into a job in intellectual property in London, protecting brand names, and played football every Sunday for my local team and watched Wolves home and away. That was my football fix although I still had the feeling that it wasn’t quite enough.
“I wanted to do more work-wise but I didn’t know what. As for football journalism, I assumed everyone else wanted to do that same job so how would I be able to do it? And with a London rent to pay it was quite difficult to jump off that ladder.
“Then I dislocated my kneecap and ruptured ligaments. I had ten months on crutches and was told I couldn’t play football again. At that point I realised I couldn’t just keep that job and not be immersed in football, so I took the plunge and gave up the day job.”
Her present stature in football journalism is a reward for plenty of hard work and dedication in those early days. “Ultimately I wanted to be a football match reporter for 5 Live. I did full-time work experience, hospital radio, radio production courses, anything I could to find a way in.
“I moved up to Sheffield and spent all my savings into a one-year postgrad course in broadcast journalism. I toured all the local BBC stations, begged for a bit of work experience, got a couple of days in Leeds, turned that into a 15-minute Saturday afternoon slot on non-League football.
“That became my patch, where I learned my trade in journalism –getting contacts and working my way up from there. It was hard, but so exciting. I remember being asked to report my first game, Bradford Park Avenue versus Ashton United, in one of those enclosed, glassed-in press boxes with the old local guys listening to every word I was saying, with my clipboard and massive mobile phone.
“And I spent any spare time going to Ossett Albion and Eccleshill United and Glasshoughton Welfare. I immersed myself in the local football scene and wrote copy to go into the breakfast-time bulletin, to add value to my £21-per week. But it wasn’t about money. I’d just found something I was passionate about.”
It had taken a while because girls were seldom pointed along that career path. “I was always into language, grammar and words and completely obsessed with sport, but I had never put the two together in my mind and nobody had done it for me either. It took until I was 27 to marry the two. Not one person had ever suggested that I could work in that world, so I had to find my own way. But it all fell into place in a way nothing else had.”
Sports journalism is a competitive business, and succeeding is difficult enough without being a woman in a male-dominated workplace, and at a time when female commentators were unheard and unheard-of.
“That is why I have campaigned so much about girls and women getting a chance to work in football because no-one had ever suggested it to me,” Jacqui says. “I want girls who are as obsessed with football and sport as I was to think about career options that exist now that simply weren’t there when I would have liked to start.
“Part of the problem is that you don’t find many articles and reports written by women although the Telegraph have made a decision to buck that trend. You would struggle to think of a single female full-time staff writer on a national newspaper. How crazy is that?”
Jacqui is a founder-member of Women In Football, a group that attempts to promote the interests and prospects of the women who will follow her lead and those of Amy Lawrence, the late Vikki Orvice and a small but growing number of others.
“We are trying to do something about it, but families need to encourage sport-obsessed girls to look at and research possible ways in and say ‘Have you thought about doing this?’ We have the internet now that I didn’t when I started, but it’s also a cultural thing.
“There haven’t been those women that people can reach out to. We have been going for 12 years now and it has become a more positive force but we could do with more support and resources, such as sponsorship.
“It’s a part-time, all-hands-to-the-pump operation but we have some great professional expertise in our ranks and we can help women with legal advice, behind-the-scenes know-how, networking.
“We champion each other because we have to, often because we have been and often still are the only woman in the press room or boardroom or marketing office or in the dugout. We call out discrimination and highlight issues and give advice. It is a positive force but we’d like to do more studies and events if we had more resources.”
Jacqui herself, of course, did not find her upward path fully supported by listeners or viewers, and still doesn’t. Only last month received sexist abuse on Twitter – from another woman, which she admits was a first. This month marks the 12th anniversary of her becoming the first woman to commentate on Match of the Day, on the Fulham v Blackburn game at Craven Cottage.
Predictably there were objections from some viewers to an alien female voice among the Motsons and Pearces. “I was there to tell people about a football match and it ended up all about me and I was very uncomfortable about that.”
Eventually she was persuaded, reluctantly, to step out from behind the microphone and into TV presenting. “I never wanted to do TV, only radio. I was never attracted by the bright lights of the TV studio at all.
“Then I was asked to do something for the BBC News Channel when it was in TV Centre, literally across the desk, so it made sense to do a couple of shifts, even though I was six months pregnant with Phoebe.
“One thing led to another. I was asked to do women’s football, Euro 2013. Then ITV offered me some freelance work, then a three-year contract to do the Euros, the World Cup and international football.
“That was fantastic, and I kept on with women’s football for the BBC, but later they decided to give that to someone else, and then after my ITV contract expired last summer, they lost all the rights to all the football I was presenting.
“So I’m only left with darts and otherwise I’m between contracts, as they say. That’s the precarious nature of this business. But I’ll be in France in summer commentating for the worldwide TV feed to all the counties that have bought the rights from Fifa, just commentating and not presenting. After that? No idea.”
More immediately, what about the match at Molineux? It is an unofficial revival of the old FA Cup third-place play-off in the wake of Albion’s loss to Manchester City and Wolves’ 3-2 reverse at the hands of Watford. Still raw? “I don’t think I’ll be able to watch the final. Two-one up with 180 seconds to go and we still lost. But that’s the nature of it.”
Wolves’ unlucky 1-0 defeat at The Amex was another painful occasion, although, perhaps fortunately, she was unable to get to the match. “I was presenting the darts but trying to follow the match and my producer was a Brighton fan, and it sounded like we were making loads of chances but not taking them and you took yours, so fair play to you. It’s not just about playing well.
“I went down to the previous game at The Amex in the Championship. I love going there, it’s such a welcoming place. I went in the away end, with the framed pictures of your greatest player, the lighting in your club colours, the welcome message thanking you for travelling the however many miles. You don’t get that in many places. A nice touch from a nice club.”
Speaking of club colours, after being awarded the MBE in 2016, Jacqui stunned her Facebook friends by posting a photograph of herself with her gong at Windsor Castle in a blue dress rather than the old gold and black everyone had expected.
“It was immediately after I got back from five weeks in France at the Euros and it was so hectic with trains, planes and highlights shows that I didn’t have time to think about outfits. I had to wear whatever I had. There wasn’t any thought behind what I wore at Windsor at all!
“I thought I’d get loads of Twitter abuse for the MBE but perhaps as it wasn’t for the job people were very kind. It was for Women In Football and stuff behind the scenes. It was nice to be recognised and also really embarrassing. But any publicity is good if you can use it for a good cause.”