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WHITE ON LEICESTER, SEATTLE SOUNDERS, PUEL AND THAT TITLE WIN

24 February 2019

Paul Hazlewood
Nick Szczepanik spoke to Arlo White.

Whatever happened to Arlo White? One of the BBC’s most promising commentators abruptly disappeared from Test Match Special and Sport on Five in 2010.

But far from putting down the microphone, he realised a life-long ambition and now broadcasts to one of the world’s largest football markets as the voice of NBC’s Premier League coverage in the United States.

And a welcome bonus for the lifelong Leicester City fan was that he found himself occupying the best seats in the house as the Foxes surpassed all expectations by winning the title in 2016.

That, though, seemed a distant prospect when he decided to move to the Pacific Northwest of the USA. “In 2010 I got an offer from the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer to be a football commentator, which is what I’d always wanted to do,” he said.

“Working for the BBC was amazing and gave me wide and varied experiences, from cricket commentary to the Olympics on Five and Sports Report, but I wanted to stay true to the young lad who wanted to be a football commentator.

“Every time I asked the BBC about it at my annual appraisal it was always: ‘Yes, maybe in the future but we’ve got enough football commentators right now, so stick with what you’re doing because it’s going very well.’

“I always regard the BBC as home and it’s where I cut my teeth in broadcasting over ten years, and the move to Seattle seemed weird to a lot of people, but I had done my research.

“I realised the Sounders were effectively an NFL-sized franchise in Major League Soccer. They sold over 30,000 season tickets, they were co-owned by the founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, and  Joe Roth, the chairman of the Disney Corporation, was involved. So you knew they were a big deal. I didn’t give up on my decade at the BBC lightly, but it all worked out very well.

“After NBC got involved they took me over to Major League Soccer for a season and a half before they bought the rights to the Premier League and asked me if I wanted to go home in 2013.

“I love America and had always wanted to live and work there but I did miss being part of that immersive football culture, where you come out of a ground, turn on the radio and everyone’s talking about the game.”

As good luck would have it, his return coincided with Leicester’s surge in fortune. But he had already blown any chance of keeping his loyalties hidden by coming out as a Foxes fan on social media.

“When I was at the BBC the watchword was complete objectivity,” he says. “Nobody nailed their colours to any particular mast on social media. But once I left for America, it was a way of staying in touch with the fanbase.

“And in the States I could display a love of my own team, a ‘lesser’ club by the name of Leicester City. I didn’t think that would affect me in the future because we were a struggling mid-table Championship club. Until the Srivaddhanaprabhai family took over it wasn’t really going anywhere. There were just two play-off semi-final defeats, to Cardiff and Watford.

“But almost as soon as I accepted the job as the voice of the Premier League for America, Leicester got promoted, so all of a sudden I was faced with reporting City games with the cat very much out of the bag. That first season the only game was a dismal 2-0 defeat away to Swansea, when we barely mustered a shot on target, so if I was going to show my true colours, that wasn’t a game where it was going to happen.

“But what happened the following season was just incredible and I was fortunate enough to have a seat on the half-way line in the gantry for most of the second half of the campaign.” 

When did it begin to dawn on him that he was commenting on a historic season?  “I thought they were the real deal in the sense that Champions League qualification was very possible after the win over Chelsea in December. I was there as a fan that night and I’ve still got it on my phone - the roar at the final whistle was unlike anything I’ve ever heard at the King Power Stadium.”

And the title itself? “There was a home draw against Manchester City where you wondered if they had gone off the boil a bit and there was talk of an injury to N’Golo Kante, who had become absolutely vital. But then there were two games, the 3-1 win at City in February and then the Crystal Palace away game a bit later, a 1-0 win. Damien Delaney, I think it was, hit the bar for Palace in the last minute.

“It was a scrappy game in a sequence of four 1-0 wins but the gantry at Selhurst is just above the away fans and the Leicester supporters were signing ‘We’re going to win the league’ for about 20 minutes.

“It felt a little early, even though it was mid-March, but there was absolute belief that this team wasn’t going to blow it. It got to the point where the PA announcer appealed for the fans to leave the stadium ‘because we want to go home.’ So they sang for ten minutes more.”   

Albion fans, of course, enjoyed watching Leo Ulloa play a vital part in that title win after he had moved to the Foxes to help keep them up the season before.

“He got the only goal against Norwich, which registered on the Richter Scale if I remember rightly, and there was an injury-time penalty at home to West Ham,” Arlo says. “We were winning 1-0 and then the wheels came off. Andy Carroll came on and brutalised Robert Huth and Wes Morgan in a way we hadn’t seen. 

“Suddenly we were 2-1 down and then got a very dodgy penalty. Jamie Vardy had been sent off and there incredible nerves around the stadium. But up stepped Leonardo and despatched the kick, with such calmness. It was one of the most vital moments of the run-in, because you never know what might have happened if it hadn’t gone in.” 

Since then Leicester has endured the tragedy of the helicopter crashed that killed club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and four others. “I was at the game and I was talking to a friend afterwards when we heard that roar of the helicopter as it came in to land on the centre spot.

“It didn’t matter how many times you saw it, it was still compelling, almost other-wordly that people who flew around in helicopters were interested in your club and your city. I was halfway to the M1 on the way home when the news of the crash came through. It was deeply shocking.

“Then having to report it to the people of the United States was difficult but you have to be professional and it was about getting across what a great man he was and how deeply he cared about the club and the city.”

The debate over the team’s present direction may seem trivial by comparison but Chris Hughton’s men will find themselves stepping into the unknown at the King Power Stadium following the departure on Sunday of manager Claude Puel, and hoping that it works to their advantage. 
 
“Claude Puel was a more contentious subject in Leicester than Brexit,” Arlo says. “You were ‘Puel Out’ or you were ‘Puel In’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the fan base so divided as this, even when the owner decided to part company with Claudio Ranieri.
 
“Before Christmas I was sceptical. One of the issues was the fact that we could beat big teams – Chelsea, Man City, albeit through counter-attacking – but it was the performances against the also-rans at home which is what the majority of the fans see.
 
“A lot of the ‘Puel Out’ brigade based their views on those displays at home and a lot of them haven’t been very good.  But at Liverpool they were tactically sophisticated and could have won, at home to Manchester United too, although they lost.
 
“That and the introduction of young players like Harvey Barnes convinced me that the future looked bright. But the Palace result defined Puel for the fans and perhaps the owners too.”

Puel was, in a way, a victim of the club’s success and raised expectations, which all seemed impossible when Arlo saw his first match.

“It was against Stoke City in April 1979, a 1-1 draw, from the much-loved Double-Decker stand behind the goal at Filbert Street,” he recalls. “The first goal I remember was Andy Peake’s against Liverpool that won goal of the season.

“Like most fans, I thought that winning two League Cups under Martin O’Neill was as good as it was ever going to get. His team were combative and difficult to beat – Emile Heskey up front, Neil Lennon, Muzzy Izzet and Robbie Savage in midfield, Steve Walsh, Gerry Taggart and Matt Elliott at the back.

“They were quite old-school, but they got into Europe and the top ten. I’m so glad I lived through both eras.

“But an honourable mention for Nigel Pearson, who got it all started again, winning the Championship with 102 points, having won League One as well. He built the team that won the Premier League and I hope he doesn’t get lost in history.”


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