Travelling tittle-tattle, tall tales and shameless name-dropping by Jon ‘Don’t Call Me’ Norman

About Me

Monday, 26 July 2010

Jimmy Carter

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, my final weekend in South Africa loomed and I was hopeful (yet not certain) of a place at the high table. The second biggest game in world football was taking place on the Sunday and while clearly it's no Championship play-off final I still yearned to be in attendance to watch El Classico Utd take on Sexy Football XI.

However my chances appeared to be 50/50 at best for despite furious behind-the-scene wranglings by Matt Smith we had only procured seven tickets between our ten-man party. Someone was destined to be disappointed.

Before that though we had an eagerly awaited group night out to attend. Our last Friday evening had long been set aside to celebrate a successful tour for talkSPORT, for South Africa and because life in general had been pretty good. It was also a chance for us all to say thank you and goodbye to Karin, Neil, Samantha and Candice, our South African family who'd made our stay in Johannesburg such a special one.

The evening started eventfully, but thankfully, the negative actions of one couldn't curtail the positive intentions of the few and once our group had been reduced we all settled down to enjoy each others company in the surrounds of a local Asian restaurant. Not that Pad Thai was on my menu. For, while the others tucked into various noodle dishes and chilli cocktails (weird) I opted for a giant 500g rib-eye steak. With Fe's unbeatable home cooked Chinese food just days away I thought I'd take advantage of ridiculously expensive cuts of meat at equally ridiculously cheap prices while I could.

A pleasant evening unfolded and before long we were making plans to go on. With the wine and cocktails flowing freely our group split (amicably, this time) between those who wanted to go on drinking and those who fancied a flutter at the nearby Montecasino. And after a wait for our taxi to arrive myself, Romford Pele, Jim Proudfoot, Antony & Samantha squeezed into our vehicle, offered Samantha the only available seatbelt, and directed the cabby to an establishment that had fast become our first port of call on an evening, the News Cafe in Sandton.

We didn't arrive until 1am and got stuck in. For the next four hours every round consisted of a double and a shot known as a Springbok. And an evening that started so ignominiously ended in a manner more befitting the celebratory mood we'd hoped for as we danced about, mucked around and chatted to anyone who’d listen.

From the little I remember from the evening there were several highlights. But perhaps the best was when Ray spotted Dutch legend Ronald Koeman, strode up to him with hand outstretched and cheerily said “Hello Roland” in a manner only those who watched Grange Hill in the 80’s can truly appreciate.

The other notable moment of the evening also involved a former World Cup footballer. (Well, did you really expect anything else?) Veteran of the 1998 World Cup, and certified madman, Edmundo repeatedly tried to gatecrash our group and we repeatedly tried to prevent him. He’d obviously decided that Samantha was the girl for him and spent a good two hours putting all his efforts into catching her attention.

However once he realised that conventional means weren’t going to work with a girl 19 years his junior (and in a relationship) he employed more unconventional means. His ‘alternative’ pick-up tactics included hair pulling and biting. It reminded me of my brothers pulling technique back in the day. In the end we took it in turns to pretend to be Samantha’s boyfriend and he got tired of talking to the back of our heads and buggered off.

It was still dark when we finally followed suit, but only just. With the clock approaching six in the morning we staggered out of our cab and said our goodnights. It had been a fitting end of tour night out.

The next day was a painful affair and one of the most testing of my career. I didn’t emerge until after midday and spent a couple of hours disconsolately pacing around the grounds and the pool in the afternoon sun. Ray said I reminded him of a polar bear at the zoo.

Jim appeared an hour or so later to announce that he couldn't remember ever drinking more in his life. And our VISA bills in the coming days would be testament to that fact.

A mid-afternoon kip was followed by a gentle production shift as beaten semi-finalists Germany v Uruguay turned the most derided match of the World Cup into one of its most exciting. But once I turned in for the night sleep was hard to come by and I’d watched complete re-runs of two matches before I finally managed to drift off.

After four hours sleep I woke up on my penultimate day in Johannesburg with a text telling me I was going to the final. Shortly after I found out I was to produce live from the match. Considering I had been a late call up and the last producer on the plane it was a proud moment to think that I would be the one to bring the final to the millions listening to talkSPORT.

And there was more good news as Matt had managed to obtain the three additional tickets which meant the whole talkSPORT crew would go to the (foot)ball. And despite all that was going on in life and in my head I set out from the Lodge determined that nothing would get in the way of making the most out of the occasion.

I arrived at Soccer City with plenty of time to go before kick off and after buying a couple of programmes I set our equipment up in the press box. I was producing a two hour build up show which was to incorporate the closing ceremony. I've never been to a closing ceremony before (nor an opening one for that matter) and I will remember to not be so quick to dismiss them in future.

It was bloody awesome. An overhead fly-by sent tremors through the stadium to signal the start. For a split second, as the lights dimmed, and unnannounced vibrations and noise rocked Soccer City I thought I was having a bit of a senior moment. But as the lasers started up and the dancers appeared in front of me I began to enjoy myself. And who wouldn't enjoy the sight of Shakira, fake elephants, crazy graphics, singers, fireworks and loud music?

But the best was still to come. Earlier on in the tour I'd started reading Nelson Mandela's biography. Coupled with the trips I'd had to the Hector Pieterson & Apartheid Museums it had provided me with an insight into life in South Africa that I'd never had the opportunity to glimpse before. Indeed when people ask what was the best thing about my trip my immediate response is to point at the opportunity to really learn about the country, its people and its history. And at the centre of all that is one man, and with very little warning, and accompanied by a roar that easily dwarfed any other in the World Cup, he suddenly appeared in front of everyone in the stadium.

It was a moment to rival any other as he was driven around the pitch all the while waving and smiling at the crowd. For once the press corp abandoned all professionalism and joined in the celebrations. Cameras flashed, people punched the air & hugged each other, the noise was incredible. Even though I was wearing three layers I'm sure you could still see my goosebumps. It was without doubt the standout moment of my tour.

All of this and the main event was still to come. Lucky old me! A match that promised so much. The mercurial midfield talents of Iniesta & Sneijder. Two undeniably talented teams but who are often European underdogs and without a World Cup trophy between them. Plenty of Premier League talent in van Persis & Fabregas. And two teams who are famous for playing attractive, attacking football in the right way.

Well so much for any of that. It was a horrible game. The first half as bad as any I can remember. The attitude of both sets of players was appalling and I felt sorry for Howard Webb who found himself slap bang in the middle of a 'damned if you do and damned if you don't' situation. But saying all this, if Ramos (twice) and Robben (twice) had taken guilt edged chances we'd have been talking about a classic World Cup final!

But they didn't and the only saving grace about the match (apart from the fact that I was there, rather than watching listlessly on the TV) was that Iniesta scored a good goal in open play and prevented Holland from winning the match on penalties. For that, and the ensuing scenes of celebration, I will forever be grateful.

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And that was about that for the following evening was hometime. After the stresses and strains of my last weekend in Jo'Burg a ten hour flight home wasn't exactly top of my list of things to do. But despite an emotional farewell at the Lodge, there was no mistaking the feeling of my body and mind telling me it was time to go home. But as I sat in my cab on the way to the airport and stared out the window I knew I would one day return. I await news of England's next cricket tour to South Africa with interest.......

Friday, 9 July 2010

The long goodbye

It’s been nearly two weeks since England got knocked out of the World Cup and still the tournament rumbles on. The final takes place on Sunday and I’m desperately waiting to find out if I’ve got a Willy Wonka golden ticket; although I’m not sure anyone back home will be watching.

Many people have described it as the worst World Cup in living memory. I realise that my enjoyment in being here might colour my view but I’d say that’s more a reflection on the frustration brought on by England’s disastrous showing. It was without doubt our worst World Cup in living memory, even worse than USA’94 and we didn’t even qualify for that.

Knowing full well how the English newspapers would react to our exit I was happy enough to remain in South Africa. But there’s no doubt that we all had to raise our spirits. We were certainly all a bit Joechim Loew for a few days but in one way England exiting stage left meant we could all sit back and enjoy the football on show without worrying about what it meant for our chances of winning.

After three weeks we could all fully appreciate the ebb and flow of football played like it ought to be and watching the likes of Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Chile and Holland play in front of full houses in different football stadiums reaffirmed my appreciation for the game.

Another bonus was the appearance of Ray Parlour in the talkSPORT lodge. He turned up the morning of the 4-1 thrashing that signalled the end of the tour for several members of our party. It would have been easy for him to think he’d gate crashed a stranger’s funeral and kept himself to himself. But thankfully he’s one of the funniest characters I've ever met and has given everyone a lift at exactly the time we needed it.

A World Cup without England meant a slight reduction in the amount of hours we were broadcasting from the lodge. But for the next week or so I continued producing shows in and out of stadiums throughout the quarterfinals and taking in the sights and sounds of the first African World Cup.

After the delights of Tevez, Hernandez and Messi on the Sunday in the meticulous & mammoth Soccer City I spent the following evening marvelling at darting swallows feasting on moths and insects attracted to the inner-city floodlights on Ellis Park. A ramshackle ground situated near one of the no go areas of Johannesburg.

Upon arrival I looked around at the uneven stands, the ancient facilities, the darkened alleyways and raucous atmosphere with a view from the upper tier over the threatening nearby neighbourhood and proudly exclaimed “now this is a proper football stadium!” Before being reminded that it was in fact a rugby ground and the scene of South Africa’s famous World Cup triumph, which united the nation for the first time. Oops.

During the week I took a taxi 45 minutes across town to the best museum I’ve ever been to, The Apartheid Museum. As sobering as it was in parts it was still an uplifting experience and despite spending two hours inside I could have spent another hour at least so packed is it with information, videos, artefacts and displays.

Sadly, it made me realise that this country has been inextricably linked with violence since the Dutch ‘founded’ it in the 17th century. It also made me realise just how important having the World Cup on its soil is for the people. They need a uniting force more than any other nation.

At the end of the museum as I walked out of the austere building into the daylight and wandered through the gardens the emotions of what the people here have been through hit me and once again I had reason to thank my parents, friends and country for such a blessed life so far.

And I was thanking god for entirely different reasons minutes later as we were picked up by our resident nutcase taxi driver Sidney. For once he wasn't on the phone arguing with his wife or business partner but that didn't stop him swerving across the lane during the midday traffic and try and share a lane with a truck. Even Sidney looked apologetic after that manouevre ended in fist waving and horn blowing rather than the death of three people.

The following Sunday I enjoyed my first day off in four weeks. And as I wasn’t needed for the semi-finals this was quickly followed by my second, third & fourth days off. A chance to chill out, get a bit of a suntan and finish my holiday shopping, "fifteen vuvuselas please!"

It was also a chance to finally do something I’ve never done before and ride a bloody horse.

Four of us travelled to a game reserve for a two-hour horse ride. It was a cloudy day and things didn’t start too well when we arrived at our destination. Firstly the place was called Croc River and my imagination started to run away with me before the guide informed us that the crocs had long since left the scene. However our discomfort was quickly replaced by the domestic that seemed to be going on with the Afrikaan owner and his African helpers as he chastised them for not preparing the horses in time for our arrival.

But once we got underway our moods improved and I really started to enjoy riding the most laidback horse on the ranch. Our trip was punctuated by sightings of bored looking wildebeest, zebras and deer. While the snakes that could have ruined everything by scaring the horses and sparking a stampede remained out of sight in and firmly in hibernation. T’was a lovely way to spend a morning.

ALl of which brought me to my final weekend in South Africa. An evening out with my fellow talkSPORT workmates on the Friday night and the prospect of attending the final on the Sunday awaited. It ended up being one of the best and worst weekend's of my life.