It's with much sadness that I read today's news confirming that Danny Baker is battling cancer. I'm sure we all really hope the big man pulls through. I have special reasons for adoring the guy and it feels only right to document them here.
In early 2002 I was surprised to be invited to attend an interview for a place on a journalism postgraduate course in London that I'd speculatively applied for. I rocked up to the interview feeling blasé and like I had nothing to lose. I'd ummed and erred about whether journalism was for me during my undergraduate days, and really hadn't been the most proactive person in terms of getting work placements or internships during my studies. I was about to head off backpacking and was going to London for the interview experience as much as anything.
First question: name a journalist you admire and talk about the reasons why. My mind went blank - I was not an avid reader of newspapers and spent most of my time reading about football rather than *proper*, hard subjects like news, politics and other terrifyingly grown-up things. The only name coming to mind was Danny Baker. Man alive!
I decided to run with it, and gave an impassioned five-minute speech about why Baker is a genius, an essential part of the footballing press and an inspirational user of the English language. There were initially raised eyebrows from the panel at my choice (I think most people said AA Gill, Will Self and the like) but clearly I won them over because they offered me a rare place on the course despite the rest of the interview being downright ordinary. I haven't looked back since. So thanks Dan, I really owe you one.
The love affair with Baker and his wonderful vocabulary began in childhood with his series of Own Goals & Gaffs videos and other similar releases. I was bought the first installment as a Christmas present. "Why have you bought me a video by the man from the Daz adverts?" was my baffled response to my parents. But as soon as I stuck it on, I was hooked.
I used to play Own Goals & Gaffs over and over again. I knew every sentence, in the same way that some people can quote you the entire script of Withnail & I or scenes from Spaced verbatim. The rich and florid language used by Baker, combined with his London twang, fascinated me. It was like a door had been opened in my mind: this was how to get the most out of our Mother Tongue. It was the moment in my childhood when I realised that using long or intelligent words was not simply a preserve of the pompous; it was not necessarily done to exclude the uninformed but to embrace the possibilities available in a language riddled with near-infinite possibilities.
If you haven't seen the Own Goals & Gaffs series, I would urge you to try and pick them up at the earliest opportunity, even if you have to buy them on VHS and track down something to play them on. The footage is very funny in itself, but what makes it is Baker's introduction and commentary over the clips. It would always be the small detail that caught his attention - an old man in the crowd sarcastically applauding a hairbrained own goal by his team, a bald fella falling over, a fleeting glance between goalkeeper and defender as they attempted to blame each other without moving their lips. Baker would highlight all of this minutiae to the viewer; it was delicious.
Into my teens and the Radio 5 show Baker & Kelly Upfront was essential listening. The idea of a football phone-in that spent hardly any time talking about action on the pitch, instead concentrating on every other aspect of being a supporter, perfectly summed up what it is to be a football fan in this country.
And by football fan, I mean a fan of football. Some people just support their team, and as long as they win that's all that matters. I, and I suspect most of you, have never been that way. I am a fan of the game, played in the right way and in the right spirit. And that spirit has to include humour. Without humour the game would die. Would we really pay anything from £5 to £50 to watch our team if there was no possibility of the referee falling over, a hilarious own goal, some girlish fisticuffs between foppish midfielders or - best of all - a brief floodlight failure? It is all this other stuff that Baker (and Kelly) would celebrate. And today more so than ever Baker's Saturday morning show on 5Live retains this heavy dose of the absurd. Any caller wanting to discuss the actual match action in a game is usually given short shrift in favour of a lady with an anecdote about how she knits baby booties during Reading's home matches.
But for all Baker's lovably verbose delivery, nothing makes me smile more than when a caller rings in with a beautifully silly football anecdote and Baker responds with a roaring, uncontrollable belly laugh of delight. In that moment, as you can almost hear the tears of joy rolling down his cheeks, he embodies us all, us proper football fans.
It's not about whether you win, lose or draw. It's about the last man, desperately dashing towards a ball trickling towards the goalline as a result of a squiffy back-pass, straining every sinue to get there in time, failing, and ending up in a heap with one boot stuck in the net. Wonderful. That is the game we love and the game Danny Baker brings us every single time we tune in.
Football is not about Alan Shearer telling us on Match Of The Day that a centre forward has "done great" in beating his man to a header. It's about Danny Baker asking former England captains whether they prefer red or brown sauce on a sausage sandwich.
Everything else is just noise.
Get well soon, Dan. I would say that I love you more than words but that wouldn't quite be true. I look forward to hearing more of your immaculate words soon.