Interview: Jim White, Sky Sports’ Mr Deadline Day

In his element: Sky Sports News frontman Jim White. Picture: SSN
In his element: Sky Sports News frontman Jim White. Picture: SSN
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He’s the frontman fans, managers and players turn to as the transfer window ‘slams shut’...
so, Jim White, how come you’re so good?

FOR better or worse, transfer deadline day would not be the same without Sky Sports News, whose swooshes and tickers and 24-hour rolling coverage allow not a scrap of the emerging picture to be overlooked. Mysterious, tinted-glass people-carriers edge in and out of training-ground car parks. A digital, on-screen clock counts down the seconds until the window “slams shut”. And Jim White delivers the breaking news. With as many... dramatic pauses... as possible.

White ith pundits Davie Provan and Charlie Nicholas at the 1998 launch of Sky's SPL coverage. Picture: SNS

White ith pundits Davie Provan and Charlie Nicholas at the 1998 launch of Sky's SPL coverage. Picture: SNS

Never mind the caricature that is dusted down every Hogmanay of a Rangers-supporting, Brian Laudrup-loving Scotsport reject whose vocabulary begins and ends with “sure”, “nice one” and “cheers, mate”. South of the Border, White’s assured handling of assorted swoops, loan deals and 11th-hour panic buys is now such a feature of the transfer window’s final day that his name has become almost synonymous with it.

Jim White Day, as some are dubbing it, begins with live pictures of him setting off – like the Queen on her way to parliament – for Sky’s Isleworth Studios, sweeping through the building’s revolving doors with all the swagger of a gladiator going into battle. “He is in the building,” confirms Charlotte Jackson to the nation, as headline news gives way to shots of their Glaswegian anchorman skipping up the main stairs – mobile to his ear, sheaf of contacts in his case – past a giant picture of himself on the wall.

With what is starting to look suspiciously like a cult following, White is to Sky’s deadline-day coverage what Jeff Stelling is to Soccer Saturday. “Jim is on from 7 tonight! BUZZING,” reads one message on the I Love Jim White Facebook page. Last time around, he was trending on Twitter, although he claims not to know what that means. This Thursday, they will be at it again, sitting up late, waiting for the last word from Mr Deadline Day .

“It has become quite a phenomenon,” he says. “It baffles me to be quite honest, but yes, it’s terrific. It has become a day that Sky Sports News appears to own. Whenever people see me, especially around this time, they seem to be getting caught up in it all. ‘What’s it going to be like?’ ‘Is it going to be busy?’ I’m like, ‘you tell me’. It’s really something. I’m absolutely thrilled about it.”

So are his employers. They have taken an idea that was supposed to stabilise the football economy and made a virtue of its limitations. With something called the Totaliser wheeled in to summarise the day’s events, and the chimes of Big Ben signalling the window’s closure, it has all the hallmarks of a heavyweight boxing promotion. Whatever next? A spot-lit White ushered into the studio wearing a sequined robe?

Many are uncomfortable with the hype. They say that it is an artifice, a media product designed to glorify the culture that has contributed to football’s financial problems, but White loves every minute of it. On one occasion, after an especially stressful spell in which several deals went through at once, he turned to the camera and confided: “Phew, I wish I was at home watching this.”

It is, he says, part of his job to convey the drama and the fun, maybe even with his tongue in cheek. Football might be a business, but its business is entertainment. “You hear stories of people actually being on the edge of their seats at home or in pubs and that’s exactly what we’re trying to create. Obviously, you don’t want to go into silly mode but it’s theatre, football theatre, and it’s terrific. People hang on to your every word.”

Of course, there is work to be done as well, and not just by his supporting cast. White says that he spends every advert break “on the blower” to players and managers, before quickly composing himself to go back on air. “It’s very, very busy. But terrific. I mean the adrenaline... if you can’t get up for this, you can’t get up for anything.”

On a day when even White has learned to expect the unexpected, anything can happen. “I remember some time ago getting a phone call, during a commercial break, from Harry Redknapp, who was with Tottenham at the time. He said, ‘look Jim, it hasn’t worked out for Robbie Keane here so we’re letting him go up to Celtic on a loan basis’. I was like ‘what?’ I couldn’t wait to get back on air.”

At this point, White re-lives how he broke the news that day, complete with dramatic pauses. “Celtic fans... stand by... this is for you. Robbie Keane... is right now... in a people-carrier... on his way to Glasgow.”

The memory brings him out in a warm glow. “Apparently, there and then, they descended on Celtic Park in huge numbers. It’s great. People ask ‘what is all this fuss about?’ Well, the fuss is about a great deal. People seem to love it and I love being at the centre of it.”

Keane was far from the biggest story White has had to deal with on deadline day. He also got a kick out of telling the world that Dimitar Berbatov had joined Manchester United, Robinho had gone to Manchester City, Fernando Torres had swapped Liverpool for Chelsea and Andy Carroll had signed for Liverpool in a sensational £35 million deal.

White, who joined Sky in 1998, believes that his years in Scotland stood him in good stead. Born in Glasgow, educated at Kelvinside Academy, he studied journalism at Napier College before becoming a sports reporter for STV, where he eventually worked alongside Gerry McNee on Scotsport. He says that one of his proudest achievements was securing the first interview with Dick Advocaat after he – Advocaat, that is, not White – had been appointed manager of Rangers. “He wasn’t doing any interviews, but I just pitched up in Holland with a cameraman and collared him. He was great.”

Those were the days when White first became the subject of a Jonathan Watson send-up on Only An Excuse. To this day, he cannot live down his reputation as a narcissistic media luvvy who is such a bluenose that, in a famous interview with Brian Laudrup on the shores of Loch Lomond, he asked: “How come you’re so good?”

Given how far he has come, you wonder if White, now 55, gets irritated by those in his homeland who cling to the old image. “It doesn’t irritate me but it baffles me a bit. They can’t move on. Having said that, if they’re still talking about Brian Laudrup and the Jonny Watson stuff, that’s their problem. It doesn’t ruffle any feathers with me. To some extent, they’re cocooned in their own little world, but I must admit, the picture for me is much broader these days.

“I can honestly say that I do not favour one half of the Old Firm over the other because I am so far removed from it all. Of course, at Sky Sports News, the battle with Rangers has been covered thoroughly so I’ve been in touch about that. When Craig Whyte came on the scene, I was meeting him on a semi-regular basis down here. And I speak to Charles Green quite regularly.

“But no, as regards any allegiance, it makes me laugh. And I laugh about it with people like [Neil] Lennon, and John Hartson, who is a good friend of mine. It doesn’t get to me one bit.”

All of which will be the furthest thing from his mind on Thursday night, when he lines up with co-host Natalie Sawyer, inset above, and an army of reporters across the country.

’Arry will be winding down his car window, this time as QPR manager. And, if recent deadline days are any guide, Paddy Power will open a book, offering odds on White’s first cliché. “Put pen to paper” was last year’s favourite at 7/1, with “hold on to your hats” also providing good value.

Easy though it is to tease, extended live coverage of such a changing landscape is quite a feat, especially at a time when the likes of Twitter offers so much potential for error. “Last time, we had people telling us that Kaka had been seen at a railway station in London, which meant that he was heading for Tottenham. And you’re like, ‘oh aye, sure’.

“It can be a forum for complete misinformation so you have to be careful. You don’t want to put out something that’s inaccurate. That would weaken the product hugely.”

White says that he has managed to avoid that indignity but, like every broadcaster, he makes mistakes. He includes on his list of embarrassing moments a struggle to announce the Sri Lankan cricket team – whose names “go on for several weeks”.

To his credit, White takes risks. He pushes the boundaries, sometimes for the hell of it, and sometimes for professional reasons.

“Between you and I, if I do have a moment where I think, ‘good God, what’s going on?’ I try and bring in a bit of humour. It buys me some time to get my head together.”

A couple of months back, when he heard for the first time Joey Barton’s attempt at a French accent, he ridiculed the player with an on-air impersonation that has since become a hit on YouTube.

“A lot of people who don’t have much time for Joey Barton went on Twitter saying ‘Jim White’s a legend’, but honestly, I just found it so funny. I know Barton, and basically he’s a good lad, but what he was doing that day I have no idea.”

Unlike Barton, White doesn’t tweet, which is odd as he finds himself at the forefront of a technological revolution that has combined with football to make the old days of occasional news bulletins and weekly magazine programmes seem hopelessly inadequate. He says that, if you or I were invited into the studio on Thursday, we could not fail to be impressed.

“I think the speed and scale of it would knock anybody out. It’s become massive.The potential of Sky Sports News is limitless, absolutely limitless, and it’s fantastic to be a part of. It is watched by everybody in football – managers, players, newspaper people. It is the place for breaking news, which is what I always hoped it would be. If you’re out of the loop for 20 minutes, and you come back, our job is to tell you something you didn’t know when you left 20 minutes ago.”

White says he is still waiting for his biggest story, but he is working on it every day, and insists that he will get there, maybe even on Thursday. Hold on to your hats.