Interview: Saint Eilidh Barbour on getting her break in TV

Eilidh Barbour at Celtic Park ahead of the Europa League tie against Rosenborg. Picture: Robert Perry
Eilidh Barbour at Celtic Park ahead of the Europa League tie against Rosenborg. Picture: Robert Perry
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Horribly late after being stranded on a train for an hour and a half owing to an “unidentified object on the line” 
during the worst of Storm Ali, I arrive at the hotel just as Eilidh Barbour has to leave. But the TV sports presenter – who, bless her, has been waiting all this time, no diva-ish flounce-outs from her – tells me to sit tight as she’ll return just after a vital assignation back at her flat. “I’ve got a Tesco home delivery coming,” she says. “Part of the joys of life when you have one of these… ”

“One of these” is a stookie. Barbour has been on crutches since injuring her left leg with Partick Thistle Ladies. Tell me this happened just as you were about to complete the perfect hat-trick, I say. “I’m a wing-back – the women’s game likes back threes, too – and I’m never about to complete any kind of hat-trick. It was me, aged 35, trying to block the shot of a 16-year-old.” Maybe, I suggest, it’s time to hang up the boots. She glowers at this.

Barbour’s immediate concern was about her football and her golf as an enthusiastic participant in both. There could be no more of either for a while. “Then, as I was waiting for the ambulance and looking at how my toes didn’t point the same way anymore, I thought: ‘Oh no, I’m going to miss Monaco. Oh no, I’m going to miss the Ryder Cup’.”

Monaco was the Champions League draw and that was indeed a goner but Barbour will be in position at Le Golf National in Paris for the 42nd staging of the almighty team clash between the United States and, notwithstanding Brexit, Europe – beginning on Friday.

You could make a cheap joke here about the BBC and the new face of the Corporation’s golf coverage having responsibilities at Guyancourt bordering on the minimal – highlights only – while Sky dominate the sport and this requiring little movement and no fairway yomping from Barbour in her restricted condition. But that would be churlish since she’s hopped back to our Glasgow rendezvous to resume the interview and, in any case, during The Open at least, the Beeb still tend to pull in more viewers for their evening round-ups than any of the subscriber station’s live transmissions.

“I absolutely love the Ryder Cup,” says Barbour. “I was at the last one two years ago, reporting from the course for 5 Live, and it was one of my favourite jobs, just brilliant. The Ryder Cup isn’t like normal golf, it’s proper boisterous, and that one being in Minnesota, a sporting haven, was incredibly loud though, unfortunately, there wasn’t the right result. This one will be different. I won’t be inside the ropes so much, and couldn’t have been in this state anyway. I’m excited about hosting the coverage, though I reckon the less everyone sees of me and the more they get of the golf, the better. And I’m quietly confident about Europe’s chances. I think they’ve been written off far too 
quickly.”

This hotel, with BBC Scotland and STV both nearby, is quite the meeja hangout. Newscaster John MacKay is suited up for what will surely be a weather-hell tea-time bulletin and I want to tell him how I cheated death (or at least boredom) in the vicinity of Cowlairs, but don’t think this would make the headlines. Barbour is in her tracksuit and with her short, go-faster hairstyle she has a different look to the voluptuous, cascading Rapunzelesque curls of the women on Sky Sports News who wear nightclub frocks to introduce the latest breathless reports from Bolton Wanderers’ training ground. But if I say any more about this I’ll just get myself in trouble.

Barbour need not feel inferior in any way. On Thursday night for BT Sport she was on duty at Celtic’s Europa League opener. Back on the BBC, she has regular Saturday duties for Final Score and, now and again, Football Focus.

Earlier this year she wore a furry cossack-style hat to bring us the Winter Olympics from South Korea. So what’s the dream? “You want to be at the biggest events,” she says. “I’ve never covered a summer Olympics so I’d love to get to Tokyo. Presenting the Scottish Cup final would be great, the same with a flagship programme like Match of the Day.” Watch out Gary Lineker, then? She flashes her most 
telegenic smile and laughs.

One of the interesting things about Barbour is that she doesn’t want to make herself appear more interesting than she actually is. A few times I read out a better version of events from my collection of cuttings and she’ll unpick the embroidery. For instance, her injury wasn’t in a game but at a training session; because of her hectic work schedule she hasn’t started a match in a while. This may seem a small point but others in showbiz would cheerfully allow myth to turn to fact.

A more significant example of this comes when we discuss equality and sexism in sport and, particularly, golf, where she’s been portrayed as a modernising, feminising influence, undeterred by old buffers furiously waving their shooting sticks and mashie niblicks at her. Good story, I say. Ah, but it’s not true, she says. Jings, even the one from Pyeongchang about the make-up freezing to her face was fiction!

Still, it was perishing cold at those Games and the wind-chill factor was the most extreme she’s experienced in a professional capacity and that includes Derek McInnes’ icy stare. Barbour was in possession of the post-match microphone for a BT Sport game between Partick Thistle and Aberdeen at Firhill in 2016 when the Dons manager was asked to reflect on a fortunate 2-1 victory gained through an outrageous winner with the home team denied a penalty at the death. “Are you kidding me?” McInnes snapped, and when the interview ended abruptly a few seconds later he marched away muttering under his breath about the “stupid” question.

“Derek had a bit of a go at me,” she says. “I think he thought it wouldn’t be broadcast. He probably came out of it worse than I did. But everything’s fine between us now. We’re friends again.” Others might build up their part as a brave seeker of truth but Barbour doesn’t do this; quite the 
opposite, in fact. “Maybe I could have worded the question better. Post-match interviews I find difficult but they’re tough for managers because their emotions can be raw. As much as I’ve kicked a ball about for fun I’ve not played football at that level or been through the [coaching] badges. Yes, it’s my job to put the questions, but managers must look at me and think to themselves: ‘Who on earth are you to be asking me anything?’”

Now, that’s generous of Barbour but I can’t back her up here. The manager or pundit who infers that only the views of those who’ve played the game or worked in it are permissible and valid has become a bit of a bore. Actors don’t challenge theatre critics in this way. “Show us your medals,” is a hackneyed football cry. Well, guys, show us your journalism degrees before you start writing those newspaper columns. Back to Barbour: does she feel pressure to be extra-sharp when interviewing the men because she’s a woman?

She says not and has always believed herself equal, something she traces back to childhood in Dunkeld, Perthshire, which made her blind to gender stereotyping. “In my class at primary school there were 27 boys and five girls. All my cousins are boys. If there was a game of football happening, the lads wanted you to play and I wanted to play because I’ve always loved the sport. I was never treated differently back then because I was a girl and, really, I don’t think I’m treated differently doing this job. Maybe the attitude [of male scepticism, or worse, towards women in football] has been there and I’ve just ignored it. Maybe I’m not ‘on alert’ about that kind of thing.

“If a manager or whoever has a go over something I’ve asked I actually don’t mind because I reckon they would do the same to a guy. I just want to be treated first and foremost as a reporter. In this game that can sometimes mean being told your questions are stupid but if we want to be treated as equal you need to take it all.”

Back during that Dunkeld childhood, dad Wattie was a chartered surveyor and mum Di flitted between landscape gardener and masseuse while younger brother Jamie has grown up to be a chef. Barbour lets slip to having a boyfriend, accompanied by detail which may make him blush – this fellow Scotland-based TV sports reporter swoons over the camp musical film spectacular The Greatest Showman.

Jamie, she says, could have become a footballer – “he had all the talent but lacked the passion”. It was the other way round for her, although in Barbour’s youth the women’s game in Scotland wasn’t anything like as developed as it is now, with Shelley Kerr’s side World Cup-bound next summer. “It’s a magnificent achievement,” she says. “One of the benefits of being laid up in plaster was I could watch them win the qualifier against Switzerland. That was one of the finest performances by a Scotland side, men or women, for a very long time. The BBC have the rights to the finals and I’d love to be working at them.”

Barbour is a St Johnstone fan and can talk about them until Perthshire’s cows come home. She was eight when her dad took her to McDiarmid Park for the first time and the team featured Davie Irons, Paul Cherry and Roddy Grant. “One time I was a ball-girl,” she declares proudly. “We beat Morton 6-0, George O’Boyle scored a 13-minute hat-trick and we were so good I never got a touch.” Season 1999-2000 was memorable – “I think we beat the Old Firm five times” – though it pales next to the Scottish Cup triumph four years ago. “That was overwhelming. I was completely shattered and in bed by ten. But then I had a game of my own the next day.”

Barbour tells a nice story about how, aged 14, she wrote to Hazel Irvine who she’s replaced as the Beeb’s golf anchor to ask how best to get into TV. But, 
typically, she doesn’t over-tell it. She thinks that on the envelope she put “FAO Hazel Irvine, BBC.” That’s sweet, I say, like writing to Santa and hoping that “Lapland” will be enough. No, she recalls, the postcode was there, too.

The way this story has been told, the sight of a woman fronting the previously male-dominated Grandstand impressed and inspired Barbour. Again, not quite. “It was more that there was someone from Scotland presenting the show which made me think: ‘I’d like to do that and maybe I could’.”

So whose posters were on her bedroom wall – gangly goalgetter Grant? She laughs. “I was an indie kid, still am really, so Damon Albarn, Oasis and Travis, a fine Scottish band, although maybe Shed Seven were my favourites.” Encouraged by Irvine, she enrolled in Film and Media Studies at Stirling University. It’s from this era that dredged-up old photos might cause her the most blushing. “I had really short hair and really bad skin as a result of eating too many burgers, drinking too many beers and not playing enough football.” Well, what’s uni for? Working at first as a TV freelance she wasn’t earning enough to pay the bills and so took a waitressing job in Glasgow. “I loved that and still have this fantasy about running my own wee wine bar.” Then the breaks started to come.

Has she encountered sexism? She asks what I mean and I mention the Andy Gray/Richard Keys imbroglio of a few years ago. “Nothing like that. Maybe these views still exist but they’re not voiced because everyone knows what the consequences would be.” I mention Kenny Logan telling me that his TV presenter wife Gaby was once asked by a football dinosaur: “How many men did you have to sleep with to get your job?” Barbour, looking shocked, says: “If anyone said that to me I’d call them out right away.

“I have had it said: ‘You’re much better-looking than the last reporter we had here.’ I must admit I didn’t necessarily think that was something to get offended about. It wasn’t malicious, just a guy bumbling through some small-talk before we went on air. I know some women might call that sexist. We live in a very PC world now and, in a lot of ways, that’s good. But I don’t think we have to be outraged by every single little thing.”

Now Barbour must be going. She’s delayed a voiceover across at the Beeb for my benefit but there’s a big golf tournament that needs promoting. For the Ryder Cup she’ll be teaming up again with Peter Alliss, who many observers of these ongoing sex wars reckoned would clash horribly with our girl. Aged 87 and incorrigibly and ineluctably old-school, Alliss has said of a player’s wife watching a crucial putt: “She’s probably thinking: ‘If this goes in I get a new kitchen’.” Barbour, who plays her golf at Blairgowrie, says: “I love Peter, he’s brilliant. He’s been very welcoming to me, a joy to work alongside and I think a lot of his quips are tongue-in-cheek.”

When she took over from Irvine, Barbour was portrayed as a champion of her sex with a crusading zeal to encourage more women to play the game. Yet again, though, someone picked up the ball and ran with it. In an interview hoping for increased participation she hadn’t actually been that specific. “This stuff is just funny,” she says, picking up her crutches. “I had a good laugh about it with Peter’s wife Jackie. ‘Oh,’ she said when we met, ‘I’d expected you to be totally different… ’”