Ambassador's Argyle Archives | No.5: Don't Look Down
We love our unique history at Argyle, but as well as the famous games and star performers, there are many tales of the unusual. Club ambassador Gordon Sparks will be unearthing the humorous, surprising and behind the scenes tales of years gone by in this fascinating series underlining what makes our club special.
When I look back at the 32 seasons (was it really that long?) I enjoyed commentating on football, there weren’t many negatives. After all, I was watching Argyle!
However, one aspect of visiting particular away venues would fill me with dread. You see, I have a fear of heights.
It’s odd. I love flying, but put me at the crowning point of a tall structure – well, the very thought makes me queasy and I just felt a shiver as I typed that.
There are two things to bear in mind. Being in a position where I was convinced I was closer to the clouds than the pitch, while the other was how to get to the said location. To add to the latter, I always carried two bags. One with the broadcast equipment with the case itself, let alone the kit inside weighing a ton. The other with my notebooks, drink bottles, sometimes spare jumper, hat and gloves if required.
Let’s break down certain grounds by category.
LOW FEAR FACTOR
Modern stadiums, such as Wigan Athletic’s DW Stadium, often have a lift for access to the broadcasting areas and hospitality. So far, so good. But then you emerge to what is undoubtedly a magnificent view but the sudden realisation that oxygen is needed on standby.
Once the equipment for radio duty is set up, it’s lovely to sit down and not have to move until full-time. Binoculars at the ready (I always carried a pocket-sized pair) to check opposing players’ numbers.
MEDIUM FEAR FACTOR
Leeds United’s Elland Road affords another glorious vista over proceedings with an uninterrupted panorama. But getting to the elongated desk used by all local and national stations meant many deep breaths and a certain anxiety if making the mistake of looking down.
From the highest-level concourse of the West Stand, whereas the fans simply find their seats close at hand, an out-of-place looking staircase takes those with a press pass close to the stanchion of the roof.
A wooden walkway, thankfully with a handrail, then eventually leads from the back of the stand to the front to the welcome sight of table, chairs and power points.
Commentator health warning: Do not look down!
As walking along, after being so close to the home fans, the steps in the main body of the stand descend below - with the human life looking increasingly smaller as the distance between them and the broadcasters’ walkway increases.
HIGH FEAR FACTOR
Again, this involves getting to the commentary position and there’s also staircase action. One difference: The stairs were outside.
Hull City’s Boothferry Park was a proper, old-school stadium. But for this humble radio operative, it was the locale of nightmares.
I remind you that as well as taking yourself to each position, there was all the equipment as well.
Why access could not be obtained from within the stand was beyond me. In a feat close to mountaineering with the mammoth staircase precariously attached to the back of the stand, the steps were made of corrugated iron. That meant you could plainly see the ground disappear below in the large gaps between each step.
I’m sure the peak would have given the best view possible of the city of Hull but I felt that my life would not have been enhanced by the slightest glance.
Now, before you say it only has to be done once per visit, that was not the case. After each game, the manager and player interviews have to be done, so it was back down for obtaining the words of wisdom before returning to the broadcast area to send the audio back to base.
NO GO AREA
There was one stadium I flatly refused to visit. No matter how much my boss would try and convince me to go. I’d rebuff any demand to attend in no uncertain terms. the Vetch Field, former home of Swansea City, Tuesday's pre-season visitors to Home Park.
To get to the commentary area, a vertical metal ladder had to be climbed above the North Bank terrace where the more vociferous of the home fans would gather. Yes, vertical.
At the top, the gantry was nothing else but a few scaffold poles loosely shaped into a cube suspended from the roof with planks of wood, tied together with rope, acting as the floor. Obviously, those were the days before health and safety.
One of the home commentators had even instigated a pulley system to tie the bags on to in order to be lifted up. I only know all this detail from it being passed on by other commentators who knew of my fear.
GOT TOO SCARED AND TURNED AROUND
This came not at a match, although definitely Argyle-related.
The 2003 pre-season tour to Austria saw the Pilgrims based at the well-equipped and most scenic Obertraun training facility.
As well as all the work undertaken there, as well as the friendlies against Austrian and Romanian apposition, downtime activities took place.
One of those was an afternoon cable car ride that overlooked Obertraun in the Dachstein mountain range.
The journey to the summit could be made in two stages. I expressed my disinterest in such an adventure but was told there were to be no dissenters.
But as a compromise it was agreed (not by me) that I could use the mode of transport I had successfully avoided in my life to this point to the first stage only, and return to ground level as the rest of the party took another cable car to the top.
There was one other person who had the same trepidation; striker Michael Evans.
As we were split into groups to avoid surpassing the maximum number of people in each cable car, my fellow travellers squeezed in and the rise began.
Seeing the obvious alarm in my face, Graham Coughlan decided it was time for a little fun.
“You’re not keen, are you Sparksy!?” The not-to-be-messed defender then proceeded to stand and jump around making the car shake as the metres up the mountain increased.
On reaching the landing stage of that first level, as the majority headed in the direction of the second cable car, Michael and I made the return journey down.
We returned to the camp with great relief, and sat outside admiring the view as I sipped on a very strong coffee.
Then, something most noticeable occurred. All of a sudden, the skies rapidly filled with darkness as a mass of black cloud congregated over the mountain.
That was followed by the roar of thunder.
As we peered to the distance, it became apparent that power to the cable cars had ceased and we spotted one stranded alongside the mountain face. It contained members of our touring party.
Thankfully, in a short time, everyone was on the move again when power was restored.
But who had the last laugh, Cocko?