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Absolute Firecracker: A Few Good Minutes with ESPN's Ian Darke

iandarkeLast Friday the United States Soccer Federation hosted a massive pep rally in Times Square. Thousands turned out to watch a live edition of ESPN FC, interact with the entire 23-man U.S. National Team, sample free Fig Newton and listen to some overpowering EDM beats.

Some of the largest cheers of the afternoon went to a man who wasn’t born in America and was mostly unknown on this side of the Atlantic until four years ago: ESPN broadcaster (Sir) Ian Darke.

The affable Englishman quickly became a fan favorite on his now-iconic (in American soccer circles, anyway) call of Landon Donovan’s game-winning goal vs. Algeria at the 2010 World Cup. Darke’s appeal carried into ESPN’s coverage of the English Premier League, working early morning weekend broadcasts with Steve McManaman before the network lost the rights ahead of the 2013-14 season to NBC.

No matter, Darke’s popularity in the States hasn’t waned. A promo for the World Cup on ESPN that features him narrating an awkward first date already has 500,000 views on YouTube in barely two months. 2014 will be the swan song for the ESPN/Darke partnership after FOX won the American broadcast rights 2018 and 2022 tournaments. 

The Big Lead caught up with Darke amid the chaos and noise of Times Square to talk all things World Cup, media differences across the Atlantic and if he finds himself rooting for the U.S. team.

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TBL: Did you ever think you’d get this sort of reaction in America, signing jerseys, kissing babies …?

Ian Darke: No. Never in a million year. Of course not. It’s nice that people are appreciative of that call of that goal four years ago. I’ve been amazed by the reaction to it.

TBL: What’s going through your head when ESPN asked you to film that first date commercial?

ID: I thought it was a bit of an off-beat idea but the marketing people said they think this will work, that it’s a neat way of promoting the World Cup and our coverage. I’m always up for a bit of a laugh and a bit of fun. They said they’ll fly me to New York and I’ll get a chance to do this. We did it. It was like 10 hours filming with proper actors and fully functioning extras. It took from dawn until dusk to make that. God knows how many takes (I did). I’ve got a huge respect on the back of it, for the people who make films for four months. It took a lot of making. It seems to have worked.

TBL: Are you more recognized in England or here in America?

ID: Definitely the United States I would say. I always joke to my friends that Robbie Williams could never crack the States, but I did, (laughs) but I haven’t really.

TBL: There are clips online of you calling the United States/Portugal World Cup game in 2002, I believe …

ID: I didn’t call that game live. That was a re-voice for that game. I did it for a freelance after the fact. That is obviously a key game, if you’re analyzing this group now. That’s the only time the U.S. have beaten a European team (at the World Cup) since 1950, when they beat England. They’re going to have to be very competitive with Portugal again here.

TBL: Do you find yourself, I don’t want to say rooting for the U.S., but maybe pulling for them?

ID: I call the game from a neutral perspective, of course, that’s my job as a professional. You’re always aware you’re talking to an American audience. The people sitting there kind of want you a bit to see it from the American perspective, you talk more about the U.S. than you would about Portugal, for instance. And yeah, of course, I’ve got a soft spot for the U.S. team. I’ve been around them four years. I want them to do well.

TBL: Do you like (U.S. coach) Jurgen Klinsmann?

ID: I get on very well with Jurgen. From a media guy’s perspective he’s very helpful with us. He’ll meet us on the morning of games and mark our cards about things to look for and the thinking behind his team and what he’s looking for. I can’t say fairer than that. For me as a commentator, he’s been very helpful.

TBL: How much different is it working in America from a media perspective, compared to England? Access-wise, for instance, how often are you going to be five feet away from Luis Suarez before a game?

ID: Very rarely because they’re hugely paid stars in the Premier League. They’ve become a far more distant, from say 25-30 years ago when you might, well old-time journalists will tell you they used to meet with the top players and have a drink with them in the bar at lunchtime or go for lunch with them. Nowadays there are agents and shields of PR people who you have to arrange everything through the PR department. That’s sad in a way, because it’s the modern reality.

Over here the U.S. team are far more accessible.

TBL: Even the managers, you’re not going to get much time with them before a broadcast, right?

ID: No. Some managers, take Jose Mourinho or Rafa Benitez, folks like that when he was managing in England, you wouldn’t really even ask them their team because they’re never going to, they regard everything as a bit of a state secret. ‘Why am I going to help the broadcasters?’

TBL: So the access isn’t there?

ID: I’ve got a good half dozen-to-more managers in the Premier League who I regard as throwbacks types. Like Sam Allardyce, Chris Hughton when he was at Norwich City. Steve Bruce you know before the (FA) Cup final he gave me the team for the Cup Final the day before the match. I’ve got a trust with him. He knows I’m not going to Tweet it or tell anybody else. I’ve got it in my pocket to help my prep.

TBL: Who do you like to watch play in person? Obviously it’s different on TV, but who is someone when you see in person, you can see that greatness from the commentary gantry right away?

ID: Suarez is exciting. You get the feeling every time he gets the ball that the crowd are suddenly on the edge of their seats because something is going to happen. I think all the great players have had that. Cristiano Ronaldo has got it as well. Because, at my own rather modest level I played as a midfielder, I like creative midfield players. So going way back I loved Bobby Charlton. When I was a kid I loved watching him. And proper wingers too, real quick, incisive wingers.

English fans react after the Euro 2012 f

TBL: What do you think of England’s chances at the World Cup? Do you think because there are almost zero expectations that could be a good thing for them?

ID: People in England do not expect England to win the World Cup. What they do want England to do is excite because we were turgid and have been for several tournaments running. I think this team will either be a big sensation at the World Cup because they’re young and have no fear or they’ll find they haven’t got quite enough nous to deal with a big tournament. It’s a much fresher, more-together, exciting squad, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

TBL: A young player like Raheem Sterling brings a lot.

ID: Sterling kind of typifies this new breed. There’s a lot of Liverpool players there. They’ll go for it. He’ll get the ball and take people on. He’ll frighten a few defenders at the World Cup and he’s a tough kid. You can knock him around.

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TBL: This is the last hurrah for ESPN doing  the World Cup, you’ve sort of grown into this cult figure …

ID: I wouldn’t put it that strongly. It’s a shame. Every broadcaster who does what we do, we’re totally dependent on the rights. That happens among the bosses. (ESPN) didn’t win the bid, FOX won the bidding to take it over. I say good luck to them. It’s a big job, but I will say this: ESPN, I like to think, have set a really good standard in 2010. We’re looking to improve on that this time.

TBL: How many times have you been asked about the Donovan goal call in the last four years?

ID: I reckon at least 200. Almost every time I’ve ever done any sort of media stuff.

TBL: Is that one of the most exciting plays you’ve ever seen unfold?

ID: One of the funniest things is the first time I saw Landon Donovan after the World Cup, talk about it, he said ‘I heard you got a bit excited about that, have you calmed down yet?’ (Laughs) I can’t believe it. I honestly cannot remember what I said when I did it. I was almost the last person to hear that. We were in South Africa and people were saying to me, ‘your goal call has created a bit of a stir on that goal. We’ve played it about five times,’ I was in a van traveling around South Africa.

TBL: So it was ‘go-go’ or ‘gold-goal’?

ID: I said ‘Go-Go USA’ but don’t ask me how and why that came out. It just did.

TBL: You were in England when the Donovan news came out, did it get any sort of reaction at all?

ID: It wasn’t a big story in England. There are other big (World Cup) stories, like no (Carlos) Tevez for Argentina, not a shock. Or no (Samir) Nasri for France, maybe a bit more of a shock. I was shocked that he (Donovan) wasn’t selected. He’s not the player he was four years ago, but I thought when Jurgen sat down to write down the 23 he’d think, I could do with having (Donovan) around even if it’s from the bench. So I did think it was a bombshell. I will say this, coaches are paid to make big calls and he’s made a very brave one. Brave, because if it goes wrong for the U.S., people are going to say, you know, ‘we could have done with Landon Donovan there. It might have been different with him.’

TBL: Do you miss working with Macca (Steve McManaman)?

ID: I’m going to be working with Macca on five of the games. The opening game of the World Cup, the three England games and the Spain/Chile game. I work with Macca in England too on BT Sport, we just don’t do what we did every Saturday morning on the Premier League (for ESPN).

TBL: You guys had some fun, though.

ID: Yeah, yeah. It was fun. You’ve just said it. We did the games properly but we believed in, I think the way we pitched it, sort of it probably worked as well. I hear nothing but good things on the way NBC covers it, that it’s amazingly comprehensive. I’m not sure if they do it with the same lightness as much. Rebecca (Lowe) is a fantastic pro.

TBL: You been in the U.S. back and forth, are you shocked to see how soccer has taken off?

ID: I’d like to think it will get even bigger still. I’m not the best guy to ask about how popular it is, I’m not here often enough. There’s certainly a really good feeling around the U.S. games. 70–80,000 can turn up. I was shocked one day covering U.S./Argentina (2011) and I couldn’t find a line on the game in the New York Post. It’s going on seven miles through the tunnel and I think, ‘that’s gotta be wrong.’

The World Cup is big, but for the growth of the game you kind of need the U.S. to make a good account of themselves.

TBL: Could they surprise or is the group (Ghana, Portugal, Germany) too hard?

ID: Yeah, I think you’re at the stage now, I’m going to say on this program (ESPN FC) that there’s been enough doom-and-gloom over the draw and how hard it’s going to be. I think this is a time when every team and every player, you dare to dream that you can cause an upset. What I’d say, the group looks a lot different if they can beat Ghana in the first game. That’s not easy, but it’s not impossible, it’s impossible on one day they can get it right and beat Ghana.

TBL: They’re on comparable levels, no?

ID: If they met 10 times, I think Ghana would have the better of the argument. On form, they’ve got a very good midfield. A lot will depend on the U.S.’s ability to counter attack, defend well, defend very organized. When they get the ball, break quickly on teams.

TBL: Who is you favorite U.S. player to deal with?

ID: (Michael) Bradley. He is the key player. They just, to me, they never look quite the same team when he’s not there. He’s the glue. He’s got the nous to marshall those around him a little bit.

TBL: Do you have a pick in the back of your mind for the World Cup? Is it Brazil’s to lose?

ID: Yeah, I think it is. That’s a very unoriginal pick, but Brazil haven’t lost at home in a competitive game since 1975. They’ll take the world (to beat). Argentina have the goal power.

TBL: Is Messi due for a good World Cup?

ID: Of course he is. He’s a fantastic footballer. Look how well (Angel) Di Maria played. That team you’ve got Gonzalo Higuain, (Sergio) Aguero, Messi … they’re going to score a hat full. Whether they’re as good behind them is the question. If they are as good behind them then they can win it.

TBL: We already asked this, but did you think you’d ever get this sort of reaction at all in America?

ID: No. No I didn’t. I think the games are about the players, not about the announcers, but if people like what you do. It’s nice. I won’t deny it’s better than people slagging you off.

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