Tales from a travelling TV sports reporter: Chris Skudder’s ‘Underdogs and Newshounds’

Sharing memories from trips to cover seven World Cups alongside observations from a storied career in broadcasting, former Sky News reporter Chris Skudder’s new book takes the reader up, up and away with its passion for sport and the people that make it such a thrill ride…

By Philip Barker

It is in many ways one of the toughest jobs in television.

To be a sports reporter for a non-rights holder often means being banished to a grassy knoll outside the stadium. So near and yet so far.

Chris Skudder in Baden Baden, 2006

Chris Skudder was banished in such a way for most of his TV career. Yet his book ‘Underdogs and Newshounds’ is a joyous and hugely enjoyable telling of how he reported from no fewer than seven World Cups from 1994 to 2018, the majority of which as “Chris Skudder, Sky News”.

For lovers of TV trivia, he was also the first to record the words “Sky Sports” before the channel even existed.

“It’s not about the football, or at least, the stories you already know. This is a document from the road,” Skudder says early on in the book.

“It was never about groin strains and 4-4-2s for me,” he admits.

Big names drip off the pages – even a strange wordless encounter with Roman Abramovich, as Skudder was the only reporter permitted on Chelsea’s open-top bus after their first Premier League title.

“Meeting one of the world’s most darkly mysterious, richest men eye to eye at the top of the stairs of a ‘two bob’ double-decker has me sweating at the memory all over again,” he admits.

There’s more than a hint of Jonathan Coe’s ‘The Rotters’ Club’ in this, perhaps because both have Birmingham as a backdrop.

But for those not from the West Midlands, there is plenty that will resonate, particularly for those of a certain age who recall watching the 1970 World Cup on those flickering pictures live from Mexico.

Skudder paints a picture familiar to many, little dreaming that he would one day meet Brazilian captain Carlos Alberto, then coaching in Azerbaijan.

“I’d wandered up to him in training one day, told him I worked for Sky and in minutes we were locked into a personal reminiscence of that summer of 1970,” Skudder writes.

“He talked me through that goal, of the casual pass by the incomparable PelĂ© as he rolled the ball into his path, then that fully unloaded flourish from the full-back as he lashed the ball like an arrow across the scorched grass and into the billowing net. I was 11 all over again, and humbled to be hearing it first hand.”

Few in sports journalism will be unaware of Skudder’s loyalties in football to Birmingham City, but he also recalls an early visit to Villa Park, ground of their arch-rivals.

Most would have done the same for an opportunity to watch Santos, who included Pele in their ranks at the time.

Skudder describes his “club education” as watching his beloved Birmingham.

“It was inner-city Brum, right behind the old Garrison pub made famous in recent years by ‘Peaky Blinders’. St Andrew’s was often a war zone on match days at the best of times as the hooligan years kicked in,” Skudder recalls.

He tells some harrowing tales of covering what happened on the streets around the grounds, both in the UK and in Marseille at England’s opening 1998 World Cup match against Tunisia.

He really brings home the dangers faced by a crew with a camera and rightly gives credit to many of them.

I recognised two names in particular. Stuart Vickery and Greg Ray had also enhanced some of my attempts at TV reporting by ensuring that at least the pictures were good.

Skudder arrived at Sky when the organisation was still finding its way. “The satellite newcomer was the underdog to the BBC’s establishment and a fearless spirit in those early years of growth made it a great place to be,” he writes.

Back then, the complex was rather a ramshackle mixture of old buildings and pre-fab buildings that vibrated as you walked the corridors – a far cry from today’s prestige headquarters.

References to the music of each era pepper the story, and it comes as little surprise to discover that Skudder sometimes doubled as a gig reviewer for Sky Arts.

He made the trip to Brazil 2014 not as a reporter but as a fan.

In case you’d forgotten, this was where England completely bombed and didn’t go beyond the group stage.

Skudder stayed on to explore the country, savour the Copacabana, and watch games on the big screens with the locals. He even made his way to Brazil vs Germany in Belo Horizonte, where it emerged that his seat in the stadium didn’t actually exist.

After witnessing one of the most extraordinary semi-final matches ever played, won 7-1 by Germany and still seared into the Brazilian psyche, he received a full refund for the ticket.

Sometimes the gods do smile on the underdog.

‘Underdogs and Newshounds’ by Chris Skudder is available now from Projectis Publishing.