Over those first few days of numbness and shock at what had just happened, a million unwanted but inescapable thoughts come racing into my mind. How can I live life without the person I loved beyond words? How is my boy going to navigate the rest of his life without his mum? How am I going to cope as a single parent? Are we going to be able to stay in the house that we loved so much? What’s going to happen to my career? One of my favourite authors, C.S. Lewis, wrote a book on the loss of his wife called ‘A Grief Observed’.
He opens the book with this chilling line: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
He didn’t need to write any more. In one arresting sentence, he described everything I was feeling. In amongst the acute pain of my wife being gone, my mind was a maelstrom of fears – and the three recurring ones over those first few sleepless nights were Ethan, my career, and our house.
I left Blue Peter thirteen years ago. My aim had always been to work in sport once the heady days of children’s TV came to an inevitable end. Much as I tried to persuade them, BBC Sport weren’t interested, and were not prepared to take me on. At the time, they told me they just couldn’t see a children’s presenter working in sport. As I left the gates of Television Centre in London for the final time in April 2005, I had no job to go to. I vividly remember sitting in a pub the next day with a friend and saying to him that after six incredible years on an iconic show, I now had nothing. There were no offers on the table of other work, and there seemed little hope of the sports presenting dream ever being realised. I was 32 years old, and jobless.
But just two months later, thanks to the efforts of my then agent, Dan Green, I was sitting in an office in Isleworth with the head of Sky Sports, Vic Wakeling. Unlike my meeting with BBC Sport a few weeks before, they were much more open-minded. They wanted to know why I wanted to work in sport, they wanted to know what my aspirations were, and most importantly, they were prepared to give me a chance. Although, like so many others, my ultimate aim was to one day present live football, I knew that whilst I might have the broadcasting skills and years of experience of live TV, this was something completely different to making a dolls’ gym out of old bog rolls at ten past five on a Monday afternoon. I was going to have to learn a new trade, and I was prepared to start anywhere to realise that dream.
Two months later, after a couple of screen tests, I arrived on the Sky Sports news desk in a badly fitting suit – and began the next stage of my career. I will always be grateful to Vic Wakeling and Sky for the fact that they were open minded, and had the faith in me to give me a chance. Eleven years later, I achieved my dream and landed the gig to present the Premier League, a dream I had told my wife Gemma I would achieve all those years ago. And Gemma was a huge part of my time with Sky. Just three weeks after I joined we got married, and throughout these thirteen years she was alongside me. When I had those times of doubt about whether I was good enough, when I had those two periods of depression, she was the constant. She was the one I’d always turn to for reassurance. She was the person I always rang as soon as we came off air.
She was the wind beneath my wings and as those fears crashed into my world in those early, pain-filled days, the question that kept coming back was this: how could I ever do my job again without my best friend alongside me?
I have had so many messages over the past few weeks. Ninety nine per cent of them have been quite simply lovely, but one of the recurring questions people have asked me on social media is: “when are you going back to work?” When are they going to see me on their screens again? Some have been less helpful and simply told me to sort myself out and get on with it. If only it was that simple! But most have just been well-wishers hoping I’ll be back presenting the football again. However, after many, many weeks of wrestling with the question of what to do, I wanted to put it in writing what I have decided, and it’s with a heavy, but peaceful heart that I write these words: I have decided to leave Sky at the end of the season.
This is why: firstly and most importantly, I’m doing it for Ethan. On that first morning after Gemma went, I remember Ethan coming up to me in the lounge and through his tears he said these words: “Daddy, you know every weekend you go away and do the football, and I spend the weekend with Mummy? What do I do now?” And they have stuck with me ever since. More often than not, the first worry a child expresses after going through something like this is the most significant. It’s the one playing on their mind the most and for the last five months it is a question I have had to wrestle with. How is it going to work? How’s it going to work this summer? Two weeks after he breaks up for his school holidays, the season will be starting to roll into action. What do I do with him then? All the other summer holidays it wasn’t a problem: he spent it with his mum and when I wasn’t working, I joined them. But this is no longer an option.
Lots of lovely family and friends have been unstinting in their offers to look after Ethan while I go to work; but is this the life I want for him? He’s lost his mum; for him, so much has changed, I can’t always be with him 24/7 but what I have no choice in is that I have to put him first. I need to spend the next few months working out with him how we move forward. What’s going to work for him; what isn’t? Much as those offers of looking after Ethan have been so generous; but is this the life I want for him, being passed around different people every time I go to work? No one knows him better than me, and I know he’d hate this being his every day reality. I need the time to work this all out. To those that haven’t been through this, five months seems enough time to sort stuff like this out. It isn’t. In terms of the journey that grief launches you into, five months feels more like five days.
Secondly, I need to be honest. When something like this happens, you often hear people saying it changes your perspective. Let me tell you: it changes more than that.
The only way I can describe it is in terms of how I view life now: it’s like not just the lens on my life that has been changed, but the whole camera body as well.
Being totally honest, the game I have loved for my whole life, the game I’ve had the amazing privilege of working on for these past few years, at the moment just doesn’t matter. For the first few weeks I barely watched a game, mainly because I couldn’t focus on anything. More recently, I have enjoyed watching football again, but the flames of passion I once had for it are, for now at least, gone. I hope one day they will relight again, but at the moment there’s barely a flicker. I’ve thought so much about this. I’m acutely aware that lots of people in life do jobs they don’t have a passion for, so why should my job be any different? And in many ways, it’s not. In fact, as I’ve said before, my job, in comparison to so many others’, really doesn’t matter. I’m not saving lives, I’m not keeping our country safe – I’m talking about twenty-two men running around a grass pitch with a football. But the major difference with this job is that you have to do it in front of people.
When the unhelpful minority have told me to get myself back to work, I’ve often replied with the same comment: if only it was that simple. Being totally transparent, at this point in time I couldn’t return to my job with any integrity. When I’d be sitting in that studio with Graeme Souness and Gary Neville having a heated debate over whether it was a penalty or not, I know what would be going through my head: “who cares?” When you’ve just lost almost everything in your life, “who cares?” Except they do, and they should care. For Graeme and Gary, the fact they do care makes them the brilliant pundits they are. For the supporters watching at home it matters; of course it does. For me, it’s always mattered as well, but right now, where I am in life, it doesn’t. I never want to put myself in a position where people start looking at me and saying: “you can tell he’s not really bothered about this.” It would be damaging professionally for me, and unfair on Sky and the brilliant people I work with. I really hope that in six months or maybe in a year, the passion I had for the beautiful game is re-ignited. It might not be, but I hope it does – and Sky have been incredibly kind in saying that the door will always be open for me. But for now – everything changes.
Thirdly, I have the financial security to be able to do this. I’m very aware that in writing this there will be those for whom grief and returning to work has been a very different story. I am fully aware that there will be those for whom the luxury of being able to make a decision like this just wasn’t an option. Whether they wanted to or not, they had to go back to work just to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table. But this is why I’ve been able to do this.
A few years back, while he was working for Sky Sports, my friend Ed Chamberlin developed stomach cancer. Thankfully, Ed came through; he’s now on ITV Racing and is, for me, one of the very best sports broadcasters in the country. The most important thing to come out of that horrible episode was that Ed got better. But the other significant thing that emerged was that Ed told us all to make sure we had life insurance and critical illness cover, in case we were ever unfortunate enough to go through something like he did. I did have a policy but it provided nowhere near enough cover.
A few weeks later I sat down in our kitchen in Balham with Gemma and our financial advisor, Roy McLoughlin. We put a new policy in place with much better cover, but there were two quotes: one to cover me, and one to cover both of us. You won’t be surprised to hear there was quite a big difference between the two! And as Roy told me in the aftermath of Gemma’s death, I was like most blokes that day. You look at the two figures and decide that because you’re the main breadwinner you’re only going to cover yourself. I very nearly did exactly that but didn’t, thanks to a story Roy told me that day. He spoke of a client of his who had exactly the same dilemma I was having, but in the end decided only to cover himself. Just eighteen months later, like Gemma, his wife developed Acute Myeloid Leukaemia and died shortly after. Roy told us that it was the most difficult call he’s ever had to take as the poor husband rang him in tears to check whether he had covered his wife, and Roy had to tell him he hadn’t and as a result there would be no payout.
As I lay in bed two nights after Gemma went, with a million thoughts rushing through my mind, the biggest fear and question I had was the same as that man Roy told us about. At half three on that Monday morning I was sat at my desk trying to find the folder with the details of my policy. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I checked my bank account; I could see the money was coming out every month, but was Gemma on the policy? I wrote Roy an email to ask if she was. I felt callous about even asking about something like this so early on but I had to know. At about half eight that Monday morning Roy replied: she was. It’s scant consolation when you’ve just lost your wife; but that moment changed so much. I knew that whatever I decided about work and the future, the mortgage was paid off. No longer would that be a weight around my neck forcing me to get back to work, or forcing us to sell up. But it also meant I had the money in reserve to give me that time to work out this new, unwanted life that Ethan and I now travel.
I don’t want to turn this into an Oscar’s speech but I have to say a few thank yous. I want to thank the late, great Vic Wakeling for having faith in me all those years ago. For being prepared to give me a chance when others had shut the door. I want to say thank you to everyone I’ve worked with over the past thirteen years: the guys at Sky Sports News, the legions of unsung heroes who work behind the scenes on the football, and also to David Jones and Kelly Cates, both of whom have taken on a bigger work load in the months I’ve not been able to work. Both are class acts and both have been brilliant in their support of me since Gemma went.
But the biggest thank you goes to Sky itself for the unswerving support they have given me over the past few months, not just when Gemma fell ill and in the aftermath of her death, but also in the weeks before when I was suffering from anxiety and depression.
When I first became unwell, not only did they give me the time off to get better; they wanted to understand. Initially, I was fearful of talking to them about mental health. I shouldn’t have been. Every step of the way, they supported me, gave me the space to try and get better, and wanted to understand what I was going through – and this has carried on through these hugely painful last five months. They have been quite simply amazing and have also been gracious enough not to just accept the decision I’ve made, but also to tell me that the door will always be open. The love and care they have shown Ethan and me has been simply incredible, not least by the boss of football, Gary Hughes, and the head of Sky Sports, Barney Francis.
And a final thank you goes to you guys. Those who have supported me over the years on Sky and those of you who have been so loving and supportive of me over the last few months. And thank you to the world of football whose support has never diminished – from our friends at Norwich City and the FA who gave Ethan two amazing experiences as a mascot, to people like Mauricio Pochettino who wrote a lovely letter to me shortly after Gemma died. It means so very much.
So for now, this is it. A wonderful, unforgettable thirteen years comes to an end in a way I could never have foreseen or ever wanted. But what now? Over the next few months I’m going to be writing a book, and I also want to explore some other broadcasting opportunities. Broadcasting is all I’ve known for the past twenty years, I love it and am not turning my back on it. I also want to plough more time into raising awareness and money for Bloodwise UK. Blood cancer took my wife; I have to do something. But most importantly, I’m going to be giving every ounce of energy I have to helping my boy navigate this strange new chapter of life and as a Christian, I have to trust God in this. This is not blind faith, this is real faith – and sometimes, that means stepping out into the unknown.
Who knows where I may be in a year’s time but for now, God Bless, and I hope to see you on a screen near you one day soon.