Max Rushden: ‘Football doesn’t REALLY matter, but its what makes existing fun’

In the absence of live football, the sporting media has been pivoting wildly into the direction of niche, esoteric content. For talkSPORT and The Guardian regular Max Rushden, it has served as a healthy challenge.

As well as presenting his weekly Sunday radio show, he hosts the wildly popular Guardian Football Weekly podcast. Earlier this week, he outlined to me the ways he has tried to maintain a certain standard of content during this period of precariousness.

“It has actually been a real chance to be creative – we’ve often joked that the football gets in the way of our shows,” Rushden said.

“So, on talkSPORT we’ve just decided to carry on with all the games using a variety of ridiculous ideas. For example – drawing the entire US Masters field out of a hat, ending up with Graeme McDowell picking up the Green Jacket. Fair play to anyone who listened to eight minutes of me and Barry (Glendenning – regular co-host) just saying golfers names. Charlie Baker has invented ‘Roll your own football’ and we’ve done all the Premier League games – getting podcasters, ex-pros and even current ones rolling for their sides. Comedian Rob Rouse is even racing chickens in his garden.”  

Across the entire sporting landscape, the void has largely provided an opportunity for fans to look back. With the imminent release of ESPN’s massive Michael Jordan documentary, the wealth of classic events being uploaded in HD and an enormous uplift in sport-related quizzes to play along with, we’re all being forced to view our favourite games through a sentimental prism. Rushden and his colleagues are no exception and have applied that approach to their recent remotely-recorded Football Weekly episodes.

“On the podcast, we’ve gone nostalgic, like a lot of people.  It’s fun to watch old games and discuss them.  It’s nice to see the other podders when we watch the game and learning a bit more about some of the regulars.”

A question many in the industry will eventually be forced to ask themselves at this rate is ‘how far away from the sport itself can the subject matter actually go?’. Some with more-limited scope will be hoping not to be forced into the more arcane corners of football discussion, but that’s seemingly not something Rushden worries about, especially with his somewhat loyal audience.

“Nothing is off the table! I’d do a podcast on goal nets, away kits, or even a quiz entirely about right backs. The best thing about a pod is that almost all the listeners are with you – they’ve chosen to download it, so they like it and they understand we’re going to have to try weird things at the moment. The feedback we’ve got is that it’s giving people a bit of normality and helping them remember what day of the week it is.”

At this point, most of us have forgotten what ‘normality’ feels like. Our daily, weekly, monthly routines have been thrown out of the window, but perspective is important and ultimately the ball hitting the net is about as insignificant as it gets, in terms of real-life stakes – sorry Shanks.

Collectively emerging from the other end of this pandemic in as healthy a shape as possible  – both literally and figuratively – should be everybody’s priority. But our pastimes are the small joys that add up to represent life as we know it; as somebody contractually obligated to create football content, Rushden acknowledges this.

“I mean, clearly there are more important things – as with all entertainment – it doesn’t REALLY matter, but it’s what makes existing fun. I think as long as listeners trust that you know there are bigger things going on, they come to you for escapism. Someone else said, ‘of all the things that don’t matter, sport matters the most’.”

With national discourse in such a sensitive space, it does occasionally feel as though even exploring the idea of a return is bordering on inappropriate. Eventually though, the continuation of football will signify either business as usual or a light at the end of the tunnel, so naturally thousands of fans are yearning for a resolution.

“I am not an expert on the finances – apart from that it’s bad for everybody at the moment and it’s going to be impossible to find a solution that pleases everyone,” Rushden expressed.

“But morally, I don’t see the point in starting 2020/21 if you haven’t finished this season. We’d be better off finishing this one and then cancelling the next one. I’m sure you can find lots of people explaining why that is completely impractical. That said, I am also quite sympathetic to anyone who has to make a decision about this because it is the strangest time of our lives and football administrators are allowed to find it strange too. We’re all going to get things wrong during this.”

Rushden’s career has involved some notable handovers, in which he has taken the mantle on several high-profile football shows. Before he took over, Football Weekly had James Richardson – shout out to Gazzetta Football Italia, thank you very much – at the helm. Big shoes to fill, but Max took the ‘if it ain’t broke’ approach.

“To be honest I didn’t do much. Changing the host is a big enough deal, so I wanted to keep it as much like it used to be. The ideas, running jokes and tone were always going to be different when someone else is doing it. For example, in comparison to Jimbo (Richardson), I’m just so into puns and Serie A, so they were always going to grow when I took over.  That’s not a criticism of Jimbo; he’s great but he liked other things, like tedious anecdotes about microwaves and asking Barry stupid questions.”

Stepping into the shoes of revered presenters wasn’t anything new. When Tim Lovejoy left Sky Sports’ Soccer AM in 2007, Andy Goldstein lasted only a year in his place and in walked Rushden, fresh off his first presenting role with BBC London. It was something of a baptism of fire, especially with much of the show’s audience aimlessly longing for the chemistry between Lovejoy and co-host Helen Chamberlain – a duo who shared the screen for twelve years while the show garnered a substantial audience.

“I think TV shows just feel bigger and when I stepped into Football Weekly I had so much radio experience that it didn’t stress me out. I had never done live TV when I started Soccer AM and I didn’t have a screen test or an audition for that. So, show one was pretty much the first time I’d been in a studio.  And in TV there’s so much to think about – so many voices in your ear.”  

“The whole thing was too big for me at the start and I wasn’t myself. I think if Twitter had existed then, I wouldn’t have lasted the season. So I was lucky, but once I got into it I loved it. Having said that, I think the presenter is more important on radio than TV. You can’t drown on TV because there are so many people behind the scenes, but there’s no script with radio.”

The challenging audience he faced during that period helped condition him to a certain level of negativity. It is apparent that Rushden feels fairly comfortable dealing with combative interactions online and deals with it with admirable ambivalence.

“I find it funny to be honest but it really affects some people. If I feel confident in the work I’m doing, then I don’t care.  Early in Soccer AM when I wasn’t confident, I think it would have hit me much harder. I remember the first critical e-mail I got when I was at BBC London. It was brutal and it really knocked me. But you get used to it and you’re never going to please everyone. I do engage less than I used to. There’s so much hate online, I mute much more than before.”

Dealing with antagonistic behaviour will definitely become much more manageable when you surround yourself with those who enjoy holding you accountable – in the best way possible. While avoiding the banter-landfill that is all too prominent in the sport’s culture, Rushden & faux curmudgeon Glendenning enjoy a premium brand of chemistry which makes every episode of their podcast resemble a highly-listenable sit-down with friends.

“The first time I sat in for Jimbo, Barry said something ludicrously rude about Soccer AM and I thought it was hilarious. I always thought the Guardian would be serious, straight and highbrow – finally my middle class mates would be impressed. But we just hit it off and when I got the Sunday show and I was given the choice of who to have alongside me, I got Barry in. We’ve been inseparable ever since but if I got a better offer I’d drop him like a stone.”

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