I can’t remember the first time I listened the Men In Blazers podcast. The show launched in 2011, but I do remember laughing out loud on my first listen and instantly forming a bond with co-hosts Roger Bennett and Michael Davies. Their show is a journey through the Premier League complete with humor, prose and endearing stories.
Co-host and Evertonian Roger Bennett (pictured above next to Ian Darke) was kind enough to be interviewed by EPL Talk this week. Here’s the interview:
The Gaffer (TG): How did you meet Michael Davies?
Roger Bennett (RB): After the 2006 World Cup. The tournament had ended as badly for me as it had done for Zidane. Before extra-time in the France-Italy final, I had been yanked away from the television by my wife, so we could go to a wedding of a friend, which took place on a boat along the East River.
I simmered for an eternity until I stumbled upon Davo’s terrific coverage of the tournament he had provided ESPN which culminated in his missing the final to go to the very same awfully timed nautical nuptials. The newly-married friend we shared in common quickly introduced us. Instead of meeting a stranger, it felt like I was reuniting with one of the gents I had grown up with. We sat and talked for nearly two hours blabbing, in the sub-optimal style that has become a staple of Men In Blazers.
Davo and I have had so many common experiences and influences. We both feel lucky to have benefitted from everything that is amazing about English childhood and then gone on to experience American adulthoods. We also have overlapping shared passions — from music and movies to Dana Plato and First World War poetry — and they are all somehow wrapped up in our love for soccer which we both find endlessly rewarding. A high culture/low culture experience, part balletic display of human perfection, part bawdy soap opera.
TG: How, when and where did the idea for Men In Blazers begin?
RB: As soon as we met, we knew we wanted to work together. We are both immensely passionate about football and extremely optimistic about its explosive potential for growth in the United States — our tag line is “Football: America’s Sport of the Future Since 1972.”
We felt a real mission to play a part in that growth by building a community of listeners eager to revel in the glory of the game — by broadcasting/writing/podding/making films about its heroes, villains, triumphs, failures, beauty and absurdities. The key to our relationship is that Davo and I both watch football in a similar way: It is a hyperlinked experience conjuring countless tangents and framing so many questions. Every 90 minutes of football we watch resurfaces echoes of the past, Slumdog Millionaire style. And we wanted to use it to build a North American community of football fans — both old and new — who were willing to talk about tactics, technique and gameplay one minute, Sir Ian Darke, Philip Larkin and Gingies the next.
TG: What do you miss most about England?
RB: A night in a boozer; watching live Premier League football; hearing the football results read by James Alexander Gordon; Top of the Pops; pickled onion Monster Munch; my family. Not in that order.
TG: What’s your favorite spot to sit or stand at Goodison? What was the first game you went to?
RG: You can’t beat a winter afternoon in the Gwladys Street end.
My support of Everton was born of a sense of filial duty — it was my Dad’s team. But I fell in love with the club the first time he took me to a match and we were in the Upper Bullens. It was an achingly cold April morning in 1978 when Derby County was the visitor. Goodison Park heaved with sound as we arrived and the stench of beer, cigarettes and police horse droppings hovered over the ground.
I wrote about this once. I was 7 years old and had feverishly dreamed of this game for weeks, but little had prepared me for the reality. Our seats were tucked away at the back of the main stand. With rows of full-grown, beer-bellied men between me and the field, I could not see a thing.
My neighbor, though a stranger, instantly recognized my plight. Defying the cold, he dramatically stripped off his full-length, sheep-skin coat, folded it neatly into a square with one hand and scooped me up with the other. The coat was dumped onto my seat and I was deposited atop of it. Problem solved. Now clad in just a T-shirt, my savior spent the next 90 minutes plying me with Everton Mints that were gratefully received, and a flask of Scotch that was declined by virtue of the fact that I was still in first grade. When iconic 30-goals-in-a-season striker Bob Latchford slapped home the winner, the stadium rocked deliriously, and my neighbor threw me into the air and bellowed, “We’re all one big family here at Goodison, son.” It was one of the most formative days of my life.
TG: Can you believe how English football has morphed from a hooligan-ravished low in the 80s to a global brand that it is now even being watched by, gulp, large numbers of Americans?
RB: The transformation of English football is easy to understand. It was achieved in large part by Rupert Murdoch backing up a truck full of cash to build Sky Television via the Premier League.
It has been more remarkable to have witnessed the growth of the game over here, World Cup to World Cup since I moved to the States in 1992. I have watched with wonder as the profile of the World Cup has ineluctably risen tournament to tournament.
When this country performed hosting duties in 1994, I viewed the majority of the games on my own in Hyde Park, Chicago at a deserted Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap courtesy of Spanish television with only the barbacks for company.
Between 1998 and 2002, I lived in DC and the tournament had achieved cult status. The cognoscenti had become clued-up and flocked to local Brazilian bars or Italian restaurants in Adams Morgan to digest the spectacle. I began to enjoy weekly English Premier League games with a small yet motley ex-pat crew at Planet Fred’s Bar. We would gather at ten in the morning to feast on the likes of Southampton laboring against Leicester City as if it was Boca-River Plate.
I happened to be back in DC for the USA-Italy game in 2006, and was elated to see the bar was jam-packed with a line snaking around the block two hours before kick off. Now, thanks to ESPN, FOX Soccer, NBC and BeIN, there is more football on offer here than in England.
TG: Does Liverpool the city get slammed unfairly? What are your favorite spots in the city?
RB: I adore Liverpool. There is nowhere in the world I would rather be from. The stigma that engulfed the city in the dark days of the 80s does not feel like it lingers at all. Quite the opposite. In my experience, the combination of the Beatles and the footballing tradition mean Liverpool is recognized all over the world. I used to hitchike all over the place as a teen, and caught rides in places as farflung as Jordan and Eastern Bloc Bulgaria with drivers who just wanted to talk about Kenny Dalglish, Gary Lineker, or the White Album.
There is something magical about Liverpudlians. Strivers. Comedians. Hustlers. A real breed apart. It is really important to me to take my family home as often as I can. My kids love it. To them, it feels like Disneyland. Apart from my parents’ home and Goodison Park, I love going to Haydock Park for a day of racing, followed by a beer in the Halfway House pub where I drank from an extremely young age using my Grandfather’s pension card as ID, and a trip to Chris’ Chippy on Rose Lane. Best Chips and Curry Sauce I have ever tasted.
TG: Any truth to the rumors that you and Davies may be working for NBC next season?
RG: One of our goals for the year is to move the show onto television. We have talked to a number of different channels. Oprah is really interested…
TG: Do you know you’re a young Mr Carson? What similarities do you see in him? (question courtesy of @lafaitele)
RB: Funny you picked Carson. He always reminds my wife a lot of my father. A staunch supporter of the traditions and ways of Old England. The character I most relate to is Mrs Patmore. Both of our lives seem to center around pies. Davo is convinced he is Shrimpy, the Scottish cousin who cropped up at Duneagle Castle in the Highlands during the finale.
TG: Who’s America’s soccer commentator for the future? Ian Darke or Gus Johnson?
RB: Sir Ian Darke is a wonderful gent and the perfect narrator for football in the United States. Intelligent. Authentic. Warm. Insightful. I admire him greatly.
The Gus experiment could pay a real dividend for football in the US if it works. A crossover act to draw a whole new audience to the sport in the same way the Beastie Boys mainstreamed hip-hop. When he came on Men In Blazers he was candid about the learning curve he is engaged in. He has five years to get it right. If it does, it will be magic.
TG: If Moyes has to leave this summer, which EPL club should he join? (question courtesy of @The_Real_DA)
RB: Anzhi Makhachkala
TG: What question have you always wanted someone to ask you, but you’ve never been asked?
RB: “Moysey is going to Anzhi. Can you step in and manage Everton?”
TG: What’s the most surprising fact about you that would surprise your listeners and readers?
RB: I think our listeners have a pretty good sense of us through the show. I will admit, one of our GFOPs started a Men In Blazers Wiki to track all the terms and phrases we have used in the show and I am blown away whenever I click through it. When we record on Grantland or SiriusXMFC it is a real speaking-in-tongues experience. Neither Davo nor I can remember half of the stuff that comes out of our mouths.
TG: Keep up the good work. I think I can say that I, and the readers/listeners of EPL Talk, have a mutual respect for you and Men In Blazers.
RG: Thank you very much for your kind words. EPL Talk and our GFOP’s are real evidence that a vivacious, creative, intelligent football culture is developing deep roots in the United States.
Editor’s note: The Men In Blazers show can be heard on SiriusXM or as a podcast on iTunes as part of the Grantland network.