Our columnist feels comparisons with Gary Neville are justified and inevitable after Ruby Walsh's debut with the ITV Racing team this weekend.
Gary Neville changed sports punditry.
A lot about Ruby Walsh’s first weekend on ITV reminded me of my time working with him. As punditry debuts on terrestrial television go, I thought Ruby’s was a really good one. He doesn’t enjoy praise so won’t need to read this.
G Nev and I got off to a rocky start one Monday night in August 2011 presenting Manchester City v Swansea, which had us trending globally on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. However, quickly Gary’s hard work, honesty and insight was a permanent game-changer in my opinion. Eight years later I still say to my pundits on a regular basis that they need to tell the viewer something they don't know.
Gary was relentless. But brilliantly relentless. If he was going to doing something, he’d always do it properly. There’d be WhatsApp group messages and emails from the time he got up - usually around 4.30am. I'd go on air with reams of notes. He had none. He’d repeat what he said in rehearsals with ‘Rain Man’ precision. Ruby is not dissimilar.
Gary was not an especially talented footballer as a youngster but squeezed out every last drop of that ability and with sheer hard work. He won 85 England caps and every honour there was to be had with Manchester United. He and brother Philip would actually have been better cricketers had they chosen that path.
Ruby was mercurial in the saddle but I can see why he was the best in the business for so long: hard work, home work, determination. His preparation for a television show was similar. Form study, a lot of time in our VT truck, no stone left unturned.
He’s had experience on Racing TV but broadcasting on terrestrial television is a totally different challenge. Nearly 900,000 people watched the BetVictor Gold Cup on ITV on Saturday (a huge increase on last year) and while Racing TV is a superb watch for racing fans, on ITV we are broadcasting to a very broach church from some of those gurus to the opposite end of the spectrum and families, young and old, many of whom just want to be entertained.
I'm lucky to work with outstanding pundits: the two recent HWPA broadcasters of the year, Jason Weaver and Luke Harvey, plus Mick Fitzgerald, Johnny Murtagh, Sir Anthony McCoy et al, who all ‘get’ that ITV ethos. The penny dropped with Ruby from the off.
I enjoy quietly steering the ship, or fast car at times, and trying to get the best out of our pundits. Just like with Gary shortly after his retirement - who can forget that first interview with Roberto Mancini - I also enjoyed being able to show that Ruby, whilst being the most driven, intense of sportsman, is also good fun and has a great sense of humour.
While I watched a football match like any fan, Neville used to watch the game entirely from the camera on top of the stand to see the whole pitch and the movement of every player. Ruby watched every race from the BetVictor blimp. I particularly enjoyed he and AP dissecting Robbie Power's ride on West Approach. Their tactical analysis over the next few weeks should be intriguing.
As interesting as Ruby was, the real stars were on the track and we enjoyed a weekend full of uplifting stories at the home of jump racing. From the despair of losing the opening day to all the rain we were taken on a ride of 15 races won by 15 different jockeys.
It was a weekend for the underdog, which is just what the doctor ordered for a big terrestrial TV audience. From the City to the saddle, David Maxwell is living his dream and reached his holy grail with his first winning ride at Cheltenham and in the process made the whole racecourse smile.
Richard Patrick and Sam Lee had super Saturdays, while on Sunday seven months on from his horror leg break, Barry Geraghty was back winning on the big stage. For the first time his landlord in this country, Luke Harvey, was (almost) lost for words.
I love this next few weeks as we roll from the Betfair Chase plus Altior v Cyrname, to the Ladbrokes Trophy, to the Tingle Creek, through to the King George at Kempton.
Now I'd better check my WhatsApp and see what ideas Ruby Walsh already has for Newbury in two weeks' time...