Gabby Logan on football, feminism and male keyboard warriors
- Credit: PA Wire/PA Images
Editor-at-large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL (mostly) puts Brexit aside for a week, as he meets broadcaster Gabby Logan to talk football, feminism and male keyboard warriors.
Well, nobody can accuse the BBC of wasting the licence fee on glamorous hotels for their star presenters. We're on the outskirts of Paris to interview Gabby Logan, who is fronting the Beeb's coverage of the Women's World Cup. We try the empty breakfast room but no, they won't turn off the muzak. We ask if there is a meeting room. Non. Could we maybe use one of their offices? Non. So eventually four of us squeeze into a bedroom that even a Lenny Henry ad campaign couldn't make attractive. My daughter Grace and the sound recordist perch on the bed. Logan gets what passes for an armchair. I go for plastic. And we're finally underway.
"This is actually a lot better than the hotel we had in Rennes," says Logan, wearily. It is hard to imagine Gary Lineker or Alan Shearer staying here.
For our podcast, Football, Feminism and Everything in Between, Grace and I ask all our guests to give marks out of 10 for their football fandom and their feminism. Logan, née Yorath - as in former Leeds United and Wales footballer Terry - is our first "10 for both". She clearly sees the fight for proper appreciation of the Women's World Cup as part of that broader feminist struggle.
"When I was asked to do this, there was a bit of me wanted to stay with the family," says the mother of 14-year-old twins who has spent several summers away from home at major sporting events.
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"But this is an important time for women's sport and it is empowering. It's not just about a little girl turning on the telly and saying 'I can be a footballer', it is about her turning on the telly and thinking 'I thought that was for men, and I wonder what else there is out there that I thought was only for men, that I could do?'"
As an adult, now 46, she says she regularly gets a similar feeling when covering major athletics championships. "The athletes don't inspire me to do athletics. They just inspire me."
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The hotels and being away from her family apart, she is enjoying the World Cup and so, it would seem, are the public. Ratings are surpassing expectations, and with England now progressing through the knock-out stages, likely to rise. More than six million people tuned in to watch England beat Scotland in their opening game. "We were hoping for around four million." Then a new record for women's football was set with 6.7 million for England against Cameroon, and several games involving neither of the home nations have topped two million.
Even in something like the viewing figures, however, she senses something odd, an anti-women backlash, in the reaction. She screws up her face and adopts the whiney tones of what she clearly imagines to be the voice of male keyboard warriors firing off their angry tweets. "Why are you obsessed by the viewing figures? Why are you telling us? The stadium didn't look full to me."
She says when the men's World Cup is on, the BBC announce the viewing figures daily, but: "It's like we have to prove ourselves. When we heard 5.4 million for the England-Argentina game, wow. Scotland-Japan 1.3 million in the middle of the afternoon. Two million for Scotland-Argentina. USA v Thailand on BBC4 - almost a million."
More inverted sexism flowed from that game too, with the Americans winning 13-0, and creating one of those 'storms' beloved on the sports pages because they were celebrating the 12th and 13th goals in this massacre as wildly as the first and the second. "There is such a double standard," protests Logan. "Manchester City thumped Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup Final. They didn't stop celebrating the goals.
"The Americans beat the all-time record for a game which previously was 11. Why wouldn't they celebrate? There is a double standard in almost everything in women's football. It's like everything has to be justified - the crowds, the goals, just being here."
She knows her history, and tells the story with passion of an era when women's matches were drawing huge crowds in post-First World War Britain. "There was a team called Dick, Kerr Ladies from Preston, made up of women doing the jobs done by the men who were away at war, workers in munition factories, bus drivers. They got crowds close to 50,000. People loved watching. Then when the men came back from the war the FA banned women from playing. The argument was that women would be damaged if they were hit in the stomach and would not be able to have babies. So it was banned, for 50 years. That's how it became 'a man's game'."
That attitude, however, may have inadvertently led to her being accepted as a broadcaster more readily than other women without a famous football name. "When I started out at Sky, George Graham came in to do an interview when Arsenal had just hired Arsène Wenger. He sat down and he said 'how's your Dad, is he alright?' I said 'Good, good'. People in the gallery had heard. It meant I was entitled to talk football with George Graham. I felt accepted in this community. I had loads to learn but I thought 'my Dad is who he is, people know I grew up in this environment, I get the culture'."
When she married, she says television executive Brian Barwick and commentator Des Lynam urged her to keep the famous sporting name. But, partly because she wanted to shape her own identity separate from the Yorath fame, she took the name of her husband, Scotland rugby international Kenny Logan. "There are quite a few Logans. There aren't many Yoraths. I think my dad was a bit upset I didn't keep the name."
The Yorath family have had much worse things to deal with, however. Of the loss of her brother Daniel, aged 15, due to an undetected heart condition, Logan, then 19, says: "It changed the family for ever. My parents ended up getting divorced as a direct consequence. They had a very different reaction. Mum went on a journey of discovery to find enlightenment, reading up on everything, meeting people who had had this experience, finding out different ways of thinking about things, dealing with everything. Dad didn't want to do that. He can see the downside of a situation and it confirmed to him that everything was rubbish. Seventy-five percent of couples split up after the death of a child. The pressure. Two parents just filled with grief. The rawness eases with time, but my dad has never got over it."
She was only three when the most famous part of her dad's playing career - with Don Revie's fearsome Leeds United side - came to an end. There then came spells with Coventry, Spurs, Vancouver Whitecaps - Canada is where she first became conscious of women's football - Bradford City and Swansea City, and a managerial career that included several clubs and two countries, Wales and Thailand.
"Football was always just part of my life. [Leeds stars] Joe Jordan and Gary Sprake were godfathers to me and my sister. My granny owned a café opposite Elland Road, which is where mum and dad met.
"That is my earliest football memory, not the game, but my granny looking after me, the Grandstand music, and then mum and dad coming back after the match, really smartly dressed, to pick me up. So I don't remember starting to think about football in the way most people do. I became invested in my dad's emotions. I knew he would be happy if he went and he played and he won."
As a child, she had her own sporting ambitions, was an international gymnast, opting for her dad's Wales over her own birthplace of England, and supporting Wales all her life in sport, except when Kenny was playing against them for Scotland. It helps explain why, though she desperately wants England to succeed at the World Cup - not least for the viewing figures perhaps - she does not use the 'we' favoured by some commentators and pundits, but sticks to 'England'.
There is no one-to-ten scale big enough, she says, to capture how much gymnastics meant to her growing up. "I was obsessed. It was my life." However, a back injury ended her career before she was even out of her teens. "I remember thinking that nothing will ever give me the same buzz, that everything will be second best. And in some ways it is. A lot of sports people have a problem with transition. Maybe it was easier for me because I was young, I knew I had a degree to work for. But it is not easy to stop doing what you love."
Her journey to sports journalism sounds almost accidental. She studied law at Durham University. She got a Saturday job on the local radio station. The sports desk noticed the gravitational pull that was drawing her to them when her shift ended. They asked her to do the after-match interviews at Newcastle United. She was off. "It was as far removed from what I imagined myself to be doing as working in a shoe shop."
It's clear she sees herself not just as a commentator or presenter, but as something of an ambassador for the sports she covers. "Ten percent of the game frustrates me, but I defend football a lot. Football is a microcosm of things in society that are wrong, whether that is racism, or homophobia or sexism, but football can also be such a force for good, with the potential to change lives. It highlights ills in society but can also correct them."
It is in that broader context that she sees her work promoting women's football now. The 'storm' over an all-woman panel for the England-Scotland match was part of the backlash. It came mainly from men, but Rebekah Vardy, the wife of Leicester striker Jamie, joined in, posting a picture of Logan, alongside ex-England defender Alex Scott, former USA world champion and Olympic Gold medallist goalkeeper Hope Solo and ex-Scotland international Gemma Fey with the caption "umm … what happened to equality?"
"Maybe this is the backlash against Alex being the first woman to comment on the men. We have always had men on to talk about the women's game. There are some people who just find it annoying that women are good at this."
The crowds, wages and yes, viewing figures, are still far inferior to the men's game. But they are closing. Barclays are putting in £10 million to sponsor next season's Women's Soccer League in England. Peanuts to the Premier League. But, says Logan: "The men's game is close to saturation point. There is a lot more room for growth in the women's game."
Nor is the growth confined to the world's most popular sport. Check out 'Change the Game' on BBC Sport's website. There you will see a Vogue- style glamour photo of Logan, Alex Scott, Eilidh Barbour, Sue Barker, Hazel Irvine, Clare Balding, Sara Bayman, Ebony Rainford-Brent, and Jeanette Kwakye who between them will be covering the football World Cup, the netball World Cup, Wimbledon, the Women's Ashes and the World Athletics Championships in a remarkable summer of women's sport.
And before anyone imagines our interview was a Brexit-free zone, it wasn't. She doesn't like it, backs the campaign for People's Vote, is clearly no fan of either Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, but having just read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, she seems more optimistic than I am that things will somehow work themselves out. "The world always works itself out" is the conclusion she reaches from Yuval Noah Harari's book.
- Football, Feminism and Everything In Between is available on podcast platforms, including iTunes and Spotify, and at alastaircampbell.org.
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