Words may be their stock in trade, but it’s still surreal to witness a TV football presenter and a pundit engaged in the cerebral battle of one-upmanship that is Scrabble.
Yet in a west London photo studio, ITV’s big football guns, presenter Adrian Chiles and pundit and former professional footballer Lee Dixon, are indeed immersed in a less predictable afternoon on the tiles.
“I’ve genuinely always enjoyed Scrabble,” explains Chiles, breaking off from the game. “And because we do so much travelling, I thought it would be a good idea to entice Lee into playing. Particularly given that, as a semi-literate footballer, it would be something I’d be sure to beat him at.”
Dixon, like the combative full-back he was, fires back: “It’s worth noting I’d never won a game of Scrabble in my life until I played Adrian. So him having a go at thick footballers is ironic.”
The good-natured banter underlines the close friendship the pair share away from the ITV studio; chuckling at in-jokes and finishing each other’s sentences like an old married couple.
“We instantly hit it off when we first worked together at the BBC, on Match of the Day 2,” confirms Chiles, 45. “Lee was the first ex-pro who I never felt was judging me for not having played the game. He respected me as a broadcaster and it just felt right between us. There’s a shortage of good pundits, so for me, ITV had to get Lee. He’s the best there is.”
The feeling’s evidently mutual. “Adrian made me feel welcome immediately,” says 48-year-old former Arsenal and England defender Dixon. “As a person and as a presenter, he’s got this knack of making you feel comfortable. So we’d be cooped up in a studio or the back of a car, but we’d just chat and it all felt very natural.”
Dixon is open about his reasons for quitting the BBC for ITV, and Chiles’s own departure was key. “It was a massive factor because Match of the Day 2 changed when Adrian left. I also missed covering live games and I wasn’t looking forward to going into work any more. At the BBC you’re never commenting on live games. It’s all studio work, going to Manchester and sitting in a box for two days. My contract at the BBC was up and I decided I wanted to do something else. It was the best decision I’ve ever made and I love it.”
Sensing a distinct air of man-love filling the room, Dixon is quick to puncture it, as only an ex-footballer can. “That said, I still believe he talks s***e most of the time.”
So who normally wins at Scrabble?
Adrian Chiles: It’s an eternal source of frustration for me because Lee only knows about 30 words and they’re all either football- or cycling-related. But unfortunately it turns out he’s better at it than me. Lee won 13–6 last year, although I’m currently 3–1 up this year.
Lee Dixon: Adrian’s hit a lucky streak. So I’m going to take him on at chess next because he hasn’t a clue how to play that.
Do your games involve cagey European tactics or do you have a more gung-ho, Premier League style?
AC: Lee plays like he used to defend – ruthless, cynical, with a little bit of off-the-ball stuff. It’s the old “1–0 to the Arsenal” and then stifle-the-game routine. Seriously, the whole thing usually becomes totally defensive, with all the letters clumped together in the middle of the pitch.
LD: Adrian’s tactic is to bung anything down and hope it’s an actual word.
How long do these games last?
AC: We’ve had games that last all the way from London to Moldova and they can get really tense. I remember one game carried on from the flight into the back of the car that was taking us home. I had two letters left to try and finish the game before we dropped Lee off and as we pulled up outside his house, I got rid of the O and the I to make oil. Oh, what a moment that was. I was yelling, “Yes! Get in there!” like West Brom [the team Chiles supports] had won the FA Cup.
What do the other ITV pundits think of your Scrabble obsession?
AC: Roy Keane just won’t have anything to do with it. But Gareth Southgate is a decent if somewhat naive player.
LD: I missed an away game for ITV and I saw it as a bit of infidelity that Adrian decided to play with Gareth while I was away. Surely when you’re away in Europe, there must be more exciting things to do?
AC: People always wonder what goes on when we’re on tour. Well, I can exclusively reveal to Radio Times readers that when we were last in Sweden, the hotel bar was closing so myself, Lee, Gareth and Matt Smith went up to my hotel room to finish off a game of four-way Scrabble. Those crazy Swedish nights!
LD: I remember walking back to my hotel in the early hours, after the Scrabble game had finished, muttering to myself, “Where did it all go wrong?”
What’s been your favourite night “on tour”?
AC: These guys are hardened sportsmen so they don’t like to lose at anything. I managed to beat Roy in a game of pool at an Irish bar in Madrid and he shook hands, but you could see in his eyes he hated losing. The vein at the side of his head started pulsing, and that’s never a good sign.
LD: Gareth won the tournament and I’ll never forget him sinking the winning shot and then moonwalking while holding his cue aloft.
What’s been your strangest pre-match preparation?
AC: I remember one occasion in Berne when we were covering an England game. It was an evening kick-off so that morning when Lee and I were out for a stroll, we spotted these people floating down this fast-flowing river. We thought we’d have some of that, so later that afternoon we walked down to the river in just our swimming trunks. Which in itself must have looked very odd.
LD: By the time we arrived, there were hundreds of people throwing themselves in. Some were holding onto dogs, it was madness!
AC: So we jumped in and were swept off down the river. I can recall going past these beery England fans in a riverside café who did a classic comedy double-take at the sight of us two bobbing past. And then it suddenly dawned on us that we were going to struggle to get out of this torrent.
LD: Fortunately we both managed to grab an overhanging branch and pull ourselves out. But we very nearly had to do that game by live satellite link from the Black Sea or wherever the river would have spat us out. [Quick geography lesson, Lee. It’s the River Aare and it both rises and ends in Switzerland.]
Apart from body surfing and Scrabble, do you share any other hobbies?
AC: We occasionally play golf, but he’s miles better than me so I’m going off it.
LD: I’ve tried to get him out cycling a bit more. But we go for dinner a lot and we’re both into our cooking.
Have you ever cooked for each other?
AC: At a charity auction, a lady paid a lot of money for a dinner cooked by Heston Blumenthal, assisted by the two of us. Heston’s a mutual friend of ours so we all flew out to Austria to cook for nine dinner guests at the lady’s chalet.
LD: It was the most stressed I’ve ever been. Forget playing in FA Cup finals, this was extreme.
AC: The three of us planned the meal, went shopping and then me and Lee followed Heston’s orders. It was fascinating stuff watching the master at close quarters. If you’re into cooking, it was like having a kickaround with Zidane. We had such a caper trying to get this tarte tatin to set. I have never laughed so much. Honestly, it was the closest I’ve ever come to wetting myself since I was eight and the neighbours tied me to a tree and tickled me. Thankfully, the meal was worth the four-hour wait.
You clearly get on famously. Is there anything that annoys you about each other?
AC: Lee is an extremely cultured and civilised individual, but the other half of him was brought up in the harsh dressing-room environment in which goading and mickey-taking is a way of life. That can be quite hurtful.
LD: The fact that Adrian is an eternal pessimist and has an inability to ever find anything enjoyable. I mean anything. And can you believe he took me aside and very seriously said, “Just leave the West Brom stuff out”. To me, that’s a red rag to a bull. I’ve let it go for a while, but over the next few weeks he’s seriously going to get it.
Manchester United face Real Madrid at Old Trafford tonight with the score from the first leg of their last-16 tie standing at 1-1. Kick-off is at 7:45pm with coverage on ITV1 from 7:30pm