The perils of the post-match interview: how to make a footballer say something interesting
Spare a thought for the poor reporter trying to talk some sense out of the players
This Saturday Crystal Palace and Manchester United will do battle for one of the oldest honours in football. But they are not the only combatants. Come full time, Dan Walker (BBC) and Des Kelly (BT Sport), will be fighting a battle that's almost as old – seeking enlightenment from the players as they leave the pitch.
Reporter Eilidh Barbour drew that short straw at the BBC's televised semi-final between Crystal Palace and Watford, bearding Palace striker Wilfried Zaha with a neat variation on the "How do you feel?" staple. "You're in the FA Cup final, talk me through how you feel right now," said Barbour, prompting the response, "Buzzin'."
Sometimes they must wonder, why bother?
It was ever thus, mind you. There's a 40-year-old Monty Python sketch where Eric Idle interviews a footballer, played by John Cleese, and however hard Idle tries, quizzing the player on ceding midfield dominance and how to break free of a packed defence and so on, the answer is always a variation on, "Well Brian, I hit the ball and there it was in the back of the net!"
The post-match player interview remains one of the toughest jobs in sports broadcasting. Within seconds of the final whistle, the still-sweating striker who has just hit the winner is dragged in front of the sponsors' boards while his mates get first crack at the hot water, and you have to elicit something in the way of analysis, or at the very least get him to summarise the emotional high of winning a cup final.
Sometimes a clutch of ebullient victorious mates will pitch in uninvited, which can be a challenge too, as the behaviour of young, exuberant, triumphant males can be unpredictable, as any anthropologist will confirm. The lads might start talking among themselves, sharing private jokes of dubious taste, or even making the benighted reporter the butt of the joke, with the ever-present danger of the dousing the reporter with something fizzy.
That kind of thing, though, happens less often these days. We're unlikely to see a repeat of the 1974 post-match scene when the entire victorious Liverpool team crowded into shot, pretending to drink from full bottles of milk as some kind of sponsorship deal, while the professorial Gerald Sinstadt tried in time-honoured fashion to get Steve Heighway to "talk us through your goal," and the replay technology, in equally time-honoured fashion, failed. "Well, you won't see it, but believe me, it was a very good goal," he told the bewildered winger.
An added complication nowadays is that many of the players are speaking English as a second language - even the British ones - so it's wise to temper questions accordingly. I'll spare the blushes of the reporter who asked an Argentinian midfielder to "describe for me your emotions as that final whistle went", but bring back that anthropologist and they will tell you: we males are not great at describing emotions in any language.
Sometimes, though, the language barrier can be a mercy. When West Ham's Angelo Ogbonna headed the winner in the very last minute of a fifth-round tie against Liverpool, he was presented to pitchside reporter Ray Stubbs on BT Sport, who, forgivably in the fevered atmosphere, instead of asking the defender to "recall" or "talk through" the goal, asked, "Can you remember it?"
"Well sure, it was only 90 seconds ago. What am I, a goldfish?" is the answer I might have given, but the Italian, understandably unaware of the potential for humour, merely mumbled something about being happy for the lads.
So a fraught afternoon, full of what we FA Cup veterans call potential banana skins, lies in store for Dan and Des. But if they need comfort, even the sainted Emily Maitlis on Newsnight was guilty of posing the unanswerable question. Of Leicester City's Premier League success, she asked an expert, "How unprecedented is this?"