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Interview: Jacqui Oatley talks equality in football and Euro 2016 preparations

Entertainment | Published:

Whether it's TV presenting or her children's PTA, golden girl Jacqui Oatley is passionate about football. She sits down with Weekend ahead of the Euros...

As the Euros kick off, we're going to be seeing more of our home-girl Jacqui Oatley. On Wednesday, she heads to France for four-and-a-half weeks with ITV to get totally immersed in her favourite thing: football.

We give her a call to see how preparations are going. We want to find out a bit more about how the Wolverhampton school girl, who was told she wasn't allowed to play her favourite sport in PE, became one of the most prolific pundits in the business.

We start by asking about the woman behind the job. As well as being a sports presenter, the 41-year-old is mum to two young children, five-year-old Phoebe and two-year-old Max, and the pride in her voice when she talks about them is obvious.

Are they sporty kids, we ask?

"Phoebe is into gymnastics and she does something called Playball which is where you try lots of different kinds of sports in one session. She loves swimming, and though she's not into football, she just loves Wolves. It's so funny, whenever she sees anything that's vaguely gold, yellow or orange with a bit of black she goes 'MUMMY! It's Wolves colours!' which obviously melts me and makes me laugh.

Come on England - the football mad mum of two is ready for the Euros

"She's like a mini-me at times. Max loves football, more than Phoebe ever did. He does Little Kickers pre-school football and will just say randomly at any time of the day 'football!' He can't say much, but he can say 'football'. We've got a goal in the back garden and he loves to kick balls at it, celebrating with both arms in the air, every time he scores, even if there's no goalkeeper."

Phoebe and Max are lucky to have Jacqui as their mum. She was awarded an MBE in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to broadcasting and diversity in sport. Now, her daughter can play whichever sport she wants. For Jacqui growing up, it wasn't anywhere near as simple.

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"I'm a bit of a strange case in that I think I have an innate love of sport," she tells us. "It's just something I was born with. I always remember watching the Olympics, Wimbledon every year, the World Snooker Championship, any kind of golf. Anything on television. I loved doing PE at school from an early age, but I didn't get into football until a bit later because I had no introduction to it. There was nobody that I knew into football.

"I went to an all girls' school and didn't know anyone there that was into it. Though my mum and dad loved sport, it wasn't specifically football. So the love for the sport came by accident, when I was watching a match on television. It happened to be on and something just clicked in my head. I was already really into hockey and it's a similar kind of thing. I just knew immediately that football was the sport for me, and I've been completely and utterly obsessed with it since that very day. And I mean COMPLETELY obsessed."

She laughs. Her growing appetite for The Beautiful Game wasn't satiated by simply watching it on the box, Jacqui tells us.

"Once I'd seen it on television, I wanted to play. I'd never had a football at home, and so I bought one so I could practice keepie-uppies in the garden. There was nowhere to play, school said I couldn't play there as it just wasn't a sport they did, and in those days there weren't any local clubs either for girls. So it just wasn't an option really, and I didn't sulk about it, because that's just the way it was.

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"There wasn't any women's football on TV so I didn't feel particularly like I was missing out on anything, it's just that football was for boys and men in those days. At least that's how it seemed.

"So I perfected my skills by bashing the ball against the garage door a lot. When I went to university in Leeds the first thing I did was make a beeline to the women's football stand to sign up there and then.

"That's the first time I ever got a coaching session. I joined the team, travelled all over the place and had an absolute whale of a time.

"I played all through my university years and then when I moved to London I joined Chiswick Ladies, as it was then. I played all around London on a Sunday and watched Wolves with the London Wolves every Saturday, so got my football fix that way. I was working in intellectual property at the time, protecting brands on the internet."

Jacqui admits that she wasn't super-passionate about her job – she lived for football. But one day in September 2000, on the first game of the new season away to Egham, Jacqui took a nasty spill which would change the course of her life.

"I dislocated my kneecap trying to keep the ball in play. It was the most painful thing I've ever done. To cut a long story short, ten months later I came off the crutches after a few operations and a knee construction, and the surgeon told me I couldn't play any more. I was absolutely gutted. I was no Mia Hamm or anything, by any stretch of the imagination, but that wasn't the point. I played for the love of it, the camaraderie."

Devastated, Jacqui started to reassess her life.

"I knew that if I couldn't play every week, I needed to look at a career change that would allow me to be immersed in football. The only thing I could think of doing, aside from watching Wolves every Saturday, was to retrain. Journalism was never something I'd considered doing, but now I look back on it and it was the obvious choice for me – I loved sport and I wanted to tell people about it."

The rest, as they say, is history. Jacqui became a regular face of football on ITV and BBC Sport. In 2007, she became the first ever female football commentator on Match of the Day, going on to present the show in March 2015.

With this new influence and power came great responsibility, and that's something that Jacqui has met head-on. She's passionate about equality in football, and that's what earned her the MBE. "I honestly could not believe it," Jacqui says when we ask about the day she found out. "It hadn't even brushed my radar, let alone come across it. It was a huge shock, and from my point of view, if you've got a voice then you need to use it in any positive way you can. Whether that's encouraging women to get into sports broadcasting, or to encourage women to believe in themselves more. I certainly wasn't expecting any kind of reward for doing my bit. I just think that you have to go the extra mile sometimes to make a difference. It was a really nice surprise."

Going that extra mile doesn't just happen on a national level for Jacqui.

"My daughter started school last September and is in reception and I've already somehow managed to get myself involved as a PE representative on the PTA," she laughs.

"I'm just a big believer that if you think something's not right, you have to do something about it. I'm not the type of person to sit around and moan. If you love PE then you need to speak up, ask questions and do something to open opportunities up for your children. It's not about allowing my daughter to have more opportunities than boys, but about all children having the same.

"I grew up when PE was a default setting for boys but offering sport to girls was so low down on the list of priorities. That's nothing against my schools, they were great schools, but I do have a bee in my bonnet now that if my daughter does want to try different sports that she's encouraged to. Not just that they're there for her, but that she's actively encouraged to try them. If the boys get to play football, then why don't the girls?"

Now that women's football is more popular than ever, Jacqui is taking the opportunity to sing its praises whenever possible. She regularly tweets ticket sales links, something that she, again, feels she has a responsibility to do.

"Without sounding pompous, and I know I've said it, but I do believe that if you've got a voice then you have to try and use it in a positive way. In my case yes, I go to a lot of men's football to report and present, but I'm also passionate about women's too. Well, it's just football full stop, isn't it? It shouldn't be about men and women.

On air - she commentates for Five Live

"Before the FA Cup Final in May, I tweeted a lot about it and posted out ticket links and information. I don't think that people realise just how accessible women's football is and how cheap it is compared to the standard of football on display. I went to see Chelsea train before the final and the standard is so high now. Often a family of four can go and see a game of top-flight football for a tenner. A tenner! What can you do with an entire family of four for ten pounds?!

"I don't think the message is out there sufficiently that you don't have to go far or spend much to see great football. It's so family friendly, you don't get the swearing or a fraction of the anti-social elements – you might feel worried about taking your children to men's football, but it's not like that with the ladies."

We ask why she thinks fewer people are going to see women's matches.

"It's just history and tradition," she surmises. "When I was younger, you could go and see the Wolves, but going to see Wolves Women was just not an option.

"There's a tradition that you buy your kids the men's top and take them to the men's ground – it's just what you do. There hasn't been a history of going to see women's football, and that's why I think the marketing is so important these days, so you get the new generations and families turning up to try something different that doesn't cost a fortune."

Before we go, we turn the conversation back to the job. How are things going ahead of the Euros?

"There's been quite a bit of preparation to do, in terms of the obvious prep on the nations as well as everything else," she tells us. "I'm getting things ready for the kids to make sure they're OK when I'm away. It's a very varied existence life and work-wise, but it's brilliant and I love doing it."

And we love seeing her on our screens, too.

By Kirsty Bosley

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