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'It really was a magical time in Serie A' - We look back at Football Italia with the show's star

We spoke to James Richardson about his ten years in Italy and an upcoming event in Dublin.

FOR FOOTBALL FANS of a certain age, Channel’s 4 coverage of Serie A will hold a special place in their hearts. 

Football Italia Source: YouTube

Running between 1992 and 2002, the programme coincided with a golden age for Italian football and brought some of the world’s best players into our living rooms at a time when access to foreign leagues was relatively limited. 

Source: m230690/YouTube

Joined by his morning coffee, pastry and those distinctively-pink pages of La Gazzetta Dello Sport, the charismatic and ever-cultured James Richardson was Football Italia’s undoubted star.

Ahead of an upcoming live show in Dublin — which he will present on a panel made up of up respected journalists Paolo Bandini and James Horncastle — we caught up with AC Jimbo himself. 

Hi James. You spent the guts of a decade working on the show and living in Italy. Is it a time in your life you look back upon with fondness?

Of course I look back on it fondly. It’s strange, if you look back on any time of your life there are probably things that you would do differently and I wish I had relaxed a little bit more when I was doing it.

It was a lot of work and was such a surprise to be doing it that I almost didn’t realise what I had been doing until late on or even afterwards.

How did the job come about? 

I was working as a producer at Sky back in ‘92 and went through a series of coincidences but largely due to the fact that I spoke Italian, I got the job as a reporter on this new Channel 4 show.

From there, it was a switch from one reality to another. Suddenly I was living in a different country and doing a completely different kind of work. We were doing it in a fairly gonzo fashion in a sense that it wasn’t like Channel 4 was based out there — it was me with an Italian crew sending the footage back to England.

That gave me a huge amount of freedom, which was nice, but at the same time it did mean there was a lot of work.

It was a really special time and it gave me a career in presenting while also giving me ten years living one of the most beautiful countries on earth… as well as a pretty extraordinary opportunity to experience Italian ice cream first-hand.

Did you expect it to become so popular? 

At the time I expected it to be popular as it was based around such a fundamentally interesting subject.

Paul Gascoigne was probably the best footballer that England had developed in decades and how was he going to fare on what was at the time widely-acknowledged to be the ultimate testing ground for the world’s greats?

How was he going to fare, particularly after coming back from two major injuries to his knee? That was a huge storyline and one that anybody — whether you were interested in football or not — could be actively curious about.

Then on top of that, you had a number of factors that really drove the success. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but a huge one was that at the same time Channel 4 started football, Sky began it’s Premier League coverage.

We almost had an open field to broadcast what, at that the time, was the best league in the world with the best players in the world and the best English player of that time returning from an enormous period out with injury.

You also had the fact that this came hot on the heels of the World Cup in Italy, which wasn’t a stellar tournament in terms of the quality but it certainly had a special charm because of that Italian side and the fact that the England and Ireland teams did well.

There was an appeal and a romance to that tournament which lived on and being able to show football from that league in those stadiums featuring a lot of the same players from Italia ‘90 was part of the almost sub-conscious appeal of Serie A.

Then you had the fact that it was filmed in Italy — as I mentioned one of the most beautiful countries around. It just had so many things going for it really.

Source: jacarbo77/YouTube

What is it about that era in Italian football that made it so special? 

It’s a time that really seems to appeal to people because it was the 90s and the whole football on TV explosion hadn’t really happened.

It really was quite a magical time in Serie A with people like (Roberto) Baggio, (Gianluca) Vialli, the great Dutchmen of Milan (Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard) and so many great stars — George Weah, (Franceso) Totti coming through — it was a fabulous time.

We know you regularly do live shows with The Guardian’s Football Weekly, but have you ever done anything like this before?

No, we never have. This is into the unknown as well. We haven’t done anything like this before but we often end up talking a lot about Italy — Paolo, James and myself.

It’s going to be really fun because a lot of times when we do live shows with The Guardian, there are always questions about Italy but I’m aware of the fact that it’s not the broadest interest topic.

So it will be nice to not worry about that and really go to town.

It’s curious, the link that so many people who aren’t Italian feel to Italian football. Whether it was because it was on British and Irish screens at a time when a lot of us were younger or in their adolescence, it does have a resonance.

Even though German clubs are more successful right now or Spanish sides have traditionally been very successful, they don’t seem to have the same pull on people’s heartstrings.

We’ve heard there will be bags of Italian goodness on the night but what can people expect? 

On one hand, we’ll be exploring nostalgia from a pretty magical time in one of the greatest leagues ever, but also really getting into the topic of why a country whose passion for football is undiminished, despite the biggest scandals in Europe, has been overtaken by the likes of the Premier League and the Bundesliga — although financially Serie A still earns way more than the latter.

What are the changes that need to happen? How many of those are happening and what are the prospects for Serie A to reclaim some of its glory? That’s a question I get asked all the time — will Serie A ever be back where it was?

Vialli Jimbo Richardson speaking to former Juventus striker Gianluca Vialli. Source: YouTube

It was in a quite unique position and while it has fallen behind a lot of it is to do with how other leagues have developed themselves.

There is huge growth there and a lot of ideas coming in. Clubs like Milan are using youth players, partly because of uncertainty that they actually couldn’t spend. It’s a new mentality even in the bigger clubs.

We’ll also be looking back at some of the great moments of the past and looking forward to what the prospects are for the future, without making it sound dull and economic. We’ll really be celebrating a mutual love for a league that doesn’t always do what we want it to do and certainly has a lot of bad mixed in with good but remains fascinating because of that.

Sounds like a super night. You’re something of a cult hero in these parts but do people generally recognise you more for Football Italia or Football Weekly? 

I would think probably still more for Football Italia. You get a fair number who do both. It was a mainstream terrestrial TV programme for ten years and while the podcast is really popular — it’s the number one football podcast which is kind of weird — but compare that to a show that dominated an area of football.

It didn’t really have any competition during that time as it was a programme about continental football. Now you have any number of highlights shows but back in those days it was something quite unique.

A lot of people don’t recognise me then they find out go “oh yeah, James Richardson”, but there have been one or two changes (looks-wise) in the meantime.

Finally, you’re kept busy with BT Sport’s Champions League coverage, Football Weekly and other projects like presenting World’s Strongest Man and your film review YouTube channel JimboVision. But is there a dream job out there? 

I’m really happy doing what I’m doing. There are loads of shows I’d like to. You mentioned JimboVision and I’d love to do film reviews professionally so I could actually get in to see more screenings.

The Goals Show is fantastic and one of my favourite things to do and I really enjoy doing live football as well.

But like I said, I’m really happy doing what I’m doing and anything that comes along is great. There’s no specific answer, I’d like to do more film stuff but you know, I’m pretty happy with how things are going.

Gazzetta Football Italia – Live! Anteprima Mondiale! takes place at The Sugar Club in Dublin on 23 January. You can buy tickets here and there’s more information on the event here

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About the author:

Ben Blake

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