By Russell Kempson
Manish Bhasin has a cunning plan.
Bhasin, the presenter of The Football League Show (TFLS), is hatching a plot to mockingly expose the short lived second stint of Leroy Rosenior, his studio analyst, as manager of Torquay United. Yet like all jolly japes, if they are not to backfire, you have to get the facts right.
Manish turns to Chris Vango-Searle, TFLS's 19-year-old 'stats guru'.
"How long did Leroy last there?" he asks. "It was only eight minutes, wasn't it?" Chris, laptop ever present, soon has the answer. "Actually, it was 10 minutes," he replies. "Great," says Manish, smiling. "That'll do me".
And so one of the opening gambits for TFLS that evening takes shape, a light-hearted exchange amid the regulation introduction to the late-night entertainment. At the rehearsal later, Bhasin delivers his quip, on the back of mentioning Graham Alexander's first game in management with Fleetwood Town.
"One game in and Graham's already lasted longer than Leroy at Torquay," Manish says. "Mind you, those 10 minutes were pretty priceless." A startled Leroy, unaware of the quip that was coming, laughs loudly, collapsing on to the desk in front of him. "You're just so funny," he gasps.
Rosenior gets it right next time, restricting his mirth to just a feigned goggle-eyed expression. Practice makes perfect and that's what International Management Group (IMG) strives for. IMG produces TFLS for the BBC and The Football League, as well as the highly-acclaimed Goals Exchange package, which is beamed worldwide.
Sky are clients and also Perform, the leading digital media company which services Football League websites, and Pitch, the sports rights agency responsible for international distribution. It is a challenging logistical process, the slicing, splicing and digital dicing of videotape from up to 36 matches from around the country.
And, once the games have finished, all of it has to be done and dusted in not a lot less than three hours, so that Bhasin, Rosenior and Steve Claridge - another regular TFLS pundit - can do their stuff.
"Things happen all the time," Chris Downham, the senior producer, says. "You've got to be awake to a changing environment. The technical issues, the people issues, and especially in winter, when you can have so many match postponements. You have to be on it all the time.
"It's a rolling exercise and we manage the whole process to make it work. So everyone gets exactly what they need - goals, red cards, controversial moments, the hitting of the woodwork, saves on the line. Any big incident in the game. We have dedicated loggers who make notes during every game for what we should be seeing.
"Invariably, every week, there will be something missing - perhaps a sending-off or a penalty incident - and we have to make sure we go back and get it. It is unthinkable that we can put out the show without those vital bits. We do aim for perfection and, whether we ever achieve it, I'm not sure. But we get bloody close."
Downham and his 50-strong, mostly freelance, crew are based at IMG's UK headquarters in West London. TFLS and Goals Exchange were co-ordinated from three separate sites for three years but, this season, everything has been brought together at Media House and Studio 1, a large warehouse-style buildings at the back of the IMG complex.
It is a grey, misty day and planes drone overhead on their flightpath into Heathrow Airport. It is 2pm but Chris has been at work for two hours - planning, checking and taking in the action, inside Studio 1, from the early Championship kick off between Derby County and Leeds United.
Already, he has spotted a potential mini-feature highlighting Will Hughes, the 17-year-old blond-haired Derby County midfielder, and he chats with Luke Mellows, the omnipresent gallery producer responsible for all the VTs. "Perhaps a 30 to 40 second clip," Chris suggests. Luke nods.
In the production office, there are TV screens everywhere. Computers hum in the background and the mood is calm. Many of the troops have yet to arrive, to get the show on the road, to splice and dice - usually 90 seconds for each Championship match, maybe 60 seconds for Leagues 1 and 2. "The fans always ask us 'Why not more?'" Downham says. "Okay, if it's 5-2, a great game, perhaps they will get two minutes. But it's impossible to please everyone."
Pleasing Chris and his colleagues is the job of the cameramen dotted around the grounds. They have to produce a rough edit of around five minutes from their match, travel to the nearest 'play-out centre' and send it down the line to the Goals Exchange centre in Media House. "We've only ever missed one goal," Chris says. "The guy said that the rain got in his camera."
We adjourn to a large lounge for coffee. Statman Vango-Searle, a Colchester United fan, stares into his laptop; Mellows pops in and out, forever on the move; and Peter Hussey, the VT co-ordinator, watches his beloved Arsenal on a bank of screens. A table football sits unused in the background. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone play on it," Peter says.
Bhasin arrives. He is a bubbly, chirpy character, quite removed from his on-screen cool. He studies his match research - an extensive bundle of notes - offers plentiful anecdotes, glances over at the screens and, time and again, requests information from the statman. And concocts the trick to play on Rosenior.
Downham, 53, a Millwall fan and former Charlton Athletic youth player, constantly checks his mobile and the screens. Always on the update, looking for titbits, afraid of missing a possible new angle. "It's a challenge every week," he says. "Let's face it, we make 47 shows a year. It's a lot of shows and a lot to get right. To give you context, there are 4,000 goals a year scored in The Football League. There are 1,700 games a year. We cover everything.
"It's a huge operation, which requires a lot of commitment. The guys who work on the project are very dedicated, very reliable and hard working and it's testament to them that it's such a success. There are more fans who support teams in the Championship and Leagues 1 and 2 than there are in the Premier League. They deserve a decent service and I feel that's exactly what we're delivering. I'm very proud of what we do.
"The clubs need the publicity and the fans love the fact that they are getting a bit of attention. When do the people who live in these communities ever get that national focus on them? That's something that The Football League can do. It's part of the fabric of our culture."
Across the car park, at Media House, Lee Dumont is masterminding the Goals Exchange operation. More screens, more calm - at least until the relative storm kicks in from 6.30pm onwards. The Master Control Room (MCR) is a collection hub that receives the footage from the cameramen at their respective play-out centres, after which it is sent on to the various editing suites.
Everything is meticulously planned throughout the week, everyone knows along which line all the material will be coming from. Path A is the link from the centres at Plymouth, Hull, Leeds, Cambridge, Newcastle and Manchester; Path B from Norwich, Southampton, Nottingham, Tunbridge Wells, Birmingham, Bristol and London.
"We like all the footage in by 9pm at the very latest," Dumont, a 33-year-old Tottenham Hotspur fan, says. "Once we get past that, we're in dangerous territory. That's when I'll have the producers phoning over and saying 'what's going on?' But anything can happen on the day, however much you plan ahead.
"Like a cameraman getting stuck in traffic or, as has happened, one of them turning up at one of our smaller centres and there was no one there. He couldn't get in. And one of them once missed a red card because he was filming the rain. But if we're desperate, we can always get the material from elsewhere. We always have a plan B, and sometimes a plan C."
Each of the paths has a logger - collating details during the matches to cross-check with the eventual footage - and an MCR operator. "I stay spare so that I can troubleshoot," Lee says. "I oversee the operation and make the decisions. But everyone knows what they're doing, they've got their running order and work through it."
Later, back at the Goals Exchange, I catch up with Dumont. How is the VT flow progressing? "Not bad," he says. "We're in pretty good shape. We've had a couple of niggles. One of the regions sent a goal celebration but not the goal; and we couldn't get hold of one centre for about half an hour. They just weren't answering. But it's all sorted now. Communication is the key. If communication is smooth, the day is good."
In Studio 1, Downham admires the Christmas tree that will be used on TFLS set for the first time. It is decorated with toys and trinkets sent in by the League clubs. Nearby is the empty and eerily silent ESPN set. Downham glances over at its Yuletide finery. "Our tree is definitely bigger than theirs," he chuckles.
Will Shaylor, the production manager, takes stock. Formerly with the BBC, he joined TFLS less than three months ago and has bedded in nicely. "Chris [Downham] is responsible for programme editorial," Will says, "and I have a shared responsibility with him for the fiscal quality of the show. On a day-to-day basis, I track the finances to make sure we're spending what we budgeted. I also make sure all the lines and studio crews are booked and everything is ready to go on Saturday morning.
"Basically, if Chris spots a problem, I'll get involved to get it fixed. Chris is really the Mr Fix it but I'm usually the person who has to act on it. We all multi-task, I'm just the fire fighter. The show was set up in the summer, before I joined, so a lot of the challenging work had been done. They kind of built the boat and I get to steer it.
"My predecessor did the auto-cue but I'm a bit less keyboard friendly. I tend to float about between the editors and the Vts, and stay by the phone if something is needed. It's quite a punishing schedule but I'm really enjoying it. I've got my head around how the show is made and now I've got to get my head around how the finances work. I'm still asking a lot of questions."
Shaylor, 45, relies heavily on his trusty staff, which includes Thea Adams, the production co-ordinator, and Tom Fludgate, a management intern. "The guys really have a mountain of work to do," Will adds. "And Thea is very much the glue that binds the show together. I make no bones about that."
Right on cue, Thea walks in. She is wearing a blue Santa hat, sent in by one of the clubs. "We wrote to all of them and we got a very good response," she says. "Christmas hats, sacks, stockings, the lot." The tree, newly dressed with its festive baubles, features prominently in the show that evening.
The tempo is rising. The matches have long finished and the footage for Goals Exchange is filtering through to Media House and on to Studio 1. Bhasin poses briefly for photographs by the tree, the troops queue for supper - a spicy chilli con carne and salad - and Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas' plays soothingly around the set.
"Time's getting tighter," Downham cautions. And it is, particularly for the reporters who provide the voiceovers. On duty today are Paul Walker, Dave Beckett, Kate Riley, making her TFLS debut, Dan Mason and Mark Scott. Each has his or her method of marrying the script with the VT to produce, hopefully, a seamless sound bite of words and pictures.
"Everyone's got their own way of doing it," Walker, a rising star in the TV firmament, explains. "We get told in advance what games we're going to be on and it varies between six to eight. So we have an idea of what we're walking into. If I get time in the week, I'll research some of those games - look at the backgrounds or any stories developing at the clubs.
"Chris [Vango-Searle] sends the stats to us on a Friday night and they're very good, very comprehensive. It saves me a lot of hard work. When I get here, I just top it up. I put each of my fixtures on a bit of paper and write bullet points, which I might want to include later when the footage arrives.
"It's all quite relaxed at first, just watching the TVs and staying across the websites. Then, around half-six, it suddenly changes. Everyone's head goes into their keyboards and its relentless for three to three and a half hours to make sure it all gets churned out."
Walker, 34, is sports editor at BBC Radio Sheffield and is in his third full season on TFLS. A Beatles fan - to judge by his T-shirt of the 'fab four' - left home at 11.15am and arrived in West London at 2.20pm. He would leave Studio 1 at about 11.30pm, getting back to South Yorkshire at 2am. "It's a long day for a relatively short amount of time on TV," Paul reflects. "But I love it.
"I remember doing my first show. It was quite daunting. We used to do 12 games each back then, which was just horrendous. I don't know how we managed it. You do get a few hiccups along the way and there is always a worry that you're going to get something wrong. That's why it's check, check, and check again.
"We have a computer at our desk that shows us the footage and we can fast-forward and rewind to make sure all the words fit. When ready, we'll print off the script and go into one of the sound areas to voice it. It's the hardest thing I do by a mile. In my day job, I read bulletins on the radio, do match commentaries, go to see managers and host phone-ins. But this is a completely different art form.
"You might watch the programme and think 'what's the big deal?' The challenge is in trying to give an accurate picture as to what's happened, to make it interesting, without bombarding people with stats. Sometimes, I watch it and think 'that's it?'. It's all gone in a flash. And yet it took me hours to do."
At the back of the lounge, near the table football, Manish and Leroy go through the final running order and exchange ideas. Manish practises his delivery. "Are you talking to anyone?" Leroy jokes. Manish ignores him. In Room 5, an editing suite next to the reporters' desks, Dan Almond and Paul Binge - deadline looming - are in full flow sifting through the footage. "You have to be brutal," Almond, the video producer, says. "From raw cane, you're getting refined sugar."
The interaction between Dan and Paul, the video editor, is fascinating. Dan, a Portsmouth fan, avidly talks the talk - advising, guiding and also monitoring the web for late-breaking news or supporters' views. And yet still managing to discuss the ongoing woes at Fratton Park. On that front, he is not a happy bunny.
Paul, a Crystal Palace fan, pushes buttons, switches switches, backtracks, rewinds, fast-forwards. Almost in a blur, and yet totally in control. His dexterity is astonishing, turning the most humdrum of manager's quotes - with Dan's guidance - into pearls of wisdom. Brutal they are but it has to be done.
Walker walks in to do a match voice-over to microphone - smoothly and concisely. "That's it," Almond says. "A one-off take. Nice one, Paul." Binge concurs: "Yep, happy with that." And then on to the next match, the splice-and-dice is never-ending. A conveyor belt of goodies, eventually, for The Football League connoisseur.
Below, on set, Thea issues her instructions. "Rehearsing in five seconds," she barks. Rosenior receives a final dab of make-up and Manish consults his iPad, always searching for that up-to-the-minute breaking news brief.
In the gallery close by, visible through a window, Julie Miller, the director, eases into the show - assisted by Downham, Chris the statman, and the experts from graphics, autocue, script, vision mix and VT. Red lights glare above the doors: ON AIR.
And all too soon, after the longest of days, it is over. Bhasin and Rosenior wind down in the lounge. "I did tell him that I would mention Torquay," Manish reveals, "but perhaps not exactly what I would say." Leroy is okay about it. "It was fine," he says, laughing.
Another Saturday, another TFLS, another successful product. If there were any glitches, they would be ironed out. Next time, it would be 100 per cent perfect. Well, almost.