10 Questions with Bobby McMahon

Each Monday and Friday evening on the Fox Soccer Report, analyst Bobby McMahon makes sense of this whole wonderful world. Simply put, the Dundee, Scotland, native loves to share his knowledge and listeners are all the better for it.Each Monday and Friday evening on the Fox Soccer Report, analyst Bobby McMahon makes sense of this whole wonderful world. He begins the week by dissecting tactics and performances from the key matches from over the weekend. Then, going into the next round, McMahon previews the upcoming action, adding insights into both the marquee matches and tidbits about games which might otherwise go unnoticed. Simply put, the Dundee, Scotland, native loves to share his knowledge and listeners are all the better for it.

On a given weekend, where will you be found, in a studio or a bunker, surrounded by monitors showing all the matches from around the world?
Not quite. I’m at home, where I’ve got a DVR set-up, with another two TVs in the house. One’s in the basement, which is probably where you’ll find me on the weekend afternoon in the middle of a Winnipeg winter. I actually watch the games while running on my treadmill, trying to get two things done at once. Basically, beginning at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, I’ll get up and watch the first EPL game. I’ll then probably watch the two second games on a split screen. Then it’s the last EPL game, and from then on I usually watch at least one Italian game and maybe a Spanish game later. I’ll try to work in one MLS game on the Saturday, sometimes two and maybe three. Then I do the same things on Sunday, only changing the times around a little bit. There’s very few weekends that I’ll watch fewer than eight games, and sometimes as many as a dozen.

Ready for a break at that point?
I can be. It depends on how good the games are, I find. If it’s been a torrid weekend and not much in the way of entertainment, I can find it kind of a task. But if you get a couple of good games to start off the weekend, it doesn’t seem like you’re doing anything at all, it’s so enjoyable. It really comes down to the quality of the play. Because I’ve been following it for years and years, there aren’t many games I come across, where I say to myself, ‘Do I really have to watch this?’ There’s always something that pulls me to a game. And that’s the magic of the DVR, you can store games, even those you may not intend to watch.

Such as?
Right now I’m in the middle of watching the Genoa game, which I taped. People say, ‘Genoa?’ I wouldn’t normally be attracted to watch them, but I saw them against AC Milan a couple weeks ago and they were absolutely great. They played some fantastic football, so I’ve decided I’m going to follow Genoa for a few weeks.

The studio for the Fox Soccer Report is in Winnipeg. It’s a nice place but in terms of soccer it would seem isolated from the game.
In some ways, yes, and in some ways, no. When I came here from Scotland in 1979, I was playing a pretty good level of football and thoroughly enjoying myself. I knew I was going to lose a lot of that of that excitement of the build-up of playing a game or going to a game, and it was a pretty painful decision to make. Having said that, what really helped and kicked in a couple years later was the evolution of sports television. In Canada, TSN started broadcasting a game of the week from England, and we got Soccer Made in Germany back then. It’s been a long road, and it’s nothing like back home in the late Seventies. But bit by bit the whole thing is growing, and to some extent, apart from the actual game experience, between television and the internet, it’s completely revolutionized that experience of following teams or competitions. Sitting in Winnipeg, I can see games from anywhere: the Premiership, the Championship, MLS, La Liga, Serie A, Argentina and if I go down to the Celtic or Rangers club, the SPL. It’s incredible, the choices we have, and that’s the effect of technology on the delivery of teams to people. The world is a very, very small place now.

Now that you’ve been seen by soccer fans for the past few years, are you often recognized in public?
It happens quite a bit, but never in Winnipeg [laughs]. It usually happens when I’m in Toronto or in the States. We were down in Los Angeles this summer, wandering around Santa Monica, and a guy came running up, a Chelsea supporter, and he began yapping away for a half-hour. My favorite story is when I was down in Albuquerque in 2006. I’m at the airport for a 7 o’clock flight. In front of me in line is a gentleman who looked like he’d been out on the town the night before, with a bedraggled, hung-over look. He looks at me, and he recognizes me, but it’s as if he’s hallucinating. You can tell he’s thinking, ‘What the hell is this guy doing in Albuquerque?’

FSC and the Fox Soccer Report have come a long way since 2001 and your first assignment of providing a few minutes of analysis on Thursdays.

When you go back to the beginning, the show was Global Sports Link. Honest to god, I was fascinated I would get on for five minutes the first day. I was fascinated by the whole world of television. Now I wonder how I ever managed to keep it to five minutes. There are some Mondays where we could sit and chat for two hours about what’s happened on the weekend.

It’s amazing, the amount of information you share on teams and individuals from throughout the world. Where does it come from?
To some extent, the history goes back to my childhood. As soon as I learned to read, I read football books. That’s all I ever used to get for Christmas. I don’t think I read a normal book until I was a teenager. Growing up in Scotland that was all I lived for was the game. Not just playing and watching it but I was always fascinated by the history. I’d love to hear my dad and his friends stories about players from the late Forties [Editor’s Note: Bobby’s father is a big fan of Jimmy Gabriel, a Dundee native and original Sounders player and coach]. A lot of that historical content, that backdrop, has been building for years and years and years. I didn’t think there would be much of a use for it until the Fox Soccer Report came along.

I continue to read as many books as I can about the game. I try to get through at least one a month, maybe two if they’re good. For magazines, I’ve been buying World Soccer for decades now. It’s always has been a great magazine, with great insight for what’s happening in other parts of the world. There’s also Champions magazine out of UEFA, and When Saturday Comes, which gives me good sense of what’s happening, things that don’t reach the mainstream newspapers in Britain. As far as websites, I probably go to the same of most any fan following the Premier League to any degree: The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph. I shy away from the tabloids, because I’d like to think there’s some thought being put into it, rather than just a headline trying to stir up some controversy. Around the MLS, the think the general level of reporting, the quality and the insight has really come on in the last couple years. I find myself reading a lot more of that stuff than, say, 3-4 years ago.

Take away all the big names. If nothing else, the Euros exposed us to the artistry of Russia and the spirited play of turkey. Where do you find the best, most entertaining football being played right now?
Funny you should mention that, because one of the memos I sent my boss at Fox Sports World Canada a couple months ago was saying, ‘Why don’t you go after the Russian league because it looks pretty good at the moment?’ I’ve been a little bit of a sucker for Serie A. It gets an incredibly bad name, not because of the style of soccer and the skill that’s shown, but because a lot of people grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, and think of Italian soccer as being rather defensive. But actually I see very few teams with only one man up top and five men packing the midfield like I will in England. Still, people will tell me that England is full of teams that play attacking soccer. They play aggressive soccer, but I’m not sure they play attacking soccer. When you look at the best of the best, there’s not a lot of difference. When Milan play Inter in the Italian derby, you’ve got to see that. By the same token, when Manchester United play Chelsea, you’ve got to see that. Werder Bremen-Bayern Munich and Rangers-Celtic: these are all games you’ve got to see. You can’t pass up these games. Take away that top echelon, the top 4-5 clubs, I’d probably watch the Serie A.

How would you describe the style of play in MLS; is it comparable to leagues elsewhere?
MLS, slowly but surely, is beginning to create a style of its own. You see that Anglo-Saxon effort, that fighting spirit and never-say-die kind of attitude. But you also have the South American influence, the short passing game, becoming more prevalent than it was a couple years ago. Part of that–and what they fail to appreciate in Europe–is the climatic conditions in North America, playing in a summer league. This is fairly unique. You can’t play a high tempo, kind of Premiership-type game, in the conditions we have over here. You’d die. So that style is evolving. They’re in good condition and they’re playing as high-tempo as possible, but there are restrictions with that in the climate. Ball possession is paramount. If I look at the MLS games I see now, compared to 4-5 years ago, I see something that’s a lot more appealing and worthwhile. You’re seeing some good skilled players and certainly more depth. Maintaining that depth as they expand is one of the great challenges. With Seattle and Philly coming in, and talk that they may go up to 20 teams, that’s the biggest challenge for MLS is maintaining that quality which has been established.

The followers of European Soccer are quickly brought up to speed by your analysis. Do you have any thoughts on how the Euro fans, in particular, can come to the point where they embrace or adopt an MLS club as well?
What’s important with any league, is not to compare it with anything else. If you enjoy the Premiership and then you turn to Serie A expecting to watch another form of the Premiership, you’re going to be disappointed. One of the great things about the game is that is can be interpreted so many different ways. To expect MLS to be a replica of the Premiership isn’t fair, either. Leagues have different styles, something that’s matured over years and years. It’s almost a cultural thing. Sometimes the biggest problem MLS has got is keeping up with fans expectations, this unrealistic belief that you can jam 115 years of tradition into 10-15 years, and be up at the same level as the European leagues. Those leagues have taken years and years and years to get to this position. MLS is a work in progress, and it will be for years and years to come. But the great news is that MLS and the North American game in general has dug down, it’s got roots, the roots have taken and it’s going to get stronger and stronger. It’s going to takes years, but as long as they keep plugging away, it’s on the right road.