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24th May 2018

Kelly Cates interview: “The point of football is it makes you feel something, we shouldn’t remove that”

Melissa Reddy

Even back then, before she could fully read or write, there was a deep comprehension that this was different; it was special, seismic… 

Everything seemed to change: a greater vibrancy coated the atmosphere, there was a sharper dose of anticipation, and for those involved, a whisking in of extra steeliness to complement the euphoria. 

“I vividly remember the occasions. I remember feeling like this is something big,” Kelly Cates recalls to JOE of a childhood tightly threaded to Liverpool’s glorious European nights.

The Sky Sports presenter and BBC 5 Live host was only two when her father, Kenny Dalglish, lifted his first European Cup in 1978 – the club’s second in succession – during his debut season at Anfield. 

The No. 7’s cute dink over splayed Club Brugge goalkeeper Birger Jensen was followed by his iconic leap over the Wembley advertising boards and was enough to decide the final. 

The goal, graceful with the power of seemingly slapping a slow-mo on time, had twirled around Cates’ formative years, nestling alongside the picture of her dad next to the trophy on the bed of his London hotel room. 

“It’s so clear in my mind,” she says, a smile forming as the footage loops in her head. “I saw it so much growing up through highlights shows that I feel like it’s my own memory of the goal and seeing him lying with the European Cup.

“There was always the sense of the final being this special event despite how much Liverpool won domestically. More than the actual matches, I found everything surrounding it intriguing. I recall the songs especially. I know everyone is talking about ‘Allez Allez Allez’ now, but there have always been songs for the European campaigns, Ring of Fire in Istanbul, I Don’t Know What It Is But I Love It in Rome. There was a lot of passion that you could completely feel.”

Before her 10th birthday, Cates could recall the “players and wives singing along to Joe Dolce’s Shaddap You Face” ahead of them departing for Paris in 1981, Alan Kennedy’s goal to oust Real Madrid and restore Liverpool as continental kings in that tournament, a decisive spot-kick from the left-back in the 1984 final to win the shootout against Roma at Stadio Olympico and the sadness of the tragic scenes at Heysel a year later.

As Cates, who quit her maths degree at the University of Glasgow to work in broadcasting, scrolls through her 20-year career, the “turning point” and “marker” also involves Liverpool on the European stage. 

And so, as she anchors 5 Live’s Champions League final coverage from Kiev from Thursday through to Saturday, the 42-year-old’s past and present will converge at the NSC Olimpiyskiy as the Reds and Real Madrid do.

That will be heartily applauded by those that have had the pleasure of watching her effortlessly navigate live games or The Debate on Sky and have listened to her extracting gold out of her guests on radio, either via 606 with Ian Wright or otherwise.

The best deserve the biggest and Cates landing anchoring duties for the ultimate game in club football is exactly that.

“It didn’t even occur me that this could be possible when I started out,” she admits. “I didn’t get into broadcasting thinking ‘I want to work in a Champions league final’ or ‘I want to cover the World Cup.’ 

“I simply thought that this is brilliant: I love football, I love working in football, I’m passionate about the media and so it was just me finding something I absolutely enjoyed doing.”

The mother of two has perfected the art of asking the right questions and steering conversations without commandeering them. She is equal parts witty and warm, with her archival knowledge of football only matched by an undiluted zest for the game.

Cates winces when she rewinds to her 22-year-old on-screen self that was “frightened and wide-eyed with a very squeaky voice.” But now, she is not just incredibly likeable and hugely respected, she is a benchmark, a paragon.

Perhaps her two core strengths of very many lie in the smoothness of her delivery and her devotion to highlighting the excellence of everyone she works with. 

“If you’re listening or watching, you don’t want to hear or see the effort, or the preparation that’s gone into the show – certainly not from me,” Cates says. “You’ll want to get a feel of it from the commentators and analysts, but not from the presenter.

“My job is to allow the guests to shine, to find the questions that will lead them to the best stories or examples.

“You have to reach a level of being comfortable, which makes people comfortable listening to you. You work hard at it so that it is automatic, so you’re not constantly thinking about it.

“I will often do a show though and think about what could have gone differently. I’m always making notes in my head: ‘Was that the right way to approach a point? Could a topic have been introduced at a better time?’

“A constantly tweaking does go on in your head.”

Given what a gargantuan figure her father is, it is a triumph that Cates is not immediately thought of as Dalglish’s daughter. It is merely a footnote to the fact that she is an excellent host.

She is quick to suggest that the name change following her marriage in 2007 perhaps helps with that, but it’s overwhelmingly due to her doing a very good job regardless of the format.

Her relation to Liverpool’s legendary player and manager did, however, affect Kelly’s introduction to the industry.

In some ways, it was easier,” Cates, who admires the work of Women in Football and has made a conscious effort to ensure she is accessible in her day-to-day routine to fellow females, explains. 

“People would think, ‘I know her background, I know she’s been around football.’ So I didn’t have to prove that I grew up watching football, which is the default question for a young girl.

“And the surname probably really helped open doors. But then there was also a sense of ‘let’s see shall we? She’s only got the job because of who her father is.’

“I thought ‘fair enough’, cause that was likely a part of why I was given a chance. I wasn’t determined to prove people wrong, I didn’t have an ‘I’ll show them’ attitude. 

“I just wanted to get my head down, do the job as best I could, learn as much as possible and see where that got me.”

With typical honesty, Cates reveals that “in the beginning I used to get awkward when people mentioned my father on air, whereas now, I feel independent enough for it to be brought up.

“That’s taken a while. It used to be ‘don’t mention it, don’t mention it,’ but now – especially as I’m doing Champions League coverage and I’m working with Graeme Souness at Sky, whom I’ve known since I was a baby – the connection being mentioned doesn’t feel weird, it feels natural.

“I feel secure in myself not to think ‘oh gosh, if anyone finds out he’s my dad, they’re going to say I’m piggy backing.’”

It was in the aftermath of the Miracle of Istanbul in 2005 when Cates had the moment her boss at the time likened to a professional coming of age.

Operating on no sleep having caught a flight directly after Liverpool’s unreal comeback against AC Milan at the Ataturk, which saw them lift a fifth European Cup, she drove to her brother Paul’s place, had a quick shower and darted to St George’s Hall to cover the bus parade, which had her on air till 10pm.

“It felt like the first grown up thing I’d done, on my own, out of the studio, with no autocue to fall back on and no VTs to show,” she says, detailing that over a three-day period, she had around four hours of shut-eye while being determined to maximise her first sampling of the European Cup as an adult.

“I remember I actually stayed at my mum and dad’s after the semi-final against Chelsea and I said to them – you guys have done this – I haven’t properly experienced it and so I ensured I made the most of it even drinking lager, which I hate and then I was told it was non-alcoholic. So much for the full taste!”

Now, feeling like “one of the grown ups” – a stage she never thought she’d get to – Cates will be 5 Live’s primary voice as Liverpool and Real Madrid collide on Saturday.

“I’m incredibly excited and really relish the responsibility of building up to the occasion,” she says.

“I feel neutral when I work. It will be different five minutes before I go on air and five minutes after, maybe. 

“But I’m never cold. When you’re at a game and covering it, you can’t take the emotion of it – what’s the point then?

“If it doesn’t make you feel anything, is it actually football? I always find it strange when people go ‘oh, she’s a Liverpool supporter. He’s a Manchester United supporter.’ 

“Erm, well yeah. Who grows up watching football and doesn’t like a particular team? Who grows up saying ‘I just love the game?’ Like really? Really! If you don’t support someone, then you cannot understand the emotion, you cannot grasp what you should be sharing with the audience, you can’t relate to the fans. 

“The whole point of football is it makes you feel something huge and we shouldn’t take anything away from that.”

She gets it. She gets us. And long may she keep getting the top gigs.

Kelly Cates presents BBC Radio 5 live’s Champions League coverage live from Kiev, Thursday and Friday from 7pm and Saturday from midday