“A couple of months ago I was in a pub with a friend who’s a journalist,” says Christian O’Connell, the most original and in-demand radio DJ in Britain, “and he mentioned that he had Gordon Strachan’s mobile number.
“I said, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ but when he went off to the toilet I grabbed his phone, found Strachan’s number and rang him. He was on a beach in Florida with his missus. He said, ‘Who is this?’ And because I was drunk, I panicked. I made up a name and said I was writing an article about gingers in sport!
“He went, ‘Are you taking the piss?’ I said, ‘No, no, I want to write about the ginger-bullying that goes on in the showers.’ So he went, ‘OK, I’ll give you five minutes.’ And then I thought, ‘F**k, what am I going to ask him?’
"So I said, ‘Is it true people used to call you Wotsits and stuff like that?’ He said ‘F**k off’ and hung up! I felt really bad. He’s a hero of mine and I end up abusing the man on holiday. If he finds out, he’s going to f**king do me!”
This is standard O’Connell: funny, engaging and foul-mouthed. It’s easy to see why he’s been compared to Chris Evans and Johnny Vaughan – the man he replaced as host of Radio Five Live’s Fighting Talk – but O’Connell is more amiable than either.
“I’d like to think my radio style is a cross between Cantona and Zidane,” he declares, “but it’s probably more like a Beckham penalty: the potential to be something special, but then everybody goes, ‘Oh, for f**k’s sake!’”
Born in the footballing backwater of Winchester, O’Connell found himself going along to the Dell to watch Mick Channon play for the only “proper” club in the area. Twenty years later, he’s still proud to support a club now established in the safe ‘middle half’ of the Premiership table. Not that last season was without its scary moments.
"I WAS TERRIFIED HODDLE WOULD RETURN"
“When Strachan left, I was terrified Glenn Hoddle would come back,” he cringes. “What a terrible idea! My dad rang me and told me they’d had a massive protest down there, but when I saw it on the news there were about 10 people. It was front-page news in the Southampton Echo – 10 people turn up! Riots! It’s like Beatlemania down at the Friends Provident Stadium!”
With Paul Sturrock at the helm, however, O’Connell is predicting great things for the coming season.
“I can see Southampton winning the Premiership! We can win it if there’s a fairer system. Last game of the season, let’s forget about ‘goals’ and hand out scratchcards to all the captains. That way it’s down to random luck and the Saints have got a chance. The FA needs to look at the whole system.”
Presuming that any rule change will take at least a season for the authorities to ratify, O’Connell is looking forward to watching the battle at the top unfold this term.
“I heard that Jose Mourinho wrote to all his players at Chelsea with a message that sounded like David Brent from The Office. ‘Team spirit + motivation = success’, or something. It might as well have said ‘Manager First, Entertainer Second’. But it’ll be great to see what Chelsea, Liverpool and Man United can do this year.”
The battle for Premiership glory might be just a fantasy for the Saints, but they do have a knack of upsetting the heavyweights in the division. “I love it when we turn the big teams over. The Premiership is built on the expectation that it could happen.”
He will also be keeping one eye on Liverpool’s new era under manager Rafa Benitez. Before moving to London’s Xfm radio station in 2001, he honed his award-winning style on Merseyside, where he discovered that standing on the Anfield Kop was a slightly different experience to the Dell.
“I’ve got to be honest, I was shitting myself,” he laughs. “You’ve never heard so much noise. And you could smell the piss. You had to check people weren’t sticking a rolled-up programme in your pocket and letting off their bladders!”
"WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE POTENTIAL DEATH BURGER?"
Having worked the bleary-eyed breakfast shift for years, O’Connell admits he’s in the pub by lunchtime, brainstorming. Or as he calls it, “beerstorming”. Stories, opinions and random items of gibberish tumble from his head like fireworks.
“I don’t like the ponce-ification of football,” he complains. “What’s wrong with the traditional potential-death-burger? That was part of the thrill of a Saturday afternoon – would you survive the burger? Now you get baguettes with cheese and rocket.
"What’s going on there? That’s not right. Even outside Southampton’s ground the manky old pubs are now advertising nice food.”
Making a name for himself as a DJ has meant few chances to visit St Mary’s – just three games last season – but O’Connell hopes his new job at Five Live will have fringe benefits. “I’m hoping for some free tickets,” he admits with a grin. “Otherwise I’m walking.”
He also wants Des Lynam to join him, insisting sport is more exciting on the radio than on TV. “I found myself watching 10-pin bowling the other day on one of the Sky channels,” he muses.
“It is the dullest sport in the world. The only excitement is waiting to see if the pins come back down. Maybe Des, now that he’s freelance, could sexy it up a bit.”
And if that doesn’t work, there’s always Cantona.
“If I could have been a footballer, it would have been him. I loved him. He used to come out with some utter bollocks. We need more loons. There’s a sad lack of madmen in the Premiership – they’re all nice, young, professional lads.
"?I want to see footballers sparking out photographers, falling out of nightclubs and shagging Page Three girls. Forget dieticians, they need Peter Stringfellow.”
From the September 2004 issue of FourFourTwo.