From Old Trafford to Astro Supersport

Nicholas John, Executive Producer at Astro Supersport, gives us an inside scoop on the acquisition of their recent guest pundit and Sir Alex Ferguson's former right-hand man, Mike Phelan...

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If you’re a fan of Football Manager or Championship Manager, you will agree with me that the best part about playing the game is waiting for the end of the season when you can go crazy trying to sign your favourite players. 

Well, working at Astro Supersport is similar. Minus the millions.

Let me explain: because we work in TV, we don’t share the same working schedules like most people. By this I mean we work on public holidays and more importantly, our calendar begins in August and ends in May – yes, it is built around the football season.

Just like footballers and coaches, the team usually takes a break during June and July. Well, kind of. These two months are also the time we start planning for the coming season – new shows, new hosts and new pundits. Yes, this is OUR transfer window. 

So, we start by forming our wish list – an emphasis on the word ‘wish’.

Apart from the cost of a pundit, the trickiest part in the whole selection criteria is balancing star power and the ability to analyse a game. Not all former footballers or coaches can express themselves well on TV, but we sometimes make an exception if the person is a huge draw. 

We do have direct connections with some legends and we also get offered a lot of names from agents all over the world. Over the last four years, we have brought down some of the biggest names in the game to work on our football coverage. I’m talking Kevin Keegan, Frank Leboeuf, John Barnes, Robbie Fowler, Didi Hamann, and more recently Brian Laudrup for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

For the start of the Premier League season, our priority was to get someone prominent – which was very tough, because football broadcasters all over the world were most probably thinking the same way.

Mike Phelan’s name came up a few days after the end of the World Cup. The former Manchester United assistant manager is a household name for most football fans in Malaysia. It was an easy decision to get him, especially when we found out that our first live match was going to be Manchester United vs Swansea!

Thankfully we could afford him and he was open to a 10-day stint including punditry, a few media interviews and a meet-and-greet session. To be honest, the deal was sealed pretty quickly and his agent was easy to work with, compared to other pundits we have engaged. 

When I announced to the team in our production meeting that we managed to get Phelan for August, everyone made a collective ‘whoooa’ because firstly, the majority of our team are Manchester United fans and secondly, Phelan is not someone you automatically think of when it comes to football punditry.

Phelan landed in KLIA on Friday evening (15th August). His flight was delayed by an hour in Dubai, so we were slightly worried that he would be tired and grumpy when we wanted to bring him out for dinner. But it was quite the opposite.

He was all smiles in his white collar tee and khakis pants when we greeted him at the hotel. The first thing I asked him was if he was ready for some Malaysian food, his reply straightaway was: “Bring it on.” Host Adam Carruthers, assistant producer Ashvin Vijay and myself brought him to Jalan Alor for some beef ball noodles. That wasn't enough for Phelan, so we went for more food. In the space of just a few minutes, you can tell that what sort of a guy he is – humble, funny and opinionated. It was almost like he was too down to earth if there is such a thing. This man deserves more credit for what he's achieved in his career. 

It was quite surreal – three Malaysian boys were having a meal with one of the key components of Manchester United's dominance in world football. We talked about everything. Fergie. Ronaldo. Moyes. Nani. Mourinho. Scholes. It was like a candid interview – but you could tell that he was guarded, maybe respectful is a better word, on certain issues.

Phelan also explained that he enjoyed the last 12 months out of football – spending time with his family and friends, but he's ready to get back into the game, waiting for the right offer. 

On our coverage, it was refreshing to hear 'money can't buy' insights from Phelan about life in the Premier League when discussing the matchups. While it is one thing to have good opinions, it's another to be able to share over 20 years of one's experience.  

Phelan will return to Manchester soon, but he is just the first name in our ‘one visiting pundit a month’ project this season. So, who do we get next to add value to our football coverage? Well, I don’t want to give away any secrets, but expect to see a former Spanish footballer, who played in La Liga, Serie A and the Premier League in Malaysia come October.

Luckily for us, OUR transfer window is always open.