Dan Walker looks back: ‘I am still driven by the same things as that kid in the bad cardigan’
Born in Crawley in 1977, Dan Walker is one of the UK’s most prominent TV sports journalists and anchors. He started out as a super-slick and enthusiastic commentator for Manchester’s Key 103, before joining Granada Television and later the BBC – first at the regional news programme North West Tonight and later on BBC Breakfast. He currently hosts 5 News on Channel 5 and his new book, Standing on the Shoulders, is out now. Walker lives in Sheffield with his wife, Sarah, and their three children.
This is an early school photo of a happy, well-fed child. I was eating a lot of sweets at the time, and ignorant of the fact that I had one of the worst haircuts known to man.
It is a stark reminder of the very basic haircutting technique my mum employed for many years – a method that involved making a hole in the middle of a tablecloth and using that as the guide to trim our hair. In this case it was at a jaunty angle. Everyone in the family underwent the same tablecloth-on-your-head process. When you’re that age you’re oblivious, but for my dad, not so much.
I’ve got two sisters and a brother, and we grew up in a very small end-terrace council house that my parents managed to buy through a scheme in the 70s. You can see it when you fly south out of Gatwick airport. Not because it’s big, but because it’s bright yellow. When I was little, my parents were told that our house had cracking paintwork. Dad asked someone to come over and repaint it “Cotswold white” while we were away on a camping holiday. We came back to a fluorescent house. Not that it mattered. It was a very happy home, whatever the colour.
My mum and dad were very good at taking an interest in what I was up to and we’d always sit down for tea together. We often had lots of people in the house, crammed around the dinner table, but our parents were keen for the kids to be part of the conversation, too. We’d chat about serious stuff, but most of the time we’d be joking. I can only remember my dad losing his temper once. We were all arguing and throwing stuff, and he went, “Oh, would you lot stop it!” and banged a glass bottle of ketchup on the table, the contents of which went up in the air and landed on his head.
I loved every minute of school. I don’t think I missed a single day. I’ve always enjoyed making friends, learning and being tested. I liked it back in primary school, and nothing changed when I moved into Hazelwick secondary school, which was bizarrely where Gareth Southgate and Chico from Pop Idol went before me. What alumni.
I was obsessed with sport and my parents encouraged that. I saved up all my pocket money and bought a Boris Becker tennis racket, and pretended to be him in the back garden for a few weeks. I was fanatical about Glenn Hoddle for about two years. I even asked my parents to change my name to Glenn. Thankfully they declined. My email address – the one I still use now – has got “helmet 5” in it, which people think sounds rude, but that’s the number Nigel Mansell had in Formula One. He was one of my other sporting heroes. Sally Gunnell, too. I was that kid who watched every second of the Olympic Games in 1992 and did my own commentaries.
Alongside my amateur commentating, I was finding my feet as a performer, too. I did a mean Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a school play, and totally nailed my interpretation of The Blues Brothers. Even back then I never worried about being handed a mic or shoved on stage. It is weird, my confidence. Nothing beats that moment when I hear the words, “Please welcome to the stage Dan Walker,” over a loudspeaker.
While I always thrived in a high-pressure situation, I realised early on that I wasn’t good enough to be a professional sportsperson. I idolised Des Lynam, so decided I’d write to him when I was 11 to find out how he got into his career: “Dear Des. I love your moustache. I’d love to do your job. Can you give me some advice?” I got a letter back – either from Des or his secretary, but it said Des – saying: “Lovely to hear from you. Don’t do a media degree, do something that makes you think and write well, like history or English, then get a job in local radio.” So that’s exactly what I did.
My first national network TV moment was at Wimbledon in 2008 when I got sent to the hill. Andy Murray was playing Richard Gasquet. The director said: “Dan, I’ve not worked with you before, but I’ve heard good things. This is a big moment, 13.5 million people watching you. So don’t F it up.” That was my sink or swim moment. If I’d messed it up, I might not be here now. I turned to the camera before it started rolling and said: “Come on, let’s nail this.” I had this faith that I was going to smash it. Luckily, I did a good job, and from that moment I started working more and more – on the Six Nations and then horse racing. The next thing I knew, I was in the Match of the Day studios, with the music going off, and I was in the chair opposite Alan Shearer and Ian Wright introducing the show, thinking how on earth has this happened? All my childhood dreams wrapped up in one moment.
The most important thing for me in terms of my faith – my Christianity – is that it gives me a sense of perspective. When it comes to the job, I love it, but I am not defined by my career. My value doesn’t come from what anyone else thinks of me and whether I can make a good show. I’ve met people in the industry who are so consumed by what others are saying about them or how their programmes are going down that they find it hard to function. Instead, I am led by what I call the “Fs”: the important Fs to me are family, friends and faith, and the things that don’t matter are fame, fortune and the froth that sometimes comes with the industry. I’ve never once discussed money while talking about a job. It’s always about the quality of the work and the people.
Because of my faith, I don’t work Sundays. It’s not something that anyone else has to adhere to – my sister is a nurse and works on Sundays all the time – but I’ve often worked hard the other six days of the week, and I want our family to be together on that day no matter what. Also, if I didn’t do that I’d be completely consumed by my job and probably wouldn’t have been married for 21 years. There are jobs I haven’t got because of that choice, but for every door that’s closed in my face, another has opened.
What gets me out of bed in the morning is bringing out the best in others. I like to think I am still driven by the same things as that kid in the bad cardigan and jaunty haircut – all he wanted was to try to put a smile on people’s faces, enjoy the world around him and see if he could help everyone else enjoy it, too.