ALISON BENDER has worked for Real Madrid TV, Sky Sports News, TalkSPORT and ESPN and her CV and contact book would be the envy of football journalists across the land.
But as a woman and mother in a male dominated world it has not been plain sailing for the presenter – particularly the time she was ‘shooed’ away from Real Madrid training by Fabio Capello.
The SunSport columnist and mum-of-two recalls feeling seedy after a meeting with Avram Grant, the challenge of breast-pumping in stadium toilets and feeling awkward about taking players’ numbers in public.
As well as having to endure questions about which stars she was ‘sh***ing’ when she went to interview the games’ biggest names.
But with the Premier League having returned on Wednesday and the chance of Bender back on screen pitchside, the impressive 42-year-old sat down to discuss all of that and her optimism for the future of women in football with SunSport’s Will Pugh.
Q: You’ve had an enviable career, how did you get to where you are today?
A: It always makes me feel old looking back but when I take stock, I realise how lucky I am to have had the career I have had.
I love doing this, I’d do it for free – don’t tell anyone!
I’ve always wanted to be in TV so it was TV before football for me.
My first job was in TV as a runner. I made teas and coffees, rolled the auto-cue, wrote scripts, edited – pretty much everything.
And then I just worked my way up from there until my big break came when I was asked to set up Real Madrid TV in 2005.
I bought a one-way ticket to Spain and had to create an entire channel with a team of six presenters. I was hooked.
Q: Have you had to work harder as a woman in the football industry or are you just wired that way?
A: It meant I had to work harder. I basically put myself through a degree in football. I read every book that was out there.
When I was covering the Champions League, instead of just relying on my knowledge I’d go and research every single Champions League game that ever existed because I was so afraid I would miss something.
I think I am wired that way as well, I love working hard. But you feel like you’ve got a lot more to prove [as a woman].
I don’t ever like to dish dirt on my colleagues but I’ve heard men say things on TV that I know for a fact if I’d said them I’d be absolutely hammered and my career would be over.
A simple slip of the tongue, it’s so easy to make a mistake but as a girl I think you just can’t have that error. Everything is scrutinised.
Q: Have your experiences in the industry changed since you started out?
A: It’s massively improved. There’s still a long way to go but some of the things I experienced then I can’t imagine girls going through now.
And the thing is, these days they’ve got Twitter and Instagram so if anything happens girls can put it out there and say ‘this is unacceptable’ but I didn’t have any of that.
I remember when I was on Sky Sports News reading comments about how I looked like I’d had a stroke as I speak out of one side of my mouth.
I’d never in my life noticed it but after reading those comments I was so conscious of the way I spoke.
Q: Are there any particular incidents that stand out?
A: When I was at Real Madrid TV Fabio Capello was the manager at one point.
I remember watching training because I was so interested and so passionate and I desperately wanted to learn off the best.
I was there with my notepad writing down every single player that was at training, what they were doing and what Capello was saying.
But he always seemed suspicious of me and he didn’t like the fact I would stand close and he would always shoo me away.
I was sure it was because I was a girl.
And one day we were bought in and told Capello didn’t like what we were wearing because it was “distracting the players” and we were all issued polo shirts.
And I never dressed sexily anyway and then hilariously the polo shirts were deemed too sexy as well.
So there was always that sort of difficulty and I was just trying to do my job.
And another time, I was 25 or 26 and I remember hearing some journalists discussing their meetings with various managers.
And I thought this is really unfair so the next opportunity I get to go for a drink or a coffee with a Premier League manager I’m just going to say yes.
So I went for a drink with Avram Grant who was managing Chelsea at the time and I remember feeling really seedy and embarrassed coming home thinking ‘what have I done’ even though I did absolutely nothing wrong.
It was really professional and I was just me keeping my contact book going, yet I still had this after taste of ‘have I done something wrong?’ that I don’t think a man would ever feel.
It’s hard because you’d go to a football club to interview a player and you’d hear voices saying “Oh which one of those guys is she s***ing?”
And I’d roll my eyes and try and suck it up but it would make me sad because you’d think someone actually believes that.
But in the early days, it probably did benefit me. I was young and they liked young girls on Sky Sports News.
But when you’re a journalist, it’s all about relationships. You want to have relationships with managers, players and PR executives.
And every time I am seen giving my number out you can feel everyone staring at you.
And I’ve always had to say: “Listen I’m taking your number but I’m a journalist and I’m going to be calling you for interviews. Let’s get this straight right away.”
Q: You mention having a valid opinion rather than being a talking head. With so many bright, intelligent, vibrant women emerging and becoming established in sports media – Laura Woods at TalkSPORT, Rebecca Myers and Molly Hudson at the Times, Jacqui Oatley at Sky to name but a few – do you feel like football and sports audiences in this country are now more accepting of female voices?
A: Definitely. I think the media has played a part. You have to see it to believe it.
But it makes me sad as well because I remember when Kelly Cates got the gig at Sky everyone was like “Ooo wow she’s really good” because people don’t expect it.
Same with Laura Woods, I’ve always been impressed with her. What I like about Laura, she’s definitely got her own personality and she’s not trying to be someone else.
Everyone would ask me who I look up to and they always wanted a woman. But I would say “well I look up to some of the man too, do I have to pick a woman?”
But I do worry for Laura. She’s going to have a great career but she’s going to come across a lot of the same struggles I had. It’s still there.
It is a little better but I’ve already seen the vile abuse she gets on Twitter just for being an attractive girl.
I know if she tries to have any kind of professional relationship with a player she’ll find it difficult. Thankfully she’s ballsy enough to handle herself, but it gets to the strongest of us, I’ve been there.
Q: One thing is undeniably different for men and women: motherhood. You’ve got a three-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son, how have you confronted and balanced your parental duties with work?
A: It was really tough because I had a horrible pregnancy. I was ill for every single day of it and I felt like I’d been hit by a bus.
I had to have loads of time off and my bosses thought it was so weird as I didn’t know when I was going to feel better again. I was dizzy all the time and I couldn’t even move let alone watch football.
I was also petrified when the baby was born I would suffer depression because I’d had such a tough time. But luckily, when the baby arrived I was elated.
When my son was born he was a bit sick so I was in hospital for six weeks.
And I was so scared about losing my job, on the day he was born I was reading articles and tweeting them out.
I didn’t really tell anyone I was having a baby and when I was pregnant I wore black and put my bump under the desk so no one could see.
And it makes me sad now looking back as I think ‘why did I have to do that?’.
Q: Was that self-imposed or were you told you had to?
A: No one told me I had to, I just felt like some of the sexier roles you want to look good and I felt really weird with a bump and I thought “does anyone really want to see this?” which is ridiculous because we should see it.
But by the time I had my second baby I really embraced it and was really proud to show I was pregnant.
But working while having to breast feed and pump in the toilets at Premier League grounds was tough.
Q: How has coronavirus impacted you?
A:It’s been a really strange time for everyone, but it has allowed me the opportunity to take a pause and take stock.
I’ve always longed for a little break and more family time, and it’s been granted so I’m very lucky.
I’ve had a chance to look after my mum a bit too. She’s on her own and never wants to burden us but it turns out she really needed a bit of help.
Q: So what does the future hold for Alison Bender now football is back?
A: Well work vanished overnight which was really strange, so while I was busy with life and home schooling I also started to think about what might happen when normality returns.
I’d started writing a book about a year ago and I managed to carry on with that. It’s to help people to follow their dreams and not be put off by the many obstacles put in our paths.
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I’ve been really open about the many challenges I’ve faced and tried to give some advice to anyone following any career dream – the things I wished I’d known.
And I’m also super excited about a new documentary series I’m developing about football players as you’ve never seen them before.
I’ve had so much support from the Premier League and many individual clubs and I can’t wait to share it.