An ex player of great repute, Mike “Stevo” Stephenson has been the face and voice of Sky Sports’ Rugby League coverage for over two decades. Leeds Rhinos star Jamie Jones-Buchanan discusses the journalism career of a man that by his own admission splits opinion right down the middle..
I heard the following quote just a few months back: “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you!” Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859).
The quote was from a Hasidic Rabbi leader from Poland and for me interestingly summed up what we spend most of our life trying to understand. That is, if we don’t use our unique, God-given abilities, and are uninfluenced by the outside world, then we can never truly be ourselves.
I don’t think I have met anyone in Rugby League who has grasped that important concept more than the legendary Michael “Stevo” Stephenson, who was very kind in giving me two hours of his time for a chat about an amazing career, of which most of us have only seen the tip of the iceberg.
Last year I heard Ray French at a literature festival, where in reference to his commentary, and I paraphrase, he said: “If everyone likes you there’s a problem, and if no one likes you there’s a problem. So its probably best to be somewhere in between”.
The Marmite metaphor is over used and in my world is becoming increasingly mute, because whether you love it or hate it, “it is what it is” and I love it for that reason alone. My favourite condiment though has to be good old English mustard. In fact if I was to use my West Yorkshire vocabulary in the context my grandparents used to use it, “mustard” might be the very word I used to describe arguably the most iconic man in Rugby League – Stevo.
“I do a job where I’m in control and what I am seeing is what I will say,” he said. “I never sit on the fence, I never have done. No matter where you go people will say to you, ‘You hate Wigan Stevo!’ I tell them, ‘I hate them all mate!’
“When I go to Bradford they think I’m a Leeds fan, when I go to Leeds they think I’m a Bradford fan. That’s part and parcel of what you’re involved with. It’s difficult for a former player, especially one that’s still playing, to be critical of your colleagues. It’s not easy, even though you know he’s had a bad game.
“If you want to continue on in that industry you have to push it to the side. I try my damnedest not to associate with players. When I was a player I didn’t like the media around me and quite frankly I don’t like being with them, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.
“Sometimes people want to come up to me and talk about the game and that’s fine, I’m not rude. Then you hear people saying thing ‘this and that bloody Stevo’ or they just ignore you – so what!
“The most common thing, especially in a bar when someone’s had a few beers, is where someone says, ‘Oh Stevo you don’t half talk s*** you!’ I always tell them that they must be a very intelligent person because they’re absolutely spot on. Then I might say, ’The thing that tickles me is, I get paid very well for doing it, but you do it for nothing’. If that doesn’t shut them up, it’s time to leave the pub. Mate, I never go looking for it.
“I’m paid to do a job and until they tell me I’m not doing a good job then things are fine. It’s like being dropped from the first team – as long as someone tells you the reason then you can accept that. I would accept it if someone came to me and said ‘Stevo it’s time for you to move on’ – I could understand that. I have been in this industry for 30 plus years so I must be doing something right. Outside opinions don’t bother me whatsoever.”
What’s the difference between persistence and stubbornness? Whenever we see the positive characteristics of an individual we tend to use the former, and the negative for the latter. The real difference, I think, is that persistence deals with change and navigates diversity, while the stubbornness is less fluid and becomes stuck in a time or place. The success Stevo has had on this path traveling on the vehicle of Rugby League tells me that he is extremely persistent, and he has been to the top of his game both on and off the field. That’s something you rarely see in any sport so I wanted to try capture where on that journey spanning decades he thought he reached the summit.
“I’m not one of those people who having finished playing the game, stops watching and says, ‘Well the game’s not as good as when we played’. That irritates me with a lot of ex players – and I know a lot of them who have done it and don’t even watch it on TV. They say, ‘I can’t be bothered, it’s crap’. I tell them it’s not crap at all the game has just changed.
“Look, we didn’t have computers when we were kids but that doesn’t mean we can’t embrace them now. I remember I went into journalism after I retired, I wasn’t a trained journalist but I worked hard. I couldn’t automatic type but I could use my two fingers and a thumb.
“As a commentator I can assure you that I’m doing three more years. When it comes to that I am definitely retiring from commentating.”
“When I started it was a ‘sit up and beg typewriter’ – none of this computer thing. I was at the Sun newspaper in Australia when suddenly everything changed. We had this big screen. People would come over and say, ‘There’s no way you can handle that Stevo’, so what I did is I went to see a bloke who knew about computers and I went through another learning curve. But I didn’t say, ‘Oh this is crap’.”
That persistence was also evident in his playing career; never more so than after making his Great Britain debut against the Kiwis at Castleford in 1971.
“I was dropped for the third test where we beat them. I put at the top of my bed a paper clipping about the story of the match and it said about four paragraphs down, ‘Stephenson missed two tackles and the Kiwis flew in and there was no stopping them from there’.
“I stuck it on the wall and I looked at it every time I went to bed. It made me determined to get back at it.”
When we finish playing rugby we all have to move into some line of work, but if you can stay involved in the game in some capacity it’s a huge bonus. More ex-players are going into the media these days, and it’s an industry that’s extremely welcoming. But this seemingly wasn’t always the case.
I must admit Stevo’s journey through journalism is inspiring and the reason we haven’t seen more people do what he did is because of how hard the path he took was, particularly in a hostile environment like 1970s Australia.
I think you see here how only a character like Stevo could cut the proverbial mustard, knocking down barriers, navigating adversity and asking where others dare not ask. Basically, being content early on that “he is who he is”.
He remembered: “TV was a progression I always wanted and when I retired from playing the I was already at the Sun newspaper doing two columns a week. Then when I finished they wanted me to do a live story from Monday to Fridays, five days a week. Remember Rugby League in Australia is like soccer here, so instead of half a page we get in this country, it was 12 pages of Rugby League.
“So they offered me a job to go full-time and I became a proper journalist. I went in at six in the morning and there was a deadline to get a story in before 10am. That deadline made you work harder because you have to produce one. You learn how to get contacts.
“I found it difficult to start with because a lot of people didn’t want to know, because I was a Pom. They always refused to recognise me as a full-time journalist at the Rugby League Writers Association, but I did get a union card which stated that I was a fully paid-up journalist.
“Then I got approached by Frank Hyde who was a radio commentator. I had done some charity work with Frank, a few speeches. He did the main game on the radio but he wanted someone to do around the grounds giving updates. So he would come to me and say, ‘Mike Stephenson, what’s gone on there at the North Sydney Oval?’
“It was as simple as that. That’s how I first started getting on the radio. I worked with a couple of stations, 2UE then 2GB, and I was being put in a better position each time. Then I got a call from a bloke at ABC, which is like the BBC here, saying that he would like me to work on radio for them and I did.
“I did five years with a guy called Jimmy Maxwell who does the cricket too. Then they wanted me to go in front of a camera and I was as nervous as hell, it was shocking. I was a nervous player – once you kicked off I could control my emotions but before I was throwing up and dry wretching and the lads would be like, ‘Come on Stevo pack it in’.
“It was the same on TV – one minute to air I would be shaking then through perseverance and learning through your mistakes, you get through.
“I have always been one to go and ask if I have a problem, or if I’m not doing it right, I always go and ask someone who I respect as a commentator and sit down with them. I did the same as a player.
“As a [newspaper] journalist we used to have copy boys. You write your first paragraph and the copy boy ran it down to the sub editors bench at the end. There was none of this technology, the sub editor would say, ‘That’s no good take it back’.
“The young kid would come back laughing at me saying, ‘Ha ha – Stevo he’s rejected it you Pommy b******’, so you would have to do another copy.
“Like all marriages we have had our ups and downs and our arguments, but we have argued for the better things.”
“That same kid became my boss eventually, as the sports editor, sadly in the last year before it closed. Sydney was one of the very last cities in the world to still have two afternoon papers – The Mirror and The Sun. Even New York and London had packed it in.
“Luckily when it closed I still had the radio, but I had to look around at new careers so I opened a restaurant for a while. My first restaurant went really well, the second restaurant sent me bust, but I took out all the ovens and cutlery, and in my own home I went and started outside catering doing weddings and functions.
“In a three-week period I lost everything that I was doing. The Sun folded, the following week ABC sent me a telegram with an offer I couldn’t refuse – ‘the sack’ – and my restaurant went bust, all in three weeks. From there I spent six months drilling holes on the northern beaches. It’s all sand up there and you need to go down 30-40 foot to put these footings in.
“During this bad patch I got a telephone call, and Eddie (Hemmings) said ‘I hear there’s a Lions tour coming over, is there any chance you can come and work with me?’ He had worked with BBC but had moved to a small company called BSB, who had the rights for the Rugby League tour in 1992. I had three tests and six Wednesday games, and I have been here now for 24 years.
“I had worked with Eddie two years previously. I said to him ‘If ever you need anyone to work with in Sydney I’m always available’. He rang me and said he was doing the tour and needed a co-commentator down there. So I did that with him, and I was lucky because ABC Channel 10 didn’t have the rights for those games so I was free to do it.”
Sky’s the limit
Whilst Stevo faced many opposing forces during his journalistic career, I have been fortunate to have had help and advice from most corners, and asking questions has been relatively easy and encouraged wherever I have gone. Stevo is included in that, having been gracious enough to offer help and advice on several encounters. There must, though, have been those who inspired him on his path, who were willing to give a helping hand, those who helped him build his philosophy and vocabulary, synonymous with Friday nights at 8pm. I’m also aware that if you Google the number one human fear, near the top of every list is public speaking or presenting to a peer group. It’s a horrible feeling being put in front of an audience, but like all adrenaline-producing activities, it’s extremely gratifying if done well. I wondered after all these years if the nerves ever settled, and how long the legendary Stevo would continue to be the voice of our game.
“If I don’t get that adrenaline inside me beforehand, I’m not going to do a good job – it doesn’t matter how many times you do it. If you lack that, it means that you’re taking it for granted.”
Asked about those who have helped him along the way, he responded: “In the early days I had a small screen that I had to work with whilst Eddie did all the stats with the help of Ian Proctor. Ian is the brain, and both Eddie and I couldn’t have been a success without his help and he’s worked with us for the full 24 years at Sky.
“I would talk about what had gone on whilst the goal kick was taken. I used to do it on the basis of, how was that try scored? Was it through skill, and if it was, show that it was. After the conversion while they were jogging back I would bring it up again and say maybe there’s a problem with the winger, maybe he should have stayed man-on-man but he didn’t he got sucked in and that’s why it was an easy pass out wide. That’s how you get a lot of players disappointed because they don’t like that criticism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not solid steel all the way through but you have to remember it’s a job.
“Ray ‘Rabbits’ Warren, I have worked with him. When they used to have the Challenge Cup final over here we used to have it live and we would do the top middle and tail it. I got on with him – I liked his style. I used to enjoy Rex Mossop who was before Ray Warren but Ray’s attitude towards commentating has certainly helped me.
“I know at least one coach in Super League who has about five coaches calling him all the time, including the one who used to be in charge of England. Why would you copy an opposing coach?”
“But working with Eddie has been a great experience. Eddie very rarely gets into the technical side of it. He knows his Rugby League and he’s a great commentator and a very close friend of mine, we get on exceptionally well. Like all marriages we have had our ups and downs and our arguments, but we have argued for the better things.
“I remember when we first started with the square BSB dishes in the early days we would have 200 people watching, if that. We used to do after dinner speaking me and Eddie and we would walk in and say, ‘Well to be fair ladies and gentlemen, this is probably the biggest audience we have worked in front of”. That’s how it was.
“Within a year, Sky bought BSB and it became BSKYB and I remember saying to Eddie, ‘You’re the good looking one, you have the quiff, I’m the bald headed one so you’re the hero and I’m the villain’.
“Simple as that – a very, very simple equation. ‘You take all the glory and the young girls swooning. I’ll take care of the old women in their wheelchairs at the old folks home’. And that’s how it was.
“To this day Eddie will look at me during commentary off mic and say, ‘I can’t believe you just said that’ and that’s how it’s been. It’s been a great combination and we have had to work hard.
“As a commentator I can assure you that I’m doing three more years. When it comes to that I am definitely retiring from commentating, even if they retain me to do certain features – because that’s what I would like to do.
“In the old days people would just turn on to watch the games but now they have been educated, we are bringing touch screens in and the technology and for once in my life I can prove that I’m not the video referee because we have them in the side line. But you will always get someone who says they don’t like it.”
Leaving a legacy
By now I suspect that any regular readers of my Rugby League World interviews are aware that I am a big fan of history and its proper preservation. For me, the story behind Stevo’s Rugby League Heritage Museum has to be the most fascinating part of the interview, and it revealed a determined, passionate character, the depths of which we can’t fully appreciate in the context we see him in on TV.
Until recent years the museum was available for all to see at the birthplace of Rugby League in the George Hotel, Huddersfield. The museum’s new home is still to be determined, but these nomadic show pieces are no strangers to the road, or even railway tracks, as Stevo told me about his journey around Australia, taking Rugby League history to every corner of our southern hemisphere counterparts.
I personally think we have a lot to learn from Stevo’s adventure and should be looking to take his historic example into our future. I wanted to find out how on earth the man from Dewsbury became the face of a traveling carnival Down Under.
“Putting back into the game was my motivation for creating my museum,” he explained.
“Hopefully within six months we will have some news to disclose on that, there’s some red tape around that at the moment.
“One of my biggest achievements and probably my proudest outside of my playing days was when I took a traveling museum on a train in Australia. I worked for 22 weeks living on a train and took it round New South Wales.
“The following year I did the same then took it up to Queensland. Now, you have got to understand, this isn’t like going from Kings Cross to Leeds, we are talking thousands and thousands of miles. Imagine the east coast train with all the seats out, then you build Perspex walls down either side and fill each cabin full of all the memorabilia and trophies.
“It cost $1.2million dollars in 1987 and 1988, and was financed from sponsors. The most amazing things about Australia is that towns are roughly 200k away from each other because that was about as far as a horse could walk and they would have halfway stop off places consisting of 6-10 houses. We would open at 10am every morning, it was free of charge, we would have all the Australian, NSW and Queensland coaches, the kids, competitions, skill games with prizes – a complete jamboree.
“As a young kid, I had four aunties who went to watch Dewsbury, so from the age of three I went to every Dewsbury game. They would buy programmes that I kept and as I got older I started getting international programmes and I got a collection. I had over 2,000 programmes, living in a council house with my mum and dad, I had nowhere to put them. They couldn’t get the towels in the cupboard for them and I got the collecting bug.
“My favorite piece now would be the first ever gold medal in the history of our game. In the 1895-96 season, Manningham (Bradford) were the first to win it, and I have one of those medals.
“In the next few months I hope to find out that the museum is safe because I want to leave it to the game of Rugby League, the legacy has to be there. I’ve been approached to take it to both Australia and France but I can assure you it will be staying in this country.”
Stevo on… Twitter
“I have had about ten guys impersonating me on Twitter. I was even interviewed by the police, when a picture of a Super League player was being sent around the world. Someone sent it to the person impersonating me and it went worldwide. The police interviewed me for sending this photo through the website. I told them I don’t have a Twitter account. It’s shocking.”
Stevo on… Coaching
“If I was a coach and you were a coach and you rang me for advice, I would tell you, ‘I can’t believe you have rung me!’ And I mean that sincerely. I know at least one coach in Super League who has about five coaches calling him all the time, including the one who used to be in charge of England. Why would you copy an opposing coach? When he’s playing you he knows the pattern, whether you’re going to shift or come down the outside.”
Stevo on… His best try
“My most memorable try was at Warrington. They knocked on ten metres away from our own sticks, ball goes in, I hook it, the pack collapses and I stood up, stepped over my prop went down the middle and ended up scoring under the post the other end. I remember it was Alan Bates, who was a great little halfback, tough as nuts, who made the break. He saw me inside and said, ‘Where the hell have you come from?’ He gave me the ball and I scored. It was like scoring a hat trick at the time.”
Stevo on… Supporters
“Even to this day people think I’m the video referee! I say, ‘How can I be the referee if I say it’s a try and it comes up a no try?’ Then they say, ‘Oh you do that just to confuse us’. You can never beat the fans and I respect them. I have always respected them and I have never been frightened to mix with them. I would go in a bar after the game and they would ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ I’d say, ‘They sell beer here don’t they?’