“First things first, don’t think about the millions watching,” Kelly Somers says with a laugh. Being the pitch-side reporter for England matches for 18 months has taught her that much. With the World Cup under way, it is truer than ever.
Somers will spend the next few weeks on screens at pubs and living rooms across the nation. She has already had a busy start after just one game: from cajoling Jude Bellingham to predict his opening goal ahead of England’s 6-2 win over Iran, to questioning Gareth Southgate on the Football Association’s decision to drop the “OneLove” captain’s armband.
While covering a World Cup may figure as most reporters’ dream gig, Somers’s imagination as a child never stretched to Doha. Simply upgrading her view at Vicarage Road was the initial goal.
Her love for Watford and football started thanks to her mother and grandparents, who were season-ticket holders, and she remembers gazing longingly across the pitch to where the press box was situated. “I just thought they were some mystical people,” Somers says, smiling at the thought after years spent mingling with fellow reporters.
Aged nine, she won a writing competition at the Watford Observer, with her 200-word report on Watford’s 1-1 draw with Leicester during the 1999-2000 season. The prize? A flip-phone and the chance to sit in those very seats she had admired from afar.
She watched Watford beat Coventry 1-0 and got to sit through her “hero” Graham Taylor’s press conference. Somers was hooked: “From that day, it was like: ‘This is what I want to do’.”
As an adult she started at Premier League Productions, then moved to in-game reporting as a freelancer for the BBC on Final Score and Football Focus, before landing her role as England reporter ahead of last year’s Euros.
“I’ve always had a fascination with the people behind the sportsperson,” Somers, 31, says. “How do you get players to say something different? I try to think, if I was sitting at home, what would I want to know from that footballer and how do I get that? Ultimately I’m a football fan. It’s about trusting your judgment and not over-thinking it.”
A tough start
Amid the magic she finds in her day job, she is also well-versed on the scrutiny that can come with it. Her post-match interviews went viral during the Euros last year, for both the best and worst reasons. The latter came first.
At England’s Euros opener – a 1-0 win over Croatia and the first England game she covered for the BBC – technical difficulties prevented her from hearing Raheem Sterling’s answers during their post-match interview. She missed his sentimental line about being “the boy from Brent” scoring under the Wembley arch, and followed up by asking if he had justified his selection. The Twitter trolls descended.
“I could tell it was hard for us to understand each other and I wasn’t comfortable with how the interview had gone,” she says. “Later, after conducting six more interviews and on a high, I picked up my phone and … I can’t quite describe it, there were thousands of messages. Your heart drops.”
Somers pauses. She is still shaken by the experience, where “grown men” were hounding her on LinkedIn and Facebook. “That was the first time where I realised, ‘wow this is next level, this is part of the job’. It can be really brutal.”
Things can go perfectly too, as they did later in the tournament when she got Southgate to open up about the heartache of his missed penalty at Euro ’96. It touched a chord with viewers, and Somers nailed the moment with her warm, familiar and engaging tone.
Developing her own style
Reading the room is more pertinent than ever at this World Cup, where human-rights abuses, Fifa faux pas and politics dominate the headlines. “People aren’t going out there just to report on football,” Somers says. “It will put a lot of things into sharp focus.”
She counts Gabby Logan and Kelly Cates as major influences who have helped pave the way for female broadcasters, but says developing her own style has been key. Combining her natural lighter touch with the directness needed in less celebratory moments has been a test, particularly during England’s Uefa Nations League 4-0 loss to Hungary.
England were 2-0 down when she hurried through the bowels of Molineux to her post-match position. By the time she emerged at the touchline, Hungary had scored twice more and fans were singing “you don’t know what you’re doing” at Southgate.
“The dynamic changes,” she says. “It’s about reflecting the mood of the stadium but not getting carried away. I’ve worked on being more comfortable asking the uncomfortable questions, but in my tone. I don’t need to say, ‘Gareth are you going to get sacked?’ – you can call people out without going straight down the line. Those are the moments where you show why you’re doing that job.”