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Dan Walker: ‘My 16-year-old self would never believe Alan Shearer would one day know his name’

Having his name spelled wrong in the local paper was a low point, but meeting his heroes has brought Dan Walker many more highs

Dan Walker is a journalist and sports presenter. He was born in Crawley in 1977, and from an early age developed on obsession with sport, regularly attending football matches with his dad. He also received trial from a number of football clubs, but it’s to sports presenting he turned after graduating from Sheffield University.

It was on the Yorkshire city’s Hallam FM that Walker began his broadcasting career, before moving on to Granada Television and then the BBC regional news programme North West Tonight, where he won the Royal Television Society Sports Award in 2005 for Regional Sports Presenter of the Year.

After moving to London, Walker began reporting on big events like Wimbledon and the Six Nations before becoming presenter of Football Focus in 2009. He moved onto BBC Breakfast in 2016, and also appeared on Strictly Come Dancing in 2019. He recently left the BBC to go to Channel 5.

In a Letter To My Younger Self, Walker looks back on a life steeped in sport, how his faith has helped him and why he owes so much to his wife.

I was absolutely obsessed with sport when I was 16. My heroes were Glenn Hoddle, Nick Faldo, Boris Becker, Daley Thompson. I was dreaming of either being a professional presenter or, more likely, a teacher. I loved my school, Hazelwick, and I was inspired by my teachers, particularly my history teacher, Mr. Lolls. I was excited about everything at that age. I loved playing sport, and I was excited by the idea of leaving home and going to university, getting out into the big wide world. There was quite a lot going on in my little 16-year-old head. 

My first dream was being a professional sports player. When I was quite young I was very tall, so I got some trials with football clubs. I played in a school team where the players were absolutely incredible. It was just a normal state school, but five of the kids went on to play football professionally.  

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I remember one game when I was 14. We were playing in the county cup final and I scored two goals. And I was nowhere near the best player on the team. The local paper wrote it up and said the game changed at the start of the second half “after two goals from Hazelwick’s David Wacker”, which was a bit of a crushing blow really. I thought, I just had the best game of my life and they can’t even remember my name because everyone else in the team is just so good. It’s a big realisation at that point in your life, where you think, you know what, maybe I’m never going to be good enough to play this game. 

Dan Walker 2013
2013: Playing in a celebrity football match at Wembley Stadium (his team, the Radio One-derers lost on penalties).
Photo: David Fisher/Shutterstock

We grew up in Crawley, and my dad would take me to watch Crawley Town. Just me and him, the rest of my siblings weren’t interested. But my dad and I went each and every Saturday. I used to love that walk to the ground. My dad would always bring an apple for me, and at half time he gave me money to buy a Marathon bar or a Twix. That was a big part of my footballing education. Watching my team, seeing the excitement, following their cup runs. I still absolutely love that Saturday feeling, remembering going to the game with my dad. I always thought: imagine playing football or being involved in covering it in some way, wouldn’t that be an amazing thing to do?  

My dad is very proud of me, obviously. But there’s only a few times when he’s rung me to say, Daniel, I can’t believe you’re doing that. We always used to watch A Question of Sport together, and when I told him, dad I’m actually going on A Question of Sport, he was so excited. The other time was when I covered and presented my first FA Cup final. I remember that was a special moment. To ring your dad and say, guess what? I’m doing the FA Cup. He was really happy. That tournament had been such a big part of my childhood. And all of a sudden I was the one saying, welcome to the FA Cup final. 

I haven’t been to a game with my dad for a very long time. He’s deep into his seventies and he sometimes finds that sort of noise level quite difficult. He’s totally deaf in one ear and has quite seriously bad hearing in the other ear. The loud atmosphere of a game would be quite difficult for him now. So it’s been a long time. 

Dan Walker on Strictly 2021
2021: On Strictly Come Dancing’s live show with partner Nadiya Bychkova. Photo: BBC/Guy Levy

I became a Christian after what you could call a conversion experience when I was 12 years old. As a family we went to church, but I was always the kid who messed around a bit. And then I went to this particular church service when I was 12. And the guy in the church service was talking about the realities of life and what it meant to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. I just remember it felt very different to all the other things I’ve ever heard. It felt very real to me. And I knew that I didn’t have that relationship, but I wanted it. I mean, when I woke up the next day I was still an annoying 12-year-old. But I just felt that things were different. I felt like I had new priorities and a different way of looking at things. And there were things I was doing in my life that maybe weren’t right. I felt that I now had a relationship with God through his son. That’s something I’ve maintained throughout my life, and it’s been very important. It provides a balance in my life, and my life is quite a crazy one. 

I don’t see myself as a celebrity. People see me as one, but I’ve never wanted to be famous. I love this job, it’s opened up all sorts of doors for me. I met some amazing people when I did Strictly who are still good friends now. But I suppose one of the consequences of doing things like that is that people know who you are. I don’t get carried away by the praise, but I also don’t feel low about the criticism. I feel like I have a real perspective on life, and I know what the important things are. Family and faith.  

My 16-year-old self would never believe that one day Alan Shearer would know his name. I remember the first time I was on Match of the Day. Bear in mind this was a programme I had watched religiously my whole life, and there I was presenting it. I’m the one sat there while the music is on. And I’m interviewing Alan Shearer who, when I was a kid watching the ’96 Euros, was the focal point for that team. And Alan Shearer called me Dan. And the little kid inside me was like, Alan Shearer knows my name! 

There’s no way I’d be talking to you now about the career I’ve had and the things I’ve been able to do without my wife beside me. She’s had to sacrifice an awful lot over the years for me to travel around the world. And there’s so many times when I couldn’t have done the things I’ve done without her doing the things she has done to keep everything ticking over. I’ve tried to do my utmost for her. I think she’s great. 

Dan Walker 2022
2022: Leaving BBC Breakfast studios for the last time, with a fan – and an inflatable lobster presented by his colleagues. Photo: MCPIX/Shutterstock

If I could have one last conversation with anyone, it would probably be Gary Speed [the Welsh footballer and Wales national manager who took his own life in 2011]. I was good friends with Gary. What I liked was he was one of those people who always asked you about your family, he was always interested in what you were up to. You don’t get many people like that. He always seemed full of life with a lot to look forward to. He had a loving family and two young boys who adored him. I actually presented the Football Focus he was on, the same day he later took his own life. Then on the Sunday morning Alan Shearer rang me to say, have you heard about Gary? It was one of those conversations that stops you in your tracks. People often ask me, why did he do it? But I don’t know. It’s sad that he did what he did, I wish he hadn’t. But, you know, suicide is… it must be a horrible place to be in. I don’t know why he did it. All I can tell you is I miss him. 

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If I could re-live any moment, I’d go back to the first time I was on national telly. It was at Wimbledon, during the match when Andy Murray came back from two sets down [to win in the fourth round against Richard Gasquet in 2008]. The editor of the Wimbledon programme, said, Dan, I need you to get down to Henman Hill now and do a minute and 30 seconds live on camera. This was prime time, 6.30pm at night. I remember running down there to find some guests to speak to. Just as the studio was handing down to me and I could hear the presenter saying. “Let’s get down to Henman Hill.” The director said in my ear, “Dan, I’ve never worked with you before. Some people will say you’re quite good. There are 13 and a half million people watching you right now.” And rather than thinking, Oh my word, what am I gonna do? I was like, I can’t wait for this. Bring it on. 

Standing on the Shoulders: Incredible Heroes and how They Inspire Us by Dan Walker is out on October 13 (Headline, £22)

Interview: Jane Graham

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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