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Home Life Weekend

Adrian Chiles: 'I don't like being 50, it's ridiculous'

Presenter Adrian Chiles talks to Gemma Dunn about reaching his half-century... and why his latest documentary marks a career high

Adrian Chiles turns 50 next year, a fact he finds "ridiculous". "I just don't like the idea, so I'm not celebrating," quips the father-of-two (he has two daughters with his ex-wife, radio presenter Jane Garvey).

"My closest friends were all at primary school together, so there is a 50th birthday every other week. And as a friend of mine said, 'The problem with 50th birthday parties is they're all 50-year-olds'. Who wants to go to a party full of 50-year-olds?"

A supporter of West Bromwich Albion, Chiles (right and below with Sol Campbell) has dedicated much of his time to the game, both personally as an avid season ticket holder and as a broadcaster.

Highlights from his sporting CV include an early stint as reporter at the News Of The World, presenting Match of the Day 2 and covering late-night World Cup highlights for the BBC. But it's his latest venture, he insists, that's been staring him in the face his whole life.

Marrying his love for making documentaries and his home team, the one-off film, Whites v Blacks: How Football Changed A Nation, tells the story of an iconic benefit match that took place in 1979.

Set up by West Bromwich Albion for one of its longest-serving players, Len Cantello, the testimonial game pitted black players against white players in an unprecedented move that today would likely cause uproar.

"I was 12 when it happened, but I remember it and then I was reminded of it in a documentary I made about the team's manager at the time, Ron Atkinson, 10 years ago," explains Chiles.

"It was after Ron disgraced himself with what he said about Marcel Desailly. The guy who was producing it said to me, 'That game, like Ron, was progressive in 1979, but then the world moved on'. The point he was making was Ron had stood still, but there was a more sophisticated approach to race relations."

The documentary sees Chiles reunite players from both teams, including Ally Robertson, Bob Hazell and George Berry - plus Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, who, along with the late Laurie Cunningham, were dubbed "The Three Degrees" (West Brom was the first British club to field three black players at once).

"I didn't want it to be just another documentary about what it was like to be a black footballer back in the Seventies, but now I'm glad it partly is that, because you can never stop reminding people how ghastly it was."

Admittedly choked by their tales - haunting anecdotes of bananas being thrown onto the pitch and vile chanting - Chiles says he feels like dedicating the film to the players who weren't mentally strong enough to get through such abuse.

"They had to let it go over their heads, or channel it into skill and do their talking on the pitch - the eloquent way of showing two fingers," he elaborates. "As I said to Cyrille, that took great mental strength and they're exceptional people, so in a way, it was survival of the mentally fittest."

Today, around 30% of English professional footballers are black - celebrated as superstars and earning in excess of £100,000 a week. But while everything may seem rosy on the surface, how far have we really come?

"You don't see it (racism) on TV - you get it on Twitter now," Chiles says. "A black guy I know, a prison warden, said to me when I asked what it was like to be a black football fan in the Seventies, 'I preferred it'. I asked what he meant and he said, 'Then, you knew who the racists were - you could see them throwing bananas. Now you look around and some people are still thinking those things, but because of social compliance, political correctness and the law, they don't vocalise it'. I found that a bit creepy, but it's an interesting point."

Does he see the same stigma when it comes to homophobia? "I haven't heard a racist chant at a match in 30 years, but - and I don't know if it's homophobic - you hear stuff shouted at players if they shy away from a tackle or something," he says. I don't understand it. If an Australian rugby league player, David Pocock, can come out, come on. You don't get a much more macho environment than that."

Not one to shy away from an opinion, Chiles agrees he's cut out for making documentaries - even if he confesses to finding the process incredibly stressful. "In the past, I'd always do live stuff, so you go in, do it and you go home," he says. "It's done and you live to fight another day. Whereas, with this, it's on your mind.

"Those I've done in the last three years (as well as Whites v Blacks, there was My Mediterranean With Adrian Chiles this year and a Brexit-fuelled Panorama called Why We Voted to Leave: Britain Speaks) are three of the best things I've done."

*Whites v Blacks: How Football Changed A Nation, BBC Two, tomorrow, 9pm

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