Eastern Road Debrief: (Do Not) Express Yourself

By Ryan Stillwell

It’s time for a rare breaking of the fourth wall here on the ERD, as the nature of this article calls for it. So let’s get straight into it. For those of you unaware, my name is Ryan Stillwell, I solely run the ERD, and I’m a member of the Pompey Live team on 93.7 Express FM. Well, I was. I’ve mulled over whether or not I stay quiet and lick my wounds, or if I just say my piece in the most sincere, honest, truthful fashion I can possibly muster. After all, truth has no master, it is its own unconquerable entity. Here is why I am no longer on the show.

That all changed in this month, November of 2021. It started on November 2nd when former host Liam Howes got an email from the director of Express, stating that after fourteen years of continuous service to Express and Pompey Live in one way or another, he was being removed as show host, and removed from the show entirely. This a man who has worked on Pompey Live longer than Express FM has even had the show, back in the days when it was part of The Quay. He’s essentially the Dean Lewington of Portsmouth radio. 

Again, they told him via email. Nobody was courteous enough, respectful enough, decent enough to even pick up a phone. They told him two hours before he was due to go on air for the Cheltenham Town game, that by November 20th and the visit of AFC Wimbledon, he would be gone. Liam very professionally did the show anyway, and afterwards told Express in no uncertain terms, he was done with the station. 

I found this news out an hour before we went on air for the Cheltenham game, and I also found out that my future was on the line. We’ll now get to the why of it, or at least what they told us. Portsmouth Football Club had joined forces with Express to “enhance their offer to the fans” by hiring a broadcast host that would be the new host of Pompey Live. This was the club’s idea which they approached Express with. The club were very keen to ensure that the new host was NOT a Pompey fan, god forbid. In other words, Pompey paid to have their own neutral host lead an Express show. The host had already been selected and signed, which is why Liam was the first to go.

The second change to the team was described to us as a Pompey Women’s player being brought in, who “as a footballer, can provide expert analysis”. This is where my position came under threat, as that meant there was now only one slot left on the show for somebody from Express, yet there were still two of us around.

In one fell swoop, three months into the season, with immediate effect, the club went to Express, which is a local, independent, community radio station, and offered to put two of their own employees on there, now controlling 66% of the team on a show that’s produced by an independent radio station.

Make of that what you will. Express still has editorial control over the show, but when two of its three members come from your own organisation, you don’t need to demand such measures anyway. In the end, I was the next, and the last, to face the dreaded email axe, on the day of the Palace game.

All the way through, it has been a shadow play of “please don’t mention this, please don’t do that” from both parties, desperately hoping that this news would quietly fade into the black; that we would play the part silently and become sycophantic mutes until their own PR-laden version eventually made it to print. I’ve decided to air my own news on the matter.

Being totally honest, I had reconciled with the fact that my lifespan on Express was short. I had become somewhat known in the Pompey community for breaking rank and speaking out where I felt necessary. As a fan, and as a voice of the fans, not only did I feel my role was to summarise the events of the game, but to contextualise those performances amid the backdrop of the season and the operation of the club as a whole. I have never done so for the sole purpose of creating drama as it were, I have done so because I believed it to be relevant, to be honest, to be what the people who listened both wanted and deserved.

In the same fashion, I have defended elements of this club and/or players when I felt they deserved it. Simply, my analysis was informed always by what I saw with my own eyes, and nothing else. Had this club given us more to be joyous about in the past two years, I would have gladly recognised that.

I knew that some of my comments had riled the club before, that people from the club had previously been in contact with Express on multiple occasions regarding some of our/my comments on matchday shows, wanting us to pull it back. One such example comes from last season, when Pompey lost 2-1 at home to a then drop-zone occupying, in-administration Wigan Athletic. I had claimed that with every passing season, Kenny Jackett and this team had taken the club further away from potential success. We were approached about our comments following that game.

Considering that he failed to make the playoffs in the 20/21 season, having done so in two previous seasons, I feel my comments were fairly on the money. Yet the complaint still came, from the same club that would actually sack the same man in the same season. The cognitive dissonance is staggering.

There are other examples of the hierarchy being displeased with being held to account (see the minutes from the October’s Tony Goodall Fans Conference for more on this when some rather extraordinary toy-throwing took place following a question about their operation of the club).

For this and the above, I knew my time at Express wouldn’t even scratch the surface of Liam’s service. I wouldn’t change it. Irrespective of whatever reason I was removed from the show, I am proud of my work. It’s work that I have tried to implement into the ERD also. All I’ve ever efforted myself to do was provide some insightful analysis on games, with a splash of realism. I feel I have done so in my two years on the show.

In truth, this change I suspect has been something the club has wanted to enforce for a while. I have been reliably informed that during one of the Tony Goodall Fans Conferences, the Commercial Director of the club, Anna Mitchell, reportedly referred to the Pompey Live team and their comments as “three lads sitting in a pub”. We’ve always taken our work seriously, with pride, been some of the first people to arrive, and some of the last to leave, including the gruelling Tuesday night away games; and this comment was meant to belittle our work, work we do (did) for the fans.

It is emblematic of a football club and its hierarchy that is completely out of touch with its fan base. From the many Pompey fans I know, they would prefer this. They don’t want dull, monotonous statistical exposition and club love-affairs. They want honest opinions with a dash of integrity and passion that supplement the analysis of the game. Oddly enough, the soulful people of this city might just want a soulful show. And what the hell is wrong with a pub anyway?

Overall, this has been a poorly-conceived, poorly-planned, poorly-executed, poorly-communicated “project” from people at both club and station, neither party seemingly aware of the backlash they’d receive, nor aware that people will form their own judgements in light of events. It’s all under the PR guise of “enhancing the product” etc etc, but good people like Liam were discarded callously in its wake, and ultimately, both the show and the fans suffer as a result. What on Earth had Liam to deserve such cowardly, disrespectful treatment from both parties?

From an Express side this is even more egregious. The station had been driving forward a mental well-being project during the pandemic, especially as we approached Christmas, which was actually championed by Liam himself. There was a conscious effort to make sure people were looked after and felt they weren’t alone. So naturally, certain people from the station binned off one of their longest-serving employees via a singular email just as he was about to go to work.

I’ve got too many words to describe how awful that is. Seemingly not learning their lesson from the way they dispatched Liam in the previous week, I too found out my future via email, on a matchday.

I am actually going to credit two elements of this show change, because again, I will happily praise what I feel warrants praise. From here, the plan is that Express will be going back into iFollow.

With no disrespect intended to BBC Solent, build-up to Pompey games should not feature Southampton and Bournemouth coverage etc. At least the coverage now (whatever that is) will be all Pompey, as it should be.

Also, the post-match show will be extended to an hour. I myself actually campaigned for this last season, as I felt post-match was too short at times. Without any reluctance, do I willingly accept these as positives.

I’d also add that I have no absolutely no ill will towards Jake who remains, and the two that are coming in. They’ve been offered this opportunity, I cannot blame them for saying yes. I wish them all the luck, and hope that they take as much pride and sincerity in covering Pompey as I have.

I’ll just take a moment to say something I feel I must on a human level. There is a lot of anger over this, understandably so, and people will direct their anger. All I’d ask of each of you reading this, is that you keep your criticisms of whomever strictly in the professional. I don’t want anybody from any party being attacked on a personal level.

My analysis has always focused on the execution of a person’s job, not them as a person. Who they are when they’re at home as a regular person should not be brought into this. By all means voice yourselves on the matter, but please do it in a way that is limited to the person’s job, not the person.

At this stage, “the truth will out” portion of this article is over. For this last part, it’s just elements of myself. I need to pay gratitude to Liam and Jake, especially Liam, for bringing me into the Pompey Live team as a permanent member in 2019. It’s not always been a fun ride, my time on the show has featured a pandemic, losing a playoff semi-final, losing a cup final, a behind-closed-doors season, and missing the playoffs entirely.

Yet, I have loved it. I have the loved the privilege of being able to represent my city and my people all around the country. I even had the honour of doing so at Wembley Stadium. The home of football, and I got to represent my community there. We lost, but that pride will be with me forever.

I’ll also thank the Pompey press box. It’s been a good place to work in for a couple years, filled with good people. To the club media, the AD comms, the Solent commentators, the people from The News, Hampshire Live, and even the stewards, I would like to hope that I leave that press box having made some friends, or at least earned their respect.

I would also hasten to add that while I’ve unveiled the unpleasant nature of all this, there are still very good people at both PFC and Express, many of whom have reached out to me privately and stated their displeasure at how I/Liam have been treated. To those people, I thank you also, and I hope that you don’t face any unwarranted criticism.

Most importantly, I thank you, the listeners. I’ve never been paid to do this job, I’ve never asked for pay either. My passes have said Express FM, but I’ve always worked for the fans. In every game I’ve ever done, I’ve always done my research on both teams, all to try and give whoever was listening as much informed insight and truth as I could muster. I’m not a footballer, I’m just a guy. Yet, the overwhelming support and love I’ve received since I joined the show has had a hugely positive impact on my life. I am eternally grateful to all of you, and it has been an honour to work for you. Even since the news of my departure went public, hundreds of people have shown their love.

After the game, I went home to my partner and daughter, went to bed, and got up for my full-time job in the morning. I’m no different as a person from pretty much everybody who has reached out to me, but the support and love you’ve all shown me is unbelievable. It only reinforces my stance that I did my job the way I should have, and why I did it. Again, I can never thank you enough. You’ve given a regular fan far more credit than he ever deserved.

Where I go from here is uncertain. I’m weighing up if I have a potential career in the industry. I can hear voices now going “well you’re only hurting your career prospects by writing something like this” well, let’s address that head on.

Hello prospective employer from the future, hope you’re well, catch that game last night aha? You may be thinking if this is the right thing to do, and if you can risk employing a “loose cannon” like myself. But let me ask you this. What have I done here that is so ghastly?

All I have done is dealt in facts. I have made no personal attacks, made no threats, fired no tirades. I have relayed a sequence of events, stood up for a colleague, and poured my soul out. If being honest, if being truthful scares you, then it’s because you have a truth you don’t want getting out, and I’m not the man for you. There are plenty of yes men out there. I’m not one of them. I’m much, much better than that. If you want integrity, insight, soul, coherently combined into a show, then I’m your man.

Also factor in, I was informed of my removal on a matchday, and I had the professionalism to still do my job one last time, which was a paltry EFL Trophy Group Stage game against Crystal Palace U23. I could have easily said no. In truth, I largely did the final show as the day before I was informed of my release, I told Mark Coates I’d do co-commentary with him for QA Hospital Radio. I didn’t really want to go to the game after what had happened, but the good people at QA Radio had done nothing wrong, and as such didn’t deserve me letting them down. So, I went.

To wrap all this up, I may take a brief break from all things Pompey, including the ERD. I have a damaged connection with the club over certain elements, and this has only further disillusioned me from the club I grew up with. I shall be taking time to discover how that connection can be repaired. In the meantime, I may enjoy some rare Saturdays off with my partner and daughter.

This may not have been a “classy and quiet” exit statement, but staying true to myself and how I approached my time on the show – it was honest, it was sincere, it was true, and it was from the heart. Take care all.

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