We were thrilled that alumna Alison Bender (1989-1996) agreed to give a TiffinTalk to the students about her formidable career as journalist, reporter and freelance football TV presenter.
For the past 20 years, Alison has worked for Sky Sports News, ESPN, TalkSPORT, Chelsea TV and Real Madrid TV, and travelled all over the world covering European Championships, Premier League and World Cups. As one tabloid newspaper said: "Her CV and contact book would be the envy of football journalists across the land".
Indeed, she is a pundit, events host, speaker and blogger regularly appearing on radio and podcasts. She has just published a book she co-wrote called ‘Football She Wrote.' She absolutely loves her job and she is also a mum of two!
During our online TiffinTalk she talked to students and guests about her memories of being at the school, what it is like working in the media industry, tips for how to get started and career progression, some of her most memorable interviews and the benefits of hard work together with enjoying yourself.
Alison, who returned to the School three years ago as speaker for the Year 13 Celebration Evening, began the online talk bysaying how proud she is to be a Tiffin Girl and what a great school it is.
She had always known she wanted to be a presenter but the School suggested that instead of studying journalism, she should study something a bit broader in case she changed her mind. So she read psychology at university which she loved, even making a new discovery in psychology which had never been discovered before. “Psychology was quite a new field then,” she said modestly. Whilst she could have gone on to be a psychologist and was offered a job, she knew she still wanted to be a presenter. She hadn’t changed her mind!
So what is the route in to working in the media? There are lots of different routes in, explained Alison. You don’t have to study broadcast journalism. Alison began as a runner in a TV station making tea and coffee but before that she had done a lot of work experience and Alison emphasised to the students that this really helps you to stand out from the rest when writing your CV and applying for a job.
At the age of 16, Alison worked at Kingston Hospital Radio every Friday night. It meant she didn’t go out as much as some of her friends but the reward was that she got her own request show there which meant she could practice her presenting skills. “I also used to work at The Barge pub and Options nightclub in Kingston, I worked in telesales at Anglia Windows and I did voluntary work for an old people’s home, doing shopping for an old lady on Saturday.
"Employers are looking for rounded individuals who can demonstrate knowledge of the outside world and not just the ivory towers of academia. It’s really important.”
If you want to work in sports journalism, though, you could try and get work experience with your local newspaper or radio station.
Think about what you can offer them. For example, lots of clubs need a much better social media strategy and this is something the younger generation are much better at. Have a look at their TikTok, and other social media and see what you think,” Alison advised. “Offer to help them with it.”
Infact, Alison almost fell into her career in presenting sport. “I knew I wanted to be a presenter but I didn’t really mind what I presented: news, business, culture – anything”. She did a production course so she knew how to produce a programme and became a producer which she enjoyed but still she wanted to be in front of the camera. So she applied for as many jobs as possible.
It was this that led to her being offered the job, at 26, of setting up a football TV channel for Real Madrid and being the presenter. At the time, she knew very little about football or the history of the club and did not speak Spanish. It was her boyfriend who encouraged her to accept the job, telling her that she would learn the things she didn’t know. Which is what she did. She read every book ever written about the players and the club and the Spanish League – “it was like doing a degree in football. I lived and breathed football and by the end of those two years I was very well versed,” she laughs.
Hard work was a recurring theme in Alison’s TiffinTalk. She referred to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it requires 10,000 hours of concentrated practice in order to be really good at something, to possess what is considered a world-class skill. Alison has completed her 10,000 hours and suggests that for anyone wanting a career in presenting and the media, you need to practice – both editing and talking. “With repetition and deliberate practice you will get better. You can set up a Youtube channel – it doesn’t matter if no-one is listening – and just practice”.
Hard work was also the answer to the question asked by one of the students about how Alison found working in such a male dominated profession. “I’m afraid it’s still true that it is harder to be a woman working in this industry and you need to make sure you don’t get shouted down. You have to be right all the time,” said Alison, “and you can’t make mistakes. If you do, men assume that it’s because you don’t know your stuff. Whereas if a man makes a mistake, it is just accepted that it is a mistake. So it means you have to work extra hard. But the positive is, that by working extra hard, you become extra good, so you do benefit!”
Asked which famous football players Alison has met, it turns out she has met and interviewed most of the great famous football players and managers you can think of including Pele and Maradonna, Beckham and Lampard and has interviewed Ronaldo many times. “I’ve had many opportunities to interview Messi, but I have not been able to because my Spanish is not good enough,” Alison confessed. “I bottled it. The one thing I would say is that languages are so important. Imagine not being able to interview Messi! I’m hoping that one day he’ll come to the premier league and learn really good English and then I can interview him in English!”.
Alison was not particularly sporty at school “though I loved the team bonding of team sports,” she says and is excited to hear about the school’s new sports centre, promising to come and visit.