Ahead of his side’s FA Cup fourth-round clash against fellow Championship outfit Bolton Wanderers; Shoot EXCLUSIVELY caught up with Leeds United fanatic Ben Shires to discuss his Whites fandom, favourite players, memorable moments, those rather forgettable incidents, the club’s January transfer business and his preparations ahead of a charity walk to Elland Road.
The Yorkshire-born TV presenter and stand-up comic; who will be more familiar to younger audiences given his starring roles on CBBC’s ‘Officially Amazing’ and ‘Match of the Day Kickabout’, has been a lifelong Whites fan since his granddad started his professional footballing career as a trainee at the club.
Ben, who is regularly whisked off to extraordinary locations to meet the most weird and wonderful individuals as they attempt to break the most daring and darn right crazy Guinness World Records, even holds an official milestone himself after assisting Japan’s number one world record holder Cherry Yoshitake with some tennis balls and a pair of boxing gloves!
And despite their chaotic reign under Chairman Massimo Cellino throughout the past 20 months; Ben is also still a proud Leeds loyal having seen his club decline dramatically from their phenomenal semi-final appearance in the UEFA Champions League back in May 2001 to their League One languish just six years later.
Now currently under new management in Steve Evans as of October, 2015; Ben is optimistic the former Crawley Town and Rotherham United manager can fend off Cellino’s ‘manager eater’ habit to help guide the club towards a ‘rightful’ return to the Premier League after an agonising 12-year absence.
We spoke to him about his dream jobs as presenters of ‘Officially Amazing’ and ‘Match of the Day Kickabout’, his undeniably profound dress sense, his famous encounter with footballing legend George Best, tries to remember the club’s quick-fire managers of yesteryear, relives those European elite memories before opening up about his love for Leeds legends Tony Yeboah and Lucas Radebe…
CBBC’s ‘Officially Amazing’ is all about extraordinary people breaking extraordinary Guinness World Records, so just how much fun is it to present the programme?
“I love presenting ‘Officially Amazing’! It is like a dream job. If people ask me, “What is your job?”, sometimes I ahv to think, “What is it?” It doesn’t feel like a job, it feels like the most brilliant adventure. We get to go around the world, meeting people who want to break records or have broken records. When Usain Bolt ran the 100 metres the fastest in the world, that was a world record. But you have also got someone who wants to pull a bus with their teeth, someone who wants to lift a weight with their hair, someone who wants to juggle a chainsaw or an animal who can ride a scooter. These are not normal things! So sometimes it is almost like stepping into an ultimate reality every time we film the show, which I love!”
How would you describe your presenting style and unique dress sense?
“I suppose in terms of my presenting style; I am quite curious, enthusiastic, I love meeting new people, love learning about new stuff and I am probably a bit cheeky as well! I am often a bit tongue and cheek. I like to be mischievous and take a bit of fun out of people. Maybe my dress sense is a little bit reflective of that as well because I wear weird stuff sometimes and people do take the mick[ey] out of me. That is absolutely fine. There is no harm in prodding a bit of fun at someone.”
What is the most ridiculous Guinness World Record you have witnessed?
“The brilliant thing about officially amazing is that so much of it is ridiculous! It is probably more difficult to say which ones are the more sensible ones. There have been some incredible ones and there are all sorts of types of silliness as well. So there is silly; which is just damn right silly, like animals that are given really big and authoritative positions. I met a camel who is a detective in the Californian Police Force and a penguin who is the Commander in Chief in the Norwegian army. But then there is silly where people take meat hooks and put them underneath their eye sockets and hang weights off them! In a way that is quite silly too, but the world of silliness is never ending and that is what I love!”
If you could attempt to break any Guinness World Record, which one would it be and why?
“Well I have actually broken one world record already. I have attempted a lot more; but I have broken one and that is the highly coveted and technically very difficult, ‘Most tennis balls caught in a boxing glove in one minute – Team of two’. So that was myself and the Japanese wonder that is Mr Cherry Yoshitake, Japan’s most celebrated record holder, he has got the most records in Japan. He and I attempted this team record. I was throwing tennis balls and he was catching them in boxing gloves, so I suppose that is my speciality! If I were to attempt any record in the world; I don’t know, coolest hair? Best glasses? Funkiest gloves?! Probably something to do with the way that I dress!”
Also with the CBBC; you host ‘Match of the Day Kickabout’. As a football fanatic, you must love presenting a programme all about your biggest passion?
“It has just been a dream come true for me! I started presenting ‘Match of the Day Kickabout’ back in September, 2014, so it has been about a year and half now. Growing up and watching football; watching programmes like ‘Match of the Day’, I could never have believed that there would be a point in my life where I could call that a job. I get to talk and work around it as well, it is just brilliant. I get to interview footballers, I get to visit football grounds, I get to slip in as many mentions of Leeds United as I am allowed! I think it is excellent and really good in doing something that a lot of other football shows don’t do, which is catering for a younger audience. It is not just boring, dull analysis. Obviously we have analysis; but we try and look at other exciting things, whether it is going to a football computer gaming exhibition or visiting the country’s most eco-friendly ground. Football is such an overarching sport, it is not just about the game. It is about everything else it provides and contributes to communities, so I think it is a brilliant show. And they have got a really good presenter on there as well! [Laughs]”
You have also been named as an ambassador for Prostate Cancer UK. Tell us more about your decision to support the charity, plus more on your forthcoming challenge on walking to Leeds United’s Elland Road?
“Prostate Cancer UK is a very special charity close to my heart. I have been raising money for prostate cancer charities for years now. I originally got involved doing something called the Great Drag Race. So the idea was to drag the issue into the limelight because men traditionally find it difficult to talk about anything that is to do with their health and prostate cancer is a massive issue. I think something like one in three men will get it in their lives. There are some real eye-opening statistics. We also called it the drag race because people got dressed up in drag, in women’s clothing. Ever since then; I have felt like it was a cause that I am really passionate about, raising awareness and money for them. They [Prostate Cancer UK] have got great links in football; you will see a lot of coaches and managers wear the Man of Men [pin] badge. It is that little man with lots of different men inside of him and that is there symbol of all men being connected. So this walk that we are doing is with Jeff Stelling. He is doing ten marathons in ten days, which is outrageous in anyone’s books! He is starting off at his beloved Hartlepool United and finishing up at Wembley [Stadium] over a ten-day period, taking in loads of football grounds in the meantime. One of which is Elland Road, my spiritual home. So I am very hopeful of going on that portion of the walk with him. I think we are going from Bootham Crescent in York [City], then walking over to Elland Road in March.”
You were born in Yorkshire; but how did you come about supporting Leeds United?
“My family are all from Leeds; so my Mum and Dad, my grandparents and everyone. But my granddad actually grew up on Elland Road itself. He was a trainee at Leeds, but he never really broke into the first-team. He then got transferred to Bradford [City] and played almost 200 games for them before injury stopped him. So he was playing in the late 1950s and early 60s and played against some of the greatest players of his generation. The Charlton brothers; Bobby and Jack. He played against Jimmy Greaves at Chelsea. He played against some of the most amazing players to have ever played football and he got to do what he loved as a job. Fortunately now he is still alive and he has got all these brilliant stories to tell about his time in football. I think that inspired me to not only support Leeds United, but also to become passionate about football as a subject. But there was never any doubt, I was always going to be a Leeds fan. Even when my family relocated to a town called Beverley, in East Yorkshire, the nearest team was Hull City. But I was never tempted to become a Tigers fan!”
Do you still remember your first-ever match?
“Oh that is tough because I can remember going to a few games around a specific time period when I was about nine or ten-years-old. But not living in Leeds; I didn’t necessarily get the opportunity to go and watch games very often, even though my granddad was a season ticket holder. But that was great though as he had grown up with a lot of the players there, so he often used to be able to get me into the bar and the players lounge. I was orange juice by the way! But I used to mingle with all the likes of John Charles and Norman Hunter. I once met George Best at Elland Road! So I probably remember more about getting introduced to those great players. But the first game that I can remember with clarity is Leeds beating Manchester United over the Christmas period in about 1995. We beat them 3-1 at Elland Road, with Tony Yeboah (Pictured) and Gary McAllister scoring. I remember thinking that was the best Christmas present ever!”
Do you get many chances to go and watch the Whites play nowadays?
“That is the irony I suppose of being a football fan who works in football, you are often working when the games are on, so you don’t actually get to see that many live. I take every opportunity to go and see Leeds when I can or any football game. I live in South London; so my nearest club is probably Crystal Palace, so I have been down to Selhurst Park a few times now. It is always a great atmosphere there and it is cheap as well. But I see Leeds whenever I can. But one of the difficulties as well is that I am not a part of the official supporters club, so actually getting tickets in the designated away area is often quite tough. So what I will often have to do is get a ticket in the home area; go incognito and not wear any of my Leeds stuff, and just cheer internally when we do well! I have to keep it in until after I leave the ground which is tough!”
Last season Leeds finished 15th in the Championship. After after 29 games this term, you are currently 14th. What is a realistic target for your club this campaign?
“Like last season, we had so many ups and downs. We finished comfortably; but underwhelmingly in mid table, which was probably the best we could have hoped for. This season; sadly, it has sort of been classic Leeds all over again. We have gone through managers already! Uwe Rosler came in with all sorts of expectations; but even less than a couple of months in, he was sort of shuffled away again and wasn’t good enough. I understand that, we are a club with big expectations. Sadly the competitive nature of the Championship means that you are dealing with the recently relegated Premier League teams, plus all the other teams’ aspirations. I think for us this season; if I am being realistic, I’d say I would like us to finish just above the crease in the middle of the table. So if we can finish anything above tenth, I would be really happy. Maybe also get to round five of the FA Cup if we can beat Bolton [Wanderers] in round four. Even if you finish sixth [play-offs] come the end of the season; who knows, it is all possible. Dreamland would be sixth. But I think if we can finish tenth, then that is probably our best realistic hope.”
After 20 months in charge; it is fair to say Massimo Cellino’s reign as Leeds Chairman has been topsy-turvy, to say the least! What are your thoughts on the Italian’s approach towards running the club?
“I suppose the fact that we still exist is a good thing! I was genuinely worried that he was just going to run us out of ever being a club, it does happen sadly with mismanagement. He is known as ‘the manager eater’ in Italy isn’t he? He got through a ridiculous amount of managers; like 36 in 22 years or something like that, a statistic to make you worried! True to form, he has done exactly the same at Leeds. Already we have had people that I think Leeds fans will struggle to remember their names, the likes of Dave Hockaday, who just came in from nowhere! Then Darko Milanic, again lasted just over a month. I was optimistic about him bringing in Rosler, I thought maybe he would have some fresh ideas and have a bit of money to spend. Clearly that didn’t work out. But who knows; Steve Evans is a larger than life character, a bit like Cellino, maybe that is what Leeds need. They need someone who can take on Cellino and do things their way. I do think he still has some zany ideas like towards the end of last season he was asking players to wash their own kit and bring in their own lunch! I mean this isn’t Sunday league [football]. This is professional football. He is a character and football is nothing without their characters.”
You mentioned the new boss; Steve Evans, who has been at the helm for over three months now. Do you feel he is the right man to lead the club forward?
“I think Evans’ appointment was a funny one, quite literally, because he is himself a big character. He is kind of in that Ian Holloway mould of a manager who gets results on the pitch, but likes to make light of things off the pitch as well. He had this bet last season with Rotherham [United] that he would wear a sombrero at Elland Road, of all places ironically, and that happened and he did it! He is a man of his word, certainly. I think a big club like Leeds needs a manager that can handle the expectation, the pressure and the players as well. I just hope with a striker and us holding onto some of our really good young players, who have proven that they are Championship and possibly Premier League quality, he could do a real good job. I hope he does. I hope he doest just become another footnote in the history books.”
The January transfer window is almost closed. What areas would you like Leeds to strengthen before deadline day?
“I think if you were to speak to any Leeds fan, they would tell you immediately that we need a striker that scores 15 plus goals a season. Sadly we have missed that for far too long. I remember the glory days when we would have the likes of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Mark Viduka banging in 20 plus goals a season in the Premier League. We can’t rely on that sort of return anymore, we don’t have the strikers to do it. I think we have got some fairly decent strikers; but again with Chris Wood, I see shades of Viduka in terms of his physique, but also shades of Steve Morison who scored like one goal in 30 appearances last season! We need someone who is lethal, we need the threat that we used to have with Luciano Becchio a couple of years ago or even with Ross McCormack before he left for Fulham. Even if we didn’t win the game, they were just going to bang in a goal. The linking with [Kyle] Lafferty from Norwich City was a real positive thing, but that seems to have fizzled out now. I think we definitely need to strengthen in that area, ideally it needs to be of someone of Premier League quality who is not getting a game at their club. I think we might want to look at players like Lafferty who are going to the Euros  and who are not getting game time at their clubs. Maybe some of the Welsh, Northern Irish or Irish players.”
Turning our attention to the FA Cup this weekend; you face Bolton Wanderers in the fourth round. How do you fancy Leeds’ chances of progressing to the fifth round?
“Well it is the FA Cup; the difficulty is that there is no easy games, just look at what happened to Liverpool at Exeter [City]. You would have expected a team of their standard to go and steamroller them. But they didn’t. So Leeds are going to face a challenge, Bolton are fighting for their lives. They are struggling against a mountain of debt, they are bottom of the Championship, so they need a glimmer of hope in their season. I remember when we were a powerhouse in the early 2000s; we drew Cardiff [City], who were in the Championship at the time, in the third round of the FA Cup and the final was going to be held in Cardiff. David O’Leary [Manager], said “We will start and end our FA Cup run in Cardiff”. He was right. We got knocked out in the third round at Cardiff! So his words kind of came back to haunt him. I think anyone who expects an easy ride in the FA Cup does so at their peril.”
What has been your most memorable moment supporting Leeds?
“Sadly I was a bit too young to appreciate when we won the old first division, right before it became the Premiership. But we did do that in my lifetime, which is great. But I think it has got to be the Champions League run when we got to the semi-final. We overcame teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Deportivo de La Coruña and Valencia. You would put a side in front of us; although we didn’t eventually beat Valencia, and we held our own. It was a Leeds team that could rightfully say they were one of the best in Europe and I feel honoured and grateful to have witnessed that. I think there are so many people that could go a lifetime supporting a club and never experience anything like that. Certainly as an England fan, I wasn’t alive to see us win the World Cup. And on current form, it doesn’t look like we are going to win anything soon! At least with Leeds, I have seen something exciting to hold onto.”
Who is your favourite all-time player for Leeds and why?
“It is one of two. They are both Africans and they both played around the same time. One of which is probably my favourite all round best player; Lucas Radebe, who I think beyond the world of football is just an inspiration. He grew up in the slums of South Africa; he was involved in gang warfare, he was shot and recovered. He captained Leeds United, captained South Africa, helped successfully bring the World Cup to Africa, he deputised in goal for Leeds when our keepers got sent off or injured. He was just an absolute marvel! I was lucky enough to meet him a couple of times and he was always such a lovely, lovely guy. The other one; just for the sheer audacity is Tony Yeboah, who I think whether you are a Leeds fan or not, most people who have enjoyed watching Premier League over the last 20 years would probably put him in their top ever goals scored. He had a season; I think it was 1995/96, where he probably scored three of the best ever goals scored in this country. To have one of those goals would have been enough to make you. But to score that many and to do it with such style, passion and strength; I just love him and I think he will forever be a hero of mine.”
Away from your TV presenting schedule, do you get the chance to play much football yourself?
“Yeah I love football! Whenever I can get a game, I will play. It gets harder the older I get. You start to feel muscles that you never realised you had until someone gives you a knock in it! I played 5-a-side over Christmas with my mates and loved it. I tend not to play 11-a-side because it is difficult to organise that many people when they have also got day jobs and all the rest of it. But certainly the smaller and shorter games, they are great exercise and great fun. I don’t care how old you are, you still cant beat the feeling of scoring a goal!”
So if you were to compare your footballing ability to a current professional footballer, who would it be and why?
“I suppose if I were to liken myself to anyone right now; obviously they would only be marginally better than me, being a professional footballer. I have been cruelly overlooked in terms of being signed up by a club! But I am strong in a tackle, like to get forward and like to get stuck in. I am passionate. Although I occasionally have a tendency to switch off at times when you are like, “What are you doing?!” I am more of a right-back, so maybe someone like [Branislav] Ivanović? Someone who likes to break forward when he can and get in the mix. But Ivanović at the start of this season; well, he looked a bit dodgy!”