Laura Woods often cycles to work on a Boris Bike. The host of the talkSPORT Breakfast Show at 4am may feel like she has London to herself.
“The sun is starting to rise along the quay and the sky is pink and the clouds are speckled,” Woods says with a smile. It’s unbelievable. It can feel like I’m alone and London alone. An hour of rest that I really cherish. ‘
Woods hosted the station’s flagship show for exactly one year. This month, she was named Sports Presenter of the Year by the Sports Journalists’ Association, beating a shortlist that included titans Gary Lineker and Mark Chapman. It’s a remarkable achievement, but last year has not been an easy ride. Far from it.
Laura Woods has spoken Sportsmail over the previous year with highs and lows
Woods was named Sports Presenter of the Year by the Sports Journalism Association this month
The 33-year-old took over from established host Alan Brazil from Monday to Wednesday and found herself alone in a studio with no live sports to talk about. At home, she felt as isolated as the nation’s incarceration began. When her sanity collapsed, those bike rides weren’t just about the scenic views.
‘That’s how I started to find out things,’ she says Sportsmail‘I had a scorching time at the start and it was really difficult. There was a surge of pressure that took over from Alan. I felt I was screwing it up for the audience.
‘It was a weird war with my own emotions. I was thrilled to have the show and really wanted to do a good job. But I knew what the audience felt because I felt it too. So the timing couldn’t have been worse. Living alone was difficult. I had to come home, cuddle or go to the bar, watch TV or something.
Instead, my roommate had moved and it was a small flat with no garden. I felt like the walls were closing in on me. The show would be talking non-stop for four hours and then I would come home to a closed door and total silence. It was, “Now what?”
‘I was going to go for a walk, but I feel so aimless. The only access to the outside world was social media and it wasn’t my friend at the time. I just felt this enormous weight of negative opinions. I wanted comfort, so I ate a lot. I’m not a big drinker, but I would have three bottles of cider at home.
‘Those were the times when I thought, this feels dark. I couldn’t shake myself out. ‘
She was recognized for her work on TalkSPORT Breakfast every Monday-Wednesday from 6-10 pm
During our 90-minute chat, it becomes clear why Woods has become an increasingly prominent voice and face on radio and TV. She is also an important part of Sky’s Premier League coverage. There is an honesty and openness about her.
She’s not hiding anything and has a lot to give. She is a funny and natural communicator.
She says the switch from feeling like a speedway driver stuck at the starting gate – her own analogy – to confident enough to enjoy her newfound status came with the reboot of the German Bundesliga last May.
“It was the first sport to come out of hibernation and I have never loved German football so much,” she laughs. She also relied heavily on her mother Michelle and colleagues such as executive producer Sarah Collins. She was lifted by statements of support from rivals such as Lineker and BT Sport presenter Jake Humphrey.
“I’ve been to Gary a few times for advice,” she reveals. He told me that the reaction he had when he took over from Des Lynam’s BBC was negative. And now look at him. It made me realize that none of this was personal. Eventually it did turn and when it happened I felt like I had run on sand and now I was back on the road. ‘
Conversation with Woods is laced with sporting analogies and that is appropriate. On a long, slow journey to where she is now, she has traveled so many.
There was no silver spoon for Woods, a Dagenham girl. No fast-tracking for a college journalism student who wanted to work for newspapers until she realized that a rainy week of work experience at the Croydon Advertiser was nothing like a few days behind the scenes at Sky’s Soccer AM.
Aside from TalkSPORT, the 33-year-old is also an important part of Sky Sports football coverage
Hearing her story of early days of darts, 10-pin bowling, ping pong – ‘It’s not the same as table tennis, the bats are different’ – and speedway is to listen to a story of persistence and sometimes it seems like pure bloody ghost.
A performance about golf was taken from her and given to someone else. So was a show on Friday night about football in a pub. She twice failed screen tests for Sky Sports News.
“I was awful about that, just awful,” she says. “I’ve lost my confidence for years.” Ultimately, the radio saved Woods. She loves her TV work and is grateful to those who stayed with her. The affection she still talks with about left field events like the 10-pin Weber Cup – “It was at the Barnsley Metrodome and they called it the Ryder Cup of Bowling!” – is clear. She still remembers the names and parties of the participants.
But it was talkSPORT where she really found her voice. “I’ve always loved radio, but it’s also the hardest part,” she says. ‘I thought it would be great if I could get good at it.
When something feels impossible, I think back to trying to use the POS system when I worked in a pub. I used to be a horrible waitress, but I still think if I could control that damn cash register I could control everything!
Aside from football coverage, Woods has covered left field events such as the eWorld Cup
‘Of course I was sad when I started with radio, but I started to feel my personality could shine and I started to realize that I could. That was a relief, such a turning point. At that stage, I think it could still have gone somehow for me. ‘
The evidence of Woods’ progress is on a shelf behind her. A shiny SJA trophy. Previous winners include Chapman, Clare Balding and Jeff Stelling. Woods likes to think it’s a recognition for everyone at the station.
“I never thought this could happen to someone like me, but it’s not for me,” she says. “It’s for a lot of people at the station who have gone through as difficult a time as I have.”
Woods knows the industry still has a lot to teach her. One of her TV roles is to conduct interviews after the game. “That still scares me,” she says. ‘A manager has just lost. He’s upset and angry and emotional and that’s where I’m poking him at what must feel like a really big bruise. ‘
She describes herself as ‘socially awkward’. Those who know her say this is not true. Either way, with an increase in status comes new responsibility, whether she’s ready or not. Women in the sports media are still forced to play by different rules. The criticism is different. Expectations too. She is now at the top of the stack. So is she ready?
“I feel the pressure to do it right,” she nods. ‘I have seen women drown in positions where they have not received support. I’ve seen what that has done to women’s reputation.
Despite her warm demeanor, Woods says she is still terrified during post-game interviews
‘We all strive for equality, but the reaction to a woman on the screen or on the radio is still not equal. A producer once told me that female reporters should fall higher.
‘It stayed with me. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you look, how your voice sounds.
‘I’ve had it all in tweets and stuff. You are underweight. You are overweight. You have too much makeup. You look tired. Men also face close scrutiny. I know. But their knowledge is never attacked in the same way.
Women have transcended incredibly well in some sports, such as cricket. But what about football when people can’t accept something when it comes out of a woman’s mouth? Women can be brain surgeons. They can save your life. They can go to the moon. But they cannot give you an opinion on football. It’s insane.
‘I am a sensitive person. I can get upset. So I need time for myself. But I also try to help when I can. I got a message from a girl with an eating disorder on Instagram during lockdown. I did what I could for her. I listened. But I am not a doctor. There are some great girls on Twitter that I follow. Young journalists who have the balls to do their job and they get dog abuse.
‘Racist, sexist, rape threats, death threats. The deepest things you can imagine. I mentioned one of them on the show and she got in touch to say thank you. That’s when I realized that what I’m saying can go a long way. I was a bit naive about that. I then felt a sense of responsibility. I owe an amount to other people, not just me.
Do I want to tackle important issues on the show? Do I want to show that I deserve this award? Do I want to impress young women? Do I want to be a role model? The answer to all of that is yes. I choose to be this. ‘
As a woman, Woods wants to change the perception of people within sports journalism
Laura Woods hosts talkSPORT Breakfast alongside Ally McCoist, Monday through Wednesday from 6am to 10am. She was named sports presenter of the year at the SJA Awards.