The Curse of the Commentator

I’ve always watched England games on the television. For some reason, as much as I love football, I’ve never been to Wembley. The closest I’ve come is Cardiff, which isn’t actually close at all, but that was the pretend Wembley for Norwich’s tragic play-off final defeat when the real stadium was being rebuilt. I’ve never followed England abroad either. Even though I’m sure it’s something I would like to do, the cost and the planning always get the better of me.

I relate this to commentary because it plays such an integral role in my memory of football, especially international games. A good commentator captures the moment and adds something to it. To the extent that great moments of football can become known for their great commentary accompaniments. None more so than “And here comes Hurst! He’s got… Some people are on the pitch! They think it’s all over! … It is now, it’s four!” The words of Kenneth Wolstenholme, immortalised alongside what remains the crowning triumph of England as a footballing nation.

There is something intensely irritating about watching highlights of an old game, perhaps even just a single goal with the wrong commentary. Obviously there isn’t actually a right or a wrong commentary, but when you see a goal without the words you remember it never quite has the same resonance.

My all time favourite commentator was the late Brian Moore. The phrase that I always loved to hear him say was “and it’s in there! and it’s * insert players name*” it didn’t need to be any more complicated than that. Then of course there’s “Thomas… IT’S UP FOR GRABS NOW! Thomas!”

This is one of the best pieces of commentary I’ve ever heard. He sums up the moment perfectly, he captures the scene, his voice conveys the tension of the situation. You can sense the excitement as the Arsenal attack unfolds, it ends up at the feet of Michael Thomas who wins Arsenal the title. But listen to Moore, he pauses, lets you take it all in, then he describes the scene in a poetic and poignantly memorable way. It’s an incredible moment of football history captured brilliantly by a fantastic broadcaster.

But back to England, specifically Southgate’s now infamous penalty miss against Germany in Euro ’96. We opted to watch the BBC coverage (highlights here) which meant instead of Brian Moore we got another great commentator, Barry Davies. The atmosphere at Wembley looked supercharged, flags lining the stands and waving around creating a visible sense of anticipation in the air. The BBC in build-up stayed on the shots of the crowd singing Three Lions for ages with the chorus echoing out “It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming… Football’s coming home” and then we hear Davies and we know the game is about to begin.

It was a fraught nerve jangling game. I’m not sure I’ve ever celebrated a goal as much as I did Alan Shearer’s opener, contrasted with never sinking so low into the sofa when the Germans equalised. Then after 120 minutes and 5 successful penalties each, step forward Southgate.”OOOOH NO!” that was all you needed to hear, Davies, in a moment of pure honesty, forgot all pretence of impartiality and echoed the thoughts of every Englishman watching with one devastating phrase which still haunts me to this day. It was an inspired piece of commentary and clearly came from the heart, which is perhaps why it’s stayed with me. No need to overstate it, no need for hyperbole, no need for any other messy little words, brilliant but devastating.

A younger if not young Barry Davies. Photo from a brilliant piece about Davies by Rob Smyth in The Guardian.

I suppose you can’t write about commentators without mentioning the irrepressible John Motson. He was never my favourite, but I always used to respect him. Until he went a bit wrong. I’m not sure when it was exactly but I always get the sense that he’s not quite all there when I listen to him now, so it’s probably for the best that’s he’s no longer doing live commentary. Still, there always be “And Beckham saw Sullivan off his line … OOOOOOOOOOOWWW”. I mostly remember Motson for goal of the month / season compilations that I used to watch endlessly on video as a kid, which coincidently is also probably why I like The Lightning Seeds.

Of course when it comes to English domestic football the man who has undoubtedly dominated in recent years is Martin Tyler “CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?!”. Having been number two at ITV Tyler became the voice of Sky Sports football and will now always be associated with the Premier League. If you’re on the move or don’t have the luxury of Sky it might Alan Green who holds many a Premier League memory for you. A lot can be said of Green who certainly has a lot to say for himself. Charitably the nicest thing you can say about him is that there has probably never been a commentator who so divided opinion so vehemently, I’ve always liked his voice, even if I’ve not always agreed with what he had to say.

This summer I’ve not got such greats to look forward to, instead it’s Clive Tyldesley. Now don’t get me wrong, Tyldesley can be a great man for the moment. “Remember the name… Wayne Rooney” “And Solskjaer has won it!” he knows how to turn a phrase to the moment, the problem is the rest of the time. Tyldesley used to come across as over enthusiastic, now he just seems smug. The best commentators always know when you shouldn’t say anything, this seems lost on Tyldesley who just can’t ever seem to resist trying to sneak in a couple of sentences.  If his Champions League coverage is defined by his constant references to “that one night in Barcelona” which moved onto “that one night in Istanbul” then I imagine he’ll spend most of this summer talking about the time Lampard’s shot crossed the line and 1966. And don’t forget he’s got Andy Townsend next to him as well, just great.

For the beeb we’ve got Guy Mowbray. Mowbray took the lead at the 2010 world cup. I suppose the worst thing I can say about him is that I don’t actually remember anything he said during the tournament. Sometimes commentators need a moment to make themselves but I never quite feel that Mowbray has the command of a Barry Davies or a Brian Moore. Maybe it will come with age or maybe it’s just nostalgia getting the better of me, because as far as I’m concerned, commentators aren’t quite what they used to be.


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