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Commentators: Much Ado About Nothing

June 10, 2014

Commentators. I have a theory about them – a theory which basically states that Kenneth Wolstenholme has got a lot to answer for and it’s entirely his fault that I dislike so many of the current crop of those who comment on the beautiful game..

Wolstenholme’s “they think it’s all over” quote from the 1966 World Cup final was a spur of the moment comment that gained international fame, book deals, was sampled in hit records and even got its own TV show.

Wolstenholme had previously been established as the BBC’s authoritative voice of football and went on to cover the climax of five World Cup championships and the finals of 16 European Cups and 23 FA Cup finals besides dozens of internationals.
He was proud that he had produced a timeless piece of broadcasting and coined a phrase that has entered English folklore. But this was tinged with a hint of regret that the words had overshadowed the rest of a hugely successful and ground-breaking career (though he used the phrase for title of his memoirs, so wasn’t too upset, clearly).
Over on ITV, Hugh Johns was the “the other voice” of the 1966 World Cup final. At the same moment, to a much smaller audience, Mr Johns was concentrating more on the striker’s hat-trick as he told ITV viewers: “Here’s Hurst, he might make it three. He has! He has… so that’s it. That is IT!”

I like Johns’ commentary. It does the job for me. The problem is no one remembers his words. And now every commentator does not want his Johns moment, but his Wolstenholme moment. It seems sometimes that every commentator wants fame and a legacy of a piece of beautiful prose at a key moment in a key match. And no Clive Tyldesley, anything to do with “that night in Barcelona” doesn’t count. So rather than comment on what’s happening on the pitch, commentaries have become a competition to see who can say the most dramatic, prose-soaked comment. I am still scarred by a Portsmouth match commentated on by Peter Drury a few seasons gone, where Drury felt it apt to continuously refer to Portsmouth’s financial problems by quoting Shakespeare. It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times, you see!

Oh hang on, that’s Dickens.

But as Piquione volleyed in the second goal, I thought to myself that it was a far, far better thing that he did, than I have ever done; and I couldn’t help think that it was a far, far better rest that he went to than I have ever known.
Drury would have worded it so much better though.
“What can Portsmouth do in this second half? If football be the food of love, play on. To sleep, perchance, to dream, for the Pompey fans have discovered that all that glitters is not gold. O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me, and Utaka’s missed an absolute sitter there! Lord, what fools these mortals be. Thoughts, Craig Burley?”
“Well, youse got to say he should’ve buried that, the lad’s gonna be disappointed not to hit the target.”

A new breed of commentators emerged a few years ago, each of whom seemed to have their own “angle”. Commentating well was deemed not to be sufficient anymore.
For Drury this meant prose and intellectual nonsense, Alan Green’s was to criticise everything, and Jonathan Pearce’s “angle” was to SHOUT VERY LOUDLY about everything, because even a throw-in early in the game had its own little frisson. Stick to Robot Wars Jonathan.

Now I have no problem with commentators doing research before a match – they should be doing, it’s their job, not that this has concerned studio pundits or many co-commentators. What I can’t stand is the need to crowbar statistics in and more than that, the need to crowbar puns and catchphrases that they have been working on, as if they have just completed a six-week tabloid headline-writing course.
Jonathan Pearce has said that 90% of his job is research, but only 2% of that will be used during a match. That’s how it should be. Less is more.

It wasn’t all this way – it’s easy to get nostalgic, but Davies, the old Motson (by which I mean the young Motson) or Wolstenholme did not attract the ire that their modern counterparts do. Maybe that is just a result of modern media whereby anyone (even me) can broadcast their views to anyone who will listen. All you had in the old days was Barry Took on Points of View.

And then there’s Alan Green. It’s very fashionable to have a go at Alan Green, so that’s what I am going to do.
Now he has his supporters of course, who argue quite simply that he is one of the few commentators to “say it as it is”. I am not sure what they mean by this, but presumably, they mean he whinges, moans and criticises everything before him. So in other words, they think football is rubbish. He certainly seems to think so – if he does enjoy the beautiful game, he certainly hides it.
At one Champions League final, for which he was being paid handsomely to watch, his first thought was to moan about how awful the commentary position was.
For an England international, within three minutes of the match kicking off he had moaned about the weather (sorry we couldn’t sort that out for you Alan), the new England kit, banners around the edge of the ground (he doesn’t like them, like most things), and two attempted tackles/passes by England players.
It’s all subjective of course, but even I know there are good commentators. Generally those that stick to describing the action, give you a rounded-picture of the match, and keep matters in perspective. I’ve no doubt it is not an easy job, but it can be done well. What I don’t need to know, because I don’t care, is what the commentator thinks about City’s wealth, banners around grounds, Mexican waves, football kits, the weather, managers, the price of tuna in supermarkets or the quality of hamburgers at Villa Park. I’ll form my own opinions, thanks. You’re there to describe the match – I’m well aware tuna is ridiculously expensive nowadays.

But despite Green, radio seems to have got it right more than television. Radio 5’s football coverage is generally excellent, and it is TV that seems to struggle. With radio commentary, you are required to stick to the script and describe what is happening, as you are the eyes. With TV, commentators seem to think that silence is evil, and must not be allowed. I couldn’t disagree more. You could turn the sound off, but then you’d lose crowd noise too.

So I would argue that the memorable moments, on and off the pitch are spontaneous moments that cannot be rehearsed and planned in advance. Going back to that glorious day, and it got me wondering how Drury would have covered that 1966 World Cup Final finale.
“And here comes Hurst, sprinting up the pitch. Could this be it? Geoff Hurst, ask not what England will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man! Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty! Goal!”

As for Alan Green?
Green: “Some people are on the pitch. Oh this is disgusting, absolute disgrace. Ban them for life, no one wants to see this, animals, what are they thinking, shame on you, shame on you! I am embarrassed to be British, this is shocking, are they looking for a fight, they might be, idiots, absolute idiots, oh dear oh dear, ruined the game for me, shocking.”
Jimmy Armfield: “Hurst has scored by the way, 4-2, hat trick for him, England have won the World Cup!”
Green: “Have they? Oh but it’s been overshadowed for me, it really has…oh, and now everyone’s doing a Mexican wave, they really should be shot. Lamentable.”

Hugh Johns had the right idea.


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