Friday, 6 February 2015

Sitting Alongside - The Golden Age of Co-Commentary: Part 1

When idly passing by an hour or two, it's greatly satisfying to recall happy memories of long hot summers, pre-decimal coinage and the sweets you used to buy from the corner shop on your way to school. Kola Kubes, in my case. Or occasionally Mint Humbugs. Or Jelly Babies.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, football commentary. When feeling nostalgic, there's nothing better than remembering an era when a football commentator on TV was joined by someone who occasionally (and only when invited to do so) would give their personal thoughts on the game in progress. These 'co-commentators,' as they became known, were usually ex-players or current league managers, or both, on very rare occasions.

What they provided was insight - insight that could only be gained from someone involved in football at the very highest level; an antidote to the speculative ponderings of Brian Moore, John Motson and many more besides. Many were naturals in their new-found role but others were less self-assured or, to use common parlance, just plain piss poor.

And so it falls to The Football Attic to record the contribution made by these men, and as we do so, let's give a score to each one based on five main categories:

Insight - Being able to say something that wouldn't have naturally occurred to the viewer and could only be said by someone who knows football inside out.

Speak-when-you're-spoken-to-ability - In short, knowing when to keep schtum and respecting the commentator's top billing as main speaker throughout the game (we're looking at you, Mark Bright).

Humour - Adding comedy with a light touch whenever necessary without thinking it was a chance to perform a stand-up routine to a nationwide television audience.

Controversialness - Lacing your dialogue with just enough opinion to get the audience at home discussing the relevant issue at great length without polarising the entire audience.

Delivery - Speaking the words in your head without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Or as if English is your second language, for that matter.

And now, let us begin...

Atkinson, Ron

An unfortunate place to start for reasons already apparent, possibly, but let's do what we can. 'Big Ron' caught the attention of ITV's men in suits having assembled a West Bromwich Albion squad that regularly qualified for European competition in the late-1970's (ask your grandparents). Always at ease in front of the camera for those vital post-match interviews, he finally took the ITV shilling during the 1980 European Championships where he assisted Martin Tyler and Brian Moore.

Proving he could talk convincingly from a manager's point of view about tactics, formations and individual players, he became ITV's co-commentator of choice for many years. World Cups and domestic Cup Finals followed in abundance, but he soon found himself relying on mangled metaphors and twisted idioms (cf. "Early doors," "tourneyment," etc) to build any sense of personal idiosyncrasy. And that's to say nothing of the plethora of foreign player names he mispronounced.

Not that it seemed to harm his career as Atkinson went on and on into the 1990's and 2000's, taking in Champions League matches and any other high-profile event that he was called upon to oversee. Then came the crashing end to it all when he was heard making awful racist comments about Marcel Desailly after a broadcast of the Chelsea v Monaco match in 2004. Atkinson's microphone was still on when the UK broadcast had ended, and the live feed was still being heard in other parts of the world - not that Atkinson was aware at the time.

The sack soon followed and his long career ended abruptly - justifiably so. True, Atkinson was good in his day, but in light of his final, enormous gaff it's anyone's guess why he wasn't caught out sooner.

Insight - 8.5/10 Speak-when-you're-spoken-to-ability - 8/10 Humour - 5/10 Controversialness - 6/10 (before his career ended) Delivery - 7.5/10. OVERALL - 7/10.

Brooking, (Sir) Trevor

No sooner had Trev hung up his boots for the last time at West Ham than he was being dragged forcibly by the shirt collar to his first BBC commentary gig. Mild-mannered and the sort of 'nice young man' your Nan would have approved of, Brooking fitted the BBC profile of polite respectability perfectly. Ironic, given the calibre of people they were employing in other areas of the organisation *coughYewtree*.

Brooking made an early appearance in front of the TV cameras at the start of the 1970's as a studio guest on ITV's 'The Big Match', but it was behind the mike that his post-playing career came to pass at the Beeb.

Though the Upton Park idol offered much in the way of wholesome decency to his co-commentary role, he regrettably became known for not being able to form a strong opinion for or against any particular argument. Were it not for the fact that Humpty Dumpty got in first, Brooking would have led the way in sitting not only on fences but also walls or other free-standing structures wherever appropriate.

That aside, he became BBC's 'Mr Reliable,' putting in many hours of service during the World Cups of 1986 and 1990, appearing also in sound only for every FA Cup Final between 1989 and 1997. England internationals and domestic spectacles also appeared on Brooking's CV and by the time he stepped down from his duties, there was barely any football event he hadn't co-commentated on.

If only he'd said something controversial once in a while...

Insight - 6/10 Speak-when-you're-spoken-to-ability - 9/10 Humour - 5.5/10 Controversialness - 4/10 Delivery - 9/10. OVERALL - 6.7/10.

Charlton, Sir Bobby

Much like Brooking, Sir Bobby had every box ticked when the BBC were looking for someone to take on the role of football co-commentator, but with one additional 'wow' factor - he'd won the World Cup with England.

Who better, then, to cast his eye over football's rich tapestry of theatre and zeal than one of the great gentlemen of the English game? Although his temperament really was gentle, he was also constructive with his comments and tremendously encouraging to players and teams that had played well.

His first major outing with the BBC came at the 1978 World Cup where he joined David Coleman and Barry Davies in the commentary box, coincidentally during the same tournament where his brother Jack was performing the same task for ITV. They'd repeat the same cross-channel double act during the 1982 World Cup, too...

Before long, Sir Bobby was drafted in to cover the 1980 and 1984 European Championships, the World Cups of 1986 and 1990, plus a host of other key matches. His quiet, easy-going style coupled with a series of well-honed, relevant observations made him the ideal choice for the BBC, bringing dignity and respect to a role that can be divisive in the wrong hands.

When the 1990's arrived, we saw less and less of the Man United hero (blame Trevor Brooking for getting in first when the talent was being booked), but by then he'd earned a well-deserved rest. A career in co-commentating almost as exemplary as the one he'd had when playing, Sir Bobby Charlton knew how to talk about the game, and when to do so. Take note, all ye who follow in his footsteps.

Insight - 7/10 Speak-when-you're-spoken-to-ability - 10/10 Humour - 4/10 Controversialness - 5/10 Delivery - 9/10. OVERALL - 7.0/10.

And before Part 1 comes to an end, a quick mention for some other co-commentators who tried their hand at coherent football-related speech while a huge viewing public listened intently...

Bond, John: More of a studio panellist, he sat alongside Brian Moore for the crucial England v Hungary qualifier for World Cup 82 at Wembley. Slightly grumpy in vocal tone, no-one could deny his knowledge of the game or fail to appreciate the apposite comments he made.

Brady, Liam: Former Arsenal midfielder and a classy one at that, most of his punditry work was done for Irish broadcaster RTE in latter years, but his co-commentary skills came to light when Ireland reached the 1990 and 1994 World Cup. Knowledgable and not afraid to give his views when asked to do so.

Channon, Mick: Another ITV pannelist par-excellence, and one who dared to lock horns with Brian Clough in the process. Behind the mike, he was just as plain-spoken and amusing, and refreshingly so. Sadly he didn't co-commentate all that often, nor did he do that windmill thing with his arms when he spoke, but you can't have everything.

Coming up in Part 2:
A famous footballing brother, an old big head and an even bigger chin... who could this possibly be a reference to...?

-- Chris Oakley


  1. I love the "Speak-when-you're-spoken-to-ability" rating.
    Pretty much every one of today's "co-commentators" would score a big fat zero. Why oh why do we need someone to tell us what is going on in the action replays?
    Here in the US we were treated to the debut of the droning of Owen Hargreaves for the North London derby, what a nightmare. He provided some wonderful insight including the old faithful "Great advert for the Premier League"

    1. Owen Hargreaves, eh? I wondered what had happened to him! :)

      I know it must be difficult for people to say something that's not predictable and tired, but merely hiring someone that's articulate and intelligent would be a start. I suppose that counts out most modern-day footballers!

  2. I watch most of my football on BeIN Sports, which is great for following the European leagues. But several co-commentators seem to forget the "co-" part of their job title, even forgetting that they're not being paid to react as they would from the sofa. Chief culprit is resident La Liga "expert" Ray Hudson, a frankly hysterical Geordie with a penchant for absurd metaphors. This would be tolerable, and perhaps even endearing, were he not prone to shouting over the actual commentator during exciting moments in the game or when a goal is scored. You can tell his colleagues in the commentary box get annoyed with him but the producers obviously feel is style evokes "passion"...

    1. I've heard many a bad thing about Ray Hudson, James. Shouting over the main commentator should be punishable by having your contract terminated, in my view - a BIG no-no!

  3. This being the digital age I am afforded the preferable option of switching to Spanish commentary, which seems very reserved and considered in comparison.