Sunday, 27 July 2014

Chris O's Favourite 5... Commentators

It's been a long while since we've had a 'Favourite 5' on the Football Attic website, but it struck me the other day that there's been a glaring omission from the series that's covered everything from World Cup Shirts to Subbuteo Accessories That Never Were. So far we've overlooked the great TV commentators from the golden era of British football, but that's all about to change. Here, in no particular order, are my Favourite 5...

1. Barry Davies

Surely every TV football commentator has a responsibility to deliver on various promises. He needs to be well-informed, entertaining and capable of knowing when to let the pictures do the talking rather than himself. Barry Davies did exactly that, but his patter was also interesting... VERY interesting.

Not only could he fill you in on the background information relating to a team's recent form or a player's goalscoring record, but he could also lend his opinion to a refereeing decision, the condition of the playing surface or even the suitability of a team's kit. His views weren't always guaranteed to tally up with your own, but they were always delivered in such a way as to make you think beyond the images you were seeing on your screen.

While today's commentators spout an endless stream of statistics and puns in an attempt to sound clever, Barry Davies really was clever. He had the intelligence to phrase his thoughts in an erudite, original way, but he could also make an incident in a match memorable by imparting elation, humour and joy at the things we'd all seen.

To say he's missed from modern-day TV football coverage is an understatement. Barry Davies is worth 100 of the commentators we're made to suffer these days, and it's difficult to see where someone of his professionalism will come from next.

2. Martin Tyler

It's ironic that many people these days associate Martin Tyler with the single word "AGUEROOOOOO!" - as if his career as a commentator could be summarised in that one instance. The fact is, Tyler has been commentating on TV since 1974 and has proven to be outstanding at it for nearly 40 years.

It's fair to say that he does rely a little on statistics while on air - virtually every commentator has or does - but his measured style of delivery ensures that we're not bombarded with every fact known to man while he's behind the microphone. He also describes what he sees with a lightness of touch and allows himself the occasional indulgence of giving the viewer his opinion on certain incidents. In such cases, Martin Tyler reassuringly remains impartial throughout and doesn't provoke controversy for the sake of making a name for himself.

What I like about his commentary most, however, is that he doesn't talk for the sake of talking. Martin Tyler provides a gentle flow of words drip-fed throughout a match that tells us what we need to know in a passive way. His voice doesn't impede our enjoyment of what we're seeing, nor does it overwhelm our ears with the pretentious waffle we hear so much nowadays. In short, his commentary style is subtle, but he saves himself for those moments - as with Aguero - that require some unadulterated euphoria... and that's no bad thing at all.

3. Brian Moore

What else can we say about Brian Moore that we haven't already said on this website? First heard on British TV in 1968, Moore's often loud and excitable voice was perfect for the raw, unpolished football of the era. The crowds were large, the players were real characters and the goals were often spectacular - and Brian Moore conveyed every exciting aspect of the action he saw.

He wasn't the only commentator to adopt an exhilarated and shouty approach whenever a goal went in - many of his peers did the same in their younger days - but his verbal style did mellow with age and his naturally descriptive style came through more and more in time.

What I particularly like about Brian Moore is his ability to switch between a wistful, almost resigned vocal delivery to a more urgent speech tone whenever the occasion required it. He was also a master at spotting the little vignettes in a game where a minor incident was worth highlighting and bringing to the attention of the viewer.

To top it all, he wasn't afraid to enjoy the humour that was so much more a part of the game back in the 1970's in particular. As front-man for The Big Match and many other ITV Sport programmes, he always presented football with a smile and an enthusiasm for the game that couldn't be anything other than infectious. An accomplished and versatile man indeed.

4. Hugh Johns

In many ways, Hugh Johns didn't possess the component parts that make up a great commentator. His way of describing a great goal usually involved lots of volume, the utterance of an easy-to-impersonate phrase and a predilection for making fairly basic statements.

Yet the Berkshire-born ITV commentator was as distinctive a voice as you'd ever have heard and was undoubtedly one of the best there's ever been. Though he applied his talents to regional football in the Midlands during the 1970's and 80's, he was also rightly sent around the globe to convey the excitement of World Cups and other top events throughout his career.

Unlike some commentators, Johns didn't have a catchphrase as such, but his preference for the word 'nothing' rather than 'nil' (as in "One-nothing!") became his trademark. He was also able to engage the viewer with a friendly turn of phrase such as "What about that then?" that made you feel like your thoughts had been expressly asked for.

Evidence of his vocal exuberance is littered all over the great matches from history, but somehow it chimed best with Brazil's sunshine football of the 1970 World Cup. From a goal denied by England ("That's a good crossed ball... it's Pele... And a fan-TASTIC save by Banks!") to a goal scored in the Final ("What a beautiful goal from Pele! El Rey, Pele!") his love of great football was beyond doubt - which is exactly as it should be.

5. David Coleman

I've already made reference to the way some commentators can vary their speech between gentle and raucous, but David Coleman rarely seemed capable of the former. Virtually everything that fell from his mouth was spoken with such insistence that you knew he absolutely meant every single word.

This gave the former Sportsnight and Grandstand presenter an air of forcefulness and even sternness at times, but it made you sit up and listen. Coleman might have been discussing the most mundane or irrelevant of matters, but the clarity and vigour with which he spoke was enough to infer authority and importance with every syllable.

An ample example of this can be found in his oft-uttered phrase "One-nil!" but also in his scene-setting for so many FA Cup Finals and World Cup Finals. Yet as is so often the case for any commentator, it was his ability to enhance the excitement of a goal scored or a great passage of play that defined his legendary status. His voice could cut through the noisiest of crowds and it was worth hearing for all his succinct phrasing and deliberate narration.

Very few of today's commentators have a notable style that helps them to stand out from the rest, but Coleman, like the rest of my Favourite 5, had character by the bucket load. They all played their part in forging a golden age of football commentary and were without question as valuable a part of the game for us TV viewers as the players were.


  1. What an excellent article! When it comes to bemoaning modern football commentators are rarely cited, but I've always thought their job is a bit like that of the referee. He needs enough personality to be able to put his authority on the game but not so much that it's detrimental.

    Today's commentator's seem intent on creating a narrative before the game has started, and going overboard as they grapple to convey the enormity of the occasion. Which I suppose is a reflection of the way football is presented and marketed these days. The old commentators seemed to achieve that with very little effort. What they were saying was straightforward, but their tone gave their words greater power. Barry Davies was prone to schoolmasterly outbursts, and sometimes came off as bit of a snob. But when he was at the helm you felt secure, he elevated the match to his level. John Motson is less revered and was sort of Davies' polar opposite, but he shared many of the same qualities.

    I wrote a few thoughts about this stuff for my recent commentary poster project:

    1. I think you're absolutely right about everything you say there, James, and thanks for the kind words. I know some people can't take to Davies very well, presumably because he can sound a little snobbish, but I think it's good to possess a three-dimensional character rather than the bland nobodies that commentate nowadays.

      And what a great website you've got there! Love your designs! I've put you straight onto our Blogroll page so that more people can find your excellent work... :)

  2. Oh, great — thanks a lot, Chris!