An article in a recent edition of Four Four Two magazine caught my eye recently. It was a light tribute to the art of the football commentator, fleshed out by short interviews with some of the more high profile broadcasters of the moment, all of whom contributed anecdotes and memories of some of their best experiences behind the microphone. Curiously these interviewees, and indeed the focus of the article itself all had one thing in common. They were all from television, and as a result the article contrived not simply to only tell half the story but actually to miss the most important part completely. That of the world of radio.
Now OK, I am biased. Radio is what I do after all. The picture above represents the scenery I enjoy every weekend of the year, but this “view” of the world has allowed me to work closely with some absolute masters of the art and a bunch of people whose skills and talents are a whole seven storeys above those who ply their trade on the supposedly more important medium of television.
Let us be honest. The TV commentator doesn’t really have to describe or tell the story of a game. The pictures do that for him. His job alone is to supply occasional colour, to augment the action with a detail the casual viewer may have spotted and yes, to supply a soundtrack to the “big moments” that a mere crowd roar cannot convey. Many are the famous football moments that live long in the memory thanks not only to the action on the pitch but the words that were being spoken to accompany them at the time. Ask people to describe the moment that England won the World Cup, and the answer won’t be with reference to the defence-splitting pass that allowed Geoff Hurst through on goal for his celebrated hat-trick but instead will mention the iconic television commentary that has since passed into legend. As it should be.
Yet part of this is just mere luck. Aside from the ability to recognise a player from the back of his head at short notice and have a useful turn of phrase for the record books just in case something destined for thousands of replays happens in front of you, I would submit that there is very little in the work of a television commentator that can be elevated to an art form. Note how the commentary is only really worthwhile if you are watching with a small crowd. Ever gathered in a pub to watch a big match on a huge projector screen? There the commentary is incidental, scarcely audible amongst the background noise of the room and the constant cheers and comments from the assembled crowd. I can remember watching every crucial moment of the Italy v England game in October 1997 which saw England qualify for the 1998 World Cup, yet I have no idea what the commentators said. My view of the game, and my memories of Ian Wright hitting the post in the last ten minutes are entirely populated by the roars, cheers and chants of the people who were assembled in the Bradford City Centre pub where I was watching the game – not least of all the city-wide conga that developed within minutes of the final whistle. Quite simply the words of the television commentator did not matter at all. You would be hard pressed to find an occasion when the same could be said of a radio commentator.
The radio listener to a football game is like a helpless child. Blind and incapable, bereft of any means of participating directly in the experience. They are almost totally reliant on the man or woman perched high in the stands with just a microphone for company, using nothing more than the tone of their voice and the internal rhythm of their speech to convey the story of the match. The radio commentator is a true artist. The significance of each pass, the movement of each player, the reaction to each decision from the sidelines and the crowd, all has to be articulated, expressed and communicated without hesitation or faltering to the audience. Get it wrong and it can be a jarring, awkward and frustrating listen. Failure to give the score, or the time elapsed often enough, or even failing to adequately describe where the ball happens to be at a given moment in time can be enough to have the listener reaching for the dial in frustration. Get it right and the effect can be compelling.
Since the very start of my career I’ve been privileged to sit and hear some of the biggest moments of the decade described to me by some of the best broadcasters I have known. I’ve felt every wave of emotion, every howl of frustration and every shout of anger as these men effortlessly paint pictures with nothing more than the power of their voices. I’ve heard Chris Cooper shout in disbelief as Liverpool were awarded the penalty in the 2005 Champions League Final that gave them a chance to draw level and turn around a 3 goal deficit. I felt directly the emotion that came from not just him but the entire British contingent in the press box as the spot kick was put away, as even the most hardened journalists were moved to tears by the scale of what they were witnessing.
I’ve heard Jim Proudfoot commentate on rather too many competition exits by England in penalty shootouts, the most recent coming in 2006 and the World Cup quarter-final against Portugal when with a throat strained raw after over two hours of description he all but joined the crowd in a howl of frustration that two hours of fighting, a long period of defending ceaselessly with a player disadvantage had been given no more reward by the Gods than an honourable yet fruitless exit and the chance to fly home in the morning.
Most recently I was there on that Wednesday night in early November when a Republic Of Ireland side, on the verge of defeating some former champions on their way to their own World Cup berth were undone by a goal that had come from the most controversial of circumstances. The disappointment turned to annoyance and then outrage as the replays showed what the referee on the pitch alone had not spotted, that a blatant handball had led to the ball remaining in play for the goal. For the truest, rawest, most personal expression of disgust felt in those ensuing minutes, you didn’t have to turn on the TV or replay a video. You just listened to Ray Houghton, a man who had helped that side to one of its most famous international achievements, give vent to his fury and disgust at what he had been forced to witness.
The best commentary is one that can make you care about the result, even weeks after the event. Earlier in the year I had cause to retrieve from the archive and replay the final 15 minutes of Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, a game that they were leading 1-0 and which would see them through to a second straight final if they could only hold on. Listening to the tape, I knew they didn’t. I knew they were undone by a final minute lapse of concentration, yet the description was so good, the drama being set up for me so compelling that I couldn’t bring myself to stop the tape, just wishing that this time the outcome was different and that the hope being built up through those final ten minutes was not to be wasted after all. That is the mark of a masterful piece of work.
I think we are fortunate in this country in having a national game that lends itself to this kind of descriptive eloquence. American sports radio fascinates me (WGR 550 in Buffalo, NY is my current late night guilty pleasure) but the one thing that strikes you listening to the variety of sports on which they provide what the Americans like call “play by play” is the singular lack of drama or eloquent poetry. Really that is down to the nature of the sports themselves. Gridiron football is a game that takes three hours to unfold, with endless breaks in play for huddles or for television advertising purposes. The commentators are reduced to ten second bursts of frantic action, during which time it is more or less impossible to paint a clear picture, whilst filling the rest of the time with analysis and backchat. Even their faster paced sports just don’t quite lend themselves to the same kind of storytelling. I tried listening to the commentary on an Ice Hockey game the other night, an experience which only served to make a baffling game even more impenetrable to the casual ear. A sport played at speed in a confined space and using a playing piece which is hard to see with the naked eye when it is moving at 30mph just doesn’t lend itself to the kind of picture painting and dramatic eloquence that other sports manage. You get the feeling the commentary is merely a device for allowing the hosts to update the audience on the game as it progresses rather than calling the action in any meaningful sense.
It isn’t a coincidence that whilst most of the broadcasting innovations in television sports coverage have been inspired and borrowed from the way American networks stage major events, radio production has borrowed little and perhaps has even less to learn from the way our transatlantic cousins conduct themselves. Maybe uniquely in sport, football has a constant flow of action, an almost non-stop sense of urgency and a means by which the theatre of the game can easily be communicated by one man and his voice.
So whilst it is the TV commentators whose words will inevitably accompany the images of the most celebrated moments in sport, it is really the unseen and sometimes unfairly overlooked radio commentators who are the true artists, the ones who are extending their abilities the most and on whom the success or failure of a broadcast can rest. This weekend I’ll be at my usual perch in the studio, barking instructions down a line and attempting to hold the massed resources of a countrywide band of reporters together – and at the same time listening to a two men paint me pictures with their voices and in the process maybe, just maybe, writing themselves into recorded history.