This piece has been written with due deference to an article in the Guardian Sport Blog this morning, reappraising the career of the BBC football commentator Barry Davies. I felt that this was an appropriate time to add my thoughts on a legend of British sports broadcasting.
There has long been a strand of anti-intellectualism within football that is somewhat distasteful. It’s a culture that saw Graeme Le Saux labelled as “gay” because he read a broadsheet newspaper and collected antiques. It’s a culture that keeps professional footballers in a state in artificial infantilism until the end of their careers in the misguided belief that this will engender some sort of “team spirit”. It’s a culture that saw Barry Davies labelled as “pompous” and “superior” because he dared to use words of more than one syllable. Some of our overseas or younger readers may be singularly unaware of who I’m talking about, so here’s a brief recap.
Barry Davies started out working on BBC Radio, before covering some of the 1966 World Cup for ITV. He was widely expected to join the new ITV company, London Weekend Television, as part of their massive revamp of television football coverage, but was surprisingly overlooked and went to the BBC instead. He covered his first match for the BBC in August 1969, and was a regular commentator on “Match Of The Day” and at major tournaments until he went into semi-retirement in 2004. For many years, he was considered the BBC’s “secondary” commentator, first behind Kenneth Wolstenholme and then behind David Coleman and John Motson. Davies finally started covering the BBC’s biggest matched in the early 1990s, but some of the biggest matches that he covered, such as the 1994 World Cup final, and the 1995 & 1996 FA Cup finals were disappointing matches and his commentary style fell flat. By the time he retired in 2004, he was said to be unhappy at having been relegated back into second place in the BBC’s affections again.
What, then, set Davies apart from the rest, and why do we miss him so much in the current football environment? Primarily, he understood football in a beautifully understated way. Watching old clips of him on the television, I was struck by the passages of silence, as if he understood that, sometimes, what he didn’t say was as important as what he did. He allowed the sound of the crowd space to breathe rather than feeling the need to fill every single second with background noise of his own creation. He understood the weight of words, and that rhythm and diction are often important as the literal words that you use. However, many of his greatest moments came when the air of schoolmasterly detachment momentarily dropped at high excitement. When Paul Gascoigne scored that glorious free kick against Arsenal in the semi-final of the FA Cup at Wembley in 1991, he let out a cry of delight followed by the exclamation “that was Schoolboys’ Own stuff!”. It was this genuine enthusiasm at seeing acts of such brilliance, mixed with a use of language that was both arcane and universally easy to understand that set him apart from the pack.
Often, his use of language was understated to the point of being practically non-existent. “Oh, I say!” and “Lovely goal!” were particular favourites, but he was also capable of moments of sheer, gutteral noise. The “WOAOW!” that follows Dennis Bergkamp’s outstanding last minute winner for the Netherlands against Argentina in the quarter-finals of the 1998 World Cup came straight from the belly, an entirely instinctive reaction to a moment of supreme individual skill from one of the greatest footballers in the world. Unlike John Motson, his notional “rival” for the vast majority of his time at the BBC, he never allowed himself to get caught up in useless, clogging facts and figures and focussed instead on feeling the game instead. He would enhance the viewing experience by describing the intricacies of the game in a manner so casual as to be almost in passing.
He was capable of moments of bias at international matches, but it wasn’t the sort of bias that grates like someone’s fingernails running down a blackboard. The simple “OH NO!” that he cried when Gareth Southgate missed that penalty against Germany in the semi-final of Euro 96 was no great act of jingoism – it was merely expressing what thirty-odd million people watching at home felt at that very moment. At the 1986 World Cup, he marked Diego Maradona’s awesome solo goal against England by saying, “You have to say that was magnificent”, with the almost sullen recognition that there was no-one in the England team quite capable of a moment of such genius. More tellingly still, when Maradona scored his more infamous goal in that match, Davies was quick to criticise Peter Shilton for not coming off his line quickly enough rather than berating Maradona for handling the ball.
Miss him though we do, it’s difficult to see that Barry Davies would fit into the world of the billion pound Premier League with its vacuous excitement and resistance to criticism. Davies was certainly unafraid to be critical. He was scathing of the Italian attempt to play out time against South Korea when holding a fragile one goal lead. On one occasion on “Match Of The Day” in 1984, he spent much of a 0-0 draw between Everton and Coventry City wondering aloud how it had come to this and expressing his lack of surprise that only 12,000 people had turned out to watch it. The Premier League wouldn’t like criticism, and one suspects that the modern television landscape isn’t cut out for someone that requires you to listen and bask in his voice rather than merely catch soundbites of what’s coming up next on that particular channel and pick up on the occasional pointless fact. The problem with this, of course, is that we do deserve better than the current mob, but I fear that we won’t see his like again.