Six Of The Best: Football Commentators, Part One
It often seems as if football commentators are more divisive that than they perhaps they should be. We, as supporters, allow our hackles to rise whenever they open their mouths, yet what they do is extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps the point is that they make it look easy, leading us to believe that it is easy. With this in mind, coupled with the fact that it’s Friday afternoon, we felt that it was time to bring together six of the best (it was going to be a top ten, but this had to be reined in somewhere along the line) for some tiny degree of commendation for their achievements in bringing a little colour and embellishment to our game.
First of all, though, a quick mention for the four that would have made this list up to a top ten had time not been such a pressing issue today. Jon Champion is the only truly modern commentator that made the cut. He is now mostly to be heard in Britain on ESPN (although he does still occasionally pitch up on ITV), and his commentary on FC United of Manchester’s run to the Second Round of this year’s FA Cup betrayed a job brilliantly researched – far better than anyone might even have expected – and a genuine sense of astonishment at what was an extraordinary story. John Motson is in semi-retirement nowadays, and perhaps this is the reason why he doesn’t make our top six. He started to become something of a caricature of himself at some point in the last decade (who can forget his over-wrought breakfast puns at the 2002 World Cup finals?). For those of us in our thirties and forties, however, he remains one of the authentic voices of football.
Sky’s Martin Tyler also deserves a mention for longevity (he began his commentating career at Southern Television in 1974, before going on to Yorkshire Television and Granada Television before going on to join Sky). It is also notable that, throughout the ongoing argument over the comments made by Richard Keys and Andy Gray that led to them being shown the door, Tyler, who made up the third part of their triumvirate, barely saw his name mentioned at all. Finally, a mention is also due for Brian Moore, the voice and face of football in London from 1968 until the end of the regionalisation of ITV’s sports coverage. Moore was a little on the hysterical side during his early days at London Weekend Television – something that he admitted himself – but matured into possibly the definitive voice for commercial television in Britain.
Those four, then, almost made our (frankly arbitrary) top six, and we are sure that you will have favourites of your own – feel free to add them to the comments, below. For now, though, here’s the first three of our top six, with the rest to follow tomorrow:
Barry Davies: The ultimate all-rounder, having covered the Olympic Games, The Boat Race and Wimbledon, Barry Davies’ commentary career with the BBC has lasted since 1963 (with a three year break from 1966 to work for ITV), with him having made the switch from radio to television in 1969. Always perfectly enunciated, authoritative and articulate, Davies frequently found himself playing second fiddle, to David Coleman during the 1970s and then to John Motson during the 1980s. Some criticised him as bordering on pretentious at times, but this was somewhat unfair. Commentators have their own styles, and Davies was as idiosyncratic as they came. His near-signature cry of, “lovely goal!” upon seeing the ball hit the back of the net was as full of enthusiasm and sheer joy for the game as we could hope for.
Personal Highlights: Many people will refer back to his voice cracking as Francis Lee put one over upon his old club, Manchester City, for Derby County in November 1974, but we’re going for the sheer orgasmic cry that accompanied Mickey Walsh’s Goal Of The Season for Blackpool in 1975 and his utter, utter delight at Justin Fashanu’s Goal Of The Season for Norwich City against Liverpool in February 1980.
Hugh Johns: Watching a match that was being commentated on by Hugh Johns was like watching it with your favourite uncle. His voice was as rich and deep as liquid velvet, and his enthusiasm for the game was completely infectious. He is best known for being a nearly man – he was the commentator for ITV at the 1966 World Cup Final opposite the BBC’s Kenneth Wolstenholme – but he was also the voice of ITV at four consecutive World Cup finals, two European Cup finals and, in the Midlands throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, he brought the last great flourish of Wolverhampton Wanderers along with the sensational exploits of Derby County and Nottingham Forest to a national audience. After leaving Central Television in 1982, he continued to work for the Welsh channel HTV, before finally retiring in 1996. He died in 2007, and is much missed.
Personal Highlights: Now, this is a little bit special. When Johns retired in 1996, he was interviewed by ITV’s Gabriel Clarke for what was then called Endsleigh League Extra. This is a wonderful thirteen minute long interview, which discusses his entire career, including some of his favourite players, that World Cup final and has plenty of clips of Hugh Johns in his pomp.
Bryon Butler: The qualities required for commentating on the radio are very different to those required to commentate on the television. On the television, silence can be used to punctuate what is happening on the pitch, but on the radio, silence isn’t much of an option. Bryon Butler was born in Somerset, and the subtle undertone of a West Country accent can be heard in his commentary style. Butler is one of a lost generation of radio commentators, with a style that his successor at the BBC, Mike Ingham, described as, “fitted like an overcoat in winter and made you feel comfortable and warm”. Peculiarly, for such a distinctive voice of football, Butler was a cricket fan first and it was perhaps his familiarity with this slower paced game that gave him his distinctively laconic pitch. Bryon Butler covered six consecutive World Cups between 1970 and 1990, and died in 2001.
Personal Highlight: It says something for the quality of his commentary of the 1986 World Cup quarter-final between England and Argentina for BBC Radio that, when the makers of the official film of the tournament, “Hero”, were looking for a commentary to accompany Diego Maradona’s wonderful second goal, they turned to Butler’s radio commentary of it. His voice rises from an almost guttural rumble, a fixture of foreboding, pleasure and awe as Maradona carves through the Engliand defence like a hot knife through butter. “And that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the world”, he rues, as Maradona wheels away, having deposited the ball in the back of Peter Shilton’s net, “he buried the English defence”.
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