Six Of The Best: Football Commentators, Part Two
On Friday afternoon, we brought you the first part of our mini-series paying tribute our top six football commentators, and today it’s time for the second three. Again, we would like to take the opportunity to point out that this top six is not in any particular order – merely that it was a pleasure to spend our Saturday afternoons, Saturday evenings, Sunday afternoons and more in their company.
Gerry Harrison: Another nearly man, or someone that got just a little bit lucky? Gerry Harrison’s introduction to the the world of football broadcasting came about as a the result of losing a competition. In 1969, in preparing for the arrival of colour television and the expansion to highlights of two matches per week, the BBC launched the “Find A Commentator” competition for Match Of The Day. Ten thousand applicants were eventually whittled down to a final six, which included the former Liverpool player Ian St John, Gerry Harrison (who had joined BBC Radio Merseyside two years earlier) and a Welsh packaging salesman called Idwal Robling.
Robling won the competition and went on to work for BBC Wales until the mid-1980s but remained largely anonymous. Harrison’s voice, on the other hand, caught the attention of the commercial channel Anglia Television and he was offered a job working for them. For the next two decades, Harrison was the voice and face of football in the East of England and also went to six World Cups for ITV, and he became familiar to the nation as Ipswich Town surged to the top of the First Division and won both the FA and UEFA Cups, as well as presenting Anglia’s weekly round-up show “Match Of The Week” until the show bit the dust in 1983. He stayed with Anglia until 1993, and continued to work as a freelancer for them for a couple of seasons after this.
Harrison’s style could be best described as economical, with a flair for a flourish when it mattered. Since the East of England was (as now) over-burdened with huge clubs, there was an intimacy to his style which came from an inevitable closeness, formed from years of covering the clubs of the region, which included – as well as Ipswich – Norwich City, Northampton Town, Peterborough United, Cambridge United, Colchester United, Southend United and Luton Town. It is this toil for the smaller clubs, perhaps above anything else, that earns him a place on this list.
Personal Highlights: Years of solid service for Anglia yielded few truly high profile matches but, whilst the first leg of the 1981 UEFA Cup Final was an obviously grand occasion, it is perhaps the well known 1980 match between Ipswich Town and Manchester United that sticks in the memory better. Part One is here and Part Two is here.
Kenneth Wolstenholme: Yes, yes, yes, 1966 and all that. But that’s not the reason why Kenneth Wolstenholme is on this list. Wolstenholme’s career lasted for over thirty years, twenty-six of which were at the BBC and to try to sum him up in one match would be ludicrous. He commentated for the BBC at twenty-three consecutive FA Cup finals, saw Puskas destroy the myth of English superiority in 1953, the emergence of Pele in 1958, Real Madrid winning the European Cup with one of the greatest performances ever seen by a club side at Hampden Park in 1960 and much more besides. In addition to this, he was also the first host and the lead commentator on Match Of The Day, a programme which has long since become legendary.
There was no question that Wolstenholme was a fine wordsmith. “If he can put on tricks like that”, he said of Ferenc Puskas playing keepy-uppy with the ball whilst awaiting kick-off and the chance to destroy England in 1953, “perhaps they should put him in the music hall”. Even at the end of his time at the BBC, he was plenty capable of concisely capturing a mood. “They seem to take it in turns to give an exhibition”, he said as Brazil toyed with the Italian defence at the end of the 1970 World Cup final. He left the corporation in 1971, with the BBC having decided that the larynx-tastic David Coleman was more in keeping with the swinging seventies. He was just fifty-one years old, and returned to the gantry in the mid-1970s with Tyne-Tees Television, before being usurped again, this time by the scrupulously unflamboyant Roger Tames.
At his peak, however, Kenneth Wolstenholme was undisputed king of British football. His delivery now sounds as dated as so many others that developed their style in the days during which received pronunciation was the norm in broadcasting circles, but with this came a crisp turn of phrase and a professionalism which meant that he was scrupulously unbiased. Although not as knowledgeable (by his own admission) as many of those that followed in his footsteps, he remains a pioneer and man who, thanks to that afternoon in July 1966, forever linked football and television in the minds of both supporters and television viewers.
Personal Highlights: To get a true sense of what Kenneth Wolstenholme was about, we’re not going to look at the 1966 World Cup final. So here’s Real Madrid demolishing Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup – the full match is on YouTube, and Part One is here. Alternatively, his commentary can also be heard here, during the 1953 FA Cup Final between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers.
Peter Jones: When Peter Jones died in 1990, David Hatch, the managing director of BBC Radio at the time, said that Jones, “could make a poor match bearable, and a good match almost unbearable”. That Jones was a genius – and this is a word not used lightly on this site – is not in question. He had a sense of the innate drama of football. Consider, for example, his breathless commentary as Alan Sunderland touched the ball over the line to win the 1979 FA Cup for Arsenal with practically the last kick of the game, after their opposition that afternoon, Manchester United, had clawed their way back into the game from two goals down:
Here comes Brady, though, for Arsenal. They still, perhaps, want to finish it off before extra-time. The ball floats high across the penalty area. The shot comes in. It’s there! It’s 3-2 for Arsenal and I do not believe it! I swear I do not believe it!
Two years later, at the same venue, with even greater eloquence, this time as Ricardo Villa performed a slalom through the Manchester City defence to take the one hundredth FA Cup to White Hart Lane for Tottenham Hotspur:
I’ve seen Villa being acclaimed in Argentina. I’ve seen the blue and white confetti coming down in Buenos Aires. I have never seen such acclamation for the Argentine Villa… as that moment.
Peter Jones’ first job for the BBC was commentating on North Korea at the 1966 World Cup finals, and perhaps his penchant for drama and romance was borne from that. In the following years, he commentated for BBC Radio on twenty FA Cup finals and nine European Cup finals, as well as covering six World Cups for them. In addition to this, he was a regular at The Boat Race, The Olympic and Commonwealth Games, BBC’s swimming coverage, the State Opening of Parliament and two royal weddings. Having already been in the commentary position for BBC Radio on the evening of the Heysel Disaster in 1985, he was also present on the day of the Hillsborough disaster, just under four years later.
Jones’ widow later stated that he was left a broken man by Hillsborough, and he died a year later after collapsing during The Boat Race. Our world is unquestionably a poorer place for his passing.
Personal Highlights: A couple of Peter Jones’ greatest moments can be heard here and here, but perhaps the finest example of his work is also the most poignant. At the end of a long day at Hillsborough, Jones had to summon, from somewhere, the words to disguise British football’s worst ever disaster. The result sends both a shiver down the spine and a lump to the throat.Manchester United supporters may be interested in this four part documentary about their club which also features one of Jones’ first big matches, the 1968 European Cup final against Benfica.
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