Voices Of Football: Barry Davies – English Football’s Renaissance Man
There has long been a strand of anti-intellectualism within football which can occasionally be somewhat distasteful, to say the least. It’s the 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 which often saw Barry Davies, the BBC football commentator, labelled as “pompous” and “superior” because he occasionally dared to use words of more than one syllable. It is perhaps appropriate, given football’s inherent uniformity, that one of Davies’ most fondly remembered moments of commentary came with a goal which acts as a twenty second long moment of beauty and elegance from such naturally gifted players, Justin Fashanu. Fashanu’s goal, scored at Carrow Road, Norwich, on a blustery February afternoon in 1980, demonstrated something quite glorious about our game. Liverpool won that match by five goals to three but, a shade over thirty years on, this is largely forgotten by many bar Liverpool supporters. Fashanu’s goal won Match Of The Day’s “Goal Of The Season” award for the 1979/80 season, and it is this single incident that stands apart as one of the greatest moments of that season.
Davies is a name from a past that seems increasingly distant with each passing year, and some of our younger readers may even be unaware to whom we are referring, so here’s a brief recap of a career that spanned four decades. He 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 and covered the 1968 Olympic Games for the commercial broadcaster, but was overlooked by LWT’s new Head of Sport, Jimmy Hill, in favour of Brian Moore. He covered his first match for the Match Of The Day – a 2-2 draw between Crystal Palace and Manchester United – in August 1969, and was a regular commentator on the show and at major tournaments until he entering into semi-retirement in 2004. For many years, he was considered the BBC’s “secondary” commentator, first behind Kenneth Wolstenholme and subsequently behind David Coleman and John Motson. Davies finally started covering the BBC’s biggest matches in the early 1990s, but he was unfortunate in that many 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. Re-watching old clips of his commentaries, perhaps the most striking aspect of his style comes with 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, their ebb and flow, and that rhythm and diction can be vital as breathing spaces for both himself and his audience. Often, his use of language could be understated to the point of being practically non-existent. “Oh, I say!” and “Lovely goal!” were particular favourite phrases at moments of excitement.
He was, however, also capable of moments of sheer, instinctive, base emotion. The “GROAOWAR!” 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. Many of his greatest moments came when that studied 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. Consider another moment of utterly infectious delight, in the form of another BBC Goal Of The Season, this time from Blackpool’s Mickey Walsh, against Sunderland in 1975, when a beauty played piece of control and shooting was met with the sound of a man in paroxysms of delight, of an almost sexual-sounding nature.
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 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 the majority of what thirty-odd million people watching at home felt at that very moment, and after that… silence. 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 capable of a moment of such genius. Arguably more tellingly still, when Maradona scored his more infamous handled goal in that match, Davies was quick to criticise Peter Shilton for not coming off his line quickly enough rather than berating Maradona for pawing the ball past him.
Miss him though we do, it’s difficult to see that Barry Davies would fit into the world of the modern billion pound Premier League, with its genetically-enhanced excitement, resistance to criticism and perpetual need for white noise. 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 occasion during the early 1980s on “Match Of The Day” he would occasionally turn his attention to the pitiful quality of football on display and the gaping holes in the terraces, occasionally wondering aloud how it had all come to this. The Premier League wouldn’t like such 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. We are unlikely to see his like again, and we are all the poorer for it.
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