I stand to be corrected on this, but unconfirmed reports are stating that the former ITV football commentator Hugh Johns has died at the age of 83. In the 1990s, retrospectives about the history of football on ITV staked a claim that Brian Moore was a behemoth of British sports broadcasting in the same way that Kenneth Wolstenholme and John Motson were for the BBC, but the truth is somewhat more complex than that. Moore commentated on the FA Cup final for ITV for many years, but this was primarily because his employers, London Weekend Television, were the company that produced the coverage of it. When ITV covered live league football in the 1980s and early 1990s, Moore more often than not shared the live commentary duties with Martin Tyler. When the World Cup final came around, though, there was only one man up for the job – Hugh Johns.
It says a lot for the resonance of Kenneth Wolstenholme’s “They Think It’s All Over” commentary at the 1966 World Cup Final that Hugh Johns, a commentator for thirty years, was best known as the answer to the old pub quiz question of who was commentating on the other side for ITV at the same time – and what was he saying at the exact moment that Wolstenholme was etching himself into the national consciousness? “Here’s Hurst, he might make it three. He has! He has! ….. So that’s it. That is IT!”. Maybe not quite as memorable, but anybody with an ounce of love for the game should take Johns as their favourite football commentator of all time. He would go on to commentate on a further four World Cup finals, as well as being the voice of ITV sport in the Midlands until 1982.
Some of the great “What If”s of British broadcasting come from questions over the allocation of contracts to ITV companies, and one of these arises when one considers ITV’s first big shake-up, in 1968. Prior to 1968, Johns was ITV’s main man. He commentated on their first three live FA Cup finals as well as the aforementioned World Cup final but, when ITV shunted their companies around in 1968, Johns’ company, ATV, was unceremoniously booted out of London and up to the Midlands, allowing LWT and Brian Moore in. Johns became the voice of football in the Midlands during the last Golden Age of football in the area. Merely mention his name to anyone from that part of the world and you’ll see their eyes mist over straight away. ATV’s Sunday afternoon show, and “Star Soccer” one of the lynchpins of their schedule. Hosted in turn by Billy Wright, Trevor East and Gary Newbon, and with “expert” analysis from Jimmy Greaves (the reputation that Greaves earned on “Star Soccer” would persuade ITV to shove him into the dreadful “Saint & Greavsie” pairing in the 1980s), the show was often criticised for its emphasis in clubs from the west of the area at the expense of their rivals in the east. However, it was successful enough to be exported to, amongst other places, Australia and Egypt.
In truth, “Star Soccer” was always going to find it difficult to satisfy the viewers in its sprawling region, which stretched as far north as the Potteries, east to Derby and Nottingham, and south as far as Oxford and Swindon. In the twelve years that the show ran, Nottingham Forest, Derby County and Aston Villa all won the League Championship. On top of this, there were brief golden periods for Stoke City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City. The cost of sending the Outside Broadcast units was prohibitive to sending cameras to more than one match (and, indeed was impossible if there were other events such as horse racing to be covered). “Star Soccer” was always likely to run into problems in this respect.
Johns himself had a rich and authoritative Welsh accent. Although deep-voiced, he was more than capable of getting lost in the excitement of a match (I can’t find any specific examples, but he appears to have had a penchant for shouting “BOFF!” at the moment of particularly powerful shots on goal), though his controlled commentary style was in sharp contrast to the absurd histrionics that we are subjected to these days. You can hear some classic Hugh Johns over this match between Derby County and Burnley from 1975. In 1982, ATV were forced into a shotgun marriage and a name change to Central, and Hugh was put out to pasture as the “new” company brought in the man with the most nasal voice in the history of mankind – Peter Brackley (now best known as the commentator on the Pro Evolution video game series). After commentating at the 1982 (he was on particularly fine form during the notorious match between West Germany and Austria, which was played at walking pace to a 1-0 win so that both nations could qualify at the expense of Algeria, who had already beaten the Germans – I’ve never heard such heartfelt outrage over the desecration of the game) Johns would return home to Wales to commentate for the Welsh company HTV until into the 1990s. It was always a rare treat to find that ITV were sneaking in a Cardiff City match, so that we could hear his dulcet tones.
Some of you, I dare say, will think that I’m being needlessly nostalgic. I would counter that the current crop of commentators are a bunch of buffoons, capable of doing little more than shouting, screaming and announcing what programmes will be following after the match has finished. You wouldn’t caught Hugh Johns doing that, and this is just one of a multitude of reasons why his passing is another small chip away at the game that we all used to love. In a very literal sense, we shall not see his like again.
And for the shameless nostalgists amongst us, here’s the theme music to “Star Soccer” once more.