In the excellent football anthology “My Favourite Year,” the novelist and biographer DJ Taylor describes an emergency public meeting held after a boardroom putsch did for the previous chairman Sir Arthur South and installed the businessman Robert Chase in his place. According to Taylor, at this meeting an elderly woman stood up, fixed Chase with a steely glare and with tone of prodding verbal accusation, asked, “What I want to know is… who are yer?” It was a question that no-one at the meeting seemed to know the answer to and, almost a quarter of a century on, it’s a question that isn’t asked enough in many walks of life.
The broadcaster Danny Baker once remarked that the primary role of the football commentator was to make his father rise from his armchair and shout “WE KNOW!” at the television screen. If only life were that simple these days. In the twenty-first century, the role of the commentator and his itchingly unctuous side-kick the co-commentator has been reduced even from telling us what we can see with our very own eyes. Commentators no longer commentate. They now drag us involuntarily into the dismal world of pub bore conversation, with a sprinkling of seemingly pre-rehearsed phrases thrown in for good measure. They seek to combine providing information with entertaining, and somehow or other manage to achieve neither. We no longer shout, “WE KNOW!” at the television screen – we merely shout “SHUT UP!” instead.
Much has been made of Mark Lawrensons brief but apparently effective denigration of Twitter users last night. In describing them – us – as “sad”, two things immediately sprang to mind. Firstly, this may have been the first time ever that anybody over the age of thirteen used the word “sad” as an insult. Secondly, there is the small matter of what Mark Lawrenson brings to the party – or, to paraphrase an unnamed elderly Norfolkian speaking more than two decades ago, ‘oo is ‘ee? The latter of these two questions is, superficially at least, the easier to answer of the two. He’s a former Liverpool and Republic of Ireland player who supports Preston North End and had a brief and relatively unhappy managerial career with Oxford United and Peterborough United.
The former, however, is considerably more difficult to quantify. He doesn’t seem to carry any great insight and he doesn’t seem to be very humorous. Yet even Lawrenson is merely a symptom rather than a cause. In short, commentators aren’t really allowed to commentate any more. What they now seem to do is have a ninety minute long conversation which is punctuated by the more traditional manner of commentating, but something has been lost in this process, a sense of authority and the feeling that we are having something reported to us has been lost in the jocularity and – to coin a wretched, dismal, terrible phrase; in fact, the last resort of the verbally damned – “banter.” We learn nothing from this chitter-chatter, and neither are we entertained. Indeed, it often feels as if, when watching a football match on the television, the television producer is attempting to bring a little of the atmosphere of the pub into our living rooms, which overlooks the screamingly obvious point that if we are watching a football match on the television, we are almost certainly either watching it in a pub or watching it at home because we don’t want to be in a pub in the first place.
There is also a tendency for the main commentator, who is almost always from a journalistic background, to defer to the co-commentator, who is always, but always, an ex-pro – no matter what inanities they’re coming out with. This means that when the co-commentator gets something wrong, which they do with almost alarming regularity, it goes unchecked and the relationship between the two in the commentary box seldom feels like an equal one. This is reflection of the veneration with which the the ex-professional is treated in many aspects of the game. It has become a bog standard retort for the ex-pro, when criticised, to claim that it is impossible to truly understand the game unless you’ve played it and the standard retort to this – that they’re in a different profession to playing now and that to claim that being a former player could conceivably make you a great broadcaster, regardless of years of playing experience, is faintly absurd – usually falls on deaf ears, even though we hear the evidence to support this counter-case with our own ears at more or less every match.
The incremental increase in the live broadcasting of matches over the last two decades or so can make it feel as if the co-commentator is a modern scourge, but the truth is that they have been with us for almost as long as the game has been broadcast live on the television. As long ago as 1958, ITV were using reporter Peter Lloyd as a summariser alongside commentator Gerry Loftus at the World Cup finals in Sweden, and by 1964 Jimmy Hill was in the gantry with Loftus for the FA Cup final to see West Ham United beat Preston North End to lift the trophy. Yet co-commentators were seldom used for highlights, and it was highlights that were the staple diet of the British viewer – major tournaments and the occasional other match aside – until 1983 and it was perhaps this that gave rise to the idea of the co-commentator as some sort of interloper. Over the years, however, as live matches have become increasingly commonplace, they have come to become a central part of the television firmament.
It doesn’t, however, have to be this way. At the 2010 World Cup finals, ITV co-commentator Jim Beglin was struck down with an inner-ear infection which rendered him unable to travel to the semi-final match between the Netherlands and Uruguay. Unable to send out a replacement at such short notice, Clive Tyldesley had to cover the match alone and, whilst he obviously received some criticism – Tyldesley-hating has become something of a national sport in recent years – he did receive praise in some other quarters. It makes sense. a lone commentator has the space for the lost art of football commentary – silence. Whereas the commentators of old, the likes of Barry Davies, Brian Moore or Kenneth Wolstenholme, imposed their authority by being the only voice on air and had the space to allow for their own speech to feel properly punctuated. This has been replaced by a constant stream of noise, most of which seems to serve little purpose but to infuriate the viewer.
So, in these apparently austere times, in which the BBC were unable to even send their panel of experts out to Poland, would it not be too much to request that they give the commentators a go on their own? There may be a co-commentator or summariser out there somewhere, squirreled away on a cable channel that no-one ever watches, who adds a little colour and insight to the match, who doesn’t drop painfully unfunny dad jokes in at inappropriate moments or display what appears what may well be a lack of knowledge or open contempt for anything that doesn’t come from the Premier League. You never know. They might even find that they avoid some of the derision and scorn that seems to now be the standard reaction to the television broadcasting of major football tournaments.
Mark Lawrenson might wish to know that you can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here. But then again, he might not.