In the twenty-first century, few things are sacred. For many football supporters, traditions are being ripped up at such a dizzying pace that it can feel impossible to keep up with what is current. In some corners of the culture of the game, though, traditions are kept alive and one of the most enduring is that, at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, the BBC will cut away to a supremely jaunty piece of military music called “Out Of The Blue”, which will be overlaid by some brief headlines and the classified results. It’s a tradition that has been played out, remarkably, since 1948, and it is an institution that has – so far, at least – largely remained intact. It is the weekly tradition of the BBC’s flagship post-match Saturday afternoon service, Sports Report.
Sports Report has been trimmed by Saturday evening kick-offs to such an extent that it sometimes feels as if it might not be there, but the classified results remain unflappably essential. Whether at home with a steaming mug of cocoa or having jumped into a car having been at the match, they remain the high water mark of pure football objectivity. They may make you laugh. They make you cry. They may send you straight to seventh heaven or send you directly to a very dark place indeed, sentencing you to a weekend of unshakable grumpiness. You can’t, however, argue with them. The job of reading those results has to fall upon somebody that is capable of emoting a lot whilst saying relatively little in a short space of time – after all, they have just four seconds per result and it is broadcast live. The person charged with such a responsibility has to be simultaneously sympathetic for you loss and delighted for your victory. That person must combine these qualities with scrupulous objectivity. That person, for the last thirty-eight years, has been James Alexander Gordon.
James Alexander Gordon is the unflappable king of the football results. Others may come to shout and shriek, but “Jag” (and somehow even using his nickname feels oddly inappropriate) sits upon a pedestal, the master of his art, a man that many have mimicked but none have have match. He speaks with a rich Edinburghian accent, one which calls to mind a tweed jacket, a pipe and a glass of whisky. If we allow ourselves to drift off to our imaginary perception of his Saturday afternoon world, he sits in a red leather armchair next to a roaring log fire, with the afternoon’s football results having just been given to him by his housekeeper. He lives – in my mind’s eye, at least – in a shamelessly bygone world, one into which such modern technology as the internet has seldom strayed.
Mr Gordon’s most singular skill – and it is a deliberate one – is to inflect each result so that the listener knows whether it was a home win, an away win or a draw without even needing to hear the number of goals that have been scored. For a home win, his voice trails away with near disappointment as the inevitable “… nil” comes up. For an away win, his voices rises with a tone of near (but not quite actual) surprise. For a draw, he hangs, almost impercebtibly. This has two useful effects. For those that have been betting or completed a football pools coupon, it allows them to tick off their slip as he goes on without getting hung up on the specific result. For those that are pulling out of the car park at a couple of minutes past five o’clock, the intonation gives an indication of what happens for those whose concentration may be best disposed on driving their car. It is simple, and it is utterly ingeneous.
That he should even have had the opportunity for such a rich career might not have been expected when he was a child. James Alexander Gordon, who was adopted into an Edinburgh family after his mother died in childbirth, spent much of his youth in hospital, paralysed with polio. His recovery began at the age of fifteen, but such a childhood no doubt informed his life and, as a keen musician, he was pleased to bring a degree of musicality to what some may regard as such a mundane task as reading out the football results on the radio. His tone was viewed with a degree of suspicion by the powers that be at the BBC at the time of his appointment, but his popularity with listeners was immediate and, after almost four decades of having done this job, he states himself that “I’ll carry on as long as they want me”, which will come as no small relief to those that continue to listen to him every Saturday afternoon.
Modern football can be an intimidating world into which to step, a testosterone and adrenaline dripped parallel universe of breathless “banter”, accusation, counter-accusation and rumour. For some of us, it can be a little too much. A couple of minutes after five o clock on each Saturday afternoon, though, we can, should we choose to, bask in a couple of minutes worth of the tradition of British football. To that extent, James Alexander Gordon is a treasure of our game, a poet that works with numbers and place names only. And for as long as they want him, he will continue to share our disappointment, delight and all stops in between. Sometimes, it feels as if that there isn’t enough of that, and we should be grateful for these small moments of warmth. We will miss them when they disappear altogether.
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