In spite of the obvious contradiction in making such a statement, there is much to said in praise of the stalwart. The stalwart is our representative of the unchosen many. They are the bread and butter of the game. The silent majority. The background cast as its celebrities swan around in front of the flashing lights. Yet we need them to add context and depth to what we see before our very own eyes. For all the column inches lavished upon the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, these rare talents would count for little were it not for a supporting cast of others who position them in a frame and allow us, to a degree, to quantify the differing forms of their genius. The journeyman professional is somebody that we need more, perhaps, than we realise.
As it is on the pitch, so it is in the commentary gantry. Life isn’t all cup finals, and the majority of matches played are the matches which provide a context for those that lodge themselves in our consciousness. There was a time when the televising of football matches was so rare that it may well have felt as if there were only one or two authentic voices of football in this country. Yet this hasn’t been the case since matches started to regularly flicker on our television screens during the middle of the 1960s. We may well only properly be able to associate the voice of football commentary during that era with the great Kenneth Wolstenholme. After all, it was he who was offered the microphone for the FA Cup, European Cup and World Cup finals. But on a week in week out basis, even he had a supporting cast, the likes of Alec Weeks, Walley Barnes and Frank Bough, who would be dispatched on a Saturday afternoon to cover the matches that Wolstenholme was unable for.
Perhaps the king of the commentary journeymen is the BBCs Tony Gubba. The Glazer life in the fast lane of title deciders and major cup finals is not for him. Gubba inhabits the middle of the football road, reporting on the bread and butter of our national game. Picking out the key commentary moments from his four decade long career is tricky, not because of a lack of ability on his part but because he seldom seemed to get the big matches and those key phrases that lodge themselves in our brains have a tendency to come from those biggest matches. He was there for the BBC when Wrexham came from behind to dump Arsenal out of the FA Cup in 1992. He covered the 2007 League Cup final for the BBC as well. Ultimately, though, he was always the bridesmaid, a suspicion confirmed by a cursory glance at the matches that he covered at a randomly selected World Cup – in this case, 1982 – showing him covering matches from the group containing the then-holders Argentina but none of those containing the groups big box office team.
Born in Manchester, Gubba – the unusual surname, in case you were wondering, is Prussian – followed his career path by traditional means: local newspaper, national newspaper, regional commercial television (commercial televisions Southampton-based Southern Television) and then a regional BBC reporter on Merseyside, before getting the two gigs that would come to change his career: commentating at that years Olympic Games in Munich and presenting the BBCs midweek sports highlights programme Sportsnight. He would stay in this position for three years, before relinquishing it to the late Harry Carpenter. His first appearance as a commentator came in the Third Round of the FA Cup in January 1976, covering the match between Scarborough and Crystal Palace. Regular appearances deputising as a stand-in host of Grandstand would also follow. Later in his career, he would provide the voice for the video game International Superstar Soccer 98, one of a series of games which would later morph into the still-popular Pro-Evolution Soccer.
It is a common theme for football commentators to suggest in interviews that their job is in part to allow the game to speak for itself before, the following Saturday, shouting all over it. Tony Gubba, however, is different. It may sound mildly derisory to describe his commentary style as “perfunctory”, but this doesn’t have to be the case. He describes and he adds the very occasional flourish, but on the whole he steers clear of over-complication, and his presence is further enhanced by an unusual-sounding, almost tremulous voice. Like some other football commentators, his work at the Olympic games has seen him work on other sports as well – he counts ice-skating, hockey, table-tennis, bobsleigh, ski-jumping, speed skating, cycling, rowing, judo, golf and tennis amongst the entries on his Curriculum Vitae. Here is one of his more memorable games, the aforementioned FA Cup match between Wrexham and Arsenal from 1992.
The biggest matches, however, on the whole never quite came and while the tussle for the BBCs number one spot between John Motson and Barry Davies fascinated the media during the 1990s and Clive Tyldesley spent just four years with the corporation before succeeding Brian Moore as ITVs “voice of football”, Gubba remained a fringe act. Others may have become household names through football – the BBC seemed for a considerable amount of time to be particularly keen to package “Motty”, sheepskin coat and all, as some sort of brand during the first decade of this century – but Tony Gubba finally found the celebrity that we could argue his years of service to the BBC deserved when he was selected to act as the commentator on the ITV light entertainment show Dancing On Ice, and he has also bee the subject of a musical tribute by the Tranmere Rovers-supporting cult band Half Man Half Biscuit.
And if you think there’s a hint of snigger about all of this, you’re wrong. Tony Gubba will be seventy years old in less than a years time, and should he ever take the decision to retire – a decision that sports broadcasters often seem understandably reluctant to give up – he can look back on a career that has taken in Match Of The Day, the Olympic Games, Sportsnight, the Daily Mirror and a prime-time entertainment television show watched by millions of people. A career that has spanned half a century has been one packed with more than most of us could manage in several lifetimes. Still waters really can run deep.
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