Voices of Football: David Coleman, A Very Modern Anchor

by | Apr 27, 2021

When David Coleman died at the end of 2013 at the age of 87, despite it being a time of year when newsrooms might have been expecting to be running on a skeleton staff, it was no surprise to see a large number of obituaries for him being published. Coleman had, after all, covered the Summer Olympic Games eleven times for the BBC and the World Cup six times. He was, arguably, the progenitor of the sports anchor in this country.

There was, however, something unusual about these obituaries. The Guardian described him as “the hard-nosed, everyman-journalist” who “could be scathingly dismissive about more starry, chummy screen performers chosen more for winsome looks and winning smiles.” The Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, described him as, “one of this country’s greatest and most respected broadcasters.” Writing a few months later, even the BBC’s own Radio Times described him as a “demanding taskmaster.” This, it seemed quite clear, was an outpouring of respect rather than an outpouring of love.

Born in Cheshire in 1925, David Coleman’s first true love was running. He was an accomplished amateur athlete, winning the Manchester Mile in 1949, and entered the media during his time in the army, working for the British Army Newspaper Unit and also wrote for the Stockport Express. After his time in the armed forces ended, at just 22 years of age, he became the editor of the Cheshire County Express. He had hoped to compete for the UK at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, but when injury ruined that he wrote to the BBC enquiring about their athletics coverage and became a freelance reporter. Two years later, he made his debut on the television on Sportsview, interviewing the interviewing the golfer Roberto de Vicenzo to fill time while the programme tried to find Roger Bannister, who’d broken the four minute mile earlier that day.

In 1955, still aged just thirty, he was appointed the BBC’s sports editor for the Midlands. The arrival of a commercial rival to the BBC in 1955 had changed the dynamic of television forever. This, coupled with the explosion of television ownership which had occurred throughout the first half of the decade, meant that ratings now mattered in a way in which they hadn’t before. Sports coverage was already considered one of the potential keys to large audience viewing figures, but the technology of the time didn’t make this straightforward. As late as the mid-1950s, for example, most British football grounds still didn’t have floodlights, which, combined with the rudimentary nature of the cameras of the time and the reluctance of football’s governing bodies, who were terrified of the deleterious effect that they believed televising matches might have on gate receipts, made football coverage piecemeal and inconsistent.

The BBC were, however, still better placed than ITV at the time, with superior infrastructure, a respected position as one of the founder members of the European Broadcasting Union, and none of the debts that commercial broadcasters had incurred to set up their service. ITV’s interest in sport as a driver for audience numbers had been obvious from the outset, though. Their opening night, broadcast to an estimated audience of less than 200,000 people in London only in September 1955, had featured a boxing match. By 1957, the technology was in place for the World Cup to be able to be shown live across Europe, albeit using primitive technology that didn’t allow national broadcaster much choice over which matches they could show, and in May of that year Coleman made his international football commentary for England’s 1-1 draw in Dublin.

The 1958 World Cup finals were somewhat different to those of today. Four of the home nations had qualified – only Scotland missed out – and the opening day of the tournament feautured all sixteen qualifiers playing, but the selected live matches, perhaps unsurprisingly, featured the host nation Sweden playing Mexico, and the holders, West Germany, playing Argentina. Kenneth Wolstenholme and Walley Barnes were in the commentary box for all matches, with Coleman presenting a nightly highlights show.

Four months after the end of the tournament, he was chosen to be the host of a new live Saturday afternoon sports show called Grandstand, a position that he would occupy for the next ten years (and which included covering the return of The Beatles from their triumphant first American tour), and in 1960 he went to the Olympic Games with the BBC for the first of eleven occasions. Indeed, throughout the 1960s he turned up just about everywhere, hosting Grand National coverage from 1961 and Wimbledon coverage from 1960.

The continuing intransigence of football’s governing bodies, however, continued to stunt the growth of football coverage in this country. The BBC had regular, if somewhat limited, highlights from the middle of the 1950s on, but Coleman tended to be preferred as an anchor for this. The 1962 World Cup finals presented particular logistical difficulties. The previous tournament had been able to be broadcast live using a complex system of relays, but this wasn’t a luxury that was available with the finals being held in Chile. Instead, tapes were sent back to the UK via Lima and New York, meaning that home audiences could watch matches – either highlights or shown as live – two days after they were played. The Telstar satellite, which would finally allow live television broadcasting from around the world, was launched a few days after the end of the tournament.

It was during the 1962 World Cup finals, though, that David Coleman would make his first true mark on football broadcasting. When the quarter-final match between Chile and Italy descended into hitherto unseen levels of violence – thanks, in no small part, to a series of highly insulting articles written by Italian newspaper journalists about the host country before the start of the tournament – Coleman was on hand with a magnificently spluttering introduction, which has gone down in football folklore, somewhat:

The game you are about to see is the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football possibly in the history of the game. This is the first time the countries have met, we hope it will be the last. If the World Cup is going to survive in its present form something has got to be done about teams that play like this.

Throughout much of the 1960s, though, Coleman kept football at arm’s length. He was on the BBC’s commentary team for the 1966 World Cup finals, but his Grandstand commitments kept him away from domestic games until the autumn of 1967, when he finally made his Match of the Day commentary and hosting debut for a 2-2 draw between Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves. The following year he left Grandstand to join the BBC’s midweek sports show Sportsnight (which, in a sign of how well-recognised he already was by this point, rebranded as “Sportsnight With Coleman”), and this freed him up for more football commentary duties.

Still, though, that spikiness remained. With ITV’s revamped football coverage now seriously challenging the staid-looking Match of the Day, Coleman took this rivalry very seriously, even refusing to shake the hand of the commercial channel’s Brian Moore. Moore would recall, “All round the world, David offered no real friendship. He was so spiky. If he even said ‘hello’, it was more with a sneer than a smile. But while his temper was short, his standards were immensely high. His hard edge made him as formidable a journalist as he was an opponent. He knew he was the best and professionally, all said and done, we knew he had set the standard and there was simply nothing we could do but admire and respect his talent.”

By the 1968/69 season, though, Coleman was becoming increasingly familiar to Match of the Day viewers. He was only five years younger, but without the received pronunciation of Kenneth Wolstenholme, he sounded as though he was from a younger generation, which was all very much in keeping with the attitudes of the time. And from the start of the 1969/70 season, the BBC changed the format of the show, switching from one to two matches per week (with the second originally being shown regionally only) and, rather than being presented by the commentator from inside the ground of that week’s match, moved into a studio instead. Coleman would remain its host until 1973, when Jimmy Hill jumped ship from ITV and joined the corporation instead.

When the 1970 World Cup finals came around, the BBC had something of a headache on their hands. ITV’s coverage of the game had been transformational, and its popularity was already growing. The BBC’s coverage was hosted by Frank Bough in London and David Coleman in Mexico, and Coleman covered England’s matches as well as others, but a major row was onlsy narrowly averted when Kenneth Wolstenholme opened a copy of the Radio Times, only to find that Coleman had been selected for the final. Wolstenholme had it written into his contract that he should get this particular match, and only when England were knocked out in the quarter-finals was legal action averted. Wolstenholme left the corporation at the end of the 1970/71 season. Coleman, meanwhile, was caught off-camera berating a cameraman over what he considered to be shoddy workmanship.

By the start of the 1971/72 season, then, the BBC’s team for football coverage had changed significantly. Kenneth Wolstenholme had gone, while other sporting multi-taskers such as Alan Weeks were starting to be eased back towards their other sports. John Motson joined from BBC Radio at the end of 1971 and, while Coleman was now the BBC’s lead football commentator for the first time, his somewhat sparse style didn’t always win him enormous praise from outside of the television industry. His first FA Cup final commentary would come in 1972, when the centenary of the competition was marked by Leeds United beating Arsenal, appropriately enough, one-nil.

1973, however, would turn out to be a tough year for Coleman. At the start of the year, he sued Alan Hardaker for libel and slander  over his criticism of comments made after a Chelsea v Newcastle match in December 1970, and in August he announced that he woud be moving to America to pursue a career there. He returned five months later and signed a new contract, having failed to secure any work on the other side of the contract. At the end of the season, his commentary on the FA Cup final between Liverpool and Newcastle United became one of his best remembered, not least for the almost non-sensical line, “Goals pay the rent and Keegan does his share.”

By the late 1970s, though, David Coleman’s relationship with football was starting to wind down. He continued to commentate on the FA Cup final until 1978 (although he missed the 1977 match, which was given to John Motson instead, on account of a pay dispute), but only commentated for Match of the Day twice during the 1978/79 Football League season, and made his last international commentary for the BBC for England’s 3-1 win against Scotland in the closing match of the 1979 Home Internationals. His final Match of the Day appearance came came a couple of years later, a goalless draw between Notts County and Preston North End in April 1981. His final football commentary for the BBC came six months later on Sportsnight, for a League Cup match between Spurs and Manchester United which also happened to be Bryan Robson’s debut for Manchester United.

By the start of the 1980s, it was clear that Coleman’s career was headed in a completely different direction to football. The quiz show A Question of Sport had begun in the first week of 1970 with David Vine in the quizmaster’s chair, but an increase in BBC snooker coverage meant that Vine stepped away from this job in 1979, with Coleman being called in to replace him. He would go on to host the show until 1997. After being relieved of his duties on Grand National day in 1984 he focussed primarily on athletics and the Olympic Games, continuing to commentate until his retirement in 2000. The Olympics were also the source of his most notable journalistic achievement, but for the worst of possible reasons. In 1972, he was widely praised for his handling of the day of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympic Village.

Following his final Olympics at Sydney in 2000, and only months from his 75th birthday, at a ceremony at the International Olympic Committee’s base in Lausanne, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch pinned to Coleman’s lapel the rare Olympic Order medal, putting Coleman in the same illustrious company as Jesse Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen and Emil Zatopek, amongst others. He was the first broadcaster to receive such an honour. With five Winter Olympics to add to his tally, he reported from a total of 16 Olympic Games. This, his commentary on Anne Packer’s world record breaking gold medal in the 800m at the 1964 games in Tokyo, is a good example of how hist intonation could lift a race.

Even at the end, though, there was some degree of controversy. That his contract was not being renewed at the end of 2000 was considered “witheringly cruel” by The Guardian’s Frank Keating, for example, and his subsequent detachment from the BBC was treated as a mark of his unhappiness over the way it all ended, even though there was little concrete basis upon which this could be based. Coleman certainly wasn’t amused by Private Eye’s long-running collections of bloopers, which they called “Colemanballs” in his honour, though a Spitting Image puppet of him made for the 1980s satirical ITV puppet show, received a rather mellower reception.

So no, David Coleman may not have been loved within his industry, but he was certainly respected, and that is probably more important, in a workplace environment. But regardless of what one might think of him as a person, his achievements as a journalist are surely beyond question. 16 Olympic Games and 6 World Cups, the FA Cup, the Grand National, a primetime TV quiz show, Grandstand, and Sportsnight… and this is a far from exhaustive list. It’s no overstatement to say that David Coleman defined the sports anchor in the way that we understand it today, and his accuracy and brevity as a commentator stripped away the fluff to get what really mattered, reporting the story to an audience at home. And that, we might reasonably surmise, is probably what he was aiming for all along.