Voices of Football: Gerry Harrison, The Beast From the East
For many who work within the football industry, the accumulation of medals and trophies is something that happens to other people. In order to function, the game requires a vast supporting cast which gives it context, which gives that silverware a sense of meaning. Just as it is in professional football, so it is in the media. For every John Motson, there is a Tony Gubba, and for every Brian Moore, there is a Gerry Harrison. Over the course of more than two decades, Harrison became the voice and face of sport in East Anglia, but he only seldom got the opportunity on the biggest stages of all. The result all of this turned out to be a voice heard all too infrequently in the latter stages of his career.
Born in 1942 in Upminster, on the dividing line between London and Essex, Harrison was initially in the Army as a second lieutenant, before moving into new correspondence. His next big career switch came when he became a correspondent for the newly-formed BBC Radio Merseyside. Reporting for their launch show on the 22nd November 1967, Harrison was one of the first voices heard on the new local station, or at least he would have been had he been audible. Coming to the city of Liverpool from atop St John’s Beacon (now better known as the Radio City Tower), he couldn’t be heard at all at first, and then when they did finally get to him he was accompaniedby shrill feedback which rendered him almost inaudible.
He moved into sports reporting while working at BBC Radio Merseyside, but an opportunity to move into something new soon came along again. In January 1969, the Radio Times asked, somewhat accusingly, “So you think think you could be a commentator?” They gushed over the the idea: “Sportsnight with Coleman is looking for an extra commentator. It’s no gimmick. The winner will join BBC TV’s present corps of established commentators for the 1970 World Cup”, but the truth was that the BBC needed a new commentator. They only really had Kenneth Wolstenholme as a specialised football commentator. David Coleman was as much an anchor as a commentator. Alec Weeks was better known for his work in winter sports. Barry Davies also covered other sports.
The BBC received almost 10,000 applications, and 500 voice auditions took place in Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham, Manchester and London over the following months. From this, a final thirty was invited to audition to a recording of the Northern Ireland v England match from the previous weekend. A final twelve was then invited to Wembley, with six commentating on the first half of a match between England and Wales, and the other six covering the second half. A panel of judges featuring Sir Alf Ramsey as chairman, sports minister Denis Howell, BBC sport chief Bryan Cowgill, footballer of the year Tony Book and Peter Black, the Daily Mail’s television critic.
The final six included former Aston Villa player Larry Canning and Tony Adamson, who would both go on to work for BBC Radio, former Liverpool striker Ian St John, Radio One DJ Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, and Gerry Harrison. The judging wasn’t without a degree of controversy. Alec Weeks later suggested that Ramsey even threatened to walk out on the panel or, worse still, withdraw co-operation at the following year’s World Cup, if St John was given the award, when the panel’s vote had gone St John’s way. First prize went to Idwal Robling, a former amateur footballer who’d been in the Great Britain squad for the 1952 Olympic Games before working part-time BBC Wales Radio as a sports commentator as well as writing for The Times. Gerry Harrison, however, had made a last impression on somebody.
Anglia Television had been England’s surprise trailblazers for football’s relationship with television, seven years earlier. Buoyed by Ipswich Town’s 1962 Football League championship win, they agreed to pay £1,000 to the Football League for the rights to highlights of thirty matches throughout the season. The BBC had been showing brief highlights as part of its Sports Special show for some years, but at the start of the 1962/63 season Tyne Tees Television’s Shoot and Anglia’s Match of the Week became the first regularly scheduled football highlights shows.
There were logistical challenges to all of this. The East of England wasn’t overblessed with top flight clubs, so as well as Norwich City and Ipswich Town, Anglia’s cameras had to venture as far afield as Northampton, Luton and Hull, whilst even the biggest clubs in the region could be problematic in their own way. For example, Norwich’s Carrow Road ground didn’t have room for a television gantry along the side of its pitch, so until 1972 television cameras found themselves perched in the corner of the ground (as can be seen here, from a match against Luton Town), while the transition to colour broadcasting also caused problems. Many grounds in the region did not have sufficiently strong floodlights for television cameras to capture satisfactory colour footage, so for a period viewers with colour televisions had to watch the first half of winter matches in colour and the second half in black & white.
John Camkin had been Anglia’s first commentator, and he was followed in 1966 by Gerald Sinstadt. However, when Barry Davies left Granada for the BBC in 1969, Sinstadt replaced him, and Anglia were sufficiently enthused by Gerry Harrison’s performance in the BBC’s competition that they offered him the position with them. He would stay with Anglia for the next 24 years, becoming their voice and face of football through both hosting and being the main commentator for Match of the Week, but also fronting other sports coverage, including snooker and darts.
And whilst the east of England couldn’t provide the same volume of clubs as London, the Midlands or the north-west of England, the region wasn’t unsuccessful, either. In 1972, Norwich City were promoted to the First Division, while Ipswich Town would win the FA Cup in 1978 and the UEFA Cup three years later. Luton Town found themselves promoted into the First Division twice, while Cambridge United were voted into the Football League.
Harrison impressed sufficiently in his first season to go to the 1970 World Cup finals anyway, as part of the ITV team. It was the first of six consecutive World Cups that he would cover for the network, one more than Kenneth Wolstenholme covered for the BBC. In 1972, when Gerald Sinstadt was called away for ITV Olympic Games duty in Munich during the football season, Harrison was seconded to Granada to cover a match for them. Perhaps his best known commentary for Anglia came in on the 1st March 1980, when he covered a match between Ipswich Town and Manchester United which resulted with Ipswich winning 6-0 and missing two penalty kicks.
Not getting the big matches meant that Harrison’s commentary career is probably best remembered for its quirks. In 1970, he was in the commentary box at Layer Road when the Brentford goalkeeper Chic Brodie suffered what turned out to ultimately be a career-ending injury as a result of a tackle by a dog during a match against Colchester United. His time at the 1974 World Cup finals, meanwhile, is probably best remembered the Chile matches that he covered being disrupted by protests by Chilean supporters at the military junta that had just taken control of their country and for having to improvise for an hour as desperate groundsmen tried to desaturate a waterlogged pitch in Frankfurt ahead of West Germany’s delayed match against Poland. Four years later, he was in the commentary box for ITV – somewhat ironically, with Ian St John beside him – when Peruvian goalkeeper Ramon Quiroga went walkabouts against Poland.
ITV ended its regular regional highlights at the end of the 1982/83 season, and there were few opportunities on the national stage for Harrison with the network after this. Brian Moore, Martin Tyler and Peter Brackley were by this time pretty much entrenched as the top three for the network, so he was largely involved in regional sports broadcasting and local television news. As Norwich and Ipswich went into periods of decline in the mid-1980s, they became considerably less likely to be selected for live coverage, though Harrison did cover the two clubs scrapping it out in the semi-finals of the 1985 League Cup.
By the end of the 1980s ITV had exclusive rights to Football League coverage, but Harrison was largely still only used for matches occurring in East Anglia. He did, however, get to sample the high life a little with some freelance work for the newly-formed satellite company BSB, for whom he covered the 1990 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Crystal Palace, among other matches. He was finally been formally promoted to Anglia’s Head of Sport in 1985, and by this time was also a familiar face on the region’s nightly news show.
The writing, however, was on the wall. Frustrated at the network’s failure to retain its football rights, he left in 1993 to pursue a new career path, joining Trans World International as a producer. He would go on to work on their long-running show Futbol Mundial, as well as both producing and commenating on their global live feed of various leagues. He was a regular at the FIFA World Club Cup, and towards the end of his career managed to find the time to put in a couple of cameo appearances back at Anglia, shortly before they completely disappeared, subsumed into the behemoth that is now ITV plc.
Authorative, yet never too shy to share a joke with his audience, Gerry Harrison is probably the most underrated commentator that we have covered in this series, so far. But he remains fondly recalled in East Anglia, both a face and voice that most people over a certain age will remember automatically, the perhaps inevitable result of being so closely associated with one particular region for such a long time. Sure, the FA Cup finals never landed at his feet, but he remains the voice of football for thousands of people in that part of the world.
And even when he didn’t win, it could be argued that he did. Idwal Robling never quite became a household name. He joined BBC Wales after the 1970 World Cup and, whilst his voice would be familiar to Welsh viewers through local football, as well as other sports such as rugby and boxing, his opportunities on Match of the Day were limited – his best known commentary is probably Swansea City’s early season demolition of a relegation-bound Leeds United in 1981 – and he retired from commentary in 1985. Gerry Harrison ended up as the voice of an ITV region, covered six World Cups, and got out when the time was right to pursue a different and more modern perspective on sports broadcasting production at the right time. It’s difficult to argue that he didn’t get the better end of that deal.