The Welcome Return of Jon Champion

by | Jun 17, 2018

Switching on last night’s ITV match between Croatia and Nigeria, it was a pleasant surprise to hear the return of the voice of veteran commentator Jon Champion to our screens. Along with Ally McCoist, Champion ushered us confidently and professionally through a match which nodded off at times, a calming Saturday evening presence after a day of hysteria, a genuine enthusiast for the game at its biggest global event. Small wonder he sounded excited, at times.

These days, our commentators often feel like very much of a muchness. We don’t know for certain that there actually exists a style-book the modern football commentator, but we wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they were. In the past, however, they were all very distinctive from each other. Jon Champion arrived at the very tail end of this era, and it was first a jarring experience to hear a voice more readily associated with BBC Radio – from whence he came – commentating on the television, for five years with the BBC and then with ITV, Setanta, and ESPN. He continues to work for the Premier League’s official feed, a familiar voice to many millions, just not in the UK.

Were I to pick a personal favourite Jon Champion moment, it would be from his commentary on the FA Cup First Round match between Rochdale and FC United of Manchester in November 2011, when a combination of excitement, volume and shaking of the roof led to a definite quiver to his voice to mark the equation. Just over a year later, he was reprimanded by ESPN after calling Luis Suarez “a cheat” during an FA Cup match between Mansfield Town and Liverpool. Whilst we wouldn’t want editorialising from our commentators, it is at least refreshing to hear a little opinion and genuine warmth and pleasure – he himself is a supporter of National League North side York City – at what he is witnessing.

All of which leads me on to a familiar old man gripe. I feel reasonably confident in the belief that it is already difficult to tell television footage of different tournaments from each other, so homogenised has everything become. The same box-shaped goals, the same shrieking voices, the same aerial cameras showing perfect specimens on perfect pitches. Television coverage of football and video games have converged in recent years, and the end result will always be the same, no matter where you are in the world, no matter what the time is.

[In terms of recent tournaments and speaking from a British perspective, there was one exception to this – the 2010 World Cup finals were a Southern Hemisphere event, and as such had the slightly different lighting that a winter tournament normally sees, as also happened with the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina.]

This is, of course, progress. Every single change to the way in which football is both played and televised has been brought in to try to improve the experience for everybody. Those box-shaped goals are there because stanchions are treated as dangerous. Pitches are better because they encourage better, more attractive football. The kits are presumably designed because that’s what people who are younger (and therefore more likely to buy them) than me actually want. The television graphics are there because they help. The multiple camera angles offer us multiple views in super slow motion, and the quality of camerawork is stunning. Those new stadia may largely looked the same, but they’re a million times safer than the death-traps of my childhood and offer an experience more comfortable than my sixteen year-old self would have been able to compute.

One significant improvement in terms of coverage this summer has been the addition of women to both commentary and studio teams. Eni Aluko has been an impressive – if occasionally slightly nervous-looking, but that’ll pass with greater experience – addition to ITV’s team, whilst Jacqui Oatley has stepped up to her increased profile with the confidence and assuredness that we would have expected. The BBC, for their part, have Alex Scott in the studio and Vicki Sparks in the commentary box, and that both broadcasters are increasing the profile of women in such a major tournament is a positive sign towards greater diversity in media coverage of the game.

And the past wasn’t always that glorious, either. Television viewers tuning into the World Cup finals in 1982 would have found that the opening match between Argentina and Belgium wasn’t shown live at all. After the home nations failed to qualify at all, only three games of the 1984 European Championships were shown live, and ITV didn’t bother with it at all. During the first week of the 1986 World Cup finals, it was commonplace for pictures and/or sound to cut out suddenly, as systems affected by an earthquake in Mexico City nine months earlier groaned under the pressure. Jimmy Hill, now canonised as one of the most influential men in the history of English football, was as much of an irritance to 1980s television audiences as Robbie Savage is to those of 2018. We do tend to see the past through rose-tinted lenses.

For those of us of a certain age, though, the introduction of VAR and goal-line technology represent a fundamental change to the very nature of football. The referee’s decision remains final, but the intonation behind its use has changed with the introduction of technology. Previously, “the referee’s decision is final” implied that you, as the recipient of that decision, had to accept that they might get it wrong, and that you would just have to live with it. VAR and goal-line technology, this rush towards infallibility, is a very different concept to this. We’ll grumble about it and you’ll call us old. But we do at least already know that we’re raging at the dying of the light, and we’re mostly at least cogniscent of the fact that there’s give and take in the games of the past and games of the future.

Sometimes, though, it’s nice to be taken back to a different period. Jon Champion doesn’t sound his age, giving him a voice which continues to sound appropriate to modern broadcasting mores. And the nature of broadcasting has changed. The battle that used to exist between the BBC and ITV no longer has any real relevance because the battle for television sports has already been won by pay-TV. The most common football voices of the last few years for me have been Martin Tyler, Ian Darke and Bill Leslie, because pay-TV is where I consume my football. Few of us are likely to switch off a match because we don’t like the commentator. It’s a small detail, but it added a small amount of warmth at the end of a long day, and for that, it should be appreciated.