The dying art of football commentary 3

“One nil…”

Sometimes the less a commentator says, the more memorable his contribution to a game can be.  That’s why David Coleman and his famous goal-call are still revered well into his retirement.  It was a signature, but it was also very organic.

On any given weekend, there are dozens of different football matches broadcasted across British television.  From the Premier League to the Football League, the Bundesliga to the Eredivisie, the saturation has never been this great and the coverage never so complete.

Where there are live broadcasts, there are also commentators and the range of different voices heard over a weekend leaves you asking what has happened to the standard of the profession.

Of course, go back twenty or thirty years and games on television were far more sparse.  It’s probable, therefore, that the same quality still exists, but that now the stretching of resources has exposed a lack of depth which has always existed.  Whereas previous generations seemed richer and the names associated with it resonated far more, the volume of work in the modern game forces a regression to the mean.

Sunday afternoon football may have all the gravitas it needs, but tune in to a Europa League Thursday and you’ll be left wondering where the next Barry Davies is actually going to come from.

That’s worrying: the best commentators in the industry tend to be the oldest.  Experience is an asset in any job, but commentary isn’t reliant upon it and, rather than just being naive and green, the current flock seem to be directed by a flawed philosophy.

The old adage about referees is that the less noticeable they are, the better they tend to be.  That’s probably true in commentary, too.  The game is supposed to be the star, the accompanying voice merely a supporting act.  Moments of silents do not necessarily need to be filled and there are events within almost any sporting occasion which largely speak for themselves.

A goal, a back tackle, a red card…the audience is smart, they understand the significance of almost everything that happens without needing it to be reinforced.

The current trend, however, is for words -  and lots of them.  The effortless gravitas of a Brian Moore has been replaced with a new breed of commentator, one who fears silence and who erroneously believes that he has equal-billing with the game itself.  Every high-point has to be loaded with hyperbole, every low-ebb parodied by the insistence of catastrophe.

It’s a long-standing joke, but it’s probably true: there’s an unmistakable whiff of affectation to a lot of contemporary commentary and it’s not hard to imagine pre-prepared sound-bytes being practiced in bathroom mirrors the night before a game.  Whilst once their accepted raison d’etre was to enhance whatever was being covered, now a commentator’s principal objective seems to be to use the game as a self-promotional tool.

The industry is littered with people on a endless quest to claim their own Kenneth Wolstenholme moment.

Pat Summerall, the late NFL broadcaster, may have debuted in 1962 and called his last game almost ten years ago, but his legacy is very relevant today and across all manner of sports.  Summerall was never too up, never too down, and he never relied on melodramatic inflections or any other contrived antics.  He was smooth, a study of understated excellence and the balance of his partnership with John Madden still provides a worthy template today.

Summerall was a dichotomy of sorts: he was someone who spent a career artfully blending into the background of the game he covered, but who simultaneously managed to stand out from his peers.

Why?  Not because he had a remarkable voice or because of an encyclopedic range of detail, but because he knew his place within his environment.  The game came first, the crowd second, and he was cheerfully a distant third.  He got it, he knew where the equilibrium occurred.

There are still talented commentators working in football.  Beyond the consistent excellence of Five Live’s coverage, a lot of BT Sport’s continental work is of the highest standard and Martin Tyler is still rightly the big-game choice on Sky Sports, but the industry seems to be packed with more filler than ever before.

Two-dimensional voices who speak for speaking’s sake and who mercilessly crowd the viewers’ senses.

David Coleman’s old “one-nil…” cry is being gradually replaced with forcefully elongated vowels, unnecessary bluster, and a growing range of listen-to-me tactics.

Pieces of Hate (The Set Pieces): Taking aim at hand-crafted fan banners.

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