Commentators: Individuality over Template Pundits

When John Motson announced that he was retiring at the end of the season, having served the BBC for 50 years as a football commentator, it prompted many articles in the press, writes Paul Mitchell.

Much of what was written paid tribute to his longevity, professionalism and his legendary preparation but a line that may have been overlooked belonged to Ian Herbert of the Daily Mail when he wrote, “Motson's style belongs to a time when there was a place for eccentricity in football.” I found the line a telling one.

With the explosion of television sport over the last 25 years we have gone from accepting that only the odd important match was shown live on television to outrage now when a rare important game is not - Hibs v Hearts Scottish Cup replay being a good example.

The plethora of live matches has brought with it a requirement for a plethora of commentators. Previously a mere handful of commentators were required given the restricted coverage, now these requirements have multiplied. The collective term for a group of football commentators could once have been described as ‘a whisper’, now it's more like ‘a crescendo'.

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For those of us now in our forties, we have youthful memories of several key football voices; John Motson and Barry Davies on the BBC World Cup coverage, Brian Moore on ITV.

In Scotland, the television battle was the BBC v STV, Archie Macpherson v Arthur Montford. Both distinctive and there was always great debate on which channel to watch the Scottish Cup Final when both broadcasters showed it. STV often had an edge with the lead in of ‘Glen Michael’s Cup Final Cartoon Cavalcade’.

David Francey was the main man on BBC Radio Scotland. A warm, rich voice that I can still hear in my mind coming to me via a small tinny radio secreted under my pillow as he described the action from a European outpost that sounded even further away than it actually was thanks to the crackly line that threatened to snap at any moment.

Jock Brown succeeded Archie Macpherson on BBC Television while both David Begg and Alistair Alexander went on to dominate the airwaves on Radio Scotland’s football coverage.

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I have been fortunate to meet them all. While they couldn’t be described as ‘eccentric’, each was distinctive, each with a style that came naturally to them. You turned on the TV or the radio and you quickly knew the voice.

When people look back they often do so with a degree of nostalgic myopia, just as the prowess of a long-term injured player grows in the minds of fans who convince themselves that said player’s absence is why their team is now failing - while forgetting that they had been slaughtering said player for weeks prior to the injury. In similar terms, we can look back at past commentators and often remember them as being better than they were. Sure, they had their faults but their distinctiveness and clear passion for the game could not be questioned.

The line from the Daily Mail suggested to me that John Motson starting out today would not succeed as he is a little different, not always following the cookie cutter template prevalent today.

The dilution of the product has not helped. A European Cup tie live on TV was once unmissable no matter the teams involved, the whole 90 minutes were to be absorbed without distraction. That was when we were starved of live football, now we can fail to visit a veritable buffet of Champions League action as we simply can’t be bothered that night.

I was asked recently if there are too many football commentators around who simply follow a supposedly acceptable template of how to describe the action, use a pile of statistics and overuse clichés. The answer to that is yes, but that is not say that quality does not exist. There are many good commentators around who will never receive the same level of fame as a Motson or a Davies due to the widespread coverage today scattered over many more than just two channels.

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I have my own favourite commentators. It would be unfair, and possibly unwise, to comment on current Scottish commentators or those on the BBC but looking southward I will say that I think Simon Brotherton is a little underused and that John Murray of Five Live is outstanding.

Alan Parry at Sky and Jon Champion at BT Sport are first class. They have also experience of other sports which I feel enhances their ability. Sam Matterface of Talksport and ITV has developed strongly although I prefer the more restrained TV version.

Liking or disliking a commentator is subjective. It may be the tone of voice that puts us off or a perceived bias based on even just one particular comment that really annoyed us. I am convinced that once we ‘dislike’ a commentator then they can do nothing to win us back.

I know that there are those who don’t think I am any good - I can live with that. All I can do is prepare well and deliver to the best of my ability. I like to have fun, which is easier on radio than TV, and if the situation occurs to do so then go with it. Statistics are important to set context but for some they are an edict to be delivered no matter what. I am enthusiastic and like to think I can build up a game and deliver in the big moments. It is a strange feeling commentating live on something that you know could be replayed time and time again. The other key on television is silence which is rarely utilised well – that and other techniques I will discuss another time (commentators as cheerleaders, shouting, lack of interest – there is no shortage of topics).

When people ask me if anyone can be a football commentator I reply by telling them while I can drive a car which makes me a driver, it doesn’t make me Lewis Hamilton.

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People can cover a football match and while that may make them a commentator, it doesn’t make them a broadcaster. I consider all those I named as current examples of good commentators to be broadcasters. The difference? The former does the job, the latter understands the job, the nuances required to make it enjoyable and ensures that what they do is tailored for the audience and not just for themselves.

Developing referees who seek to advance to the highest level are coached to referee a certain way which is commendable but the danger is clones rather than individuals are produced. Often referees at the end of their careers, freed from the need to get high marks from the appraiser or who are no longer looking to tick boxes to make FIFA lists, become better by applying a common-sense approach. They take the basics that they have learned but are acutely aware of how they referee a game.

Commentary is like that. The basic building blocks exist but individuality is important. I like distinctive styles and voices and I would like to think that there is plenty of room for someone with a style of John Motson to become successful today.

Paul Mitchell is a Scottish football commentator and was the main commentator for BBC Scotland for six years from 2004–2010, covering 13 major Scottish cup finals along with other domestic, European and international games.