“Some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over… It is now.” In this joyous moment of pandemonium, football changed. Where once this was a game centering on managers, clubs, players and fans, at that moment the commentator staked his claim as a crucial protagonist in sport’s most popular game. With this legendary piece of commentary Kenneth Wostelnhome states the importance of the commentator. The pundit has indeed followed suit, and now it could be said that up there with all the other intricacies of football’s great attractions; pundits, commentators and presenters hold a special place in our hearts and minds.
Following on from Wostelnhome’s groundbreaking intrusion into the footballing realm, commentators have come to dominate the way in which we watch and take in football. From Stuart Hall’s summaries of tedious 0-0 draws in his uplifting Victorian patois, to John Motson’s timeless role as the example of commentary excellence, football commentary remains the voice that can either improve, or greatly hinder, the football watching experience.
Here we have the two dominating voices in the live football world – Martin Tyler and Clive Tyldesley. Not coincidentally, the two have recently upped their dominance by being the two voices of EA Sport’s FIFA 12, where either the nonchalant background noise of Tyler’s never-ending football knowledge accompanies your playing experience, or that of Clive Tyldesley, with his perfectly trained commentary voice screeching the words ‘Lionel Messi’ in a way that cannot fail to send a shiver down your spine. Where Tydlessley excels however, his understudy at ITV, Peter Drury, does not. Drury’s faux-poetic lyricism of even the dullest moment of a football game doesn’t is infamous after his description of William Gallas during a World Cup match; “Just then William Gallas looked like a new born lamb who, having popped out of his mother’s womb, couldn’t get his bambie legs out of the way quick enough.”
Of course, the commentator is really nothing without his co-commentator. Though this is not to say the co-commentator, which these days really has this as an interchangeable role with being a match day pundit, always enhances the viewing experience. In fact, the contrary is often true. Despite the odd few, notably Jim Beglin who has, alongside Tydlessley really made the weekday night Champions League football on ITV a cultural phenomenon, the co-commentator can at worst grate, and at best portray a foolish and ill-informed perspective on the game. The list of co-commentators who fall into this condemnable category is almost endless. Ray Wilkins with his tiresome ‘stay on your feet’ mantra; Alan Smith with his weary Midland’s drivel, making any match seem like an episode of the Antiques Roadshow; and Andy Townsend’s im-cockney-even-though-I-played-international-football-for-Ireland unarticulated clichés. The other brand of commentator, the uneducated, ill-informed, inarticulate ex-pro who you can’t help but feel sorry for, is now rife on both TV and radio. One of my favorite examples of this was Dean Saunder’s, the then manager of Wrexham, who as the 5-live co-commentator for a 0-0 draw between Aston Villa and Arsenal refered to Ashley Young as Luke Young on 7 separate occasions throughout the match, only to be corrected on every single occasion by his colleague. Whilst radio is a very difficult medium through which to receive football matches as every shot feels like it is going to fly into the top corner, Saunder’s input spectacularly detracted from the quality of the transmission.
Luckily for us, Saunder isn’t one of the co-commentators who has transcended into the live television studio. Others, however, have, and it is now commonplace to see those faces you thought were only fit for the radio sitting comfortably in a shiny television set. Martin Keown, David Pleat and Craig Burley are but a few of those to have nudged their way next to a more established pundit to become watched, despite being very unwatchable, up and down the country. It must be stressed that these men are really still co-commentators, placed next to the charismatic main pundit. However, what is clear is that all remain in the shadow of the commentator, who is our soundtrack to the match and provides us with the greatest insight into the beautiful game.