The art of the commentator isn’t dead; it’s their sidekicks that need silencing

Clive Tyldesley and Michael Owen Credit: Alamy
Clive Tyldesley and Michael Owen Credit: Alamy

In a recent Guardian article Jonathan Liew that the commentator should be replaced by silence, but it’s their sidekicks who need to disappear.


‘Commentators have taken over but it’s time to let game do the talking,’ wrote Jonathan Liew in The Guardian this week, and the gist of his piece was fairly straightforward. Commentators, he argues, talk too much these days, filling every available second with noise, no matter how useful or otherwise their thoughts might be.

Why not exchange this blizzard of white noise for the relative silence of the match itself? The background hum of the crowd and the shouts from the pitch or touchline could offer a radical alternative to yet more voices flooding the airwaves with their broadly unwanted opinions.

To a point, it’s a fair argument. Commentary is an art form, and its days of minimalism are long gone. When there is a lull in proceedings – and the average match has a lot of them – the pressure is on to say something, anything. A useless statistic that might make someone smirk. An advertisement for that channel’s next must-see, can’t-miss sporting event.

Is there a fear that if the audience is left to its own devices for longer than three or four seconds, we might collectively have a moment of existential realisation of the futility of it all and switch over to watch something more intellectually stimulating like Love Island?

But hold on a moment, there. If commentary is an art form, then surely we still need them, don’t we? Liew makes reference to ‘Motson, Davies, Moore (and there were never more than three): these were the gods of the gantry, braving the midday Mexican heat and the bone-rattling Boxing Day chill’, and he’s onto something there, although there should be a point of order to remember the other commentators of years gone by.

Liew may not be old enough to remember the likes of Hugh Johns or Gerald Sinstadt in their prime, but some of us are, and they were every bit as talented as their more celebrated brethren. And many of them were faces and voices of a region, indelibly linked with a time and place.

Consider, for example, Hugh Johns, who commentated on four World Cup finals for ITV, but was better known in the 1970s as the voice of football in the Midlands, covering Brian Clough’s successes at both Derby County and Nottingham Forest for ATV. In his last season working in that area, Aston Villa became the champions of England for the first time in more than 70 years.

But ‘braving the midday Mexican heat and the bone-rattling Boxing Day chill’ is a different matter. That’s what the commentators were – and probably should still be – there for. They were there to give the audience at home a flavour of what it was like to be inside the stadium, and to report on what was happening in real time. This is why pre-scripted commentary lines sound so obvious to the audience; you can’t pre-script the unexpected.

When the Hindenburg airship crashed and burned in New Jersey before radio reporter Herb Morrison in 1937, Morrison didn’t achieve broadcasting immortality by reaching for an exercise book, flicking through a list of pre-prepared zingers he’d written down on his journey down there, and then shouting, ‘There’s some flames coming out the back of the Hindenburg, they think it’s all over, it is now’. He achieved it by authentically channelling the dumbfounded shock of seeing something so horrifying happening up close.

And if commentary is an art form, then the very best were masters. Barry Davies understood the importance of punctuation in spoken language, that sometimes what you don’t say is as important as what you do. John Motson could make you feel as though you were alongside him in the commentary box, hanging off his every word. Silence can be golden, but we would miss television commentary if it were gone. Fortunately technological developments mean that an option without commentary could and should be made available for viewers who prefer their sound on the ambient side.

But there is one subset of this wall of sound which could be fired from a rocket into the sun without upsetting too many. It may come as a surprise to learn that the co-commentator is almost as old as televised football itself. Commentators were – as they are now – primarily journalists and weren’t necessarily expected to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game.

This is precisely why, for example, Barry Davies could be so adept at moving between football, Wimbledon tennis and hockey at the Olympics. The commentator was there to report what was happening on the pitch; the co-commentator was there to offer the professional’s perspective, to interpret what was happening and contextualise it.

BBC commentator Barry Davies at White Hart Lane in 1972 Credit: Alamy
BBC commentator Barry Davies at White Hart Lane in 1972 Credit: Alamy

The BBC had a co-commentator for the 1966 World Cup final in the form of the former Arsenal and Wales defender Walley Barnes, but unless you’ve watched the full match with its original commentary, it’s unlikely that you’d know this because the co-commentator very much only spoke when invited. They were a splash of colour to be used sparingly, and the problem with that is that they’ve become less and less sparingly used over the years, to the point that modern football commentary often feels like listening to a conversation between two people in a pub, rather than one person commentating and the other interpreting.

If there is a position that has become redundant over the intervening five-and-a-half decades, it’s that of the co-commentator. In the 1960s, the only sources of information for football were the broadcast media, newspapers and one or two magazines. There was a hunger to learn more, and former players were the perfect candidates to teach it. Nowadays, we’re bombarded with facts, figures and statistics all day, every day. It may seem surprising when you see some of the views offered on social media, but viewers are probably better educated about the mechanics of the game now than ever.

There is no longer any need for anyone to interpret what’s going on during a match. That will be done, sometimes in excruciating detail, afterwards. A few seconds silence would certainly be considerably preferable to hearing Glenn Hoddle agonising live on the television over whether a tight call is offside or not as he watches it from four different angles, none of which will even give him the information that he actually needs to make a correct call.

And it certainly isn’t that there aren’t excellent co-commentators and pundits out there. Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Alex Scott, to name just three, are excellent at breaking down games. Monday Night Football is in particular something of a must-watch deep dive on the match which has preceded it and frequently broader issues within the game.

The problems may well be stylistic. I don’t want to hear Gary Neville make a noise that sounds like he’s just realised that an extremely lengthy period of constipation is about to end when the Manchester United offside trap is tripped. I want him to explain and contextualise it. Why are the players doing what they’re doing? Why aren’t they just… doing better?

Furthermore, I don’t need to hear it from two people at the same time, during the match. I want the commentator to make me feel as though I’m sitting right there next to him, tell me who’s on the ball and maybe squawk a bit when somebody scored and generally, well, do commentator things. And afterwards I want people who’ve played a lot of football explain why and how the players have made the – often inexplicable-looking – decisions that they have just made.

The commentator’s art is under-appreciated. Sports commentary is incredibly difficult to do, all the more so when broadcasting live, with no editing suite available. We’re lucky to have professionals so good at it that they can make it sound easy. But if there is a need to change the way in which football is covered on the television, it’s time to put co-commentators out to pasture. They’ve out-lived their usefulness, and their insight could be better shared in other ways.

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