Clive’s views on good and not so good commentary
Well, the beginning is as good a place as any. I always wanted to be a football commentator. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with ambition.
There are not many fairytales in the 21st century world of further education, work experience and career opportunities, but the ones that come true are written in a font of diligence, persistence and ambition… and an awful lot of luck.
Ambition must foster interest for it to be ever realised. I may say I have an ambition to write screenplays simply because I like a good movie. But unless I take an interest in how film scripts are fashioned and formatted I may just as well say that I have an ambition to be the next Adam Sandler.
‘Football Commentary’ is purely for people interested in commentary. Anybody else will find it deadly dull.
Being a television commentator is a fairly glamorous profession, and yet the stereotypical image of a commentator is of a bookworm in an anorak. Unfair? Err, probably not, actually.
‘Fail to prepare, and you prepare to fail,’ was the maxim of the late, great Brian Moore – my predecessor as ITV’s senior football commentator. Each and every match we call is a kind of examination paper. They all require revision. The anorak is optional but the research is not. We are all stattos at heart.
Good and bad commentary is a matter of opinion. As Barry Davies, a retired BBC doyen of the microphone, once said to me, “one man’s commentator is another man’s pain the backside”. If commentaries are indeed exams, they are not maths papers where every answer is right or wrong, they are more akin to English Literature essays in which a style, an opinion or a turn of phrase will appeal more to one examiner than another.
To make matters more interesting, the examiners are also mainly mad. Well, not clinically mad… but most viewers of a live match are ‘not all there’.
Football naturally unbalances us. It works us up into a state of nervous excitement and tension, and it usually calls on us to pin our colours to one mast or the other. The TV commentator is probably the only ‘neutral’ watching the game… so he is automatically branded as ‘biased’ by all the other people watching it.
I will let you into a secret – we cannot hear you when we are commentating. No matter how many times you shout ‘don’t say that’ or ‘you’re talking rubbish’ at the screen, we still don’t hear it. So when we repeat what you are pleading with us not to say, and recycle the verbal ‘rubbish’, we are not actually doing it to wind you up. We are just ‘biased’, remember?!
Commentary may be a matter of opinion, but there is still a technique to it… well, lots of techniques in truth. It is my views on those techniques that I will attempt to outline with regular posts to ‘Football Commentary’.
And that’s why you will have to be ‘interested’ in commentary to survive this section of the site. I love a great movie, but I am not that interested in how it is made – I just want to enjoy it, or rubbish it, or both sometimes.
But I do have an interest in commentary and how it is done. I always did have. And that – more than anything else – is how I finished up in this job.
It is obviously flattering when people come up to you and regurgitate a phrase that you used during a particular game.
‘Some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over…’ is now part of the folklore of the 1966 World Cup final, and Kenneth Wolstenholme with it. But there is a strong argument for saying our best commentaries are the ones people don’t remember.
People often say the best referees are the ones you don’t notice, and I think the same principle applies to commentators – up to a point. The very best referees are the ones you don’t notice until there is a critical decision to make, or a bit of a dispute to solve without making a drama of it. That is when they really earn their reputations. Like referees, good commentators get the big calls right, and find the right words for the memorable moments.
One of the questions I get asked most often is ‘what is the biggest difference between radio and television commentary?’ Simples. You’re not nearly as important in television as you are in radio.
TV is a visual medium. The pictures paint themselves, you are merely the accompaniment to them. Radio commentators are the pictures. A good score can help make a great film, but it is only ever a soundtrack to what the eyes are seeing for themselves.
When you go into an atmospheric restaurant you only notice the music that is playing if it is annoying you. If you’ve gone out to eat Italian, and they’re playing Indian music with your pasta you’ve got every right to complain. Football commentary should never intrude on your enjoyment of a televised game, it should only ever embroider or embellish it. Fat chance, I know… but that’s the theory!
I write the scripts that I record for the FIFA computer games. When I first began to work for Electronic Arts, the scripts they gave me were full of outrageous phrases like ‘he bulged the onion bag with that rasper’ (no, seriously!). Now, a line like that may raise a chuckle the first couple of times you hear it, but if you’re having a 3-hour session on FIFA it will soon start to grate on you. The best commentary lines are unremarkable and repeatable.
My idea of the best TV advert ever written is Ronseal Wood Stain – ‘does what it says on the tin’. Football commentary should strive to do the same – inform, explain and build drama naturally.
My favourite ever commentator is Pat Summerall. He was John Madden’s ‘straight man’ on network American Football coverage in the USA. Summerall did the numbers, Madden did the colour. He used words economically, succinctly, effectively to set the stage for each play. Nothing fancy, but usually word perfect.
I confess that I don’t follow his example nearly enough. I try to be clever, try to be funny, try to be expressive (and probably end up being plain smart-ass too often). It is an entertainment medium, and there is a balance to be struck between information and entertainment in good commentary. I get the balance wrong occasionally (some of you may say a lot more than occasionally!), and it is a matter of opinion and taste.
But over the period of a commentator’s career, the public kind of get used to his (or her) little idiosyncrasies, and even begin to forgive most of them as long as they hear honesty and warmth.
The best sports broadcasters ooze both – Brian Moore, Brian Johnston, Reg Gutteridge – you just knew they were honest, warm men. You cannot learn those qualities, you can only develop them as you build a sort of bond of trust with the audience. Then you can do good commentaries.
Having shared my essential thoughts on what makes for a good commentary, I suppose I had better ‘fess up on what I see as bad commentary. And, yes, I should know!
In my book, there is only one cardinal sin. If you ever hear a radio or television commentator that sounds like he or she would rather be somewhere else, switch them off straight away. If it’s a bad game, they can say it’s a bad game… but they must never, ever, ever, give the impression that they wish they weren’t there. Millions would gladly swap places with them. I don’t forget that.
No names, but there are one or two prominent commentators around that give the impression that some of the games they see are simply wasting their precious time. Those commentators should remember they are being paid for that time, and that the two teams they are watching mean the world to some of their audience. The 1999 Champions League final (there, I’ve mentioned it!) just wasn’t very good for 80 minutes.
There is a view ‘inside’ football that you are not qualified to criticise players and managers unless you’ve been one yourself. Nonsense! You don’t have to be a pastry chef to know a good chocolate cake. But criticism is one thing, condemnation is another.
You need to be pretty sure of your ground before you start being damning or dismissive. These days, fans sing ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’ too readily. We should think twice before joining in.
The most instructive critic of my own broadcasts was the late Reg Gutteridge, ITV’s famous boxing commentator. I remember him once lecturing me for saying ‘of course’ too often.
His reasoning… “Every time you say ‘of course’ you are talking down to part of your audience. If you say ‘of course, he played here at Wembley for his club last month’, you are effectively apologising to the more knowledgeable viewers for telling them something they probably know already, while demeaning the rest. If something is worth saying you shouldn’t need to apologise for it, just say it. If it’s not, don’t say it in the first place.”
Clear, simple analysis of what should be a clear, simple art. He was brilliant at that.
Trying to impress…
Reg would sometimes berate me for ‘commentating to the England manager.’ It was his way of saying that I was trying to impress the professionals with my apparent knowledge of the game. His own commentaries were very inclusive, never exclusive. He had a lovely easy, populist style. You always felt like he was talking to you. Reg would tell me to ‘commentate to your grandma – she counts as one viewer just like the England manager.’
So many specific aspects of commentary are matters of personal taste. Some people like the bawlers, some like the stattos, some like the opinionated – others hate each of them for the very reasons that make them stand out to their fans.
Believe it or not, I’m pretty self-critical. I can’t stand it when I come down from the gantry after a ropey commentary and someone in the production truck says ‘well done, Clive.’ Were you listening for God’s sake?!
For what it’s worth, I think I’m at my worst when I wittier, when I’m smart ass, when I talk with a false laugh in my voice, when I reuse a phrase that worked well the 1st time for the 41st time, when I’ve researched a fascinating fact at great length and force it into the commentary whether it’s relevant or not. I actually try to avoid all of these foibles and failings and many more besides, but it’s not easy to talk for an hour-and-a-half and not mess up somewhere. Not every week.
Try to get better…
But I do think about how to try to get better. It’s the commentators that don’t think they need to get better that I can’t stand. You’ve got to want to improve, and that means listening back to your work with an ultra-critical ear, listening to your peers and your critics and trying to polish and refine your style and approach continually. I miss Reg nearly as much as I miss my grandma.
Concentration will cure most slips of the tongue, but old habits die hard. When the red light comes on and you start to commentate, your memory takes over. It’s difficult to retrain it and develop.
As Terry Venables says, “the last thing you learn is the first thing you forget under pressure.”
‘How do you remember all the names?’ If I had a penny for every time I’ve been asked that question, I wouldn’t be able to get up to the TV gantry for the weight in my pockets.
The honest answer is ‘I don’t!,’ but by preparing properly for commentary games, I have a system in place to get most of them and get by.
All commentators prepare crib sheets, but none of them are quite the same. We all go about the business of research and preparation in different ways, but the end product is the equivalent of a comfort blanket for adults.
I don’t know how many times I actually look at my notes during a match, but if somebody stole them just before kick-off I’d probably go into a flat panic. I’d be like a high wire act with no safety net. Help!
First basic task…
Learning the players’ names is the first basic task of commentary prep… the second is putting those names to a face or a body or a running style or a hair, skin or boot colour.
When commentators ask other commentators about relatively unknown teams they are hoping to hear, ‘don’t worry they’ve got one baldy, one redhead, one with long hair and an alice band, one black African, one South Korean, one with pink boots, one with two wristbands, one with four heads etc etc…’
Access to still photos and match DVD’s is far better now than it was a decade ago. Most teams are obliged to allow the media in to view training sessions on the eve of major international and European fixtures, even if it is only for 15 minutes.
I must admit that I have left some of those sessions fearing I recognised less players at the end than I did at the beginning, but the occasional ‘ident error’ is an occupational hazard. Even Lionel Messi can miss a penalty.
It is an inescapable fact that white Caucasian commentators tend to have more problems with teams full of East Asian or Black African players. But while you can anticipate inevitable difficulties with, say, North Korea v Mali and concentrate the mind more, the ones that really catch you out are the similarities you didn’t see coming.
I suddenly found myself mistaking Andrei Arshavin for Jack Wilshire at the start of a recent Arsenal game they both played in. I used to have recurring nightmares about Steve Stone, Alan Wright and Mark Draper when they were in the same Villa team.
There are all kinds of ‘tricks of the trade’ to try to meet the challenge of identifying a goalscorer in a crowded penalty area. At a corner, I rarely watch the taker of the kick but focus all of my attention on the potential scorers, mentally identifying them to myself over and over again as they jostle for position in the seconds leading up to the kick.
There is a strange, misguided sense of pride in blurting out the correct name in the instance his header flies into the corner of the net… usually followed by a second or two of horrible self doubt in case you’re wrong!
Commentators are ridiculously macho about instant recognition. Sometimes you spot the scorer from your armchair faster than the colleague sitting in the stadium and feel horribly smug about it (Confessions!!).
Getting it right…
As we grow older (and blinder!) we realise that getting it right is far more important than getting it quickly. If you can announce, ‘he made absolutely sure that the vital touch was going to be his’ with enough bluff, you may even convince your audience you know who ‘he’ is… at least for long enough to work it out from the celebrations.
At ‘highlights’ matches, we do occasionally get the chance to record a correction to a piece of errant commentary but it never sounds quite right and regular viewers of football will invariably spot it.
And then there is the embarrassment of sitting in your position at half-time and suddenly shouting out ‘Drogba… oh yes’ for no apparent reason within earshot of hundreds of supporters. For some reason, you make less mistakes during live broadcasts.
Fear is a healthy thing.
So is it Dirk Kowt or Koyt or Kite? Once you’ve got an idea what the players look like, you’ve got to learn how to pronounce them.
If I’m honest, I’m not even sure how to pronounce pronunciation properly, but broadcasting is all about communication, and as long as we can communicate who has scored to the viewers, the player concerned may just have to put up with the odd sound problem.
Many moons ago, a famous BBC television commentator happened to take lunch with a Swedish colleague who convinced him that Bjorn Borg’s surname should be correctly pronounced ‘Burry’. This was at a time when Borg was defending the Wimbledon singles title for the fifth successive year, and was just about the most famous sportsman on the planet.
To suddenly start calling him by a totally different surname – rightly or wrongly – would have been the art of confusing not communicating (not that it stopped the commentator in question!).
One of the biggest mistakes we make in pursuit of accuracy is asking a Swede to teach us how to pronounce Swedish names, a native of Portugal how to pronounce Portuguese names, or – worst of all – a Dutchman how to pronounce Dutch names. Ruud Gullit once implored me to call him ‘Gullet’ rather than ‘Hullet’.
Neither was right because the Dutch make a guttural G/H sound that is simply not inside the British throat. ‘Gullet’, he reasoned, was at least logically wrong, ‘Hullet’ was just plain wrong. But ‘Hullet’ he had been to every British football fan for twenty years, so I remain stubbornly faithful to the original mistake.
It was with a heavy heart that I recently started calling Liverpool’s David N’gog, ‘Un-gog’ rather than ‘Un-go’. Apparently, he has made a personal request for the African rather than the French pronunciation of his name to be adopted.
I guess it’s his name to do what he will with, but if he had been five years and seventy goals into his Premier League career, I’d have been less likely to comply with his wishes and change. The man that scored all those goals for Newcastle and Manchester United was Andy Cole. If his mum calls him ‘Andrew’, that’s fine, but he will always be Andy Cole to me.
Clearly, it is only respectful to try to be as accurate as is reasonably possible with people’s family names. I remember it was the Jenas family that made a point of contacting several of us to confirm that (the then) young Jermaine was pronounced ‘Jee-nas’.
But the more cosmopolitan our game has become, the more brain teasers the commentators are being set by Latin Americans with ‘nicknames’ and Asians with three names. I swear Ji-Sung Park was Park Ji-Sung when he first arrived at Old Trafford.
I’m very old-fashioned about nicknames. Javier Hernandez Balcazar can print the words to a Mexican hat dance on the back of his shirt, but I’m going to call him ‘Hernandez’.
If any of us start to pander to the ‘Chicharito’ on his jersey, it will only be a matter of time before Wayne Rooney has ‘Wazza’ inscribed above his number 10. They are supposed to sport the name on their passport, not the name on their Facebook page.
Generally speaking, commentators ‘agree’ a universal pronunciation of a new kid on the block. The first broadcaster to cover a newcomer’s appearance will check his name on everyone else’s behalf.
From time to time, an absolute corker like Takashi Fukunishi of Japan or Igor Shitov of Belarus comes along. With Fukunishi, I invented more of a ‘Foo-koo-nishi’ sound, but Shitov left me nowhere else to go. I think I said something like, ‘if you’re going to snigger every time he gets it, you can just go to bed’. Tyldesley probably means something awful in Belarussian.
And therein lies the problem, and the reason why I tend to Anglicise most of the names I call… you see, loads and loads of people get my name wrong!
For the record, it’s ‘Tillsly’, the ‘D’ is silent… just like some of you wish I was!
Still interested? More soon…
Meanwhile, if you have a view on anything I’ve said in the above that you wish to share with me and the world at large, please visit The footballcommentator.org Forum and have your say there – we would love to hear from you.