Talking a Good Game; On Becoming a Football Commentator

Press Box at Crawley Town v Doncaster RoversA couple of years ago, in London for the weekend, I was invited to a house party somewhere in the middle of the city where I knew no-one bar the guy I had tagged along with. Between the lift and the door to the flat I asked who’s house party it was I was about to attend and what they did. “They’re in a sketch troupe,” was my mate’s answer, said as if that were a normal sentence that someone might say. “Oh right,” I replied, before pressing on, “but what do they do for a living?” “That,” he replied, “they’re in a sketch troupe,” and in we went.

They were in a sketch troupe, and the other people present were actors who hadn’t acted in anything for a while and directors who were “still finding my true style, you know?” and so I coupled up with the only person in there I could relate to; a bottle of Sailor Jerrys. The night went downhill from that point, reaching a low when I tried to shake hands with a man who didn’t actually have a right arm… there’s no coming back from that. Something I would muse when the magnitude of this social failure dawned on me… twelve hours later… whilst watching Rovers lose at Millwall. If ever there was a time and place to suffer through the worst hangover of your life; Dockers’ Day at the Den was not it.

The point I’ve meandered past here is that the reaction I proffered on that flat doorstep when I discovered the occupants could fund said property through a life in an unknown sketch troupe was much the same as how I felt when I discovered that people actually have the job of being a football commentator. Even as a child I’m certain my reaction was “OK right… but what do they do really?” It’s simply not a career path made aware to you, especially as a child where you inhabit a simplified world of generic labour; folk are not online data analysts or despatch traffic facilitators, but simply office workers, or van drivers. My dad was a football manager, but that was at the weekends; in the week he was a PE teacher, so surely the same was true of John Motson and his ilk. They can’t have simply been commentators, instead they must spend their weekdays narrating their way through actual proper jobs; filing perhaps (“and that’s right out of the top drawer!”) or postroom duties  (“can you believe it, a second card in as many minutes?!”).

But supposing you could be a commentator, then if that was the case, then it was a job which appealed to me. Getting paid to yell ”Goal!”, especially if you did it like those South American commentators you could hear in the background during Trans World Sport? Perfect, where do I sign up? I mean I already narrated our playground kickabouts to a pretty decent standard; I was at least the third be in our year, and that was whilst playing so it must be a piece of piss to do it sat at a desk with a tv showing you replays.

Somehow though BBC talent scouts failed to detect my playground lexicon and eventually I was forced to grow up, and do so accepting that being a commentator, much like being in a sketch troupe, was the sort of thing that other people did whilst I was getting drunk in the kitchen. And so I let that particular ambition go, packed it up and filed it away with train driver, being on Challenge Aneka and having my picture in Tony Hart’s gallery, and never gave it another thought.

Until January.

In January I moved to London, and with what money I had tied up in rent and flat deposits I realised that close as it was, I couldn’t really afford to go and see Rovers at Stevenage, not unless I found a way to get in for free, or managed to commandeer one of those railway handcarts they always manage to come across in Roadrunner cartoons. My luck proved to be in; on the Viking Chat forum two days before the game came hope in the form of disorganisation. Owing to one case of reassignment and another of emigration, the club were now sans commentator for the game. “Volunteers?” It was my birthday. I’d turned 30. I was running out of things to say ‘yes’ to. I volunteered. Three emails later I’m a ‘summariser’. See you Saturday. Go to the Press Entrance on the day. How hard can it be?

Stevenage seemed to go ok, giving weight and description to Paul Mayfield’s horse-racing-final-furlong paced commentary from which he only broke at half-time in order to hand out biscuits to the press, the stewards, and any home supporters within a fifteen yard radius. The Statler & Waldorfs of the club’s online forum sat between content and the identification of minor faults; a Yorkshire equivalent of gushing praise. So I’ve done it again since. I was leading the commentary the next time, and have done four further times.

Press Box Wiring at Crawley
How not to wire a press box

I enjoy it. Really genuinely enjoy it. There was a time last season, during ‘the experiment’ and all the nonsense and misplaced vitriol that surrounded it that I stopped attending games. I didn’t want to be associated with the club and I no longer derived any pleasure from watching them; it had all become too serious. Win, lose or draw it no longer mattered as results would just be used for points-scoring and basis for the same arguments. It was tedious, depressing, and I didn’t envisage ever returning to the point where I could look forward to matches once again. I feel much better about almost every aspect of Rovers this season, but it is the commentary and a combination of ignoring the back-story to focus in solely on the action coupled with the fulfilment of a childhood ambition that has allowed me to start enjoying it again.

Some folk have been very complimentary but I don’t see it as being all that hard. You just have to remember three key things. 1. Be Descriptive; the people you’re talking to can’t see anything you can so help them out, it matters more that the opposition have the ball on the edge of our box, more than whose feet it is at. 2. Don’t go quiet; primarily because people will assume the equipment has gone down again. 3. Don’t be Alan Green.

Its arguably number three which is the most important of those; over the years I have become so fed up with Alan Green’s commentary that I now only listen to two quarters of any match broadcast on Five Live; the two twenty-three minute sections delivered by Mike Ingham. So I bear this in mind whilst on air, and remember all the things for which I have I hurled shoes or remotes at the radio and yelled “Stop whinging and tell us what’s happening!” and try not to do any of them myself. People haven’t subscribed to hear me complain about excited fans or make judgements on players, managers or referees. So just say what you see.

Because though you may never intone it from listening to Green, this is a cushy number. I may not be getting paid, but I am at least watching football for free, and I’ll never sniff at the opportunity to do that. Mind, when I say cushy I don’t mean luxury. At Stevenage we were so close to the home support that Paul could’ve told you the contents of the right trouser pocket of the bloke next to him by the imprint on his own thigh alone. The desk was a long piece of wood nailed onto the barrier at such an angle that nothing would stay on it and whenever the ball came to the near touchline Paul had to stand to see over it.

A phone used for commentary on Doncaaster Rovers v Tranmere
High-tech commentary equipment

At Crawley I delivered my first main commentary with every wire in the club’s press box inserted into a four-way plug that swung between my feet; each one plugged so precariously and ludicrously the image would have been rejected by people making health and safety awareness posters for being too extreme. And this was after I almost turned off their floodlights fumbling for a light switch in what I thought was a toilet, but turned out to be their plant room. Against Tranmere, following a fault with the ISDN box, we delivered commentary, via an office phone, passing the receiver between us, like we were crowded in a hallway taking it in turns to catch up with a distant relative.

That Tranmere game also brought me somewhat full circle in terms of realising commentators really were simply people doing a day job. Pre-match, standing in the Keepmoat Stadium Press Room I could hear a familiar voice somewhere near me. It was a voice that I knew from my past, but in an unfamiliar setting it took me a while to place. It was John Helm, voice of all football I watched up until the age of twelve, but it wasn’t coming from a television, but from the table next to me, in between mouthfuls of pie and peas. I stood next to Helm later that day too, at a urinal. I eat pie. I piss in urinals. Perhaps football commentary is something I can do after all.

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