Lots of people have said nice things about David Coleman since the BBC put him out to grass. Harry Pearson isn't one of them
Trying to decide who is the best football commentator of all time is clearly a pointless exercise, on a par with arguing over who is the better looking, Kevin Phillips or Phil Stamp. Nevertheless, the news that the BBC will not be renewing David Coleman’s contract has provoked just such a debate and a recent convening of the Radio 5 sports panel, among others, unanimously declared the septuagenarian gurgler from Stockport the greatest ever.
Friends who know about such things assure me this is complete rubbish and that Martin Tyler is much better. But that, of course, depends on what you see as the football commentator’s prime role. It would be nice to think commentators were like referees – best when you didn’t notice they were there. Unfortunately, this is not the case. My considered opinion based on 30 years’ experience is that the TV companies do not choose individuals such as Alan Parry and Tony Gubba by mere fluke.
No, these men have been selected only after careful scrutiny by a panel of experts who have judged them solely on their ability to bore into the viewers’ subconscious and then remorselessly hammer away until even the most mild-mannered citizen finds him or herself half out of their armchair yelling “What game are you watching, you moron?” at images of Roy Keane spitting. If their ability to irritate is the criterion by which commentators are to be measured (and all the evidence says it is) then there is little doubt that David Coleman is indeed unparalleled in human history.
John Motson may get your goat with his bizarre belief in the significance of trivial facts or Barry Davies send you round the twist with his portentous phrasemaking. Possibly Brian Moore had you grating your teeth by adopting that Churchillian rasp whenever Tony Adams flattened a foreigner or maybe Clive Tyldesley’s ability to sound as though he is shouting even when he is talking normally has you pinging off the walls. Compared to Coleman, however, these men are nothing. They are one trick ponies, he is the circus.
First there is the voice, a cross between a blocked drain and a rather pompous sea-lion, with that pubescent break that always cut in at moments of high excitement. (Coleman was rarely more than one stop away from high excitement – on Cup final day even the sight of the Duke of Kent coming out to greet the teams had him croaking and wheezing like an asthmatic bullfrog in the throes of sexual ecstasy.) Nobody, not even secret agents trained to resist North Korean brainwashing techniques, could listen to that for 90 minutes without at some point hitting their head repeatedly against an immovable object.
Then there were the words. Let’s deal first with Coleman’s beloved catchphrase, “Wwwwon-nil!”. A true masterpiece, you might say, the very quintessence of the TV commentator’s art, since it tells us absolutely nothing we cannot see for ourselves. Indeed, its sole function seems to be to afford the viewer the chance to shout “Thank you so much for sharing that insight with us” in a sarcastic voice.
When he got fancy things were even worse. Coleman apparently regarded himself as a hard-nosed journalist (whether, as rumoured, he really had to beat off the challenge of Woodward and Bernstein to host A Question of Sport is hotly debated in press rooms across the land) but much of his phrasemaking sounded more like Edward Lear than Ed Morrow. After Liverpool’s opener against Newcastle in the 1974 Cup final, Coleman warbled: “Goals pay the rent and Keegan does his share.” This, on first hearing, appears to make absolutely no sense, but on closer analysis it is revealed, in fact, to make absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Liverpool’s third goal that day provoked an even stranger outburst: “And Newcastle were completely undressed.” This bizarre utterance has lived with me ever since I first heard it as a 13-year-old. What other commentator could have conjured up the nightmarish vision of Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes with practised hands deftly removing Bobby Moncur’s undergarments, and thrust it into a nation’s sitting rooms on a sunny afternoon in May? No, indeed, there will never be another like him. Thank God.
From WSC 168 February 2001. What was happening this month