15 February ~ Like referees, the best commentators are the ones that you don’t notice. Yet it seems to be ever harder to enjoy a game on TV without being distracted by the irritating foibles of the unseen mouthpiece at the microphone. A two-part feature on the Twohundredpercent website last weekend on the best ever football commentators highlighted what we already knew – the best voices go back to the 1960s and 70s, and are all now either retired or dead. I’m not one to moan, though, so in order to serve the game with some positive criticism, here’s a manifesto for up-and-coming commentators who’d like eventually to inhabit the legendary rhetorical territory of Peter Jones, Bryon Butler or Kenneth Wolstenholme.
1. Remember that the game is not about you. You need to do describe what is happening, not bombard us with your personality. We would like to know which player has the ball, for example. Pure, dry facts. Unless it’s a momentous, historical goal or incident, leave hysterics and excitability to the players and the fans. Take a step back from the action, because you are a neutral. Emphasise brilliance selectively and with sufficient distance to let the viewers celebrate without your interference.
2. Avoid using words that are out of their depth, and which in turn put you out of your depth. There are very few events in football stadiums that are genuinely tragic or disastrous. Save these adjectives in case something tragic or disastrous really happens. Maintain the necessary perspective by remembering that this is a sporting event, not a revolution.
3. Read and learn the laws of the game, every last one of them, so that when something unusual happens, you are prepared and come across as well informed (and you can correct your co-commentator, the ex-pro who should know the laws, but doesn’t).
4. Never cast doubt on a referee’s decision until you have seen at least one slow motion replay.
5. Signature catchphrases mark you out as annoying, not unique. Don’t use them, ever, even if your agent orders you to.
6. Don’t rehearse pithy, alliterated sentences for some possible outcome, like “It’s magical Messi, the messianic maestro!” We can tell, you know. And we hate you for it.
7. Stop second-guessing what Sir Alex or Arsène are thinking, as though you have some exclusive professional insight into their inner brains that is denied to the viewer or listener. We’ll take it as read that Sir Alex “will be less than happy” that United threw away a two-goal lead in injury time.
8. It’s OK to make jokes. Just make sure they’re original, clever and apposite, and don’t involve some infantile banter with your co-commentator about an open goal he missed two decades ago.
9. While we’re on open goals, yes, we know, he should have hit the target from there. We can see that from the replays from six different angles. At most, a laconic “Oh dear”, in the tradition of Barry Davies, will do.
10. Which brings me to your greatest asset – silence. Let the game and the crowd tell as much of the story as you do. With a little less effort, you could be one of the greats. Ian Plenderleith