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

Comments (23)
Comment by cannelldocam 2011-02-15 10:57:10

Up and coming commentators could do a lot worse than listen to Five Live's Simon Brotherton. Knowledgable, avoids hyperbole and gives the listener a very detailed image of what is going on on the pitch. I realise radio commentary is a different art to telly commentary, but he seems to be pretty handy when he turns up on MOTD as well.

Comment by bearlion 2011-02-15 11:29:43

Hi Simon

Comment by prowland30657 2011-02-15 12:12:34

Hold on, Mister Plenderleith. If these are the definitive rules on what to do and what not to do when commentating on a football match, then it seems that Alan Green is breaking every rule in the book, on a near-permanent basis. Are you therefore suggesting that Alan Green is not God's Gift to football commentary?

I can think of one person who would certainly take issue with you on that point.... ;-)

Comment by Moonlight shadow 2011-02-15 12:24:39

It could have been summed up as "Do not be Alan Green" but good little article there...

Comment by ian.64 2011-02-15 13:27:09

Missed one.

11. Whenever a penalty is given for a challenge on a forward that looked as though it wouldn't fell a pissed three-year-old yet manages to make the afore-mentioned forward crumble as if he'd been shot, don't go all mealy-mouthed and mumble 'yeah, well, there was contact', be true to yourself (and others) and just say that it was a blatant, reality-defying con.

Comment by Adam Wilson 2011-02-15 14:01:20

my favourite piece of commentary of all time... 1985 World Snooker Final. Davis misses the black for the win after mounting tension over the previous few hours... and Clive Everton murmours just one word filled with pregnant under-statement, 'no'. Leaves everything to the viewer who needs no superlatives. Genuine class. (Please compare with the hyperbolic Alan Green when Steve Redgrave wins his 5th Gold, "stop what you are doing..."

Comment by jwatson1 2011-02-15 15:10:00

Re: United throwing away a two-goal lead in injury time. When was the last time they did that? Can't imagine it happening with the current team. Sounds more like the kind of thing Arsenal would do.

Comment by The Cat 2011-02-15 15:37:27

Erm, that would be against Everton earlier this season.

Is that current enough for you?

Comment by donedmundo 2011-02-15 18:55:05

It's really funny but when I go to matches I seem to enjoy the game just as much as (indeed, a lot more than)when I watch games on TV and have some "expert" summariser show that his expertise only goes far enough to point out the bleedin' obvious time after time.

Comment by Ronny Delgado 2011-02-15 20:08:02

I can remember European games on the German tv where the commentator would not speak for 5 to 10 minutes. Of course, we never knew whether he was still there or not. Maybe they told the teams not to score when the commentator was going for coffee.

Have to agree with every single point.

Comment by jameswba 2011-02-15 21:06:22

Would like to add my wholehearted agreement but would complete no.4 to the effect that 'even if the replay proves the referee wrong, remember that he didn't have instant access to it when he made his decision'. I could believe that the Slovak and Czech commentators I listen to here in Slovakia have been given a 10-point plan like this. As such, most of them are excellent.

Comment by Coral 2011-02-15 22:16:26

In South Africa they have only a commentator and no co. He just says who has the ball and brief description of what is going on. No reference to wars 70 years ago or constant reference to one particular player. Bliss for two weeks

Comment by rbrunning 2011-02-16 12:38:30

I'm actually going to stick my neck out here and say I enjoy Alan Green.

I like cynical commentary and that he clearly believes these over paid pre-madonnas are failing unless every act committed is perfection. Is he not maybe representing the modern day disaffected football fan who can no longer sympathise with the relative failings of their one time heroes? Are his rediculously high expectations and completely irrelevant use of dramatisation and superlative not relative to the blockbuster level of drama that seems to pre-empt every live game on SKY?


Great article though!

Comment by Sheds 2011-02-16 12:39:41

The 'co-commentator' is a blight on radio and TV commentary. When the ITV commentator (Tyldesley?) had to commentate a World Cup game on his own, due to a no show from the pundit, it was a delight.

As for the radio, don't these guys realise I can't see what is happening? I've lost count of the number of times the ball has hit the back of the net with the commentator hurriedly blurting out the goal scorers name because he was in the middle of discussing the forthcoming Champions League fixtures with the pundit. They should just describe what is going on. I don't care if the back four are passing the ball back and forth between them for five minutes I want to know about it. Leave the discussions for proper delays in the action please.

Comment by danielmak 2011-02-17 03:00:09

1a. Do not say, "That was the most important goal he has scored this season" unless it was the only goal he scored this season. Yes, the goal might have helped gain 1 or 3 points at a crucial point in the season but so did every other goal he scored that season.

I have to say that Derek Rae is the best commentator going, although I rarely get to hear him call games anymore now that he seems to be handling duties for ESPN UK. He called multiple leagues so when he handled a game from the Champions League or European Championship, he knows many of the players and we never hear any of the "I don't get what all this hype is about" from some of the English hacks who think the Premiership is the only *real* league. I also really enjoyed Dave Farrar when he was handling English commentary for Serie A and when he covers Africa Cup of Nations. Again, he's a guy who calls a game and knows the teams and players. In short, he, like Derek Rae, understands that research is part of the job.

Comment by phnompenhandy 2011-02-17 04:31:01

Better not let my wife she this discussion. She thinks I'm an absolute genius; when we watch the games on TV I provide a running commentary and I constantly anticipate exactly what the commentator will say. I'd hate her to realise it's because the commentators are utter cliches.

Comment by Alex Anderson 2011-02-17 15:13:18

Spot-on. Absolutely spot-on.

Yeah, my rule 11 would be that when England or Manchester United are playing, do not begin fawning all over them/dimsissing their opponents as hopeless delusionals/wondering aloud what the weather will be like for the open-top bus procession with the trophy, until the 3 lions or the red devils actually take the lead, and preferably not until they're comfortably in the lead. Which rule should be employed in conjunction with ...

Rule 12: When, by the tenth minute of the same match, heretofore detailed in "rule 11", England or Manchester United fall behind or are failing to take the lead against this same opponent, do not do a total volte-face (on a sixpence, natch)and begin pleading with the fickle gods to explain how such erroneous fates could befall the mighty, nor should you instantly mount a xenophobic or umbrella-ist hate campaign against the incumbent England manager.

This would make it a lot easier for Scots not to dislike/mock Engerlund FC but, more importantly, it might actually spread some prespective throughout the land and help them Anglos win stuff.

@phnompenhandy - you took the cliched words right outta my mouth. It's frightening, isn't it - I used to worry that I could only predict those lines because I was watching too much football but then it struck me that I was only creating the test conditions by which to cross ref which phrases, henceforth to be known as "stock", are churned out again and again by different commentators on different channels and stations.

My personal favouites are "And he won't score an easier goal than that all season" (yes he will. Hitting a 30-yarder into the top corner actually requires less effort than making continual runs from your own half into a crowded box - finding space and time to create a sitter is the most difficult art in the game) and "that's ALREADY a contender for goal of the season" (said until April 24th-ish).

Plus I thought we could do without co-commentators til there weren't any. The lone commentator makes me feel lonely by proxy. Especially when, like earlier today, he's covering a game between Rubin Kazan and Twente Enschede in an empty, freezing 80,000-capacity Luznikhi stadium in Moscow ... and all the players are wearing snoods and tights... and the pitch is plastic. On ESPN. At 1 in the afternoon.

Oh - nope - cancel that - I think it is just me that's lonely ...

Comment by tempestinaflathat 2011-02-17 17:54:15

I have to agree with Jameswba. It's not enough for the commentator just to wait until he's seen a replay; he needs to be aware that, if it takes a replay or five to tell if a decision was wrong, then it's probably asking a bit much of the referee to be 100% accurate in the fraction of a second he saw it for. And if he is, credit it him for it.

On a similar note, something that really gets my goat is the increasing unwillingness to accept that a referee or assistant can sometimes make a simple, honest mistake. No, he's not an idiot, yes, he understands the rules, it's just that he had an instant to make a decision and made an entirely human error. Just like you or I probably would have.

Comment by tempestinaflathat 2011-02-17 17:55:54

Oh, and I forgot - one other thing that seems to have been overlooked in this guide.

Treat players equally. A simple pass by Messi or Ronaldo is not inherently more beautiful than a simple pass by Karl Henry. Do not try and find evidence that such and such a player is perfect; if he's that good, we'll see that for ourselves, thank you.

Comment by alyxandr 2011-02-17 22:58:27

Ditto the love for Derek Rae. Among other things, he's one of the only ones who even *tries* to get the pronunciation of foreign names right, and usually does, too.

Speaking of which, something that's been annoying me recently, mostly from U.K. commentators, is the feminisation of Latin and Russian names. Shevchenka, Ronaldinha, Pirla -- these are the names of harlots and fishwives, not footballers.

Comment by bonner 2011-02-18 09:58:46

Here in the UK you are lucky as far as commentators go, seriously. In Poland they are not even pretending to be omniscient football gurus. They just think they are. Tactics, trivia, history, they "know" the lot. Most of them is able to blether for good minutes without even mentioning the action on the pitch and they don't even attempt to cover their personal preferences. Fair enough if it's a pundit - you expect him to have warmer feelings towards the club he used to play for. But often you can clearly see who the main commentator supports as well. I.E. - during last night game (Lech vs. Braga) the fact that no Polish team won in Europe after the winter break was mentioned at least 20 times, but some elements of actual game that were worthy of mentioning were lost in their blether.
One plus for Polish commentators - they are usually well prepared (apart from bloke called Maciej Jasina who spends half of the game wondering who has the ball) and get the pronounciation of foreign names right. And we also have few real gems, unfortunately most of them work for radio:)
If you look on other sports we're much better situated though. Watching winter olipmics on BBC and even sometimes on Eurosport was horrific - how can someone who doesn't even know the rules of the sport be expected to provide half decent commentary?

Comment by jwatson1 2011-02-18 14:40:00

@The Cat: Oh yes, so they did. Sorry.

Comment by drew_whitworth 2011-02-19 12:27:05

Can I add 'Fawning over Brazil' to fawning over England & Manchester United? This has now reached such levels that I have just started hoping that Brazil get dumped out of the World Cup as soon as possible, regardless of their quality or performances on the pitch.

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