Format offers intimacy and excitement
5 September ~ As anyone who listened to Manchester City beat Queens Park Rangers on the final day of last season will know, there are times when radio commentary can sound more like an unanswered SOS from someone who has come off worse in a clash with industrial machinery than a description of a match. However, radio does provide the listener intimacy without the commitment of going to a game. The combination of economics and a prolonged past time of playing local football on Saturday afternoons has kept me away from my team, Southampton. This means I don't get to see as many games as I would like.
There is no shortage of action to watch on television but, having spent the week tethered to a desk in front of a computer, I feel the need to get away from a flat screen once in a while. So, when the opportunity arises, I like to listen to football on the radio.
It is fairly extraordinary that a country of our size is able to sustain so many professional clubs. The same could be said of local radio. The BBC alone has 40 separate stations, most of which cover the fortunes of the nearest football clubs. Radio Solent frequently has reporters at games throughout the local non-League circuit and read out the final scores from as low down as the 19th tier of the pyramid, if only to bring us gems like Michelmersh & Timsbury Reserves 1, Cadnam United 16.
The urgent tone of the radio commentator can bring new terror to something the eyes may judge to be innocuous – "throw-in to City to the right of the Southampton penalty area" can suggest imminent capitulation. My first memories of radio are vivid. A creditable draw at Old Trafford in late 1988 turned out to be the start of a 17 game run without a win.
The six goals we conceded at Kenilworth Road during that spell left me at my lowest ebb, close to tears in my room. My Mum had to pick up the pieces. Neil Ruddock will die without knowing how much easier his winning penalty against Newcastle three months later made her life.
There have been good times too. Years later, having lost a cup final as a player in deepest Portsmouth, the silence of the post-match dressing room was broken by somebody switching on a radio. We listened to the closing minutes of Southampton's FA Cup semi-final win over Watford.
Radio is not the perfect matchday experience. It requires a greater degree of concentration than going to a game or watching on TV. It also demands more patience. The listener can feel as though they are being pummelled by a pitch of voice one octave higher than it ought to be.
Then there is the score. If you ever tune in late to a game there is often an unreasonable delay of any mention of who is winning. Listening for clues – even from local broadcasters who are far from impartial – can be futile. The lack of inflection in former Southampton manager and now Radio Solent co-commentator Dave Merrington's optimistic Geordie burr does not equate to a positive scoreline. Here is a man whose spirit is undeterred, even when faced with a 4-1 deficit at the Ricoh Arena.
During a time when advertisers pressurise us to plan ahead and take control of every facet of our lives – from our pets' medical insurance to our children's future – football still allows us to be fully engrossed in something we have absolutely no control over the outcome of. Radio cranks up the sense of utter hopelessness by several notches. That is worth anyone's money in AA batteries. Mark Sanderson