Haydn Parry looks back on the life of Britain's first regular TV football commentator, who will inevitably be best remembered for just two sentences
The first time I met Kenneth Wolstenholme, I immediately got into his good books by not mentioning “you know what”. As luck would have it, I wanted him to talk specifically about the World Cup of four years later, Mexico 1970, which he went on to admit was his favourite tournament for the quality of the football, if not for England’s fate. He managed to get through a whole interview without any mention of Geoff Hurst, 4-2 or “people on the pitch” which, understandably, was something of a rarity for him – actually, I got the distinct impression he was rather relieved.
So synonymous was he with England’s finest hour that now it is easy to forget that that one fine day in 1966 was just the pinnacle of a commentating career that lasted over half a century. Born in Worsley near Manchester, Wolstenholme began broadcasting with the BBC two years after the end of the Second World War, which he had spent in the RAF, flying bomber missions over Germany.
He worked on five World Cups, 23 successive FA Cup finals, the original Match Of The Day (he did the very first broadcast, Liverpool v Arsenal in 1964) and, more recently, Football Italia. Wolstenholme had a distinct style of commentary which some might criticise now for its lack of detail but, if he had a lightness of touch, he certainly didn’t lack authority.
Like all the best TV commentators, he preferred to let the pictures do the bulk of the talking and not to over-embellish. In fact, in recent years he had become very disillusioned with the quality of the current crop of his peers, confessing that he had gone so far as to watch most of France 98 with the sound turned down.
It had, he said, become all too “Americanised” for his tastes: “Instead of concentrating on the action we have endless people sitting around dissecting every incident in the studio. They overdo it and all the commentators seem to have been told to change to the same style. It bores me.”
Wolstenholme learnt his art at a time when the commentator invariably introduced and presented the programme, as well as having to stand outside the dressing rooms for the post-match interviews. “They use more than 20 cameras at a match now,” he observed. “I doubt whether the Beeb owned 20 cameras in my day.”
The last time we met was in the pre-Sven gloom that was the day of England’s final international at Wembley, against Germany on October 7, 2000. For an outside broadcast for Radio 5 Live, Wolstenholme was the first name on our wishlist for a two-hour, pre-match nostalgia fest in a pub near the Twin Towers.
During a boisterous romp of a live programme, Wolstenholme, twice the age of everyone else in the room but totally in his element, was introduced to one of the people who had run on to to the pitch in the 120th minute of the 1966 final, so triggering his immortal lines. “I suppose you lot think I bribed him to do it,” he said. Then, to his glee, he finally got to hold the matchball dispatched past the forlorn Tilkowski a quarter of a century earlier. Clasping the fading orange orb close to his chest, Wolstenholme proceeded to hold court on 1966 and all that for what was probably the last time on live radio.
He admitted, with typical understatement, that the memorable “They think it’s all over” sequence was, to him at least, instantly forgettable: “I couldn’t remember saying it. If you’d asked me straight after the match, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you and, to be honest, in the post-match euphoria with the players and everything, nobody really took any notice. But after they’d repeated the highlights, people, mostly the newspapers, started to ring me up and ask me about what I’d said as that fourth goal went in. So I listened back. And you know what? It wasn’t too bad, was it?”
From WSC 183 May 2002. What was happening this month