"I've got to say that to get away with that in such a hostile environment, you've got to count your chickens" – the wisdom of Ray Wilkins, following Peter Crouch's second bookable tackle early in the first leg of Real Madrid v Tottenham Hotspur.
What a sorry state football co-commentary is in. And probably has been for a while. Andy Gray's sacking by Sky, in the wake of spiralling tales of sexist behaviour, is the point of rupture, but his role had long since descended to self-parody. Co-commentators were never supposed to have
catchphrases. Now a cabal of out-of-work coaches is attempting the same schtick. Isn't it time we put them – and the viewers – out of their misery?
It's not just that the cohorts currently taking it in turns to fill Gray's headphones aren't very good (though, admittedly, I was spoiled for choice for that opening salvo, and it takes only a single word from Chris Coleman for me to switch to Sky's "crowd only" audio). Anyone who has taken up the role in recent years seems to have been given one simple instruction: just keep talking. Fine when you're trying to keep a casualty awake until the paramedics arrive, but not when there's a perfectly healthy game of football going on.
After 21 minutes of Manchester United's 1-0 home win over Everton in April, Coleman had spoken 32 times, talking over about six minutes of the game and only once or twice betraying an original thought or a spot of research. It took the full first half of the 1980 European Cup final, a co-commentary masterpiece, for Jack Charlton to clock up six minutes, in 18 welcome nuggets of insightful tactical analysis and eerily prescient suggestions (Forest's Viv Anderson and John Robertson seemed to be taking their instructions from him). Watch it now and you're so accustomed to constant bleating that when he hasn't spoken for five minutes, you start to worry he's nipped to the loo and not found his way back to the gantry.
Wilkins actually made a reasonable start to his co-commentary career, not overplaying his part and, generally, concentrating on moments that us simple ball-watching folk tend to miss, like a central midfielder's surreptitious moves to quiet his opponent, or a lack of movement that spells trouble later on. But it's almost as if the longer he spends in his new workplace, the more he relies upon banal observations, pointless chitchat and lengthy, earnest reiterations of what his fellow commentator has just said. As if he is being encouraged to ditch insight where a line about "Scholesy's" fine innings will do.
Originally, the point of expert co-commentary (or "summarising", as the Americans wisely call it, thus focusing the mind) was to highlight authoritatively the game's subtle machinations. Over the course of the Sky era, the second man has morphed into a pub bore's sidekick: "Ha ha, you're right about that, Martin."
"It's like finding a chatty companion sitting in the stand: after a while you want him to shut up so that you can enjoy the match," said Barry Davies in his autobiography, of the increasingly informal relationship between commentators. If it's not an inherently bad idea, conversational commentary in the hands of football pundits seems unable to avoid becoming a torrent of blah-blah-blahs.
Some criticism has focused on the increasing use of ex-pros rather than trained broadcasters, but Sky's cricket coverage depends entirely on former players yet it is always thoughtfully crafted with a curious viewer in mind. Is it wise to assume that there is nothing left to impart to a football audience? It is, I suppose, a simpler game, and our apparent appetite for tactically inclined write-ups suggests people may be better acquainted with the inner workings of a fluid 4-2-3-1 than a left-arm spinner's deliveries in Test matches in the last five years.
But even so. I don't tune into the match for the same reason that the elderly have Bargain Hunt on even if they're not in the room, I want something more than background noise, or nothing at all. If the co-commentary role in its true form, a voice that can disentangle itself from the scrum, is redundant, pack them off to the Jobcentre.
From WSC 292 June 2011