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The Undying Art of Sports Commentary

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” – Edgar Degas

Upon the sad news of the passing of John Motson, a standard bearer of sports commentary whose exact cadence and tonal inflections many of us came to know intimately and love deeply, I think it high time to dignify his profession with the title Art, and as such place it in the spotlight of our most pretentious analysis.

Growing up, my grandfather would observe one particular weekend ritual with the same air of pious hopelessness as a Calvinist who knows themselves condemned. Come Saturday, matchday, the sound of BBC Radio Norfolk’s commentary of Norwich City would invariably fill his kitchen, as equally invariably Norwich’s defence conceded goals with all the defensive fortitude of a sandcastle holding back the North Sea on West Sands.

It all began one fateful day in 1927, when Teddy Wakelam took a seat in a small wooden shed next to a football pitch in Highbury. Wakelam was here for business, namely commentating on a football match for the first time in history. A gallant of the gantry, Wakelam evidently had the sangfroid to survive the thrilling spectacle of Sheffield United grinding out a 1-1 draw against the Gunners. In the 1930s he would accidently set his broadcasting notes on fire whilst commentating on a tennis match and, unabashed and off-script, continued to diligently describe the intricacies of the rally.

Commentary was the harbinger; in swept a tsunami of broadcasting innovation. By the 1940s, football matches were regularly televised. Commentators like Wakelam were initially spared obsolescence, because the poor video quality of the broadcast meant that having a person identifying the name of each moving cluster of black and white pixels was directly informative. But the technological transformation of sports media was now firmly underway.

Enter the age of the super-slow-motion replay, Video Assistant Referees, and laser-precision goal line technology. Sport today is often a drab affair saturated in such technology. But our addiction to technological sweeteners means that most Premier League stadiums now have lorry-sized screens broadcasting the game from within the stadium, just in case those actually at the game suffer sudden pixel withdrawals and would rather watch on a screen.

And yet, in the gantry, something stirs.

Up in the layman’s pulpit, a lagoon of life in a desert of technological lifelessness, the commentator is there. Not only have they survived, they have thrived, mainly thanks to the extraordinary division of labour that has occurred since Wakelam’s time. Of foremost importance is the main commentator, a Super Sunday stoic. Theirs is a superhuman objectivity and absolute refusal to engage in anything so base as partisanship. Then there is the co-commentator, all Id, gushing guttural into the microphone à la Gary Neville, who in 2012 experienced history’s first goalgasm when Fernando Torres rounded the Barcelona goalkeeper in the 92nd minute and cooly rolled it into the onion bag.

And if you ever find yourself feeling like a spare part, then lend a thought to the co-co commentator, wheeled out every other harvest moon for reasons yet to be discerned. Next is the hapless Jeff Shreeves, lurking down by the dugouts in case one of the supercar athletes feels tension in their hamstring. Somewhere else in the shadows is referee expert Peter Walton, the voice of authority, the Man, whose job apparently consists of agreeing with whatever decision the on-field referee has made. No penalty for hanging, drawing and quartering the attacker at the back post? Correct decision.

The logical next step, of course, is to have somebody reporting from the dressing room at half time. Marcus Rashford has blinked 43 times. And Bukayo Saka still cannot connect to the stadium Wi-Fi.

All of which plays out a weekly pantomime of post-modernity, where the single perspective has fragmented into one thousand, are we are left in the shards, hopelessly searching for something like truth.

Like the membrane wings on the flying squirrel, football commentary has survived because it has evolved; its special evolutionary trait is its staggering propensity for melodrama.

“It is Ronaldo. Manchester United. The Theatre is living its dream. Reeved in Red. Restored to this great gallery of the game. A walking work of art. Vintage, beyond valuation, beyond forgery or imitation, eighteen years since that trembling teenager of touch and tease, first tiptoed on to the historic stage, now in his immaculate maturity, now CR7 reunited”.

The sheer gluttonousness of the thing! No, not William Wordsworth, but commentator Peter Drury describing Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2021 return to Manchester United. Drury’s epic narration went viral, and in a coronation totally Irony Free, saw him internet-crowned the Shakespeare of our time. Drury, suspended somewhere in the firmament, obviously sees himself as the umbilical cord connecting mundane reality to the transcendental realm.

For readers who come to the Arts & Culture section for their fix of obscurantism and the company of the Fife culturati, let me reassure you. I have spent more time in the company of Drury and the like than with my own family over the course of my lifetime. These are the people who give form to experience, the true artists.

For those who find Drury’s logorrhoea distasteful, Martin Tyler’s career-defining moment exemplifies a contrasting melodrama of silence. The scene: Sergio Aguero has just scored a last-minute goal to win Manchester City their first ever Premier League title in a comeback for the ages. Tyler, a man who, like a politician, has built an entire career doing nothing but talking, was finally silenced. This was not the empty silence that comes before speech but the one that comes after; the silence that comes when language must be bypassed, and the transcendent rises like a mist. In the history of silences, Tyler’s is matched only by John Cage’s ‘4’33’ and Hamlet’s final words ‘the rest is silence’ in sublimity.

Also exquisite in its melodrama, few moments in the history of football commentary can compete with Bjorge Lillelien’s unforgettable ‘Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana, we have beaten them all!’ The victory in question? Not a successful Norwegian invasion of Britain, but a narrow 2-1 victory over England in a 1981 World Cup qualifier.

Such melodrama oversteps the triviality of the game actually being played; no longer are we in the realm of football, but somewhere else entirely, the place of pure spirit promised by poetry and religion. And this, really, is the role of the commentator. Like Michelangelo raising David out of base stone, so the commentator gives the content of twenty-two primates kicking a ball around a divine form. John Motson could tell you that the 90 minutes you just spent watching Leicester draw 0-0 with Aston Villa were the most thrilling of your life, and by heck you’ll believe him. These are the great redeemers in our techno-bureaucratic age of tedium. They elevate the mundane and transmogrify the dull. They make us see.

A glass then, to the gantry.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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15. März 2023


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28. Feb. 2023


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this is stellar stuff!!!

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