Best and worst: Television Commentators

Story by Aaron Bliss

Commentary is a curious art. Much like a music video, it is sometimes seen as an essential, though superfluous embellishment to the main product, but, just as a bad music video can taint your impression of the song, poor commentary can have you putting your foot through the television screen, or, more rationally, muting the volume.

So, from the inane to the illustrious, here is my own humble rundown of the best and worst commentators on television today.

CLIVE TYLDESLEY

Whatever else you say about the ubiquitous Clive, he sits on the pantheon of highest-paid commentators on television today, and has won awards in his profession. The fact he looks, and sometimes sounds, like a grumpy and slightly sinister troll should not mask this fact. His nasal enunciation veers between a deep and sometimes irritable tone and a screechy high-pitched yelp (when things get exciting). This can sometimes lead to some unwittingly hysterical moments, as you can tell he is itching to break out the wail. He also has a peculiar delivery saved for European games where English or Scottish sides are playing, and have conceded a goal, or are about to lose: it sounds a little like the tone of a headmaster breaking the bad news of your expulsion to you, while making it sound like it is a decision that hurts him more than you.
The major problem with Tyldesley is, and always has been, his dearth of original material. If there was a big book of sporting clichés, Clive’s copy would have the pages stuck together. If you are watching an underdog in an FA Cup tie, you might want to play the drinking game where you neck a shot each time Clive reminds us of what their occupations are outside of football. Or which ‘big’ team they support. If you wanted to end your night before half-time, on your way to the emergency room to get your stomach pumped, that is.

Most likely to be: Like a broken record.
Most likely to say: “Name on the trophy!”
Finest hour? 

PETER DRURY

Sometimes nicknamed ‘Pretty Dreary’, Pete is deputy in ITV Sports canon. Lagging behind Tyldesley in salary, but not in ability to make one roll one’s eyes in weariness. Drury at times seems like Tyldesley’s hoarse uncle. Or perhaps Tyldesley is in fact Drury after a helium binge. They both share an uncanny ability to spout the generic in an ever LOUDER AND MORE DRAMATIC TONE in a poor effort to hold the audience rapt, as well as the irritating repetition of underdogs’ real world vocations. Lamentable in delivery, perhaps even more so than Clive, Drury often fails on the insight count, preferring tedious references that rarely go beyond the last sporting month, and which seem to be aimed constantly at the completely uninitiated: a baffling and infuriating habit. Another similarity to Clive is the tone he deploys to give statements false gravitas. As if by speaking loud and slowly, he lends any utterance an imperious and grandiose air. You also get the impression Pete thinks a lot of himself, despite being generally as welcome as a stomach ulcer.

Most likely to be: Reprising Winston Churchill’s infamous war speech at the Office Christmas Party.
Most likely to say: ““The postman has delivered a priceless gift to the travelling Puddletown army!”
Finest hour? Although unable to source the video due to youtube copyright concerns, I’m reliably informed that the aftermath of Fulham’s Europa League semi-final victory over Hamburg was a humdinger…or at least a hummer.

JOHN MOTSON

If good old Motty was the sheep he wears the skin of at every match with the slightest hint of cloud cover, he would have had a shotgun blow his obsessive brain out at the end of the 90s. Poor John is a dignified retirement that never happened; Compo from Last of the Summer Wine who staggers into the studio in a senile haze, with his bosses too softened by his wink and cheeky smile to escort him from the building. Motty has retired forcibly from live football now, but we can still hear his vintage timbre on Match of the Day highlights and BBC Radio 5 Live. To be fair to him, he has picked up the last few years, perhaps realising that he needed to tone it down a bit and stick to the simple classics. Also, as the last few years have revealed, like autoerotic asphyxiation, John Motson is best enjoyed sparingly. Unlike Tyldesley and Drury, Motty does not dress a pig up as a beauty queen. He may wax lyrical about the snout, the rugged hindquarters or the spiralling tail, but you’ll forget you’re wallowing in excrement for a while. Motty also scores higher by virtue of his credible longevity. He was on the scene long before football became a temple of idolatry on a sea of lucre, spouting loveable lines the whole family could enjoy. He also trumps both of our previous two candidates by virtue of insight, through statistics and breathy opinion, though he often tends to end games removing fence splinters from his own hindquarters.

Most likely to be: Striding somewhere between avuncular fool and enjoyable rambler.
Most likely to say: “Goodness me, he felt the full force of that challenge!”
Finest hour? “For those of you watching in black and white, Spurs are playing in yellow.” – From Tottenham vs Sunderland league match in 1977.

GUY MOWBRAY

Now the BBC’s leading commentator, Mowbray is young in lead commentary terms, as he has only just turned 40. He has an impressive CV behind him, with Eurosport, ITV and the BBC giving him his big breaks remarkable early. His style is not particularly original, in that his tone can be dour and stern and a little pompous, with some added screeching at moments of high drama. Witness his reaction to Sergio Aguero’s title winning goal in the last seconds of last season to know that thinking on his feet is sometimes beyond him, when a mindless barking of the player’s name will do. There can be some very amusing ‘good cop-bad cop’ dynamic between him and Mark Lawrenson when they are partnered in a live broadcast, as demonstrated here:

But when push comes to shove, Mowbray is neither as vexing as ITVs lead commentators, nor as iconic as legends like John Motson or Barry Davies. Moments of wit are few and far between, whilst his wordsmithery is generally lacking in articulating what is unfolding. He often falls back into the welcoming arms of Mistress Cliché, though perhaps this is a trait the BBC drills into its lead commentators. Love that chubby grin though!

Most likely to be: Politically correct diplomat to Lawro’s spiteful curmudgeon.
Most likely to say: “You have to pinch yourself. We’ve only played five minutes!”
Finest hour? That sexual tension with Lawrenson (see above).

MARTIN TYLER

The Godfather of them all, Tyler got his big break after hustling examples of his commentary around with ITV. He initially deputised for the irrepressible Barry Davies, he of the schoolmasterly tone, who uttered the immortal line: “And that looked like a right hook from Johnny Giles!”
Soon, Tyler grew weary of being number two, and stepped up to front Sky Sports’ live Premier League coverage. In tandem with Andy Gray, the pair became synonymous with Premier League coverage, and, despite it sometimes seeming as if Gray was the draw, his subsequent dismissal has illustrated just how important Tyler is to Sky Sports. Rarely does he spout an off-the-cuff line of wizardry, but his authoritative tone, prone to peaks and troughs as the drama unfolds, and lack of generic banality, means Tyler is the daddy. He is assured, knowledgeable and humble: all the components of a master of his field. He is also First Team coach of Kingstonian F.C., which lends him more kudos than most in broadcasting.

Most likely to be: Slightly skeletal but genial in appearance.
Most likely to say: “And he’s done it again!”
Finest hour? 

IAN DARKE

One of my personal favourites, Darke is best known for being the voice of British boxing, but lent his expertise spectacularly to the early Premier League years, and sporadically since, though in 2010 he moved to ESPN. His highly characteristic booming voice is inflected with all the passion and emotion of a raging opera; rising and falling like piston bellows.
As the drama rises, expect him to reach deeper into that extraordinary throat, spitting out words like a dying man at a typewriter, desperate to complete his memoirs before his time comes. I grew up on Darke commentating on the Monday night games, which suited his range perfectly. Atmospheric floodlit games were always lent an extra edge by Darke’s elucidations. He could also pull out some fantastically unexpected lines, and describe goals accurately, rather than merely screaming said player’s name at a million decibels. Despite never quite knowing whether there had been a red card, or Ricky Hatton had just been knocked out, Darke was, and still is, a gem.

Most likely to be: Exuberantly verbose.
Most likely to say: “What action we’re having here at Villa Park!”
Finest hour? What happens when you combine a title showdown with three controversial counter-attacks, and a three-goal lead for the away team in next to no time: 

ROB PALMER

An ex-Derby County goalkeeper, Palmer is an affable chap, who is as well known for providing links as commentary. His chubby, balding blonde bonce is often seen showing us round European cities, or giving us back-stories to players. He also narrated most of Manchester United’s 1990s highlights videos, for any of you interested. His humble attitude and infectious enthusiasm at the mic really engages listeners, and his very excited, quivering tone reserved for unexpected or outrageous goals is a sound to behold. He often deploys stats at precisely the right time, and guides us through the action in the manner of an intelligent fan rather than a commentator. One of my personal favourites.

Most likely to be: Eminently likeable guy-next-door you wouldn’t mind having a drink with.
Most likely to say: “O-o-ooh! Take that!”
Finest hour? Impossible to track down, but if you can find an obscure own goal from the league cup in the mid-90s, it may have been Ipswich Town involved, or perhaps not. Hilarity ensued in a goalmouth scramble, as a midfielder raced back and picked up a loose ball in his own box, facing the wrong way. After beating a challenge, he then inexplicably poked it into the corner of his own net. Palmer’s reaction, replete with wavering high notes, went something along the lines of: “Oh what’s he done?? An absolutely unbelievable own goal!” Priceless.

JON CHAMPION

An insult that has been bandied about bad commentators before is that it’s like having a wasp buzzing in your ear for an hour and a half. This would not do for the clearly inappropriately-named Champion, who is more like a hornet’s nest in both ears, whilst some unseen force periodically brains you with a frying pan. Mere words cannot do justice to the sheer teeth-grinding, bowel-clenching, fingernail-peeling, reach-for-the-power-drill exasperation which Champion provokes. Tolerating that grating voice is like chewing tin foil while gargling boiling water. Ironically, as his initials are J.C., he consistently makes you wish to beat and nail him to a cross, though that tongue would clearly keep wagging, most likely setting the scene in his own inimitable style. Originality is bereft, though you do get the odd memorable line; his only saving grace.

Most likely to be: The last voice you hear before the gunshot.
Most likely to say: “It’s like a cauldron of noise in here at the moment”
Finest hour? His retirement!

ROB HAWTHORNE

Rob is excitable and generally enjoyable, though again if you want originality or wit you may be once again wasting your time. Hawthorne is heard fairly regularly on Sky, though not on enough West Brom games if you ask lovers of the ironic. Expect plenty of rhetorical questions after late goals. Or early goals. Or pretty much any incident.

Most likely to be: Fairly inoffensive and bland.
Most likely to say: “Is that the end of Chelsea’s title bid? Have John Terry’s misdemeanours come back to haunt him? Is that a message to the England manager?” etc. etc. ad infinitum.
Finest hour? 

TONY GUBBA

Gubba is another archetypal broadcast commentator in the mould of Motson. His comb-over is as iconic as his pleasantly grounded style. Gubba tells it like it is, with grace and gusto, there’s no hyperbole or screeching nonsense. He raises the decibel level when the occasion demands, but just enough to delight rather than irritate. More than most commentators, he seems to control his breathing expertly, so never sounds flustered or breathless, despite the unfolding mayhem. His revealing of pertinent statistics and eloquent painting of aural pictures generally makes him a rare pleasure, though he does not quite have the gift of lifting a game above the mediocre with words. If he commentates on dross, you may as well switch off.

Most likely to be: A guilty pleasure, particularly in the early Premier League years.
Most likely to say: “Ohhh, that’s a fabulous save from David James!”
Finest hour? 

JONATHAN PEARCE

Despite at times resembling a cross between Gazza’s drinking pals Danny Baker and Jimmy ‘Five Bellies’ Gardner, Pearce has risen to the ranks of deputy commentator on the BBC. Since his dream of actually becoming a footballer was ended by a broken leg in the 70s, he has had a remarkable career in that he has adapted to different styles required of him almost effortlessly. My boyhood memories are of Pearce manically commentating for Channel Five on Chelsea’s run in the Cup-Winners’ Cup in the late 1990s. You could tune in midway through, and get the impression an inebriated supporter had staggered into the commentary box and started giving it some. Yet, despite this jovial and informal style, Pearce remained exceptionally informed, with statistics and player knowledge of a high standard. Another fine attribute of Pearce’s is his definitive opinions. Although sometimes questioning what he sees, Pearce often proclaims a strong verdict, potentially condemning a player or official in the process. Although this clearly riles those with certain affinities, it is an admirable quality and rare to not hear a commentator with a fence post wedged firmly up their back passage. He is also never less than unpredictable, even with his BBC hat on. Though he has toned down the partisan superlatives, Pearce still does not follow the by-the-numbers style of a Tyldesley or Drury, with some lyrical lines sometimes deployed; often alternating between rising drama and passive depiction, though his formal drone will always be tempered as not to switch a viewer off for too long.

Most likely to be: Like an overweight, working-class, toned-down Stuart Hall.
Most likely to say: “The man who went up a mountain has just fallen into the abyss!”
Finest hour? The moment when Danny Granville scored for Chelsea in the Cup Winners’ Cup, prompting Pearce to yell “Ohhh Danny Boyyyyyy!!”

ALISTAIR MANN

With his immensely pleasant Northern lilt, Mann is a commentator who should perhaps have been promoted a little further. Neither predictable nor esoteric, Mann tells it like it is, with incisive opinion and great one-liners, in a voice that could soothe the savage beast. He also seems to have been around for an age. In my opinion the finest BBC television commentator, and well overdue some bigger matches.

Most likely to be: Absorbing and entertaining.
Most likely to say: “A fantastic chance spurned, and the car park attendant will be kept busy hunting for that”
Finest hour? There is no stand-out. Mann is an eight-out-of-ten every week!

STEVE WILSON

Mister Jolly, with his kidney-bean shaped head and softly-receding blonde thatch, Wilson is seen as a rising star at the Beeb, and is already one of their lead commentators and reporters. He can divide opinion, as he tends to veer between irritatingly banal and refreshingly witty. He also has a curious habit of getting overexcited about relatively minor incidents, using rhetorical questions to up the ante on subjects like managerial appointments and trivial scuffles, and, like Pearce, is not afraid to hurl strong opinions into the mix. That said, I get the impression that he is slightly too tied to the establishment rather than being his own man. He has a pretty good voice though!

Most likely to be: The acceptable face, and voice, of controversial polemic.
Most likely to say: “This relentless booing of players and managers has got to stop.”
Finest hour? 

GARY TAPHOUSE

A rising star at Sky Sports, Taphouse is possibly my favourite of the current crop, chiefly due to the brilliantly hoarse yelp that emanates from the back of his throat at pretty much every goal. It’s like clockwork, but, like the sun rising, this is one routine whose glory never fades. His regulation commentary tone is rather more languid and formal, but you can pretty much pinpoint the longitude and latitude of the ball depending on the frenzy in his voice. I really can’t get enough of that yelp, has me in stitches every time.

Most likely to be: Debonair and charming at a formal dinner party, only to rip off his cummerbund and let out a primal scream at the entrées.
Most likely to say: “Patient, probing build-up here, oh nice through ball *rising volume* releasing Walcott, slings in the cross *more rising volume* and LUKAS PODOLSKIII *hoarse bellow*”
Finest hour? 

PETER BRACKLEY

A giant among commentators, my initial experiences of Brackley were on the Channel 4 Serie ‘A’ coverage of the mid-90s. He combines the oak-aged, venerable tone associated with esteemed veterans like Brian Moore and Barry Davies, with the loquacious edge of an Ian Darke. A glittering vocabulary and exemplary delivery with no pompous air at all makes Brackley the stand-out candidate in this list, surpassing even Tyler in expertise and aura.

Most likely to be: The best around.
Most likely to say: “Wha-at a goal. An astounding finish from Vieri!”
Finest hour? 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope you will agree from the pool of notoriety I have illuminated. That said, I hear Ray Hudson is a diamond in the rough. Feel free to track him down on youtube!

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One thought on “Best and worst: Television Commentators”

  1. Agree with Pretty Dreary. Drives me nuts. I do like Jon Champion, however and John Helm is what all commentators should emulate.

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