Commentating, like nostalgia, isn’t like it used to be. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, commentators knew the value of silence. Now many games are ruined by commentators who won’t shut up, and scatter gun useless and immediately forgettable facts at us without respite.
Screaming a player’s name out loud is not an iconic piece of commentary, and it’s not just because I’m a grumpy QPR fan that I cannot stand “SERGIO AGUEERRROOO!!!” No, commentary used to be a lot more nuanced, thoughtful and FUN in the gold old days. So here’s a few of my own personal favourites.
Peter Alliss (Golf): Maestro commentator Alliss’ meandering ramblings were and are often more entertaining than the golf itself. I love this observation: “One good thing about rain in Scotland. Most of it ends up as scotch.”
John Arlott (Cricket): Alas, long dead and gone, Arlott’s rustic Hampshire burr was lovely to listen to, whatever he was saying: though the poet in him meant that the words were always beautifully formed. Here’s one of his gems, about a shot by Clive Lloyd: “The stroke of a man knocking a thistle top off with a walking stick.”
Richie Benaud (Cricket): Benaud was a fine cricketer but was unsurpassed as a commentator. Here’s what he said when Shane Warne bowled out Mike Gatting with the so called ball of the century in 1993: “Gatting has absolutely no idea what has happened to it ... he still doesn’t know!”
Harry Carpenter (Boxing): Dependable, unflappable, skilled and impartial to a fault, Harry ever only lost it once. When his friend Frank Bruno nearly dropped Mike Tyson in the first round, Harry responded with a thoroughly unprofessional but perfectly judged “Get in there, Frank!”
David Coleman (Athletics): The original inspiration for Private Eye’s Colemanballs (for commentator cock up’s), one of David Coleman’s most famous gaffes actually wasn’t his. It was Ron Pickering who said of the marvellous Cuban runner Alberto Juantorena: “And there goes Juantorena down the back straight, opening his legs and showing his class.” For me, Coleman’s finest moment, better even than his traditional “One Nil,” was Gordon Banks’ save in the 1970 World Cup v Brazil: “Pele … WHAT a save!”
Barry Davies (Football): Many footy fans (myself included) think that Barry’s spontaneity made him miles better than John Motson. Bazza has some belters from football (that Franny Lee goal!), but ironically his finest moment came when he was commentating on GB’s hockers win against West Germany to secure the Gold in the 1988 Olympics. As the German defence went missing for the third GB goal, Davies said: “Where were the Germans … but frankly, who cares?" Fantastic.
Con Houlihan (Sport): Strictly speaking he was a journalist and not a commentator, but Houlihan’s deliciously elegant words on sport are well worth seeking out. Of Paddy Cullen, an unfortunate Gaelic Football goalkeeper caught irretrievably and irrevocably out of position, he once wrote: “Paddy dashed back towards his goal like a woman who smells a cake burning.”
Brian Johnson (Cricket): the much loved Johnners always maintained that he never said his famous quote about West Indian bowler Michael Holding and English batsman Peter Willey, but naturally that won’t prevent it from being including here: “The bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey.” (You may need to repeat it before you get it)
Chris Kamara (Football): OK, another one who’s not strictly speaking a commentator, but it’s my bat, my ball, my stumps etc. Kami’s had more than his fair share of corkers, but this one is hard to beat: “Statistics are there to be broken.”
Bjørge Lillelien (Football): you won’t know the name, but you will know the commentary, from when little old Norway beat England 2-1 in 1981. Here’s the full quote less the Norwegian bits: “Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana ... Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? … Maggie Thatcher … Maggie Thatcher … your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!"
Whispering Ted Lowe (Snooker): The consummate voice of snooker, and still missed as badly today as ever. Colour television was still in its infancy when snooker first featured on the telly, hence Ted’s unforgettable line: “For those of you watching in black and white, the pink is behind the green.”
Dan Maskell (Tennis): Maskell was the Voice of Tennis and the Voice of Wimbledon, a thoroughly old school and old fashioned commentator who was never afraid to let the game do the talking. All he had to do was intersperse the visuals with the occasional trademark “Ooh I say!”
Bill McClaren (Rugby): Another of those commentators who is irreplaceable: no one could ever match his impartiality (he loved rugby even more than his beloved Scotland), deep knowledge and marvellous turn of phrase. Of the many that could have been chosen, let’s go with his appreciation of slippery Irish winger Simon Geoghegan, variously described as being like “a mad trout up a burn, “an electric eel,” “Bambi on speed” and best of all “he’s all arms and legs like a mad octopus.”
Michael O’Hehir (Horse Racing): the 1967 Grand National featured a massive pile up where most of the field was unseated or delayed, and a complete outsider and unfancied backmarker won. In a wonderful piece of commentary, Michael is left madly shrieking “Rondetto has fallen, Princeful has fallen, Norther has fallen, Kirtle Lad has fallen, The entire Western World and his wife have fallen” and so on. Well worth a google.
Sir Peter O’Sullevan (Horse Racing): I always loved that posh Sir Peter was actually born in Ireland, and that it was OK for him as an Irishman to accept a knighthood because Ireland was still part of the UK when he was born. Nothing better those rich, plummy, velvetty tones intoning “Red Rum is gonna win the national.”
Ron Pickering (Athletics): to this day, Bob Beamon’s astonishing, record annihilating long jump in the 1968 Mexico Olympics surely remains the single greatest feat ever in Athletics, and Ron Pickering’s associated commentary was pretty damn good too: “Here he goes for his opening leap. Oh it’s an enormous one, my goodness me it’s an enormous one.”
Sid Waddell (Darts): Sid is another of those commentators who has not been and cannot ever be replaced. "It's the greatest comeback since Lazarus!” came close to being chosen, but I have to go with this never bettered utterance: “There’s only one word for it: magic darts!”
Murray Walker (Motor Racing): and the next sport that is forever diminished by not having its seminal commentator at the wheel. It’s almost impossible to choose from the long list of Murrayisms, where his unbridled excitement overtook his brain, but we’ll settle for. "I don't make mistakes. I make prophecies which immediately turn out to be wrong."
Eddie Waring (Rugby League): when live sport was rare on the television, rugby league used to brighten up those long, dark Saturday afternoons. Eddie was not so much famous for a phrase, as for the way his Northern accent magnificently manipulated and mutilated words. Wigan, for example. That came out approximately as “AhhhWWWWiiiiiiiiGaaaNNNNNNNNNN!”
Kenneth Wolstenholme (Football): well we could hardly leave this one out, could we? From the 1966 World Cup Final “Some people are on the pitch … they think it’s all over … it is now! It’s four!”
And now this article is all over too. Can you go better than the 20 commentators mentioned above, or suggest more of their memorable moments? We’d love to hear your suggestions: comments please!