Footballing commentary on our TV


Did He Really Say That?

The global popularity of the beautiful game can be enjoyed in high screen resolution from the comfort of your own home or sipping a cocktail in a luxury resort as you open one of the many online channels on your tablet or laptop. Wherever you are in the world you can hear the comforting tones of some of the most lucid commentators and there is great comfort in that. It’s a far cry from cupping your hands around a mug of steaming Bovril on a wet Tuesday in Stoke with superfan Dave berating the mangers line-up.

It seems ludicrous that the footballing world feared media exposure yet they could not stop it happening. When the BBC decided to screen a live match in 1938 there were around 10,000 televisions in homes so it would hardly stop fans from going to see a game. TV coverage was at best experimental so there was no way it would reduce gate receipts. The previous year had seen record attendances, some 149,415 people watched Scotland defeat England at Hampden Park. In fact, the 1930s saw grounds packed with fans.

“If there’s a goal scored now, I’ll eat my hat.”

It was a slow start. The first match to be shown was Arsenal V Arsenal reserves on the 16th of September 1937. On April 9th the following year England V Scotland was shown. These were just partial matches and there must have been considerable interest as they showed the FA Cup final of that year. 93,497 people went to Wembley to see Preston North End beat Huddersfield 1-0. Thomas Woodrooffe was the commentator that day. He did ingest a had as a penalty was awarded just moments after the first ever Colemanball.

The popularity of football increased along with the development of television and I do believe it’s the commentators and pundits who enhance our watching experience. The familiar voices and their turns of phrases keep them in the commentator’s box for decades. To have a phrase associated with you is a tribute to your talent and non-more so than the unscripted line from a former acting squadron leader. Kenneth Wolstenholme’s delivery was a mixture of informed authority and understated passion for the excitement that is generated when watching football. Without those eight words we may not have such adulation for the voices we take for granted.

Those Eight Words

He commentated on some of the best matches of all time and he did so with very little pre-match research. Pele, Garrincha, Matthews and Di Stefano-he saw them all. He saw triumph and defeat and knew there were silences as well as words. He told us about 23 FA Cup finals and five World Cups on the BBC. In his time football dictated the match coverage. He did not like the fact that in today’s game matches can be postponed to suit the TV schedule which echoes the grassroots view.

August 22nd 1964 saw him lead a revolution in television football. Well, he presented the first ever Match of the Day. 20,000 people saw highlights of Liverpool V Arsenal. More than 40,000 had seen it live. As some teams feared this new medium it was agreed that the BBC would not reveal the highlighted match ahead of time. Wolstenholme was the commentator and presenter.  He would remain the voice of football until 1971.


With spontaneity, the key to commentary is that it can go so wrong. In fact, it can go so wrong it is perfectly right. David Coleman took the chief commentator’s baton from Ken. He had the gravitas and timing that was needed. He had been presenting Grandstand since 1958 and had been expressing his opinions clearly and concisely regularly. “Goals pay the rent.”. It may not be as immortal as those eight words spoken in 1966 but they have been uttered since he used that phrase after Kevin Keegan scored against Newcastle. Henry Winter reckoned it was his best commentary ever. Pithy comments all way before Twitter limited us to 140 characters defined Coleman’s artistry. Fans listening anticipated his 1-0. Fans such as Alan Hansen.

“If that had gone in, it would have been a goal”

These fans enjoyed the gaffs as well as the goals. In a career as long and intense as David’s you can expect a few sentences to be misspoken and thoughts expressed clumsily. I mean “Forest have now lost six matches without winning” is a tautological truth. It’s one of the many gaffs reported by “Private Eye” magazine in its long-running column-Colemanballs. They could be stating the obvious like “If that had gone in, it would have been a goal”. Or they could have been the plain absurd, “Don’t tell those coming in the final result of that fantastic match, but let’s just have another look at Italy’s winning goal.” This elevated him to the status of national treasure but one he didn’t really treasure according to his son.

Grandstand and Match of the Day are part of our national treasury of football on television. Many voices have been added to these pioneering shows but everything evolves. The BBC had a monopoly on football broadcasting but ITV got in on the act and cut a deal to broadcast live league games. Previously had been international matches and league highlights but Tottenham leads the rebellion and refused to let the cameras in. The Football League demanded a huge increase in player revenue ITV pulled out. It wasn’t until ITV paid £5.2m to do live broadcasts in 1983. The money was rolling in and out. This was when football started to dominate and with the media, burgeoning Sky is the limit. I still prefer sharing a moment with superfan Dave over that Bovril.

In every generation, there are voices that go accompany the music of football. They are ever evolving with the rhythm of the viewing generation. Those early voices gave us phrases and faces that enhanced our sporting enjoyment. David Coleman presented an amusing quiz show called “A Question of Sport”. Here we saw Coleman front the show from 1975 until 1997. This saw footballers like Emlyn Hughes, Ally McCoist, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton answer humourous questions. The voices have personality. Actually, Coleman presented Sports Personality of the Year. I think the puns are rubbing off on me…they are now.