Aidan Smith: The craft of commentaries

Arthur Montford: Scottish football commentator. Picture: Contributed
Arthur Montford: Scottish football commentator. Picture: Contributed
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THE best commentaries are joyful and completely spontaneous. The description of rugby’s greatest try by Cliff Morgan, who died last week, is some people’s idea of the greatest piece of sports narration, ever.

But it’s a pretty safe bet that Neil Lennon won’t be nominating Jon Champion for any such prize.

Morgan couldn’t help but be spontaneous for the Barbarians vs the All Blacks 40 years ago. He was a late substitute for Bill McLaren, who was ill. Gareth Edwards’ score came near the beginning of the match, when Morgan was still settling into his chair. The ball travelled a long way and through many hands, and he couldn’t have foreseen the eventual outcome. Today’s commentators too often try to force their way into the story. You can almost smell the midnight oil they burned as they pre-prepared phrases, in the hope they would echo through sporting history. Morgan that day was simply enjoying the ball being thrown around in such cavalier fashion. “This is great stuff! Oh that’s brilliant!” And he did it in a Welsh accent. McLaren was a wonderful commentator but such an extravagant and lyrical try needed Morgan’s garrulousness.

Lennon’s criticism of ITV’s “anti-Celtic” coverage of the first leg of their Champions League play-off against Shakhter Karagandy hints at some pre-preparedness and if not quite an agenda against his club then at least a script which commentator Champion and sidekick Clarke Carlisle seemed keen to see followed through to the most dramatic conclusion possible – a shock win for the Kazakhs. Now, Celtic have trotted out quite a few conspiracy theories down the seasons but, in this instance, I know what Lennon was getting at. Champion and Carlisle didn’t appear to mind overmuch that Celtic lost the game and indeed seemed to get caught up in the home crowd’s exuberance.

In this, though, they were only being ITV.

An upset, a win for the little guys, a tabloidy outcome – very ITV. Mild hysteria at the microphone, pub-quality analysis at half-time and full-time, the lingering sense that, if the Kazakhs sacrified another sheep in celebration out in the centre circle, this would be screened – very ITV. (And is that the final ad break already? See ya!)

The BBC aren’t much better, having dumbed down considerably since commentating’s apotheosis in 1973. Sky are just Sky. But you might wonder, and Lennon certainly does – shouldn’t a British channel be pro British teams?

This stance has given commentating some of its choicest moments.

No.1. Argentina vs England at football, 1986 World Cup, and post-Hand of God Barry Davies is still signing his despatches “Outraged, Home Counties”, but then Diego Maradona scores his second goal. “You have to say that’s magnificent!”

No.2. Britain’s men’s hockey team on the way to winning Olympic gold in 1988 and Davies again. “Where oh where was the German defence? But frankly, who cares?!”

And, best of all, really, there was Arthur Montford, dumping dispassionate objectivity in the bin along with his pie wrapper to exhort: “Come on, Scotland!”

But here’s a funny thing. When Arthur, below, was shouting “watch your back!” at dawdling lads in dark blue, there was some laughter among the armchair audience. Remembering him in his pomp now, though, induces warm feelings of nostalgia (not to be confused with the warm feelings you got in the leg area from a beer can not containing beer being emptied on your terrace step). But, when a commentator displays over-enthusiam now – BBC Scotland’s Liam McLeod, for instance – it can be irritating. This is a complex issue. You’re getting older and wondering about becoming more sophisticated. The recent England-Scotland match was on ITV and there was a choice – patronising or parochial? I went with the English commentator over the STV one, the first time Clive Tydlesley had provoked a positive response in me. Plus there was always the potential for ditching the sophistication and allowing the man at the mic to infuriate – still one of the main reasons we watch televised sport.

“There’s nothing worse than a commentator who’s blatantly biased.” Bill McLaren said that, but it really depends who’s getting the benefit of the bias.

No such issues with the Barbarians, they’re everyone’s team. Over to you, Cliff Morgan, one last time.

“This is Gareth Edwards! A dramatic start! What a score!”