Obituary: David Anthony Gubba, sports commentator and broadcaster

Tony Gubba. Picture: Getty
Tony Gubba. Picture: Getty
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Born: 23 September, 1943, in Manchester. Died: 11 March, 2013, in Berkshire, aged 69

Possessing one of the most distinctive voices on British television, Tony Gubba was a respected and knowledgeable commentator on sport for the BBC for 40 years. Yet it was in his latter incarnation as a jokey summariser for the ITV programme Dancing on Ice that he will be chiefly remembered by the current generation of 

Gubba joined the programme at its inception in 2006, and his gentle mocking of the celebrity participants was one of the key elements in the success of Dancing on Ice, the eighth series of which concluded at the weekend, shortly before the announcement of Gubba’s death after a short illness.

For older generations of football fans, however, Gubba will be remembered for his contributions to the BBC’s coverage of many major footballing events, and also for presenting Sportsnight and Grandstand, the corporation’s major sports programmes of yesteryear. He also played a significant and recurring role as a commentator for Match of the Day, though in truth he was something of a sporting polymath, having reported and commentated on many different sports.

Born David Anthony Gubba in wartime Manchester, Tony Gubba was educated at Blackpool Grammar School before starting work as a local newspaper reporter in his native Lancashire. A talented singer, he had undertaken some music studies, and in later years he would be in demand for “a turn” at BBC parties. Journalism called him, however, and he soon made the transition to national newspapers, joining the staff of the Daily Mirror.

He was one of the legion of reporters who transferred their skills to television during the explosion in news broadcasting in the 1960s. Gubba joined Southern TV, based in Southampton, before returning to his Lancashire roots in 1969 as the BBC’s North of England correspondent based in Liverpool.

Always keen on sport, and a useful amateur footballer, Gubba was plucked from regional obscurity to become the presenter of Sportsnight in succession to David Coleman in 1972. At the time, there were many variations of the headline “Tony who?” but Gubba did not try to ape the venerable Coleman, instead winning many fans with his relaxed and often humorous style of presentation.

It was the start of a 40 year career covering sport for the BBC, and in that time he would either be a presenter or commentator at every Olympic Games from 1972 to 2012, while he also featured in the corporation’s coverage of nine successive World Cups from 1974 onwards.

On numerous occasions he also presented Grandstand, taking the place of Frank Bough, giving him the hat-trick of fronting the three biggest sports programmes on the BBC.

Though football was his main sport, Gubba showed his versatility with his coverage of a range of sports such as cycling, golf, hockey, rowing, judo, tennis and table tennis, ice-skating and other winter sports, particularly ski jumping.

Though he was never the recognised number one football commentator for the BBC during an era when John Motson held that unofficial title, Gubba nevertheless held the microphone at many important matches, and his professionalism was such that even when he was commentating on Manchester United, fans could never detect any bias in favour of the Reds that he supported from childhood.

He often said his greatest thrill in sport was witnessing the debut of George Best for United.

Away from television, Gubba’s written journalism flourished and he became well known among the cognoscenti as a writer of articles about fly-fishing, a talent that developed from his love for salmon fishing. He was also a travel writer of note.

Over the years, Gubba developed a profitable sideline as an after-dinner speaker and as a presenter for corporate events, his relaxed manner enhancing many a dinner.

His distinctive tones were even heard on airliners when he supplied the commentary on the highlights of games from the 2006 World Cup in Germany that were shown on in-flight entertainment channels. He also provided football commentaries for computer and video games.

Though he never abandoned the BBC, Gubba enjoyed his biggest latter-day success with ITV. It came about because former Olympic and World ice dance champions Jane Torville and Christopher Dean were asked by ITV to train ten celebrities in an ice dancing competition that became Dancing on Ice.

Remembering Gubba’s work and support during their glittering amateur career, Torville and Dean requested that he 
become the summariser and commentator.

His best lines included his description of England rugby scrum-half Keiran Bracken: “He skates like Benny Hill chasing a chorus girl.”

Colleagues have spoken about Gubba’s professionalism but also about his pleasant and cheery personality, and his enthusiasm for whatever branch of broadcasting he found himself in.

Tony Gubba is survived by his partner, Jenny; his two daughters from his earlier marriage, Claire and Libby; and his three granddaughters.