Interview: Barry Davies on his love of 70s football and Wimbledon

Barry Davies is commentating at his 30th and fianl Wimbledon. Picture: Andy Paradise/The Independent/REX/Shutterstock
Barry Davies is commentating at his 30th and fianl Wimbledon. Picture: Andy Paradise/The Independent/REX/Shutterstock
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Oh to be at the most English of sporting festivals while shrugging off the prospect of the greatest English sporting triumph of them all and talking to dear old Barry Davies about Roger Hynd, Gerry Queen and Willie (he of the swiftly-banned donkey kick) Carr.

If you were to join us for afternoon tea in a Wimbledon restaurant you’d quibble at the “old” bit. The venerable commentator’s eyes sparkle when invited to recall a great goal or piece of athletic excellence, each of them made greater and more excellent by his words. Although, being a modest chap, he doesn’t claim that his descriptions and exclamations did this. The expression is boyishly gleeful, like he’s just completed a sticker book or impressed his games master with an explanation of catenaccio. Look at his face, just look at his face! But Davies is mere days from unplugging his mic for the very last time. “I wanted to get to 80 and cover one more Wimbledon and here I am,” he says.

We’ll come back to the tennis but first, Hynd, Queen and Carr, three men of Glasgow. I do find myself thinking that I’m being epicly parochial asking questions about Scottish footballers of the past when the England national team of the right-now has the southern lands gripped with World Cup fever. But, let me tell you, the guilt doesn’t last long. And these were important Scottish footballers for Davies, helping him secure an invite into living-rooms, eventually becoming part of the furniture, modest and dependable like an occasional table, because football on TV used to be occasional, not omnipresent like today.

“Roger and Gerry made their debuts for Crystal Palace when I made my debut on Match of the Day,” says Davies, dapper in his sky-blue and cream summer ensemble. This was the opening Saturday of season 1969/70, Palace vs Manchester United, although that wasn’t the fixture originally allocated him. “I was at Leeds United getting ready for their match with Spurs when the producer, John McGonagle, rang up and told me to get back down to London.” He searches for a commentator’s incidental colour. “Was John Scottish? I worked with a jolly large number of producers who were. He drank lots of scotch, that I remember. And I can still hear those fellows before England-Scotland internationals, cautionary words in my earpiece: ‘Remember, this game’s being broadcast to the whole of Britain. Don’t use ‘us’ and never say ‘we’.

“Match of the Day was pretty chaotic in those days. I got to Palace an hour before kick-off, grabbed the match programme and started cramming. And then, because I was standing in for David Coleman who’d lost his voice, I had to replace him in the studio later that night as well. So I brought along Roger and Gerry to assist me.” Chaotic or not, Davies during the game still found the time, and the confidence, to issue the first mild reprimand of a long career of moral scrutiny, tut-tutting at Georgie Best’s unshaven appearance.

Carr’s circus-worthy assist for Ernie Hunt at Coventry City the following season re-surfaced last month following the latter’s death but it is firmly installed in the Scottish Deedle-Dawdle Hall of Fame. Davies was narrating the story of the match and it took him by surprise at it did everyone. There’s a slight delay before the shriek: “Oh, what a goal!” But it’s what came next that cemented Davies’ place in our Saturday night entertainment and gave him his first catchphrase.

“And they don’t come much better than that!” Now, written down it doesn’t seem clever or witty or lyrical or profound but let me tell you that in every playground, all of the following week and well beyond, plastic polka-dot balls were scudding off toilet-block walls, the small, speccy goalies clutching at thin air, as the scorers repeated Davies’ words: “And they don’t come much better than that!”

I tell Davies this happened at my school, that his aphorism was even more popular than David Coleman’s “One-nil!”, and the eyes twinkle some more. “Well, thank you,” he says. “You’ve made an old man very happy. You’re right, I was taken aback by what Willie did, popping the ball up with his heels – it was simply marvellous. I didn’t think about what I was going to say in the event of a spectacular goal. The best commentaries – and I’m not saying that was one, by the way – are always spontaneous.” Carr’s improv was a glorious one-off, A new rule decreed that the ball at free-kicks could no longer go straight up in air, they had to travel forwards. Just like Davies after that.

As we’re talking he glances up at the big screens and the tennis in progress. He’ll be guiding the viewers through Maria Sharapova’s next match, hoping to be heard above her grunts. So, Coleman. His name has come up twice already and we can’t ignore him. He bestrode the BBC sports department like a safari-suited colossus. He sat on the edge of the Grandstand desk and no one had ever done that before. He got his name in the titles – Sportsnight with Coleman – and no one had ever achieved that before. Did they get on?

Davies smiles wryly and it’s obvious his response will be no mic-man’s blurt. “The thing about David was that he did things his own way. He was a big figure. When he suddenly announced he wasn’t going to bother doing the midweek football match anymore, it fell to me. Sam Leitch, another Scottish boss of mine, was very keen that I listened to everything David did and copy him. I did learn a lot from David but I listened to other commentators as well. I decided I would rather fail as Barry Davies than be thought of as a fellow who’d simply mimicked David Coleman.”

Coleman, undoubtedly brilliant, commentated in an urgent, declamatory way. He had something very important to say and expected us all to listen. But he wasn’t striving for Shakespeare and his words didn’t have the whiff of midnight oil being burned on them – that unfortunate trend in commentating would come later. Davies’ take was more restrained. Well, restrained and excited, a neat trick indeed.

“Yes, I was very excited, wasn’t I? Especially in the beginning.” But football in the 1970s was exciting. The old English First Division was full of 
exciting, wild-haired Scots – who was his favourite? “Oh, Denis Law without a doubt. Those great leaps – magnificent. And the Scottish national side at the ’74 World Cup were a bloody good team. Who knows what they could have achieved if they’d got through the groups.”

TV back then had not yet flattened football, dulling the senses, with over-exposure. The only flattening was carried out by Norman Hunter and other psychopaths. Goals and moments from that era are encased in aspic, or perhaps Ralgex. The commentators’ narration is stuck to them like 70s mud to a hatchet man’s shorts. Think of an explosive incident like Hunter’s Leeds being halted in their charge to the old First Division title by a West Bromwich Albion goal which was miles offside – and then you hear our man: “Leeds will go mad! And they have every right to go mad!”

Or think of Francis Lee, involved in one of the 70s most sensational punch-ups with Hunter. But don’t think of that pair exchanging haymakers, think of when Lee was barrelling towards old club Manchester City’s goal for new mob Derby County. “Interesting… ”, suggested Davies. “Very interesting!” he shouts and as the ball boomed into the City net. Lee was pretty chuffed, and Davies recorded this: “Look at his face! Just look at his face!”

I have a go, which was really my ruse to get the master to reprise it. “Sometimes it’s not what you say but the way you say it,” he attests. The croak was crucial. “I had the operation soon afterwards,” he chuckles. And his commentary probably did wonders for future millionaire businessman Lee as well. “Do you know, I’ve never thought of that.”

Originally, Davies wanted to be a 
doctor until he flunked the exams and, for a while, dentistry looked like it might be a consolation prize. “What an idiotic idea that was. I have five thumbs on each hand – I would have been useless.” During National Service he tried commentating on forces radio and liked it. Upon discharge his commander officer urged him to give it a go for real – “Otherwise you might be listening to that chap Coleman and regret never having tried.” His first match, for ITV, was February 1966, Chelsea vs AC Milan in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.

Over the course of half a century, commentating, especially on football, has changed. That was bound to happen. TV is nervous of standing still and is a sucker for new fads. Davies, now a viewer like you and me, groans at the bletherama of many voices. “If we were at a game together, sat in the stand, you might offer an opinion on an aspect and 20 minutes later I might say something about the next noteworthy incident. But if you were to come in straight after your first remark I’m afraid I would have to tell you to bloody well shut up. This is what I feel like when I watch games on the box now. There’s the commentator and there’s the summariser or whatever he’s called, maybe more than one of them. And they chat about everything incessantly.”

Davies recalls the dread moment during contract talks at Match of the Day when the vision of a verbose future was outlined. “I was told by the editor that ‘conversational commentating’ was the way forward. I said that I couldn’t disagree more. I mean, everybody who watches football on TV reckons they’re an expert. They might like the chance now and again to think for themselves.”

So what, after the World Cup debut of Vicki Sparks, does he think about female commentators? “Well, I didn’t know she going to be in Russia and my first reaction was: ‘That’s a woman’s voice, definitely.’ Now, there are a lot of women who know quite a lot about football but I think we have two 
problems: when a woman gets excited she starts from a higher point on the voice register. That’s not being rude, it’s a fact of life.” Does he mean that if a woman screeched “Just look at his face!” there would be nowhere for her to go after that, or if she tried to complete the classic refrain it would be like a dog-whistle, undetectable by the human ear? “Exactly. And I say that as someone who in the early days was a tenor, not a bass. When I listen back to some of my old commentaries… oh God, too shrill. And the other problem is with men. It is more difficult for a man to accept a woman commentator than it is for a woman to be one.”

Sometimes, for a commentator, though, words are useless. In Davies’ case that was Heysel. “I went to a football match and found myself having to try to describe a disaster,” he says quietly. Jimmy Hill was to introduce coverage of the 1985 Liverpool-Juventus European Cup final straight from a jocular guest turn on the Wogan chat show and there were frantic efforts to brief him that over in Brussels something had gone horribly wrong. “The extent of it all wasn’t known and there was a terrible danger of Chinese whispers. We had a small team at the game, just the producer, myself and Bobby Charlton and I could hardly send Bob to the back of the stand to count the corpses. I wrote down six different versions of what I might say only to rip them all up. I just tried to think of how there were mothers, wives and sisters who’d waved these poor souls off to a match and they wouldn’t be coming back.”

Davies has never been the type to swot and now I’m about to claim the prize for the first profile of him which takes 2,000 words to mention his great rival, John Motson. In a BBC tribute to Davies this week the rivalry was described as “Beatles vs Stones”. This might have caused bemusement in Scotland where Arthur Montford and Archie Macpherson was always the supreme contest. Maybe to us Baz and Motty were more Freddie and the Dreamers vs Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch; still, they scrapped for the top gigs.

Motson usually won, nabbing all but two FA Cup finals. Davies was pleased to finally get a couple but they were poor games, and his sole World Cup final, in 1994, was the only goalless draw there’s ever been. I ask Davies about the moment when Motty
started playing up to his anoraky image, the self-parody solidifying his pre-eminence. “I’m glad you said that!” he laughs. But Davies would prove he had a sense of humour: his deadpan spoofery for the World Stare-Out Championships in the Big Train sketch show was brilliant.

“John and I got on reasonably well. We were different people and different commentators, which was good for coverage, but it was difficult for me to accept that the BBC preferred his style over mine. Of course, it was easier for him to get on well with me; he was the one with the big games.”

When Davies stopped football, it was thought Motson was the reason but he simply wanted to try other things. Those have included 17 Olympics – “Where, oh where, were the Germans? Frankly, who cares?” – and 30 Wimbledons, including the raging pomp of John McEnroe. Unsurprisingly, Davies strongly disapproved of Superbrat. “I wanted him thrown out of the tournament. But since he became a commentator, offering up the kind of insights you don’t get from ex-pros in many sports, we’ve got on well.” Indeed, McEnroe has lobbied for Davies to be allowed to return to football.

He’s glad the autumn of his career has been Wimbledon, loving the place ever since he and wife Penny, then his girlfriend, used to queue for hours then sprint for the best vantage points. Its civility suits him. “My mother gave me two pieces of advice: ‘Be truthful, be a gentleman.’”

The eyes twinkle one more time. “Did you happen to see that woman’s match I covered on No 1 Court yesterday? Extraordinary. This little Romanian girl was terribly nervous and I thought she was going to lose the first set 6-0. Then she won a couple of games. Then in another game she served seven double faults. Then she had six match points and couldn’t take any of them. Remarkable. I thought to myself: ‘Clearly one to watch.’ But it’s not going to be me from the commentary box anymore.

“I haven’t thought about what I’ll say on my last day. John Arlott got it right I reckon by not mentioning it at all. I just hope the BBC will be kind to me, maybe give me the mixed doubles final. Yes, that would be nice.”

All together now, 70s schoolboys: Barry Davies – they don’t come much better than that.