Interview: BBC’s Paul Mitchell on his path into commentating and why he loves the Super Bowl

BBC commentator Paul Mitchell is a huge Super Bowl fan. Picture: Scott Louden
BBC commentator Paul Mitchell is a huge Super Bowl fan. Picture: Scott Louden
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Paul Mitchell has spent his career talking about Scottish football. From Sportsound to Sportscene; from Scottish Cup finals to Scotland games; he’s devoted more than 20 years to describing the national pastime for listeners and viewers.

But this evening, as he sits down with the same two friends he always spends Super Bowl Sunday with, the only talk will be about a different kind of football.

“I’ve watched every Super Bowl since about 1985 and it’s something I’ve always loved,” says Mitchell.

The National Football League (NFL) season culminates in the wee small hours of tomorrow morning as the Kansas City Chiefs take on the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV in Miami, and Mitchell is counting down the hours.

“This has got the potential to be a really good game,” he enthuses. “You don’t always get the best game at the end of the season but I think this could be something special.”

Anyone who has listened to Scottish football coverage through this century has heard Mitchell exclaim in excitement, but there’s a passion in his voice when he talks about the NFL that’s slightly different.

He found the game, as many in the UK did in the 80’s, through Channel Four’s Sunday night coverage when there was precious little other sport on. Soon enough he was hooked and a love of the New Orleans Saints eventually followed, even if the path to fandom was slightly unusual.

“I decided that I didn’t want to follow a good team because that was the easy thing to do. I looked at all the teams and, at the time I picked them, the Saints had never been to the play-offs, had never had a winning season and I thought ‘that’s my kind of team’.”

Given the Scottish football teams he associated himself with, it made a kind of sense. “I was brought up a Hearts fan, although my dad fell out of love with Hearts when they blew the league against Kilmarnock and then when they got relegated.”

Indeed, it was Meadowbank Thistle that would be a young Mitchell’s first taste of senior football. “Meadowbank was a cold, horribly ugly place but there was something magical about watching league football and then going home and catching up with results on the telly.”

A gift from his parents helped kick-start his other passion: the wireless.

“My mum and dad once bought me a big pair of yellow headphones which had a radio tuner inside the headphone and I became obsessed with being able to tune it and listen to so much. I became a big fan of Radio Luxembourg and the Armed Forces network.

“[The Armed Forces network] was broadcast on medium wave for American troops in Germany but you were able to get a really bad signal of it here. It had strange sports like baseball and American football and I fell in love with people describing something that I couldn’t see, that sounded so exciting, so exotic, and I guess the love of that never left me.”

From then on, the two – sports and radio – would become inextricably linked. He would reach the Scottish final of Radio Two’s Young Sports Commentator of the Year competition twice, worked on Edinburgh’s hospital radio network where he helped re-establish a connection with Hearts, and finally, in 1991, became a reporter on BBC’s Sportsound programme.

It would be 1999 before he would commentate on a game – oddly enough, in Reykjavik, to cover a Kilmarnock European tie – but his career would continue to progress until he replaced Rob McLean as Sportscene’s main announcer in 2004.

“It was an absolute honour being in that position,” he says. In total, he was the voice of 12 domestic cup finals and over 50 Scotland games.

“It was a privilege to do every cup final I covered. There’s just something about a Hampden cup final that is magnificent,” he insists.

His career highlight was not at Hampden but covering a Scotland game at the San Siro in Milan, despite a narrow escape for both himself and co-commentator Ian McCall, when a lighting rig collapsed and smashed in front of them moments before going live.

Despite being the lead BBC commentator during what, now, seems like a more innocent time, Mitchell was not immune to criticism from supporters, and accusations of bias followed him across the country.

“I’ve been accused of supporting every club in Scotland,” he laughs. “Queen of the South fans wrote to tell me I was biased against them when I did a game of theirs against Hamilton because I never referred to them as Queens but I called Hamilton ‘Accies’.”

If only they had known his real team was many miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

If things started pleasingly miserably for Mitchell as a Saints fan – they were “truly terrible” – they’ve improved considerably in the years since.

It coincided with the arrival of quarterback Drew Brees, who first guided the Saints to competitive respectability and then, in Super Bowl XLIV, to the biggest prize in American sports.

That 2010 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, only a few short years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, when the Saints’ Superdome stadium became a shelter of last resort for the displaced, was seen as New Orleans’ resurgence writ large.

“Drew Brees’ time has been the time to be a Saints fan,” Mitchell agrees. “When he eventually hangs up his cleats or goes somewhere else, they’re going to struggle in the same way others have when a big name quarterback has gone.”

In recent years, consecutive dramatic play-off defeats have brought out the irrationality in Mitchell so intrinsic to being a fan. It’s apparent on the NFL podcast he hosts with fellow broadcaster Cameron Hobbs, with particular reference to an episode in the dying weeks of last season. His barely-disguised disgust after a blown referee call in the final seconds of last season’s NFC Championship game between the Saints and Los Angeles Rams would have been a surprise to anyone used to hearing the commentator speaking in moderate, measured language on the BBC. Perhaps with the exception of those irate Queen of the South fans.

“Sometimes you can get disconnected as a commentator and you don’t necessarily understand why fans get so upset about certain things,” admits Mitchell, “So it’s lovely actually to be a fan of something and be slightly irrational and not look at things from both sides.”

His podcast – NFL Scotland – has become a safe space for his fandom where, like his radio and television career, he’s been able to transition successfully.

“It’s been phenomenal. We’re on to episode 86, we’ve had over 20,000 downloads, we’ve done live events in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It’s been great to do.”

There are more plans afoot for the podcast – “there’s starting to be more Scottish interest [with Scots Jamie Gillan at the Cleveland Browns and David Ojabo at Michigan] and we’d like to tell some of those stories to a wider audience” – and Mitchell harbours the dream of, one day, commentating on the NFL but, for now, there’s the Super Bowl to look forward to.

Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, inset, the young quarterback sensation with his slingshot arm and incredible ability to escape pressure, faces off against the 1950s good looks of San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo and their juggernaut running game, in what could be an all-time classic.

“I think this’ll be terrific,” Mitchell agrees. Even if it’s not, you sense that he’ll enjoy it anyway.