In the world of football commentary there is an often heard saying about the commentator’s curse, where something is said or suggested and then the exact opposite happens. “This team is defending superbly’ and then a goal is scored. The job of commentator is not easy for sure. It was actually what I dreamt of doing when I was a kid – running around the garden talking to myself as stars of the early 80s scored goals in my recreated FA Cup finals and World Cup matches.
Running around the garden though, I never played the role of co-commentator, as it didn’t have the excitement and appeal of describing a goal. In fact, in the early 80s, the role of co-commentator was very withdrawn, partly due to technical reasons (sharing microphones) and partly because broadcasters had not yet explored a more dynamic and insightful way to inform the audience about the flow of a game.
It has been a long journey from Jimmy Hill to Gary Neville. Hill transformed the role to a degree, offering more opinion and insight than many others. He was never afraid to say something controversial. Over time though his views became outdated. My main memory of him is his cheering in the background when Gary Lineker scored his third against Poland at the World Cup of 1986. What Neville has done is raise the bar even further, and to a level many cannot match. He is insightful, honest and funny. The best.
The problem is there are too many pundits and co-commentators that feel having played the game is enough for them to just turn up and spout obvious things. No research about the teams, players or tactics is needed. This is what I call 'the co-commentators curse'. During the World Cup in Russia, Mark Lawrenson admitted he hadn’t heard of Benjamin Pavard (after he scored against Argentina), despite him being a starter in the French side and playing in the Bundesliga. Why admit your ignorance? Why not do some research before the game? With Lawrenson, he became too comfortable in the role and got lazy. Producers and the team around former players must be confident to raise these issues and ensure they push themselves and add value.
In the opening ten minutes of last week’s televised game between Preston and Reading, Don Goodman reeled off statistics about Reading’s previous three seasons. He watches a lot of Championship football for sure, but it is not just the commentator’s job to do the research. Goodman often makes observations that are useful for the TV viewer and armchair fan. In radio this is key too and often the analysis and discussion of tactics is lost because of the need to describe what has happened. But there is a balance. A radio commentator is the narrator of the story unfolding in front of them, while the pundit is there to give value by analysing what is happening.
Not everyone can be Gary Neville and there are some very famous names that have never offered insight in these roles. They are also becoming outdated. As Sky decided this year – what connection did Phil Thompson have with most football fans in 2020? Teams need to be refreshed and pundits and co-commentators need to understand that having played the game is not enough. The more mundane and obvious the observations, the more likely you are to suffer that ‘commentators curse’.