world cup

The World Cup is Here, Shame about the Commentators

Lapping up footage of the 1982 World Cup on the umpteenth pre-tournament doc the other night made me realise how much has changed about football. Players’ shorts have got longer (thank god), their bodies are more athletic, they don’t dribble with the ball as much, and not many of them have beards any more (shame that, can you imagine how hard Stevie G would look with a beard?)

One thing about the coverage was undeniably familiar though. Bloody John Motson was at the mike: wailing, shouting and blurting out useless facts in exactly the same irritating manner that he’ll be invading your living rooms for the next month: “It’s 1-0 to Argentina, and more importantly, that’s his first headed goal in a stripy shirt for six weeks.” The BBC have gone for a safety-first 4-5-1 formation with Big Motty up front yet again. And we the license-fee paying public will have to suffer his sheepskin jackets and statistic-stuffed drivel for another four weeks.

Why is the sports pundit untouchable, a protected species?

Switch over to ITV and the situation isn’t much better. Clive “Tabloid” Tyldesley will be firing out ready-made Sun Headlines faster than you can say “Gotcha’’ and there’s nothing you can do to stop him. Tyldesley used a recent Telegraph column to cite a meeting with Motty in which they reminisced over tournaments past and compared notes over their preparations for this one. How comfortable they must have felt, safe in the knowledge that their bosses see them as the undisputed Numero Unos - a “safe pair of hands’’ to steer their respective broadcasting vessels through the choppy waters of another World Cup.

So why do commentators last so long? In an era of career-switching and an increasingly youth-driven media culture, why is the sports pundit untouchable, a protected species?

Since the days of Kenneth Wolstenholme and John Arlott, commentators have been heralded as national institutions: the familiarity of their voices is seen as somehow reassuring. But while Wolstenholme and Arlott were wordsmiths -- descriptive wizards who used the gift of language to bring a distant sporting event to life through the medium of a crackly wireless or black-and-white TV set – Motty and Clive are football anoraks, whose qualification for the job goes little further than a capacity to remember the names and vital statistics of 22 players at once.

The atmosphere they create is one of a boys’ club, with we viewers the impertinent impostors, declined membership to this chummy clan of smug former pros.

Wolstenholme and Arlott earned their longevity through the adoration of their listeners and the wisdom of their assessments. On the flip side, they created a climate of conservatism in British sports broadcasting and an unhealthy obsession with experience. It is in this atmosphere that microphone muppets like Motty and Clive can blunder on for ever more.

How else do you explain why talented young commentators like the BBC’s Steve Wilson – whose commentaries are as inspiring as they are insightful – will be limited to highlights of Saudi Arabia group games?

 The same principles of conservativism apply in the studio. It won’t alarm any of you to read that for England’s World Cup matches, BBC host Gary Lineker will be flanked by Alan Shearer, Lee Dixon and Ian Wright. Shearer and Dixon are more wooden than pine, while Wright has a tendency to get so carried away by the excitement of it all that he loses his already limited powers of speech. The atmosphere they create is one of a boys’ club, with we viewers the impertinent impostors, declined membership to this chummy clan of smug former pros.

The prevailing conservatism in the world of sports punditry explains why Gabby Logan was recently dumped as the main presenter of ITV’s coverage in favour of Steve Ryder. Accomplished though Ryder is, he is essentially boring and predictable. Logan is pretty, witty and charismatic, and frankly deserves a medal for spending the entire Champions League season anchoring the ITV coverage from an empty studio while her so-called co-hosts Ally McCoist and Andy Townsend clowned around at the side of the pitch. But when it came to the crunch, the suits in the ITV boardroom plumped for the dependable Ryder leaving Logan to join Wilson at the Saudi game.

My tip for the World Cup is to turn down the TV and crank up the radio commentary. At least Alan Green will give you opinions, wit and analysis, As for our national television networks, it’s high time for some common sense and forward-thinking. Let’s muffle Mike-shy Motty and clear out Cliched Clive.



































Has Motty Had His Day?