The work of a football commentator can be a varied bag. When it’s bad it can numb the very soul.
Trivial banter back and forth between jaded broadcasters and witless pundits can leave one feeling indebted that our lives, for all their occasional perks, are limited in span and that one day the welcome finger of death will come and spare us from the spurious omnipresence of Andy Townsend, of David Pleat, and, oh creator, of Don Goodman…
“Wilfried Zaha’s risen to the top tonight. Like Cream,” quipped Goodman lately. Like cream! This could be a linguistically perfect simile if only it didn’t take the very concept our using language to communicate cogent ideas to one another, dress it up in a Donald Duck costume, welly it round the back of the skull with a dead octopus and leave it floating lifelessly on the surface of Regent’s Park Boating Lake. Like cream.
But when it’s hot, it can sear the enamel off your teeth. The great shame of being a football fan is that the intense emotions of any moment that send us to the limit of our senses and back are exclusive to the moment. They are ‘now’. They are gone before we’ve had time to acknowledge them and we only ever truly know them in memory.
But fine commentary – commentary that preserves those moments of despair and glory equally – can keep our triumphs current, our defeats alive. Our reactions to events 10 years past are rendered visceral and they are relived in our gut as well as in our mind’s eye.
Here are some moments and performances from behind the mic that have lifted those involved to an immortal pedestal, where they will outlive the artists that wove them and outlive Goodman. Like cream.
1. Franck Queudrue / Martin Tyler – Arsenal 5-3 Middlesbrough (August 2004)
It’s the opening weeks of the 2004/5 season and Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles are closing in on a league record of 42 games unbeaten. All that stands in their way is a home game against Steve McClaren’s Middlesbrough, the core of which will go on to reach the UEFA Cup final 18 months later but on this Sunday afternoon in August are considered fodder for the era’s defining team to stamp their seal across English football history.
A topsy-turvy five minutes either side of half time puts Boro into an unlikely 2-1 lead before madcap Frenchman Franck Queudrue picks up the ball on the left wing some thirty yards from goal.
Middlesbrough’s left-back presumably then blacks out and loses a few seconds of his life because when he comes round, Jens Lehmann has been beaten at his near post from near the halfway line with unerring accuracy by a player whose handiest footwork has till now been delivered against the shins of his opponents.
Martin Tyler is almost as surprised as the Frenchman as he disappears beneath an avalanche of men in Middlesbrough shirts (Queudrue, not Tyler) and this generation’s defining voice artist reaches an octave uncharted by most staves.
Tyler handles a classy Arsenal comeback with his career-defining reverie, but he reserves his finest startled goose impersonation, quite unintentionally, for the moment Franck Queudrue wrote himself, equally unintentionally, into Arsenal’s story.
2. David Batty / Kevin Keegan – England 2-2 Argentina (June 1998)
Unfortunately, Kevin Keegan’s contribution to the moment David Batty stepped up to wallop England out of the 1998 World Cup with the first penalty he had ever taken in 30 years as a living human wasn’t the most destructive role he ever played in the winding narrative of our national footballing story, but it was certainly the most ridiculous.
As Batty began his approach to the spot and with England’s future in the competition on the line, Brian Moore (who in the context of what happened next cannot be absolved of blame for setting up one of football coverage’s most absurd exchanges) posed the question: “Do you back him to score Kevin? Quickly, yes or no…”
Moore, with his experience and knack for a tasteful remark, should have known better.
“Yes,” barks back with scarcely pause for thought (a succinct epitaph for Keegan’s career in the public eye…).
Of course, it’s easy to ridicule Keegan. But pace yourself and ask ‘what would I have done in the same position?’. But for dramatic irony Keegan and Moore’s incredulous exchange in St Etienne before a nation fell into a fitful despair is a calming reminder that even the hard times can have a soft shell.
3. Anthony Vanden Borre / Chris Kamara – Portsmouth 2-2 Blackburn (April 2010)
It may have been one of the most ludicrous media gaffes of his generation, and in a career defined by them, but Kamara’s failure to spot the Portsmouth defender’s sending off with the game finely balanced at 0-0 is a timely reminder that the self-aggrandisement of Premier League coverage is, if not capable of actually laughing at itself, able to afford us a laugh at its expense from time to time.
The sporting equivalent of Morecambe and Wise, Kamara and his straight man Jeff Stelling play out a moment of comedy brilliance.
4. Tony Adams / Martin Tyler – Arsenal 4-0 Everton (April 1998)
Arsenal’s final home game of the 1997/98 season has a minor place in football folklore on a number of accounts. The 4-0 trouncing of a relegation-threatened Everton secured the first silverware in England for one of the modern game’s most revolutionary figures.
Arsene Wenger’s recasting of the club’s approach to sports science made its mark on the trophy cabinet just 18 months after his arrival. For the Toffees, it set-up one of the most nerve-jangling weeks in the club’s recent history, preparing the stage for a final day Houdini act to cling to Premier League status by the skin of their teeth.
But for fans who rarely taste the thrill that comes from an against-all-odds eleventh hour escape from the relegation trapdoor, or a league title crowned with a last-minute wonder goal from the team’s longstanding captain and romantic hero, Sky’s flagship orator spirits us into a split second affair with Adams and 38,000 Arsenal fans as the chief Gooner races onto an exquisite through ball from Steve Bould and shatters a finish into the bottom corner with enough flair and charisma to leave the most discriminating footballing aesthete purring.
Tyler’s voice quivers in ecstasy as Adams drinks in the roar of a first Premier League crown as it descends upon Highbury, and even now, 15 years later, for the briefest dalliance I feel it too.
5. Dennis Bergkamp / Barry Davies – Argentina 1-2 Holland (June 1998)
In most ways you could care to list, Barry Davies is the counterpoint to the modern commentator. Cool, calm and understated, he brought a sense of perspective to the games he covered.
That’s why Bergkamp’s last minute winner in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina is special for more than just the majesty of a footballing wizard at work. It is also the only time on record that the BBC’s most loquacious, voluble and fluent broadcaster completely loses his shit.
Hearing Davies’ complete lack of restraint and regard for his reputation as a measured and thoughtful man of quite observation is akin to seeing a beloved grandparent tearing up the dance floors of Shoreditch in the small hours of a Sunday morning gurning their tits off on ecstasy.
It is unexpected and it will change your relationship with them forever, but it is above all else precious. So, enjoy Bergkamp’s manipulation of the ball and of Dutch hearts, embrace the faces of the shattered Argentineans as they sink to their knees in an alchemist’s blend of reverie and despair, but acknowledge from whence the true immortality of the moment flows. There may never be a moment to top it.