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Sunday, 9 February 2014

Football on the Radio

I don’t know if there was, or ever will be, a ‘golden age’ of radio football commentary, but having been an avid listener for more years than I care to remember, I’d be willing to posit the view that we are not living through it right now.  The continuous deployment of shrill hyperbole appears to be the industry standard among the commentating fraternity, while any analysis invariably has ‘triumph’ at one end and ‘disaster’ at the other, leaving little room for subtlety or nuance.  It could be that the sheer number of games being covered has led to a lowering of the qualification bar. Alternatively, we could be going through the kind of cultural decline that I’d be willing to expand upon, but only after another couple of drinks. 

Many commentators appear to think that shrieking at every goalmouth incident will convince listeners that something exciting is happening.  They will routinely describe events at a 2-2 draw between, let’s say, Motherwell and Kilmarnock as ‘astonishing’ or ‘incredible’.  In my book, ‘astonishing’ takes quite some doing, while a word like ‘incredible’ should only be used if, for example, Dundee United bring on a two-headed transsexual substitute who scores a late winner and then gets sent off for defecating in the centre circle.

Back when I was a lad (and it was all fields around here), there was not that much football on the radio, which somehow made it seem just a bit more special.  Commentary, even on big games, would not start until the second half; to get the midweek football results, you often had to wait until a brief ‘sports desk’ at 10.15pm.  By contrast, today’s wall-to-wall coverage leaves nothing to the imagination.  Every incident, however mundane, is analysed, picked apart and debated as the pundits (aided and abetted by their phone-in punters) take the same forensic approach to an offside decision at Easter Road that the Warren Commission took to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Amidst all this babble and burble, wherein every single incident is deemed to be ‘incredible’ or ‘sensational’, it becomes difficult to spot something that genuinely is incredible or sensational.      

In addition to the rationed coverage, one of the features of the old days of radio commentary was the frailty of the technical links, particularly when the game was being played abroad.  Nowadays everything is digitally pristine, to the extent that a commentator at a game in Uzbekistan will sound like he is broadcasting from your back garden.  That is probably a very good thing, but there was something thrilling about tuning into a crackly old analogue line that seemed liable to break down at any moment; the fact that the commentator was often just this side of legible made it all the more gripping.  A game from Eastern Europe (a.k.a. ‘behind the Iron Curtain’) sounded like it was being broadcast from the moon, but what mystery and excitement those precarious signals evoked. 

I recall once sneaking a transistor radio into school to listen to England losing 2-1 to Czechoslovakia in a European Championship qualifier.  I can’t remember why the game was being played in the middle of the afternoon; perhaps those Iron Curtain commies didn’t want to waste good socialist electricity on decadent westerners.  For a brief moment, I was the toast of an admittedly very small section of the geography class who gave a toss about whether or not England got a result in that tricky away tie.  It was quite a tough Glaswegian school, so I was taking a bit of a chance by volunteering to be the bearer of news.  My fellow pupils were delighted that the English had lost, but had I reported that they had won the game, there might have been a danger of them adopting a ‘shoot the messenger’ policy.  I could have found myself hung up on the school railings by the hood of my duffel coat.  Again.      

In spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that I was rubbish at playing it, I was a football nerd in my teens.  One of the reasons that I don’t complain about my kids playing computer games is that I have enough self-awareness to acknowledge that, had FIFA or Championship Manager been available when I was a lad, I would never have left my bedroom; my parents, in fact, would probably have had to feed me through a drip.  Tragically obsessed with football facts and figures to an extent that would nowadays invite a diagnosis of mild autism, my Saturday nights would occasionally be spent trying to tune into a German radio station, trying to ‘work out’ what was happening in the Bundesliga games.  I should point out here that I could not speak a single word of German. 
Now perhaps you’d like to pause for a moment to take in the enormity of that last statement.  

A boy who didn’t speak German trying to listen to a (very weak) radio signal from Germany, trying to interpret what was going on in a game between two German teams.  On a Saturday evening.  I think it is safe to say that that would have earned me quite a high score on the ‘you’ll never get a girlfriend-ometer’. 

My greatest triumph in interpreting-dodgy-radio-signals-in-German was when I ‘worked out’ that Bayern Munich had got an absolute pasting in a game against Kaiserslautern.  The commentator was going mental –in German, obviously- as goal after goal seemed to fly in.  As the very weak radio signal swirled about, hovering intermittently somewhere between German football and what sounded like the Belgian pop charts, I knew that Kaiserslautern (or maybe Bayern) were scoring a barrow load of goals in a short space of time; either that, or I was listening to a ‘highlights of the season’ show.  The internet hadn’t been invented yet, so I had to wait a day or two to have the amazing news confirmed: Bayern had indeed been roundly thrashed and I was –probably- one of the first schoolboys in Scotland to know about it, thanks to the miracle of crackly medium wave radio.  I still count that as one of my greatest achievements in life, right up there with the birth of my children and the time I almost got a nine-letter word on Countdown.         

Having started this piece by complaining about ‘shouty’ football commentators, I’m now going to eulogise about a ‘shouty’ bit of commentary.  When used sparingly, near-hysterical excitement is a legitimate weapon in the commentator’s arsenal.  In Star Trek, Captain Kirk and his crew had their phasers on stun most of the time and only switched to the full bhuna in exceptional circumstances.  I would recommend a similar approach for commentators.  My advice would be: don’t simulate noisy orgasm when Queen of the South equalise with three minutes to go in a Ramsden’s Cup tie against Partick Thistle.  If you behave like that when normal stuff happens in a normal game, where can you go once extraordinary stuff happens in an extraordinary game?              

This clip (using TV pictures, but with the radio commentary) features the Dutch radio commentator Jack van Gelder and provides a wonderful example of how to invest a description with the appropriate degree of awestruck wonder.  It is minimalist in terms of its vocabulary, but the context renders this entirely appropriate.  The occasion was the 1998 World Cup quarter-final between Holland and Argentina.  In the last minute of a tense game, Dennis Bergkamp scored a stunning goal to take Holland to the semi-finals.  It was remarkable enough that Frank de Boer could play the 80-yard pass that he did; it was remarkable enough that Bergkamp could control that pass, flick the ball past the defender and then place a shot, with the outside of his foot, beyond the goalkeeper and into the far corner of the net.  But to do all of that in the last minute of a World Cup Quarter Final?  Now that, my friends, is astonishing. 
It will take 38 seconds of your time to watch the clip.  In that time, you will hear the joy and wonder of the commentator, but you will also witness sporting excellence, incredible spatial awareness, geometrical precision, astonishing technique and breath-taking guile, all condensed into one incredible, poetic moment.  Jack van Gelder rightly judged that this extraordinary moment was beyond ordinary words.  In truth, the only thing left for him to say was: Dennis Bergkamp!  Dennis Bergkamp!!  DENNIS BERGKAMP!!!

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