In this age of excitable sports analysis, the adage of less is more can be lost. Here are seven of the best senior commentators that knew—and one who still knows—how to deliver a perfect line
John Motson: The late football commentary legend
The legendary commentator passed away in February 2023 at the age of 77 and the tributes immediately captured the essence of his appeal. His boyish enthusiasm and knowledge were second to none. Clive Tyldesley simply said he wanted to be John Motson as a teenager.
"Motson lifted his voice to the right volume every time in line with the nation’s hopes and fears during international football tournaments"
Motson had a generosity of spirit that appealed to everyone, lifting his voice to the right volume every time in line with the nation’s hopes and fears during international football tournaments. His attention to detail and knowledge of football extolled an authority that was never doused with overreliance on useless facts. When Steven Gerrard arrowed an incredible last-minute strike into the corner of the net during the 2006 FA Cup final against West Ham, Motty simply said: “Geraaaaaardd….he’s got it.” Motson had it in abundance.
Richie Benaud: The sound of the English summer
An Australian who was loved by the English like one of their own, Benaud’s warm voice opened so many English summer Test match mornings.
In the classic 1981 Headingley Test, the former leg-spinner described one of Ian Botham’s straight sixes with typical deadpan humour: "Don't even bother looking for that. It's gone straight into the confectionery stall and out again”.
He had some directives on effective commentary which included basic rules of thumb: “The Titanic was a tragedy, the Ethiopian drought a disaster, but neither bears any relation to a dropped catch.”
Benaud was as shrewd over calling the shots in the box as he was captaining his country. He died in 2015 at the age of 84.
Dan Maskell: The voice of Wimbledon
Dan Maskell won the British Professional Championships 16 times as a tennis player. However, it was behind the mic where he was appreciated most. “Economy of words is what most viewers enjoy″, he once said. ″If it’s not worth saying, don’t say it".
Maskell spent over four decades at the BBC. When he did speak, the phrases were made for TV. “Oh, I say” and “that’s a peach of a pass” were bite-sized classics. Maskell was never agitated as a broadcaster although he did admit that the emotion of Virginia Wade winning Wimbledon in 1977 left him with a lump in his throat. Dan Maskell died in 1992, aged 84.
Martin Tyler: Aguero and all of that
Credit: Sky Sports
Martin Tyler recently commentated on Australian television in Qatar during his 12th World Cup. When he was starting out regionally, Tyler revealed some key advice from fellow football commentator and legend Motty: “Talk little but say a lot.”
He aced that on one famous occasion, namely the “Agueroooo” moment as Manchester City secured the 2012 Premier League in dramatic fashion. The nine seconds of silence that followed was just as effective as the follow-up : “I swear you’ll never see anything like this ever again". The reaction that is replayed ad infinitum was driven by instinct. Tyler knew the Argentinian striker would score when he received the ball.
Harry Carpenter: Know what I mean, ‘Arry?
Credit: Sky Sports
Harry Carpenter was BBC’s boxing correspondent from 1962 until his retirement in 1994. His over-excitement during Frank Bruno’s world title fight against Mike Tyson in 1989 cemented a gregarious double act. Bruno would often say: “Know what I mean, ‘Arry” at the end of the contest.
"Harry Carpenter's greatest moment with the mic was his stint on Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s 1974 Rumble in the Jungle fight in Zaire"
The South Londoner’s greatest moment with the mic was his stint on Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s 1974 Rumble in the Jungle fight in Zaire. His words beautifully marked the turn of events: "Ali, at times now, looks as though he can barely lift his arms up. Oh, he got him with a right. He's got him. Oh, you can't believe it. And I don't think Foreman's going to get up”. 25 years later, Carpenter presented Ali with the Sports Personality of the Year in a moving ceremony. Harry Carpenter died in 2010, aged 84.
Bill McLaren: The voice of rugby
The man from Hawick was desperate to get a Scottish cap as a player but a bout of tuberculosis scuppered his dreams. Fortunately, Bill McLaren did the next best thing and became the sound and image of BBC rugby for five decades, trusted by both fans and players alike to deliver.
When rugby went professional, he was the only media man invited to see the pre-match training sessions. He had a magnificent lexicon that included classics including “all arms and legs like a mad octopus” and “those props are as cunning as a bag o’ weasels”. The crowd sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow” when his beloved Scots won at Millennium Stadium in his last commentary in 2002. He died in 2010, aged 86.
Peter Alliss: The voice of golf
Credit: Sky Sports
Peter Alliss’ easy charm and anecdotal banter drew audiences to the BBC (and abroad) from 1978 to 2019, although he chided modern golfers who didn’t have the requisite resilience and manners for the gentlemanly game.
"Alliss’ easy charm and anecdotal banter drew audiences to the BBC, although he chided modern golfers who didn’t have the manners for the gentlemanly game"
Some of his memorable commentary moments were true TV gold. When the late Seve Ballesteros holed a putt at the last at St Andrew’s in 1984 to virtually clinch the Open, Alliss said: “Do you think he enjoyed that one?” It was a pitch-perfect accompaniment to the animation etched all over Seve’s face.
After Jean Van de Velde blasted his ball into the Barry Burn during his catastrophic 1999 Carnoustie collapse, the veteran’s straight talk was tinged with sarcasm: “Would somebody kindly stop him, give him a large brandy and mop him down?” Alliss died in 2020, aged 89.
Banner photo: John Motson. Credit Sky Sports
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