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The importance of a TV football commentator should not be underestimated. They are our eyes and ears in the ground. Their spontaneous reactions and words can sometimes be more memorable than the moment itself. Commentators provide the voice for our footballing memories.
Over the years there have been some incredible TV commentators. From the 1960s and 70s when live matches were only shown on BBC and ITV, to the present day where Sky has the bulk of modern day football, certain names never leave you.
On deciding this list there were three factors which I had to consider: the longevity of their careers; the major tournaments and big matches they covered; and any unforgettable commentary lines associated with them.
I’m not going to lie it was difficult, and there’s probably going to be some people disagreeing with some men on this list. But these are who I believe to be the ten greatest British football commentators that have graced our TV screens. So, in reverse order…
10. DAVID COLEMAN
Football Commentating Years On TV: 1958-81 (BBC)
It’s often said that David Coleman was responsible for making BBC Sport a worldwide brand. His remarkable memory, opinionated manner and infectious enthusiasm, made him the face of the channel’s sport coverage for over 40 years.
Coleman covered six World Cups between 1958-78 and was made lead commentator for Match Of The Day when it started in 1964. His importance to the BBC was clear when after interest from rivals ITV, they gave him a £10,000 a year contract, making him the highest paid broadcaster in sports television. He replaced Kenneth Wolstenholme as senior football commentator in 1971, given World Cup Finals, European Cup Finals and FA Cup Finals in the process. His signature line whilst commentating was to simply say ”One-nil!” whenever the first goal of a game was scored. Coleman also had the honour of describing Gordon Banks‘ incredible stop from Pele in the 1970 World Cup. His words ”What a save, Gordon Banks!” were used on England’s Euro ’96 song, ‘Three Lions.’
He was replaced as the main football commentator by John Motson in 1979, but still continued to do live matches for another two years. He then concentrated on Athletics, on which he commentated on every Olympic Games from 1960-2000, before retiring aged 74. As well as being the first presenter of Grandstand and Sportsnight, Coleman also hosted Question Of Sport for 18 years, making him a superb all-rounder for the corporation. But it was football which was David Coleman’s first love, and he was always on hand with trivia and knowledge until his death in 2013.
9. PETER BRACKLEY
Football Commentating Years On TV: 1982-2009 (ITV, Eurosport, Sky, Channel 4)
After a decade in radio, Peter Brackley made the switch to television in 1982, replacing Hugh Johns at ITV. Initially, he covered the 1984 European Championships and the 1986 World Cup – commentating on semi-finals in both tournaments – and was rewarded with live First Division matches from 1986.
Two years later, however, still stuck behind Brian Moore, Alan Parry and Martin Tyler in the pecking order, Brackley moved to satellite television. He led Eurosport’s commentary team for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, impressing so much that Sky used him for their Serie A coverage. This association with Italian football deepened even further a year later, when Brackley was signed by Channel 4 as their main commentator, after buying the rights to Italian football. It was here where he became a household name, describing the action every Sunday on Football Italia from a studio in London.
During this time, Brackley also re-joined ITV, featuring prominently in their coverage of four World Cups and three European Championships between 1994-2006. It was at the same channel when he commentated on his only major final – the 2000 League Cup final between Leicester City and Tranmere Rovers. Away from live matches, Brackley became one of the first commentators to lend his voice to a football video game, in the Pro Evolution Soccer series. By commentating for so many different television networks, Peter Brackley was highly respected by the hundreds of colleagues that he worked with, who came out in force to pay tribute when he died in October, 2018.
8. ALAN PARRY
Football Commentating Years On TV: 1981-present day (BBC, ITV, Sky)
Alan Parry started his media career on BBC Radio, before moving to television in 1981 to commentate on Match Of The Day. He then left to join ITV four years later, quickly establishing himself as the channel’s number two commentator behind Brain Moore. It was a position would retain until he left the network in 1996, regularly describing First Division matches, League Cup fixtures and European ties, as well as covering three World Cups and three European Championships from 1986-96.
Parry moved to Sky after Euro ’96, becoming their Monday Night Football commentator for five years. He has worked on a wide range of matches for the network, including the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League and Football League. Twenty-four years later and Parry is still one of the main commentators for Sky Sports, covering seven League Cup finals in that time.
He also commentated on Athletics for both ITV and Sky during the 80s and 90s. But it’s probably his time with ITV that he is best remembered. Repeating the words ”Oh Yes!” for Roberto Baggio’s sensational solo goal at Italia ’90 and arguing with Kevin Keegan live on air over a blatant red card for Brazil’s Leonardo in USA ’94 spring to mind. But his description of Shaun Teale’s penalty for Aston Villa in their dramatic shootout win over Tranmere Rovers in the 1994 League Cup semi-final will take some beating, ”The man nicknamed John Wayne by his manager, gets off his horse, ties it up to the post, pulls out the gun, gets finger on the trigger… and fires the bullet right down the middle.” Genius.
7. HUGH JOHNS
Football Commentating Years On TV: 1966-82 (ITV)
Known as the other voice of the 1966 World Cup final, Hugh Johns’ ITV commentary of that match was unfortunately overshadowed by Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous line. At the same point when Geoff Hurst gets his hat-trick goal, Johns says, “Hurst, he could make it three… he has! That’s it, that’s it!” Any other time those words would have been sufficient, although Johns was never bitter.
That’s because he was a fantastic commentator in his own right, covering four World Cups between 1966-78. Although it was well known that he was number two to Brain Moore during his time at ITV, Johns would often get the big matches at major tournaments, due to Moore presenting the coverage from the studio back home. As well as those World Cup finals, Johns oversaw Manchester United‘s 1968 European Cup triumph and England’s infamous 1-1 draw with Poland in 1973 – which denied them a place at the following year’s World Cup.
His finest hour came in the 1970 World Cup, when ITV beat the BBC in the ratings for the only time, as Johns commentated on all of England’s matches and the final itself between Brazil and Italy. ”What a beautiful goal from Pele! El Rey Pele!” is how he responded to Pele’s opener, and when Carlos Alberto scored one of the special World Cup goals to make it 4-1, ”It’s Carlos Alberto! Oh and what a great goal that was!” The excitement in his voice summed it up for everyone watching at home. Still spoken about today as one of the best commentators ever, Hugh Johns enjoyed a long retirement, before sadly passing away in 2007 aged 85.
6. CLIVE TYLDESLEY
Football Commentating Years On TV: 1989-present day (BBC, ITV)
Like most, Clive Tyldesley spent his early years in radio, mainly working for Radio City in Liverpool, before moving to Granada television in 1987. He became their full-time football commentator in 1989, eventually being chosen to be part of ITV’s commentary team for the 1990 World Cup. A move to the BBC followed in 1992, as they had obtained the highlights for the new Premier League on Match Of The Day. Despite working at World Cup 1994 and Euro ’96, Tyldesley only commentated on four live matches during his time at the BBC, due to the superiority of John Motson and Barry Davies.
Tyldesley rejoined ITV in 1996 to be the understudy to Brian Moore, but when Moore retired in 1998, he finally got his chance to be a lead commentator. That first season (1998/99) couldn’t have been more eventful for Tyldesley, as he commentated on two-thirds of Manchester United‘s famous treble. Their 2-0 victory over Newcastle at Wembley in the FA Cup final was followed just four days later by the dramatic Champions League final climax, where United scored twice in injury time to beat Bayern Munich 2-1 at the Nou Camp, Barcelona. Tyldesley’s commentary of ”And Solskjaer has won it!” has gone down in Manchester United folklore.
He has remained ITV’s main football commentator ever since, describing further Champions League triumphs for Liverpool, Chelsea and Man Utd (again) and heading their commentary team at 5 European Championships and 4 World Cups. More recently he oversaw England’s embarrassing Euro 2016 defeat to Iceland and then two years later, their World Cup semi-final loss. With an audience of 26 million watching that match against Croatia, Clive Tyldesley is more than comfortable commentating on the biggest of sporting occasions.
5. KENNETH WOLSTENHOLME
Football Commentating Years On TV: 1951-1971 (BBC)
In 1966, Kenneth Wolstenholme gave an unscripted delivery of fourteen words that are the most famous in British sports commentary; ”Some people are on the pitch… they think it’s all over… it is now!”
Those lines in England’s World Cup final win as Geoff Hurst scored their fourth goal defined Wolstenholme as a commentator, but he had already been on the scene for 15 years before that. From 1951 until 1971, he covered the FA Cup final for BBC television, and described the first ever game to be shown on Match Of The Day in 1964. Wolstenholme was the original TV football commentator. He also worked on many European Cup finals, including Celtic’s and Manchester United’s wins in the late 60s. However, after being replaced by David Coleman as top commentator, Wolstenholme left the corporation in 1971.
A short spell on Tyne-Tees television was followed by presenting music and children’s shows before retirement. But Wolstenholme re-appeared to provide reports and occasional features on Football Italia, as Channel 4 won the rights to Serie A football in the early 1990s. In 1998, he made a special appearance for the EA Sports video game, World Cup ’98, as a commentator for the game’s classic World Cup matches from the past. Kenneth Wolstenholme died in 2002, but with that commentary from ’66, his legacy will live on forever.
4. MARTIN TYLER
Football Commentating Years On TV: 1974-present day (ITV, Sky)
Starting his career as a ghost-writer for Jimmy Hill’s column in The Times, Martin Tyler had his first commentary gig in 1974 for ITV regional television. He worked for Southern, Yorkshire and Granada, before signing for the main channel and leading their coverage of the 1982 World Cup. From then on Tyler became number two commentator to Brian Moore, working on two European Championships and the 1986 World Cup. Frustrated at playing second fiddle to Moore for their Football League coverage, he moved to Sky in 1990 to cover their England matches and FA Cup ties. Two years later, however, it was a whole new ball game for Tyler.
In 1992, Sky won the rights to the new Premier League and together with his co-commentator Andy Gray, Tyler spearheaded the coverage, which he still does to this day. As Sky acquired more and more competitions to their channels, he also found himself working on League Cup games, England’s crucial major tournament qualifiers and Champions League matches. In 2007, he so nearly left to go to the doomed network, Setanta Sports, to commentate on their Premier League matches, but ended up signing a new contract with Sky. His sidekick Gray was sacked along with host Richard Keys in 2011 for allegations of sexism, but this gave Tyler a new lease of life, as he began working with younger and more modern former players, such as Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher.
Throughout his time at Sky, Tyler has witnessed many dramatic matches, providing memorable lines along the way. Liverpool‘s 4-3 win over title chasing Newcastle Utd in 1996 immediately springs to mind. When Stan Collymore scores the last minute winner, Tyler describes it brilliantly amongst the mayhem, ”Collymore closing in! Liverpool lead in stoppage time! Kevin Keegan hangs his head, he’s devastated!” It was voted the greatest Premier League match of all time and his commentary is a huge part of that. But his words when Sergio Aguero scored that famous injury time goal to win Manchester City the title in 2012 will always be his big moment. The simple scream of ”AGUEROOOOOO!” followed by ”I swear you’ll never see anything like this ever again!” Perfect delivery and he was right, we certainly won’t. Martin Tyler is 74 now, but don’t be surprised to see him around the grounds for a good few years yet.
3. JOHN MOTSON
Football Commentating Years On TV: 1971-2018 (BBC)
John Motson – or Motty as he was affectionately known – has commentated on over 2000 games for the BBC, more than anyone else. After gaining a spot on Match Of The Day in 1971 following 3 years on radio, Motson got his big break in the FA Cup tie between Hereford Utd and Newcastle Utd. With Hereford surprisingly beating the First Division side 2-1 on the day, the game was pushed to the main feature of the programme. Ronnie Radford’s famous goal for Hereford gave Motson the platform to be heard by millions and showed he could be trusted by his BBC bosses with the big matches. Motty himself says it changed his life.
From 1979, Motson was BBC’s lead football commentator, describing every FA Cup final that BBC covered (except 1994 and 1995) until 2008. During his time with the corporation, Motty oversaw over 200 England games, including many at major tournaments. He went to 10 World Cups and 10 European Championships, with his final live match being the Euro 2008 final between Spain and Germany. Motson also commentated on the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, unfortunately watching the tragedy unfold before his very eyes, and was eventually called as a witness during the enquiry afterwards.
The battles he had with managers in interviews were also well documented, especially with Brian Clough, who was obviously not afraid to tell Motson off on camera. Motson once went to cover an FA Cup tie at Wycombe Wanderers, only for the match to be called off due to a blizzard, which led to him reporting from Adams Park in a sheepskin coat; an item of clothing that he was associated with for the rest of his career. There is probably no one in the industry with more football knowledge than John Motson, his commentaries were constantly loaded with statistics and facts, showing how much research he would put in before each match. However, one brilliant line sticks out from all of Motson’s commentaries. When Wimbledon beat Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final, Motty said, ”The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club.” With Liverpool being red hot favourites for the final, it’s a line he clearly must have thought he would never get to use, but it shows that he was ready for every eventuality.
2. BRIAN MOORE
Football Commentating Years On TV: 1968-1998 (ITV)
He was known as the ‘voice of football’ and rightly so. Moore moved to London Weekend Television in 1968 from BBC Radio and duly became the lead in ITV’s sports coverage for the next 30 years. During much of the 70s and 80s, as well as commentating, Moore presented The Big Match for LWT, before it became the sole highlights programme on ITV. Moore also headed their World Cup programmes from the 1970 tournament onwards, chairing their highly innovative coverage with a studio of former and current players. In fact that World Cup was the only time ITV have beaten the BBC when going head-to-head for football, with viewers turning over to the channel in their droves to see the new-style coverage. Moore very professionally took control of the footballing experts during those shows, putting many in their place, including the very outspoken Brian Clough. It made for riveting TV.
The 1986 World Cup in Mexico was the last time Moore presented tournament coverage and after flying out to work on the final, he concentrated solely on commentating for the last 12 years of his career. Most often his co-commentator would be either Ron Atkinson or Kevin Keegan during these times, who both complimented Moore perfectly, becoming the yangs to his ying. After working on countless World Cups and European Championships, FA Cup finals and League Cup finals, Moore retired after France ’98, with his last commentary being the final between the hosts and Brazil.
It’s not often that a football club has the words of a commentator spread across one of their stands, but that’s exactly what Aston Villa have on their North Stand – Brian Moore’s words to describe Peter Withe’s European Cup final winning goal to be exact, ”Shaw, Williams, prepared to venture down the left. There’s a good ball played in for Morley. Oh, it must be! It is! Peter Withe!” Other unforgettable lines from Moore include the climax to Arsenal‘s dramatic title win in 1989 at Anfield, when Moore exclaimed ”It’s up for grabs now!” as Michael Thomas fires home. In Rotterdam for England crucial ’94 World Cup qualifier against Holland, when Ronald Koeman was standing over a dangerous free-kick, Moore knew exactly what was coming; ”He’s gonna flick one now. He’s gonna flick one. He’s gonna flick one. And it’s in.” Also, 18 year old Michael Owen’s wonder goal against Argentina in Moore’s final tournament. ”It’s a great run by Michael Owen and he might finish it off! Oh, it’s a wonderful goal!” screamed Moore, not quite believing what he had seen. Each of these commentaries are as memorable as each other.
Sadly, Brian Moore would not get long to enjoy his retirement. He died on September 1st, 2001, the very same day that England famously beat Germany 5-1 in Munich. You can just imagine how Moore would have loved to have commentated on that game. A true legend of broadcasting.
1. BARRY DAVIES
Football Commentating Years On TV: 1966-2004, 2014 (ITV,BBC)
If you want to hear assurance from behind the microphone, then look no further than the great Barry Davies. Following three years at ITV (where he covered the 1966 World Cup and the 1968 Olympic Games), Davies moved to the BBC and was installed as a Match Of The Day commentator after regular number one, David Coleman, had lost his voice. Davies impressed and worked on the programme for the next 35 years.
In 1977, after Coleman was deemed unavailable for FA Cup final, Davies had been told by bosses that the match was his, so was left in shock when John Motson was announced to be covering the final. This started off a ‘rivalry’ between Davies and Motson, mainly portrayed in the media, which would go on until Davies stepped away from football in 2004. Although Davies was given European Cup finals and big tournament matches, he only ever commentated on two FA Cup finals for the BBC – in 1995 & 1996. To be given that 1995 final for the first time in his career was such an honour for Davies that he had his son, Mark, by his side for the whole commentary. This was in the middle of a period when the BBC started to prefer Davies’ style, giving him the 1994 World Cup final and most of England’s matches at Euro ’96, including the semi-final against Germany. It was more than overdue for Davies to be given his chance, as he had been behind Motson in the pecking order for years.
Fortunately, Davies was more than talented to cover other sports during his time at the BBC, including hockey, gymnastics, athletics, cycling, beach volleyball and badminton. Most of these were at the Olympic Games, of which he went to 12 and twice commentated on the opening and closing ceremonies. He also worked on ice skating and ice hockey at several Winter Olympics. Only in 2018 did Davies retire from sports commentary completely, after covering his 33rd consecutive Wimbledon tennis tournament. He versatility was remarkable.
Davies continued to work on football until 2004, when he stepped down. His reasoning was that he felt like he wasn’t getting enough live matches anymore. Indeed during the Euro 2004 tournament, he wasn’t even asked to cover any England games and the new contract that the BBC offered him made it clear that he would not be working on any more live football. What were they thinking? In 2014, Davies did commentate on a one-off game for Match Of The Day, to celebrate their 50th anniversary of the programme. It’s quite clear from him doing that, that the show meant a great deal to him.
Barry Davies’ commentaries have given us some of the most memorable words in TV football history. Here are some of my personal favourites:
”And Leeds will go mad! And they’ve every right to go mad!” – describing Geoff Astle’s controversial goal against Leeds in 1971, where the referee overruled a linesman’s flag.
”Lee… interesting… very interesting! Look at his face! Just look at his face!” – one of Davies’ most famous lines after Francis Lee scores a beauty against his old club Man City in 1974.
”You have to say that’s magnificent.” – on Diego Maradona’s individual goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, shortly after the Argentine had handballed his first.
”Is Gascoigne going to have a crack? He is you know. Oh, I say!” – Paul Gascoigne’s incredible free-kick in Tottenham‘s FA Cup semi-final win over Arsenal in 1991.
”Oh no!” – after Gareth Southgate had missed his penalty in Euro ’96. Exactly what the whole country was thinking.
”Beautifully pulled down by Bergkamp. OH WHAT A GOAL! Dennis Bergkamp has won it for Holland!” – witnessing one of the great World Cup goals in Holland’s 2-1 quarter-final win over Argentina in 1998.
There have been so many great football commentators on our screens over the last 70 years, but for me Barry Davies was the greatest of them all. His timing was always perfect whatever the pace of the match. His commentary style was so unique, using the ‘less is more’ tactic to allow the viewer to watch the game in comfort – which is also why he was so good at Tennis. His calm demeanour meant that if he did raise his voice, it was worth getting out of your chair. He was criminally underused for football during his time at the BBC, but never publicly complained, instead carried on being the gentleman and professional which gained him so much respect from colleagues and the man on the street alike. You have to say he was magnificent.
THE BEST OF THE REST
It was difficult to leave some commentators off this list, so here are a few more names who wouldn’t be out of place in a top 20:
TONY GUBBA – Spent half his time reporting for the BBC, but a classic commentator who was always at the major tournaments behind Motson and Davies.
JOHN HELM – Went to 4 World Cups with ITV (commentating on a 1994 semi-final), despite working mainly for Yorkshire television.
IAN DARKE – One of the original Sky commentators for the Premier League. Switched to Boxing for 10 years before returning to football. Now at ESPN and BT Sport.
GUY MOWBRAY – Came from ITV has been BBC’s lead football commentator for over a decade. Still only 47, so plenty of time to become one of the greats.
JONATHAN PEARCE – Burst on the TV scene with Channel 5 in the 90s. A BBC regular now for 16 years. Excitable style.
JON CHAMPION – Worked for BBC, ITV, Setanta, ESPN and Amazon. Well established and experienced.
ALAN WEEKS – Remembered more for his BBC commentaries on Ice Skating and Ice Hockey, but worked on Match Of The Day for 20 years and went to 5 World Cups.
ROB HAWTHORNE – Regular on Sky Sports since 1995. First match included Tony Yeboah’s wonder goal. Commentated on Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League win.
PETER DRURY – At ITV for years, now at BT Sport. Known for his poetic style. Makes a great duo with Jim Beglin. Massively underrated.
DARREN FLETCHER – One of the new breed to come to TV from Radio Five Live. Overseen Liverpool’s incredible Champions League runs in recent times. Very likeable.
GERALD SINSTADT – A commentator, presenter, reporter, writer and narrator. His voice can be put to thousands of goals. Still involved in football at 89 years of age.