By Simon Hughes The Athletic
“It is very rare for the co-commentator not to be trending on Twitter during or after a big match,” says Rob Nothman, a broadcasting coach with decades of experience.
For a period on Tuesday night, indeed, more people on there were commenting on Lee Dixon’s performance than that of Raheem Sterling, who had scored England’s winner against Czech Republic. In the first group game, when Sterling’s goal secured his country’s first victory in the tournament, Jermaine Jenas had instead been the focus of a very one-sided discussion.
Nothman accepts that co-commentators are “not trying to crack the Enigma code” but he stresses the discipline is a lot more complex than the majority of people think, especially this summer. Germany’s group game with France had viewing figures north of 9.5 million, which was much larger than any Premier League fixture during the 2020-21 season. “Domestic audiences are smaller but they are more informed,” Nothman suggests, appreciating the majority of viewers from August to May are ultimately subscribers and therefore have a greater commitment to the schedule.
Terrestrial television means a larger constituency of interest. Many of those tuning in will not have watched as much football. “The commentary team needs to include their needs,” Nothman explains. “But they also have to consider the nine and 10-year-olds and ensure they don’t feel excluded from the conversation, or patronised. It is very hard to satisfy everyone because the base is so broad.”
Nothman had been a radio commentator in an earlier part of his life before conceding he did not have a strong enough voice to reflect moments of great excitement. “Co-commentary is the hardest broadcast discipline for any former player because the public thinks it’s quite an easy job when it isn’t.”
It helps, he thinks, for any co-commentator to sound like they are enjoying themselves, “especially in this time where so many viewers are suffering profound hardship.” The team of Clive Tyldesley and Ally McCoist have been a roaring success for those reasons, a pair who know each other’s game like a good centre-forward partnership. Yet Tyldesley, who was controversially removed by ITV as their main anchor only last year, found himself at the bottom of another Twitter pile-on after he mistook an action replay for a Netherlands attack last Monday evening. Like Jenas before him and Dixon 24 hours later, he was suddenly trending for the wrong reasons.Jenas has received a lot of criticism during the Euros (Photo: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)
Tyldesley’s mistake was easy to make because he was at the mercy of a television director. Most audiences have ultimately been as close to the action in the European Championship as the commentary teams. COVID-19 restrictions have meant each game has been watched “off tube” from a studio rather than on site. The pitfalls are obvious. If positioned inside the stadium, the commentators can see everything as it happens. Remotely, they are reliant on someone else using the appropriate cameras to reflect a moment of drama. Their angle is often a narrow version of reality, initially following only the ball. They can literally see what everyone else can see. Their seats are not better — they’re actually worse, because they’re expected to spot everything first.
From a studio, “they are at a massive disadvantage,” Nothman says. During the pandemic, “commentators and co-coms have often been sitting in the studio separated by a Perspex screen and praying they get the exact pictures they need in order to interpret and analyse.” If present at games, they have an overview but are also able to revert to the monitor pictures in front of them as back-up.
“It is inevitable that co-commentators especially aren’t as comfortable,” he continues. “They’re worried they might not get the imagery they need to be insightful and add value. Some of the criticism they receive is harsh because they aren’t working under the same favourably-weighted conditions as before.
“In these circumstances, you are totally reliant on the direction of the pictures,” says Terry Gibson, the Tottenham Hotspur forward turned co-commentator who has worked mainly on Spanish football, albeit from a reporting dock in the UK. Broadcasting companies would like to have their own cameras and match directors present at grounds but this is impossible, even at the best of times, because of a lack of space.
Gibson thinks more mistakes are likely to be made during the tournament because of the lack of an on-site producer. Usually, a producer will be talking into a commentator’s ear throughout the match, feeding him prompts such as observations, data and even ideas. Producers often have a rapport with the commentators and know what they are looking for. Logistical challenges and rights issues mean most European broadcasters this summer are using the same producer and the one-size-fits-all policy does not work for everyone. Nothman insists, “Without a producer, commentating is like receiving a package through the post without any instructions.”
Gibson dreads getting any of the details wrong at the point when a goal was scored. This has happened more than once, but most notably when it felt like the whole world was watching and listening. “It was the Clasico,” he says. “Luis Suarez had a goal disallowed. I thought it was offside but it turned out it was for a foul.” Again, he was working off-tube. The footage did not show the goal kick that preceded the flashpoint and, of course, a player cannot be offside from a goal kick. It was reasonable for him to assume a goal kick had not taken place because Barcelona did not have a reputation for route one tactics. “I didn’t sleep that night. I was getting hammered on social media all weekend.”
Sky’s Don Goodman was co-commentating on a Champions League game between Arsenal and Olympiacos in Greece from a studio in London when he missed Arsene Wenger getting sent off because the pictures from Greece did not show either the red card or Wenger retreating to the stands. “I only found out the next morning,” he admits.
Andy Hinchcliffe, another Sky co-commentator, compares such errors to his playing career. “Fans get really angry especially if you get names wrong,” he says. “You know when you’ve made a mistake. It brings the same feeling that I had whenever I started a game and had a bad first touch.”
Both Hinchcliffe and Goodman have been working at the European Championship and like Gibson, they spend at least an hour before each game discussing how to pronounce a player’s name with whichever main commentator they are working with. “If one guy is saying one thing and the other something totally different, it tells the viewer you haven’t prepared and you’re not really working as a team,” Gibson says.
As Everton’s left-back, Hinchcliffe learned from the club’s assistant manager Willie Donachie to balance assessments of his own performances, rather than – as he once did – draw conclusions from his worst mistakes. He wonders what it would have been like for a player like him in the world of social media, where bringing a sense of balance to any discussion feels like it is almost impossible. He does not have a Twitter account because he realises he is too thin-skinned. Only with time he has learned to only listen to criticism if it comes from a figure he respects. Hinchcliffe thinks the industry he now operates in has lost a lot of talented people because they are unable to do that.
He has never reached the point where he’s had a bad day and considered giving up but Hinchcliffe started speaking to a psychologist because he felt he was getting too much wrong. Only then did he realise the pressure he was under. It was greater than his playing career, with millions upon millions of people expecting him to get everything right all of the time. “As a player, there’s a chance someone else will get you out of a problem but once a mistake is made as a co-commentator, there is no way back.”
“Co commentators need as much of a hide as possible,” Nothman says. “They also need to accept that a performance will never be perfect.” If consumed by anxiety, the co-commentator is not going to communicate well. “He or she will suffer from a constipation of thoughts and nobody likes the sound of constipation.”
It tends to be that co-commentators prefer their work to studio guesting because they are in control of the mic for longer. The responsibility is far greater, closer to their previous lives as footballers. There is a duty to inform and entertain for 90 minutes and longer. It is a simple fact that more people watch the live games than the half-time or post-match analysis, even if that element of coverage is becoming more popular. There is a feeling there is some contradiction in expectations because viewers seem to want the same level of analysis from co-commentators as pundits even though they have far less time.
Some co-commentators have told The Athletic they have felt more pressure since Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville’s arrival at Sky. “They have taken analysis to another level,” says one co-commentator. “It is impossible to offer what they give in the space of time that we have,” says another.Carragher prefers co-commentary to being in the studio (Photo: James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)
Carragher and Neville have raised standards. They have a rapport but they disagree with one another, bringing entertainment. They are well informed by their own experiences but understand the shifts in the game and don’t rely on the past. Both have embraced technology and are able to interpret data.
TV bosses are impressed by co-commentators who use their contacts to try to find out what is happening and weave information into broadcasting, like any other journalist would. Yet there is sometimes a reluctance amongst bosses to challenge the talent they are employing because it appeals to ego. “Players who think they already know everything worth knowing end up being the worst co-commentators,” says one commissioner.
There is a story of a former Derby County player, who turned up for the first time as a co-commentator and proceeded to watch one of his other clubs compete in a Champions League fixture on his iPad while he was supposed to be working. His lack of focus was noticed and he did not work again for the same company.
Gibson has always been freelance and he wonders whether the full-time contracts offered to former players with a higher profile leads to some asking less of themselves because the work is guaranteed and they are at so many games and therefore can’t specialise in the fields they know more about.
A TV boss tells The Athletic: “It’s getting harder and harder to show up with minimal preparation. Those who do get found out quickly by the people who have employed them, their colleagues as well as the audience. You cannot fool football supporters. Nobody knows more about their club than the fans. They will pounce if something is wrong. It means broadcasters have to be on their A-game all of the time.”
Hinchcliffe holds regular Zoom meetings with Lee Hendrie and Danny Higginbotham – other former players who now work in the same field as him, where they talk about their jobs, their responsibilities and their fears. Hinchcliffe was commentating on an Aston Villa game a couple of years ago when they scored an injury-time winner at Cardiff City. He thinks what happened next is an example of how a commentary team should work. Daniel Mann, leading, simply said, “Glorious” and let the images speak for themselves. Mann signalled to Hinchcliffe, telling him not to jump in. This left him with the time to think about what he would say next. “I thought, ‘Christ, the first voice the viewers are going to hear after this brilliant moment is me…that’s quite a lot of pressure.”
Carragher started his media career in a heated studio. He was wearing a nice suit and he looked the part. “It’s very hard to judge an incident incorrectly when you’ve looked at it five or six times from that position,” he tells The Athletic. “There isn’t the same luxury when you’re sat in a commentary box.”
He thinks residual heat has put a lot of former players off the role. “Your name will be trending on social media whether you’ve had a good or a bad game,” he says. “But it doesn’t even have to be a bad game. You’ll be remembered for your worst mistake. Nothing else will count.”
Yet he enjoys co-commentary more than match punditry because “you’re closer to what’s happening.” He finds it hard when he returns to a studio having been in a commentary box. He describes a funeral scene. “The energy you feel inside a stadium just does not exist in a studio, whatever the result,” he says.
The moments he loves most are the last-minute goals when a stadium erupts and it’s up to him to deliver a line to sum up the sight in front of him. “You have three or four seconds. I’ve found it’s better to trust your instinct. I’d rather be totally wrong than cautious.”
He thinks he has been able to deal with the scrutiny that comes with the responsibility because he has been used to that all of his life. Supporters always had an opinion about his performances for Liverpool and the wider public always seemed to have an opinion about the place he came from, as well as the way he speaks. He became conditioned to the spotlight and he is able to deal with criticism when he gets things wrong. It takes a lot to upset him.
And still, it sometimes feels like he cannot win. He covers a lot of Liverpool games because of his association with the club and if he gets excited because something out of the ordinary has happened at Anfield, rival supporters will say he has gone too far. If he is critical of Liverpool, their fans will point out he should be more positive. If he offers the same assessments of Manchester United, he will be accused of bias. It is important for him to have a long memory because viewers remember inconsistencies.
Goodman has a similar view and has shared some of these experiences. A Leeds United fan, he was a ball boy at Elland Road as a kid. Despite having plenty of reasons to criticise Leeds over the last 20 years, he has regularly received push-back from supporters, some of whom thinks he now has an agenda against the club, when the truth is far from it. Meanwhile, Gibson mentions his experiences dealing with the neurosis of the world’s greatest football rivalry whenever Barcelona face Real Madrid. Compliment one team and you upset the fans of the other, regardless of whether what you say is accurate.Don Goodman has been accused of having an agenda against Leeds (Photo: Adam Davy – PA Images via Getty Images)
Sometimes, the reaction goes beyond criticism. Karen Carney, for example, was subjected to sexist abuse for her comments about Leeds’ promotion in 2019-20. Like Hinchcliffe, Goodman does not post on social media but as a black man, he dreads to think what has been written about him on the occasions his opinion has collided with tribalism.
Whatever he has said, Carragher thinks it is important to stick to it and never to row back. He defines confidence as not being scared to make a mistake. He appreciates the guidance of the match directors, absent from the Euros, who understand what he expects as well. When the goalkeeper Alisson Becker scored Liverpool’s injury-time winner at West Brom, the cameras were already primed to see the reaction of Liverpool’s bench before he guided them there.
Carragher and Neville are willing learners. They ask questions of more experienced figures in the industry. Carragher thinks it is imperative that he understands the shifts in the game. A footballer’s suspicion of journalists means many do not bother reading about what is happening around them. Carragher is anything but dismissive. He ensures he is well briefed and absorbs new ideas. He has seen the loathing of others doing the same job as him at the direction of the sport in terms of new technology and data, those who still wish to be managers but instead are sitting in the studio. Sometimes he feels like telling them that’s why they are there. “You can’t just say what’s wrong with a team or a player,” he says. “You need to offer solutions rather than simply be telling the world what someone shouldn’t be doing.”
Nothman suggests that increasingly, ex-players fresh out of the game crave advice when they embark on a career in the media. “They are impatient and want to be better at it quickly.” He thinks TV bosses should not be afraid of telling them exactly what they want. Hinchcliffe, who has designed a guide for aspiring co-commentators called Gamekeeper, agrees that recently retired players are at an advantage because they are used to being fed lots of information, unlike players in the 1970s, ’80s and his era, the ’90s. He now wants to be known as a broadcaster who played football rather than a footballer who broadcasts. Having retired from the game more than 20 years ago, he has covered more games as a broadcaster than he did as a player. “Hopefully I’m still in a job because I’m good at what I do rather than because I earned seven England caps a lifetime ago.”
Tyldesley believes it is his job to set the rhythm of the conversation during any coverage and impose some discipline, to try to ensure it’s easy for the listener to follow what is happening. “The role of the co-commentator is to have a career in football and come back and tell the rest of us what it’s like: how you miss an open goal. How you execute a bicycle kick,” he told The Athletic’s Football Cliches podcast last summer.
Any successful co-commentator will take the professional standards from their playing days into their media career. For many years, Tyldesley worked with Andy Townsend, who – apparently – was furious with ITV when the broadcaster did not have a camera positioned at Anfield that showed definitively whether or not Luis Garcia’s famous “ghost goal” crossed the line against Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final second leg of 2005. The television co-commentator is under greater pressure than his radio counterpart because everyone can already see what is happening, “so anything he does say should add something,” Tyldesley suggested.
Nothman defines the responsibility as “adding value to the pictures.” Gibson says the most important advice he ever received was “don’t spoil a game” by saying too much – mainly because, the more a co-commentator speaks, the increasing likelihood he or she gets something wrong. “Listeners lose interest if they hear your voice too much,” he says. “The game should always be the spectacle.”
Gibson says that while it is important to show a rapport with the person he is working with, it goes too far if a co-commentator is referring to a colleague by nickname. He thinks it is important to focus on the performances of both teams rather than just one. It is imperative to get names right, rather than calling players by their numbers or positions. New-fangled terms such as “high press” and “low block” are also avoided because “it’s very easy to sound like you know what you’re saying when really, you end up speaking like everyone else.”
Football matches are fundamentally defined by goals and this is where a co-commentator is supposed to earn their crust. When Gibson first started in the game, the commentator Jon Driscoll advised him to wait before saying anything — to allow the wonder of celebration take over. So many co-commentators had made the mistake of describing a goal before viewers had even seen the replay. The replay is the co-commentator’s domain and here, there is the risk of repetition.
The golden rule? “You can’t afford to take yourself too seriously,” insists Nothman. It is for this reason, according to those who know the industry best, that lots of viewers like McCoist — a broadcaster who does not divide opinion in England, at least, because he is a Rangers man and therefore impressions about him are not already formed about him before he has even said a word.
McCoist sounds as though he is enjoying himself. He’d make good company. He was a great player and a decent manager and this brings added experience and knowledge. He knows when to add levity, yet there are question marks about whether he would be serious enough in games that really matter. He can do serious, but he’s better at being not serious. “The key is finding the sweet spot in the middle, knowing exactly when to ease off and when to reflect the tension,” says one media insider.
Carragher was encouraged early on in his relationship with Sky by the producer Scott Melvin to give co-commentary a go. He did not have any reservations or expectations. His playing career had just finished and Andy Gray’s departure from the company had left a gap. Gray had not only been a convincing reporter but a fine analyst. Carragher has since formed the conclusion that a Scottish accent is as powerful in broadcasting as it is in management, because it can sound authoritative and lends itself towards storytelling. Carragher does not feel he has mastered the art. Perhaps there is a Gray or, if he does not seize it himself, a McCoist-sized space waiting to be filled.