The role of the co-commentator is pretty straightforward when broken down to its nuts and bolts. While the anchor describes the action taking place before our very eyes their companion’s obligation is to chime in from time to time, providing snippets of insight where possible; insight usually garnered from years of playing experience.
In America they’re called ‘color commentators’ and that’s bang on the money because without them a singular commentary would be as black and white as reading aloud from a phone book. Elsewhere the role is sometimes known as a ‘summariser’. In more optimistic climes they’re referred to as ‘analysts’.
I have a question though: if the role is so prosaic – and it is: it really, really is – then how come former British footballers are so thoroughly terrible at doing it?
Take Glenn Hoddle as a case in point. Better yet, just take Glenn Hoddle. Please. Anywhere will do. Anywhere that doesn’t have a microphone and a gantry that is.
The ex-England boss is widely regarded as being a shrewd and astute tactician, or at least that’s what we’re commonly informed. How strange then that an hour and a half in his company is less a masterclass in footballing nuance and more akin to a wittering drone sidling up next to you in the pub to make your afternoon a complete misery.
With his estuary colloquialisms and compulsion to finish every banal observation with ‘if you like’ Hoddle regularly drives a nation to the mute button and the sane sanctuary of Radio 5 live so as to listen to grown up, interesting input from the likes of Pat Nevin and Chris Sutton.
Acknowledging this throws up another query. Are Nevin and Sutton naturally better suited to the role than the creepily detached Hoddle? Unquestionably yes; a thousand times yes. But is the difference in format also to blame?
Perhaps, and not just for the obvious reason that with radio the absence of pictures requires the ‘color commentator’ to come into their own and swish around some paint-strokes. Radio stations, by and large, are not constantly petrified of you switching over to a rival. If you tune in, great, welcome aboard. If you tune out, we’ll see you again real soon. This security lends itself to a more relaxed affair and so listening to Nevin in particular feels like you’re settling in to enjoy a game with a better informed mate.
There’s more too. Radio has a higher opinion of its listeners. After all, you’re unlikely to be some kid with twitchy fingers and a five second attention span because you’ve not only tuned into the adult medium of the wireless but you’ve eschewed the shouting and juvenility of Radio 1.
Whereas with television it’s open house policy curtails this thinking. Even when showing a national sport that is the sole draw in luring you to its channel they require chatter to fix you to the sofa and away from the remote. And chatter is a funny thing. Firstly it needs charisma and a large dollop of personality injected into it to make it engaging but more so it needs to appeal to millions of very different people across very different demographics. That requires an everyman.
Glenn Hoddle isn’t an everyman. He was simply an extremely talented midfielder. In ‘real life’ he’s a bit odd: the kind of guy you encounter through circumstance and walk away feeling as if there is a veneer of strangeness on your skin that needs shaking off. Martin Keown isn’t an everyman either. Five minutes of enduring his intensity down the pub and you’d be wondering where the hell your wife is so you can get away from the lunatic with the penetrating stare.
Add Mark Lawrenson’s pantomime miserablism into the mix, along with Danny Murphy’s chippy hostility, and a poor schmuck in Philip Neville who desperately needs a professional counsellor to tell him that he doesn’t need to try so hard at everything in life just because his older brother is a superior human being, and you have a compendium of oddballs if fame was taken from them.
It’s hardly a surprise then that we recoil with twisted spleens whenever they pipe up during a game we’d otherwise be enjoying (and in Keown’s case piping up a LOT – honestly Martin, you really don’t need to make a judgement call on a throw-in). It’s hardly a surprise that social media goes into meltdown any time these individuals pollute our ear-drums with their scrambled vernacular and stupid opinions, individuals chosen for their stature rather than the human qualities they profoundly lack.
We were all so much looking forward to this World Cup. We deserve better than this.