And Coleman is 70 ... quite remarkable

Master of the malapropism-at-a-magic-moment and the most distinctive voice in television sport, the BBC commentator shows no signs of passing on the baton. Jim White celebrates 37 years of Colemanballs
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Here is a typical David Coleman moment, one of many that illuminate the man and his work. It comes from the minutes immediately after the 1968 Rugby League Challenge Cup Final, a match remembered chiefly for containing the worst miss in the history of sport.

Don Fox of Wakefield Trinity, with the last kick of the game, failed to make a conversion from in front of the posts, a kick of such comical simplicity his mother would have managed it in her slippers. The miss denied his club the chance to lift the trophy: Fox fell to his knees in despair, banging the Wembley pitch with his fists as the Leeds players formed human pyramids of triumph around him.

Fox's torment, though, was not complete. Waiting in the wings with a microphone to interview him as he stumbled off the pitch was the dapper figure of David Coleman.

"Don, it must be a desperate thing for a situation like that to occur," said Coleman, the much-mimicked voice eager with anticipation.

"Shocking," replied Fox, his eyes dead with the pain. "I'm that upset I can't speak."

"Anyway," said Coleman, brushing away such trivial concerns, "I've got some tremendous news, I know you don't know. You've been awarded the Lance Todd Memorial Trophy for outstanding contribution on the field of play. That must be some consolation, surely?"

All the ingredients are there of the typical Coleman moment. Enthusiasm, the keen eye for detail and a passion for delivering news, all leavened by an ability to put his foot so far in it, he's up to the hairline. The kind of stuff, in short, that has made David Coleman a national institution, the inspiration behind the finest-ever Spitting Image sketch, in which the puppet Coleman, finger raised to hold in his ear-piece, gets somewhat over-excited during a commentary: "Er, er, and I've gone far, far too early," splutters the puppet. "It will be impossible to keep up this level of excitement without my head exploding." Which it does.

Today David Coleman is 70. Like the other recent septuagenarian at Buckingham Palace, he shows no signs of retiring, slowing down or handing over to a younger man. Last Sunday he was commentating from the London Marathon ("and McColgan pulls away from the Kenyan"), on Friday he will be chairing A Question of Sport ("home or away, Bill?") and this summer he will be in Atlanta, presiding over his ninth Olympic Games as senior BBC reporter ("and Christie stands facing his destiny"). Oh, and there he was last Friday, being ribbed by the lads on Fantasy Football over footage of a documentary he made in the early Sixties extolling the virtues of Peterborough.

So pre-eminent in our lives has Coleman become over the past 37 years, that to contemplate sporting life without him is intolerable. As John Rawling, his athletics commentating colleague, puts it: "Everyone takes the mick, but in the most part it's done out of admiration for the man, because we've all grown up with David Coleman."

Rawling is right. It is hard to over-estimate the effect David Coleman has had across four decades on the presentation of British sport, and on British television in general.

He almost made it as an athlete. In 1949 he became the first non-international to win the Manchester Mile race, turning heads as he went; according to his contemporary Joe Lancaster, he was "very good-looking, a very good dresser, and never lost his form under pressure". But injury curtailed his track ambitions and he became a journalist, joining the BBC as Midlands sports editor in 1957.

His big break came in 1959 when Peter Dimmock, head of BBC Sport, recruited him to front a programme the Radio Times described then as "a new-style, non-stop parade featuring sports where they happen, when they happen" called Grandstand. Coleman's appointment was significant. Dimmock deliberately chose him in an attempt to democratise sports coverage; he was the first BBC front man without either a genuine or affected public-school accent, speaking instead with the flat inflection of the Cheshire Plain.

"I listened to Coleman's early contemporaries like Norris McWhirter and Kenneth Wolstenholme recently," says Radio 5 producer Matt O'Casey. "He sounded so much better than them, as though he knew what he was talking about and was really interested in it. They just sound silly now, from another era. He sounds absolutely contemporary."

From the outset, Coleman set a new standard for the way sport was covered on television. Out went the clipped, detached, patronising dinner-jacket style inherited from radio presentation, and in came a much more engaged manner. It was an approach that has trickled through generations - right down to Steve Coogan's alter ego Alan Partridge, a character that could not have been born without Coleman.

Coleman was passionate: "Oh, fantastic run, oh, fantastic run, magnificent, magnificent, magnificent" was how he described Anne Packer winning the 400 metres in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

He was more than willing to editorialise: "The game you are about to see is the most stupid, appalling and disgraceful exhibition of football possibly in the history of the game," he said introducing highlights of Chile against Italy in the 1962 World Cup.

He was the first Briton to learn from America that the art of television commentating was brevity: "one-nil" was all he ever said when the first goal in a football match was scored.

But more than all that, he realised, even as he was commentating, the historic significance of his words, that clips of great sporting moments would be played time and again in the future, that he was playing the part of the Oracle.

"If you listen to his commentaries," says Matt O'Casey, "just before they start he always announces events - 'and so the 100 metres final, of the 1992 Olympics' - as though he is involved in the definitive historic version of events."

By the Seventies, Coleman had become the predominant figure in BBC sport; he was on screen more than any other broadcaster, a presence in the living rooms of the nation for hours a week. Given the monopoly his employers enjoyed over coverage of every major event, he was able to turn his hand to everything, athletics, football, interviewing, the studio anchorman. So significant was he that a new Wednesday-night magazine programme introduced in the mid-Seventies was known not as Sportsnight but Sportsnight with Coleman.

And he had power, too. Not the kind of frontman who merely turns up and delivers, Coleman was always anxious to do more, to get involved in the editorial decisions; he liked, as one colleague put it, to direct from the commentary box. Famously short-tempered with those who failed to meet his exacting standards (a tape of an off-air bollocking issued to a studio flunkey was standard fare at BBC Christmas parties for years) and famously workaholic (he was in dispute with the BBC throughout 1974 because they weren't giving him enough work to do), he is also renowned for the competitive attitude he struck with rivals. Dickie Davies recalls Coleman's reaction to the start of World of Sport on ITV in 1964: "We'll blow the bastards out of the water in six months." And Brian Moore, the ITV commentator, remembers that in the era when both channels covered the FA Cup Final, Coleman always welcomed him to Wembley with a put-down.

"On one occasion we met round the back of the stadium by the scanner vans," says Moore, "and he said to me: 'Oh, here he comes, seeking an inferior audience again.' "

Coleman is as passionate about his job as he is about his sport, because that is his life. Not for him the kind of celebrity sought by some of his contemporaries. Off-screen he maintains a profile of such invisibility that no one knows anything about his private life. It is not simply that he has never been interviewed: many at the BBC were unaware his son was flying RAF jets in the Gulf war until the MoD released the news.

Indeed, it appears he is comfortable only in the presence of athletes, talking sport. Hence the success of his 18-year tenure as the avuncular, knitwear-clad chairman of A Question of Sport, a programme only recently showing its age, wilting somewhat in the critical spotlight cast by the brilliant They Think It's All Over.

For all his grit and style, notwithstanding the way his voice catches with emotion at the critical point of critical events, or the manner in which he stood sentry before the cameras for eight hours covering the Black September assault on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, Coleman's epitaph will forever lie elsewhere. It will be in a column he inspired in Private Eye, the forum which first drew attention to the manic propensity for sports commentators, unscripted and under pressure, to make gaffes.

In fact, Coleman always denies that the verbal indiscretion that launched the column ("and Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class") was his, blaming Ron Pickering. But Pickeringballs would not have had the same ring to it, particularly since Coleman could lay claim to: "They're still faster, although their times are still the same"; "Absolutely right, but just a fraction wrong"; and the surreal "She's really tough, she's remorseful."

Though Coleman has now slipped out of the top 10 suppliers to the column, his voice will remain forever unique. Now that the BBC monopoly has been broken up and coverage of sport is fragmented and broadcast across the channels, we have football frontmen, rugby commentators, athletics supremos; Sky even has a specialist to anchor its darts coverage.

No more is there the need, or opportunity, for an all-rounder to become renowned for a bit of this, a lot of that and plenty of the other. It is no exaggeration to say that when he finally decides to retire, hang up his cable-knit and spend more time with his larynx, David Coleman will take with him the last great voice of sport.