David Coleman: Sports commentator and presenter

Giant of British sports broadcasting whose sheer professionalism kept him at the top for four decades

From the 1950s, when he became one of BBC Sport’s young bucks, until he bowed out at the end of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, David Coleman was, in that time-honoured phrase, “the voice of sport”. He combined authoritativeness with a palpable passion for what he was covering. Concision, he knew, was the key, and on hearing of his death every football fan over the age of 50 will have heard his crisply delivered “1-0” in their heads.

It was that passion that made him stand out. David Hemery, who won Olympic gold for Britain in the 400 metres hurdles in Mexico City in 1968, once recalled, “I remember him screaming, ‘Hemery of Great Britain, Hemery of Great Britain ... He crucified them, he killed the field.’ What was so special was just his identification with the delight of it. The delight was expressed by the range of octaves through which his voice went.” Once, famously, he nearly cried on the job, when Ann Packer took the 800 metres gold in Tokyo in 1964. “Oh, fantastic run, oh, fantastic run, magnificent, magnificent, magnificent,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.

Perhaps unfairly, his name became a byword for commentating gaffes, and in the 1980s his breathless style was a gift for Spitting Image: in one sketch he reached fever pitch as Sebastian Coe broke for the line with 600 metres to go. ‘’And I’ve gone far, far too early!’’ his puppet screamed. “I’ll never be able to keep up this level of excitement!”

He was also a gift to Private Eye, who started its “Colemanballs” feature in his honour, and it continues to collect broadcasting howlers to this day. Although what’s remembered as the archetypal Colemanballs – “and Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class!” – wasn’t his but Stuart Pickering’s, Coleman made many sterling contributions to it over the  years, with immortal lines like “That’s the fastest time ever run, but it’s not as fast as the world record” or, “there is Brendan Foster, by himself with 20,000 people.” Or ,“We estimate, and this isn’t an estimation, that Greta Waltz is 80 seconds behind,” or indeed, “for those of you watching on black-and-white sets, Everton are wearing the blue shirts.”

Many of his gaffes are less of a judgement on Coleman’s abilities than an indication of just how difficult live commentary is. As he once admitted, “We do occasionally get over-enthusiastic, but viewers don’t understand sometimes the pressures we work under.” Certainly, in the studio he made very few mistakes. A BBC sports producer who worked with him in the 1960s and ’70s recalled his “tremendous ability to concentrate and to deal with streams of information both in front of him on paper, and coming direct through his earpiece.”

David Robert Coleman was born in Cheshire in 1926, the son of Irish parents, and was a promising sportsman – he was the first non-international to win the Manchester Mile, for Stockport Harriers in 1949, and was a decent footballer, turning out a few times for Stockport County reserves. A contemporary remembers him as “very good-looking, a very good dresser, and never lost his form under pressure”.

He did his National Service in the Royal Signals Corps, and also worked for the British Army Newspaper Unit. Injury problems meant that his sporting potential remained unrealised – he missed the trials for the 1952 Olympics with a hamstring injury – and he decided to concentrate on journalism (his love for athletics endured, and he was later president of Wolverhampton & Bilston Athletics Club). He had started out on the Stockport Express and moved through a succession of local papers – at 22 he was editor of the County Press in Cheshire, and also had a stint as a news assistant on a Birmingham paper – then began freelance work with the BBC in Manchester.

He was perfectly placed to join the BBC’s sporting revolution. He was spotted by the BBC’s inspirational Head of Sport, Peter Dimmock, who wanted alternatives to the Oxbridge cliques which still dominated broadcasting. Dimmock recruited him to front a new programme which the Radio Times heralded as “a new-style, non-stop parade featuring sports where they happen, when they happen”. It was called Grandstand, and it gave Coleman the chance to become the first BBC front man without a cut-glass accent.

It was a time when the BBC’s sports coverage was expanding rapidly, and with immense foresight Dimmock was able to pin down many of the top sports events to long-term contracts, and also secure listed protection by Parliament – what became known as the “crown jewels”. Coleman was the perfect fit for Grandstand, displaying his immaculate professionalism towards the end of Saturday afternoons as the football results came in on the teleprinter. A 1-1 draw between Third Lanark and Queen of the South might elicit the instant observation that it was the home team’s third score draw of the season, sending them up two places to third in the table, while it was the away side’s ninth game in a row without a clean sheet. As he was speaking, the next result would be coming in, and he was invariably ready with another nugget of information.

He was also beginning to demonstrate his commentating abilities, and he gave a memorably censorious broadcast from the 1962 World Cup – the pugilistic confrontation between the tournament hosts, Chile, and Italy in what became known as “the Battle of Santiago”. “The game you are about to see,” he warned viewers, “is the most stupid, appalling and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game.” Match of the Day began in 1964 and Coleman became a fixture of the commentary team alongside Kenneth Wolstenholme.

In 1968 he was a big enough figure to be given his own midweek programme, Sportsnight With Coleman, which he fronted until 1972 (when it became simply Sportsnight and ran until 1997). However, although by the 1970s he seemed to be ubiquitous on our screens, in fact a legal wrangle with the BBC in the mid-1970s kept him off the screen for a year; he complained that he wasn’t being used enough and was being kept out of the editorial loop.

The dispute revealed a hard-headed side to the man whose affability was one of the ingredients which made A Question of Sport, which he presented from 1979 to 1997, such a success – thanks in large part to the rapport Coleman established with the likes of captains Emlyn Hughes, Bill Beaumont, Willie Carson and Ian Botham – and he could demonstrate a short fuse when things didn’t go his way. Indeed, an audiotape of Coleman going off the deep end when a junior member of the team had made a mistake did the rounds of BBC parties for years.

On the other hand he was loved for his kindness and generosity. The athlete Steve Cram, who in retirement joined Coleman on the BBC athletics commentary team, described him as a huge influence on his career. “When I met him at major championships he would give me very helpful advice on travel and how to deal with the media,” Cram said. “He had a reputation for being tough and demanding, but I always found him an incredibly generous bloke.”

His sheer professionalism and competitiveness did mean that Coleman never cultivated close friendships with his rivals. When World of Sport began on ITV in 1964, Dickie Davies once recalled, Coleman’s reaction was short and to the point: “We’ll blow the bastards out of the water in six months.” And the great ITV football commentator Brian Moore once said of him, “We had a fairly spiky relationship, to be honest ... he set an agenda where there was no great friendship. I did find it very uncomfortable but I still respected him greatly.” Moore recalled meeting him when they were both covering the FA Cup final at Wembley: “We met round the back of the stadium by the scanner vans, and he said to me: ‘Oh, here he comes, seeking an inferior audience again.’”

For all his professionalism he could sometimes get it horribly wrong. When Don Fox lost his footing on the waterlogged Wembley pitch and famously missed a kick in front of the posts, losing the rugby league Challenge Cup final for Wakefield, all the march commentator, Eddie Waring, could say, was a deeply felt, “Oh, poor lad.” But in the tunnel afterwards Coleman was waiting for the devastated Fox.

“Don, it must be a desperate thing for a situation like that to occur,” he said. “Shocking,” replied Fox. “I’m that upset I can’t speak.” Undeterred, Coleman ploughed on. “Anyway, 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?” It surely wasn’t.

One occasion when Coleman got things right was perhaps his finest hour – and it was a non-sporting hour. He was covering the 1972 Munich Olympics when Palestinian terrorists took Israeli athletes and coaches hostage, an attack which ended with the deaths of 11 Israelis, a West German police officer and five of the gunmen. Coleman held the fort for a day and a half, reporting on the crisis in an almost unbroken stint in front of the camera, as well as covering the memorial service a few days later.

He was widely commended afterwards for his professionalism and cool head, and the gravitas he brought to the BBC’s coverage of such a tragic event, and it was qualities like this for which he was awarded the OBE in 1992; he was also the first broadcaster to receive an Olympic Order medal, which he did at his last Games, in Sydney – when the BBC, shamefully, did nothing to mark his retirement. At the end of 2000, while the Corporation was going overboard about the fact that Murray Walker was planning to retire during the following year, the end of Coleman’s career was marked by a terse official statement that his contract was not being renewed.

Unlike today, when the doings of TV presenters tend to be a matter of public record, Coleman was self-effacing offscreen to the point of invisibility. Even at the height of his fame he lived quietly with his family in Buckinghamshire and gave few interviews. So low was his profile that the BBC was unaware in the early 1990s that his son was flying RAF jets in the Gulf War until they saw a Ministry of Defence press release. (Another child, his daughter Anne, was a champion  show jumper.)

He was once asked what his favourite commentary line was. “As if I’d remember. Don’t be so bloody daft,” he said. Then he did remember. “Actually, there was one in the early days. When Herb Elliott won the 1500m in the Rome Olympics, I said, ‘And there’s the best in the world, running away from the rest of the world.’” Perfect. He covered 11 Olympics and six World Cups and, more importantly, was the authoritative sporting voice to which we turned for the best part of four decades. He was, in one of the phrases for which he was known and loved, “Quite remarkable.”

David Robert Coleman, journalist and broadcaster: born Alderley Edge,  Cheshire 26 April 1926; OBE 1992; married Barbara (three daughters, three sons); died 21 December 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick