David Oates: highly regarded BBC commentator

 

There was an air of disbelief in press boxes last Sunday afternoon when the news came through, just before kick-off, that David Oates would not be returning to the environment in which he was so very much at home.

Although he had been taken ill the previous week, when a virus is thought to have attacked his heart, the shocking loss of such a popular colleague in his prime took many minds off what was about to happen on the pitch.

The 50-year-old – who would plead guilty to looking and acting much younger – was one of Radio Five Live's most enjoyed and respected commentators, on both football and rugby league. If Blackpool Football Club was his first love, he also developed an early passion for the 13-a-side code and was chairman of the Blackpool Borough Junior Supporters' Club in his teens.

His first job in radio was at Radio Manchester in 1986, where his duties included covering Manchester United. Obviously, this was not as glamorous as covering either Blackpool club, but he made the best of it; so much so that, after eight years on that beat, he moved to Radio Five Live at its London headquarters as a sports producer.

"Oatsie", as he was universally known, was always happiest, however, with a microphone stuck in front of him. His commentaries were always informed and unpretentious, with a sharp eye and ear for the absurd. He was the most conscientious of broadcasters, but he never took sport too seriously.

He brought those qualities to countless rugby league and football matches, never losing his freshness, despite the formidable mileages he clocked up. The highlights of his career included three World Cups in both football and rugby league, two Commonwealth Games (in Victoria, British Colombia, in 1994 and Kuala Lumpur four years later) and the shooting events at the London Olympics of 2012.

By what was to be a poignant coincidence, he was commentating when the heart of the Bolton Wanderers player, Fabrice Muamba, stopped on the pitch at White Hart Lane last season. It was fiendishly difficult to strike the right note at a moment like that, but there was general recognition that Oatsie had done so perfectly.

The regard in which he was held by colleagues was evident in the tributes that poured in from the likes of Clare Balding and his frequent co-commentator, Stan Collymore, when his death was announced. There were also tributes from clubs, including his beloved Blackpool, and from governing bodies.

The chief executive of the Rugby Football League, Nigel Wood, was also a close friend. "As a broadcaster he was the consummate professional," he wrote. "His commentaries were never anything other than accurate, intuitive and knowledgable. As a man 'Oatsie' was funny, immensely likeable and thoroughly decent. We are all going to miss him terribly."

For all his deeply ingrained professionalism, sport was more than a job to David; it was an absorbing, life-enhancing hobby. Blackpool's single season in the Premier League was a source of surprise and delight to him. His idea of a good day off was watching his adopted Super League team, the London Broncos, play at Brentford or The Stoop.

Neighbours in Ealing, where he lived with his wife, the Five Live producer Charlotte Nicol, and their daughters, Imogen and Kate, were used to seeing him pounding the pavements, as he was a keen long-distance runner. Along with his enthusiasms, one of his more endearing characteristics was the capacity for some hearty dislikes. Another of his circle of close friends, The Guardian's Andy Wilson, homed in on a few of them this week when he wrote that Oatsie was "not as keen on rugby union, the Tories and Preston North End."

To them, you could add cold weather and chilled lager. There will be plenty of pints of dark mild drunk at room temperature across the North of England in his memory. As his regular collaborator and best mate on Five Live, Dave Woods, put it: "It's what he would have wanted."

David Oates, broadcaster: born Blackpool June 1962, married Charlotte Nicol (two daughters); died London 3 February 2013.

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