Kenneth Wolstenholme

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Kenneth Wolstenholme, sports commentator: born Worsley, Lancashire 17 July 1920; DFC 1944, bar 1945; married (one daughter); died Torquay, Devon 25 March 2002.

There is a deep irony in the long-running success of the BBC television show They Think It's All Over. The broadcaster who had coined the phrase at the 1966 World Cup Final, Kenneth Wolstenholme, protested angrily at the use of the title for a programme he thought was tacky, and threatened legal action.

His complaints were brushed aside, just as he himself had been brushed aside in 1970 when the BBC replaced Wolstenholme, then virtually the nation's only football commentator, with David Coleman. Wolstenholme deserved better from the corporation he had served, in radio and television, since soon after the Second World War. Had he gone quietly, he might have been favoured with a job elsewhere in the BBC, but he continued to rail against what he thought of as declining standards and dumbing down until his death.

He was born in Worsley, near Bolton, in 1920 and stayed loyal to the Wanderers. He worked in local newspapers until he joined the RAF, anticipating call-up by volunteering for pilot training in 1938. He flew Blenheims and Mosquitos during the war, taking part in more than 100 missions, and was awarded a DFC and bar. He entered broadcasting in Manchester and commentated on his first televised match in 1948, although he was far better known as a radio reporter in the 1950s, a period when football relied almost entirely on newspapers and the BBC for exposure.

When Henry Rose, the Daily Express's northern football writer, arrived in the press box at Anfield on a Saturday afternoon the Liverpool crowd would rise and applaud. Wolstenholme enjoyed a similar status among listeners as he pronounced upon the latest choice of an England team, made in those days by three or four club directors in the guise of FA selectors.

Wolstenholme became internationally famous in 1964 when the BBC launched Match of the Day, the Saturday-night showing first of one match and then of a selection of matches that became a national institution. Wolstenholme was its first presenter and was successful enough to be confirmed as the BBC's presence at all the major football events, in which role he went on to cover 23 FA Cup Finals, 16 European Cup Finals and five World Cup Finals. It was at Wembley, in 1966, that he told a cheering nation, as Geoff Hurst ran in on Germany's goal, "Some people are on the pitch. They think it's all over . . . [The ball flew into the net.] It is now."

Four years later he was replaced for the 1970 World Cup Final by David Coleman. He thought the dismissal sudden enough to be termed brutal: "It was clear they didn't want me any more and I was a bit miffed about that." He was too famous not to find other employment, and his very familiar voice could later be heard on Channel 4, where he presented Italian football.

He even made a return to radio football in 1991 but his career with Metro FM, a North-east station, lasted for just one broadcast, Watford v Sunderland. The producer commented: "Our style is fast, pacy and upbeat. Ken had plenty to say but he was too laid-back." Wolstenholme riposted by saying he would be happy to work for any radio station that wasn't looking for a "lager and skittles with the lads" commentator.

He was of a wartime generation that believed to show emotion is to show weakness. He periodically fired off broadsides at the BBC for the modern style of Match of the Day, insisting there was far too much analytical discussion by ex-players and not enough action. He objected in print to the arrival of women presenters, claiming their presence, however attractive, had more to do with sex than sport and predicted, "The way things are going they will have Carol Vorderman presenting the Cup Final programme with Page 3 lovelies interviewing the players at half-time."

He was never forgotten by many thousands of listeners and viewers and, after moving from Surrey to Devon after the death in 1997 of his wife, he continued as a popular after-dinner speaker and occasional guest on chat shows, in between playing golf. He was a charming and genial man to know, a broadcaster much easier to listen to than some of today's screaming dervishes, but one whose style might have been decribed as dated a half-century ago. He was an excellent communicator, but less knowledgeable about football than most of today's commentators.

Derek Hodgson

Comments