Colourful times for the sound men

`I covered Liverpool in a match in Innsbruck from the top of a hamburge r stall' Keith Elliott at Large
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The Independent Online
Watching football with the BBC Radio Five Live commentators is not the glamorous assignment I expected. No heated box, no smoked salmon sandwiches, no sipping Dom Perignon from the best seats in Anfield. Instead we're perched so high that the floo dlights are below us. And is it cold? The police who share our open-air gantry (it wobbles alarmingly in the wind, I'm told) are clad in ski suits for their evening game of Spot the Hooligan. Alan Green and Mike Ingham, doyens of live football commentary , aredressed for February in Hammerfest. The visitors are from Birmingham, the wind from Siberia.

There's not even the chance of a lukewarm meat pie at half-time. After clambering across the roof and up two ladders, our escape route has been taken away (to stop a repeat of Two Minute Warning, I suppose) until the final whistle. On the plus side, there's a great view of Liverpool at night, but a less favourable one of coloured ants scurrying around on a green handkerchief. It's like watching football on a two-inch television screen.

But what do I know? Both commentators think this is an excellent view. In fact, all six regulars who cover football for the network prefer a high vantage point. "Our position at Spurs is so low down that Rob Hawthorn actually headed the ball in a recent game against Palace," Green said.

"We've had some very strange commentary positions. I covered Liverpool in a European Cup match in Innsbruck and commentated from the top of a hamburger stall. But the worst was in Moscow, where I did the whole match in torrential rain, leaning from the window of a single-decker bus parked by the corner flag."

Still, radio football has come a long way from its genesis in the 1920s. A garden shed on top of scaffolding housed a blind man and two commentators. One relayed the ball's path ("Smith to Jones to Wright"), the other gave the ball's location based on aneight-square grid in the Radio Times. (It's where the phrase "Back to Square One" came from). The blind man decided whether he was getting enough information to follow the game. If he wasn't, he nudged one of the commentators.

Green and Ingham, the men called up for international and World Cup final duty, have come a long way from their early days, too. Neither set out to become a football commentator. Green dreamt of working as a Belfast Telegraph news reporter. Ingham took alaw degree. They have become very good friends, though it is an unlikely alliance. If each was a football team, Green would be Northern Ireland, and Ingham, Italy.

Radio voices are rarely the people of our imagination, but these two are not far off. Green, that Irish accent soothed after 12 BBC years, has the mischievous face of a Belfast urchin and a haircut to match. Chubby, cheerful and instinctive, he is prone to more extreme opinions and hence is the one everybody claims is biased against their team. "I have no affiliation at all - except to good football. If a match is boring, I'll say so. But I've been accused of being against referees and almost every team. Alex Ferguson hates me," he said happily. "I'm just an opinionated Irishman."

Ingham is tall and patrician, his cultured tones and considered reportage an ideal foil to Green's passion. He will deliver the wry quip, the subtle turn of phrase. He knows how to pronounce Versace, unlike Jimmy Armfield, who thought it was something todo with an advertising agency. In last week's Liverpool v Arsenal match, it was Ingham who delivered: "And a good evening to Paul Merson if he is listening to us tonight."

They divide the commentary each half, and scrupulously take turns at who goes first. "The last quarter is generally the easiest to do because you've got an idea of which way the match is going," Green said. When one is off air, the other watches for off-the-ball incidents. The system is fallible, but their instantaneous reactions are often more correct than the morning papers.

For both, it is a matter of pride that their commentary is right up with play. "I know commentators who stay a move behind, but that's cheating," Green said. "There's no way we can cop out. Listeners know because they can hear the crowd in the background."

But how do they unfailingly get the names right? Green says it is one of the easiest things, especially as they now sometimes cover five matches in a week and see top teams regularly. Ingham relies less on instinct and often goes to watch players in training to be sure of recognising them, now numbers are as useful as last week's lottery ticket.

They work much harder these days. Last week, Green drove 1,100 miles and the pair regularly cover five matches in seven days. Both get to a ground hours before kick-off (their shared nightmare is arriving late) and for evening matches, there are pre and post-match pieces to record. No MP-length holidays for them either. Their close-season, still shrinking, is down to four weeks.

You would think watching 22 Subbuteo men, sometimes playing with the same lurching style, would pall after all these years. But they are both still football fanatics. At his Hertfordshire home, Ingham unfailingly tunes to Radio Five Live when he is not working. He always listens to his previous night's work, criticising his own mistakes. Green admits: "Everyone thinks you've done a great job on a 3-3 draw, but an idiot could have commented on that. The ones that give me the most pleasure are where we keep a dull 0-0 match going."

The next stage, you might think, is television. But, at that suggestion, both get excitable as a cat that has gatecrashed a mouse convention. "If I had a penny for every time someone suggested that, I could have bought Andy Cole," said Ingham in an untypically over-the-top challenge. They take pride from the fact that one top TV pundit switches down the television sound on live games and tunes into Radio Five. And, anyway, they're already as high as they can go.