Dramatic noises off

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Ten minutes into the west London-north London derby, with Chelsea leading Arsenal 1-0 and Highbury doing its collective nut, Jonathan Pearce, the Capital Gold radio commentator, took a poetry break. "Oh, a lovely apricot tinge to that western horizon," he told his listeners. "Won't see too many of those now, as the autumn is drawing on and the leaves are already starting to brown in the royal parks . . ."

Pearce, as his avid audience in London and the south-east will know, is no ordinary commentator. But it is not his occasional rhapsodic descriptions of sunsets that have won him such a loyal following and three Sony radio awards as Best Sports Broadcaster. It is the articulate frenzy with which he describes the action on the field, and the seemingly endless stream of information and trivia with which he supports his commentary.

Pearce is rumoured to psych himself up before matches by yelling, screaming and headbutting walls: it seems a shame to spoil his image by revealing that he doesn't have the time to do anything of the sort.

After cutting his teeth with BBC Radio Bristol, Pearce, who is now 36, joined Capital Gold in 1987 to set up the station's sports coverage. It was his second choice of career: as a youngster he trained with Bristol City but had to give up the game after he broke his leg at 14.

On Wednesday evening Pearce arrived at Highbury an hour and three-quarters before kick-off time, but instead of attempting cranial demolition of the marble halls he contented himself with taping his equipment to his desk in the press box, and annotating the minutely detailed computer print- outs that are the source of so much of his commentary material.

He was on the air at seven, previewing the match, rounding up recent events in the Premiership, and noting "the chill September breeze and smiling faces in the hospitality boxes away to my left". Rob Wotton, his summariser and assistant, grinned as the master found his stride.

Come kick-off, Pearce came alive, first of all rolling his head around his shoulders to loosen up and then bobbing and weaving around with the rhythm of his words. He has tremendously eloquent hands, as if he is shaping his words in the air in front of him. These gestures also let his colleagues in the press know when "JP" is on his best form; for most of the time he was inaudible in the cacophony of the crowd.

Every now and then a confident statement could be overheard. "There's a swagger about Chelsea," he commented early in the game: and shortly there was a stagger about Mark Hughes, and a fall, and Chelsea had their penalty. The west London side's second goal brought the best out of Pearce, Vialli's strike and Lukic's fumble provoking a declaration of: "That's Italian football, that's AC Milan football, that's Juventus football!" leavened with a sorry note, the "haunted homecoming" of the unfortunate goalkeeper.

Pearce thought that Chelsea had the game sewn up at 2-0. Later in the second half, when the match had taken an eventful turn, he yelled that Ian Wright had won it for Arsenal with the lob after 79 minutes that gave the Gunners a 3-2 lead.

Dennis Wise was not listening to the commentary, and equalised for Chelsea in injury time, but by then Pearce had given up trying to predict the outcome of such a dramatic contest.

There was no rest for him after the final whistle. While the newspaper correspondents scurried away to meet their deadlines, Pearce remained in the deserted press box.

He conferred quickly with a producer over the headphones ("Got any calls? Give me three or four calls and we'll take it to 9.55 and then the full scoreboard") before smoothly switching into phone-in host mode. "Our first caller is Alison from Bow. What's your question? Is it about Ian Wright?"

Finally, having wrapped up with "That's it. We close the door on a top score, a game that simply had - six appeal", Pearce was finally able to relax with a bottle of Carling lager, the sponsor he had plugged relentlessly throughout his show. He looked absolutely whacked, a combination, he said, of natural tiredness and the after-effects of Moldova Belly.

"Straight after the game, you feel 'Whoompf'." He mimed a deflating balloon. "The adrenalin pump stops, and you just get a massive collapse. But I'll be flying again by the time I get home."

Pearce reckoned that the evening's game had been the best London derby he had watched in his career as a commentator. "That kind of game is welcome," he grinned. "Today was just exhilarating - you never knew what was around the corner." A summary that fitted Pearce's commentary as well as it did the game he had described.