Football: Voices of football live in fear of the own goal

Radio commentators strive to stay focused in the heat of the moment but on occasions it can all go horribly wrong.
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND HAD beaten Spain on penalties in the quarter-finals of Euro 96, and for Capital Radio listeners at the time, the story went something like this: "Never mind your Jose Carreras, never mind your Don Quixote... your boys are out! So you can stick it up your Julio Iglesias! England are heading for the biggest, biggest prize!" The frenzied words of Jonathan Pearce - for it was he - drew a collective chuckle of recognition as they were played back to a roomful of fellow workers in the medium of sound.

The profile of football commentary, the chosen topic at the latest meeting of the self-styled Radio Academy chaired by the Football Association executive director, David Davies, has risen in recent years, just like everything else associated with the Beautiful - and currently Bountiful - Game. Practitioners such as Pearce have become well known in their own right, as have others such as BBC Radio 5 Live's Alan Green, and Metro Sport's Mick Lowes, both of whom were on hand at the in-house gathering to offer their own personal commentaries on the business which earns them a living.

Their reaction to Pearce's anabolic rhetoric - which was played by way of entertainment to the England players as they made their way to Wembley for the Euro 96 semi-final against Germany - was instructive. "Totally unrehearsed," said Green, with a pleasing hint of malice. Lowes acknowledged that Pearce had his critics, but pointed out that the man was a genuinely passionate football fan.

By way of historical perspective, Lowes added that Brian Moore - ITV's recently retired doyen of the microphone - had been hauled over the coals early in his commentary career because of what was seen as excessive enthusiasm. "He was regarded as the Jonathan Pearce of his day," Lowes said. Plus ca change.

When it was the turn of Green to have one of his aural highlights replayed, he shifted awkwardly in his seat, at one point making an a hopping movement of his hand as if to say "cut". "I don't listen to anything I do," he said. "I hate the sound of my own voice."

The national institution that is Colemanballs attests to the perils in store for those who live by chat. "When you call a goal wrong, that's the kind of thing that haunts you," said Lowes. The Metro man recalled his most embarrassing moment, which occurred at Upton Park when the West Ham defender Julian Dicks was having a storming match. "It's almost as if there's 11 Dicks on the field," Lowes enthused.

The prime Greenball? That came on the final day of the season when Blackburn secured the Premiership title ahead of Manchester United, despite losing their last match at Liverpool following a late free-kick from Jamie Redknapp. "I said that that free-kick just might have meant all Blackburn's work going out of the window and the title going down the road to Old Trafford. I knew I'd got it wrong as soon as I said it, and at that precise moment we had to cut to Upton Park, where he heard United had drawn 0-0 and so couldn't catch Blackburn. Then they came back to me. I left Anfield that day totally distraught." The recollection still clearly grates on Green, but he maintains now that he does not allow himself to dwell on any faux pas for more than 30 seconds.

"What's the point? It's gone, and you can't change it," he said. "Besides, if you laugh at your own mistakes on air, which is something I do, you can sometimes turn these things to your own benefit." Green, however, maintains a harder line on some of the new trends in his line of work. When Lowes said he used the words "us" and "we" in his commentaries on Newcastle United or Sunderland, because he felt fans expected it, the BBC man reacted with studs showing. "That's forbidden in the BBC," he said. "That sort of thing drives me crazy. It should not be tolerated." But both men are as one when it comes to the commercial forces that overshadow their own employment prospects. Green's days of covering Manchester United's Champions' League matches have been scuppered by Talk Radio's buying up of the exclusive coverage. Lowes, meanwhile, is dreading the rumoured creation of Newcastle United's own club TV and radio set-up, which would follow in the wake of what has already been created at Manchester United.

Green is scornful of such club outfits - "that's not radio, that's propaganda. Every listener sees through that" - but Lowes is not so sure. "They could turn round to us and say they are simply not interested any more," he said. It's a chilling prospect for the men behind the microphone. But for those with the nerve and talent, there will surely always be another station along any minute.