David Coleman, the superlative voice of sport for a generation

The commentator, who has died aged 87, combined passion and a keen journalistic eye to revolutionise BBC coverage. Martin Kelner pays tribute

It takes a kind of genius to turn the phrase "one-nil" into a catchphrase. David Coleman did, because of the tone in which he delivered it in his football commentaries, momentously, as if he knew it was coming all along. And we believed him. That is the kind of authority Coleman wielded for most of his four decades with BBC Sport.

Coleman changed the game for the BBC in any number of ways. Before 1958, when he was plucked from local news in Birmingham to present the new Saturday-afternoon sports show Grandstand, announcing on the BBC – and it was announcing in every sense of the word – was a stuffed-shirt, plummy-voiced affair.

Coleman, with his no-nonsense, virtually classless vowel sounds forged in his native Stockport, was something new – at last a BBC figure who spoke like your geography teacher, rather than Lady Isobel Barnett (kids, ask your dad).

He was a journalist too, editor of the Cheshire County Press at the age of just 22, and those journalistic instincts never left him. If you want to see Coleman at his editorialising best, there's a clip of him on YouTube introducing highlights of Chile v Italy in the 1962 World Cup: "The game you are about to see," he says, staring straight down the barrel of the camera, "is the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition, possibly in the history of the game.

"The national motto of Chile reads 'By reason or force'. Today, the Chileans were prepared to be reasonable, the Italians only used force, and the result was a disaster for the World Cup."

Manifestly, he cared about sport. He had played football, for Stockport County reserves, and before injury blighted his athletics career had been a promising middle-distance runner. In 1949, at the age of 23, he became the first non-international to win the Manchester Mile, and were it not for a persistent hamstring injury forcing him to hang up his spikes, he may have fulfilled his ambition to compete at the Olympics.

Instead, he covered 11 Olympic Games, from Rome in 1960 to Sydney 2000, and six football World Cups, arguably making a greater contribution to sport than he would have as a mere competitor.

Maybe it was Coleman's empathy with his fellow athletes that prompted what Private Eye christened as Colemanballs, the unintentionally comic one-liners he spouted in the heat and passion of battle. They have been flying round the social networks – "Juantorena opened his legs and showed his class" – but it should be noted some of them are not strictly as spoken. In fact, some of them do not emanate from Coleman at all. They were ascribed to him because he was the totemic figure in sports broadcasting. And if he did say, "There you can see her parents – her father died some time ago," it would have been because he was utterly transfixed by the action.

As the columnist Harry Pearson noted in the Guardian, he was given to saying, "Oh my word… has he gone too early?" as a runner moved into the lead, "But viewers often feared it was Coleman himself who had gone too early – he reached a pitch of excitement in the final curve that seemed unsustainable without access to helium. But just when you thought he might yodel his lungs out through his nostrils, he found something extra."

The one thing Coleman cared as much about as sport was broadcasting. He was – and this is sometimes ambivalent praise – a perfectionist. There's a famous clip of Coleman, unaware he was still being taped, berating a producer for a fluffed pre-recorded opening of a World Cup Grandstand programme from Mexico in 1970, stinting on neither swear words nor vituperation. But the producer involved, Jonathan Martin, later a head of BBC Sport, told me: "He was difficult to work with, but that was because he had high standards and he expected the same from everyone else."

I spoke to a number of BBC executives for a book I wrote about sport on television, and even the ones with whom he had clashed over the years – he was off-air for a year in 1977, protesting at young upstarts such as John Motson and Frank Bough getting gigs he thought he should have had – spoke of him in the most glowing terms.

Some idea of his status at the BBC, and his journalistic credentials, can be gathered from the fact that when the Beatles flew back into Heathrow in February 1964 after their triumphant tour of the United States, it was Coleman who was chosen to meet them. Ever the journalist, he put the difficult question, asking what they might do to reclaim the spot in the Top 10 they had just lost. John Lennon later said he knew the Beatles had really made it when they saw Coleman waiting for them.

Coleman's journalistic training became even more relevant at the 1972 Munich Olympics, when he broadcast live and unscripted for several hours while the Israeli athletes were held hostage in the Olympic village.

When he called it a day after the 2000 Olympics, sports broadcasting was already melding into showbiz, and Coleman, you felt, was never the sort of chap who saw it as a stepping stone to Strictly Come Dancing or joshing with Ant and Dec.

Indeed, he refused to take part in tribute shows that were planned, wrote no newspaper pieces about how much better it was in the old days, and told the BBC he didn't want anyone to make a fuss about him. Now, I feel, he will have no choice.

Martin Kelner is the author of 'Sit Down and Cheer, A History of Sport on TV', published by Wisden Sportswriting

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