Robin Scott-Elliot: Coleman the master of those awkward questions of sport

View From The Sofa: The Quite Remarkable David Coleman, BBC 2
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The Independent Online

David Coleman has a son called David Coleman, an act of succession that in many ways sums up the man; I'm David and so's my son. The secret of Coleman's success was not subtlety. He was the Oliver Reed of the sports broadcasting world, although he probably commentated on naked wrestling way back when it was an Olympic sport rather than participating in it.

Coleman's place in the history of sports broadcasting is assured and, as an hour-long tribute on the BBC suggests, he takes an important position in its pantheon too. One princess, one lord, more knights than you could shake a sword at and Huw "Reverential" Edwards jostled to pay tribute to the genre's shortest-fused great. Sky Sports may be celebrating 20 years of increasing dominance and impressive advances in how sport on TV is delivered to us, but it is building on the template laid down by the likes of Coleman. He was Jeff Stelling long before Stelling had uttered his first small-screen pun, the first to develop the role of overseeing the videprinter as the final scores chuntered into view. He bloody knew that Bournemouth were unbeaten in seven games.

There was one striking absence from an entertaining hour; the man himself. The story goes that he refused to co-operate with the programme, another neat summation of the hero of the piece. Anyone who ever worked with him over his decades at the BBC has a Coleman story. I was once told one that deserves not be apocryphal, involving a tardy arrival to commentate on an Olympic marathon which meant silence for a number of minutes as the runners plodded off around the streets of Atlanta – the following day Coleman was praised in review for having let the race breathe during its formative stages.

His temper is very much part of the sum and the programme included one glorious clip of Coleman letting rip at cameramen after a rehearsal hiccup. The number of producers and other members of his production team interviewed had glinting eyes and concealed grins as they spoke of his fiery side.

There was a fear of his wrath, because he was actually a bit of a... and it was partly that that helped make him such an effective interviewer. He may be best known as an athletics commentator, however it was actually in asking difficult questions (ahead of his football commentaries; the master of "One-nil" brevity) that he was most striking.

According to Sebastian Coe, a man whose greatest moments were sound-tracked by Coleman, he was the first to break the mould of the forelock-tugging interviewer. As Coe also suggested, the fashion has turned almost full circle, with few of today's pitch/trackside questioners – Garry Richardson and Gabriel Clarke are rare exceptions – venturing beyond the sort of kowtowing that would suit the corporation's coverage of, say, a royal wedding. That is to a degree because broadcasters are terrified of upsetting those that decide who should be allowed to cover their game; they want to be part of the club.

The Coleman club had a membership of one, that's all there was room for. As a broadcaster – commentator, interviewer and presenter – he remains an all-rounder without parallel. His best-known legacy is Colemanballs, and there were plenty of those, but that does not deserve to be his defining one. Sports broadcasting is better off for David Coleman – that's David Coleman Snr.