The night football's big guns fell silent in the rain

Cricket commentators are used to longeurs, but these football-watching types couldn't handle an evening of boredom in Warsaw
  • @Simon_Kelner

Way back in the 1960s, when live coverage of football on television was very much in its infancy, the BBC thought they had something of a coup when the England manager of the day, Alf Ramsey, was persuaded to do a stint as an analyst for an evening cup tie.

Alf was a man of very few words, the like of which we see very rarely in public life these days. He was born in Dagenham and was reportedly embarrassed by his accent so that, when he was appointed manager of the national team, he had elocution lessons. Not the best person, you may think, to give the sharp, illuminating, sometimes humorous, perspective that we take for granted from football co-commentators these days.

As luck would have it, the match in question was delayed by a floodlight failure, and, against the backdrop of a stadium in darkness, the commentator (I believe it was Kenneth Wolstenholme) and the taciturn Alf were forced to fill the air time.

"So, Alf," said Wolstenholme hopefully, "how long do you think it will be before the lights come on again." Alf, applying all the strictures of his elocution class, thought for a minute before offering a deadpan reply: "Hi am not an helectrissian".

Almost 50 years on, things have not got that much better, judging by the way the plucky Adrian Chiles, together with three practised veterans of the analysis game, attempted fill in the dead air time while waiting in vain for the rain to stop in Warsaw the other night. You knew things had taken a turn for the worse when Chiles, well used to packing unforgiving minutes with diverting nonsense from his days on The One Show, plaintively asked a contributor to speculate on the workings of the stadium roof "... and take your time about it," he added. One of the team said: "How I wish we had Stuart Hall and Eddie Waring with us tonight," and the loquacious Hall, who often sounds like the nightmare offspring of Stanley Unwin and Will Self, could certainly have livened up the seemingly endless chat. He would have been more use than Roy Keane, not the man you would choose for some light-hearted banter to keep everyone's spirits up.

Chiles struggled on for 80 minutes, but he was fighting a losing battle. At one point, there was even a discussion about whether the panellists had enough clean underwear to survive the postponement of the match.

The fact is that football is a game where the action comes thick and fast, and commentators are not versed in talking through the longeurs. Cricket, on the other hand, is a game that seems to consist entirely of pauses interrupted by a bit of action. That's why cricket coverage has bred the sort of character who is as comfortable in the Garrick Club as in the Oval commentary box.

But we could be grateful for one thing as the rain pelted down in Warsaw. No one could locate Cliff Richard.