A skilled football commentator can brighten up the dullest of games and further enhance the viewing experience when the on-field action is entertaining. Peter Drury is particularly adept at capturing the mood of a match and transmitting it to those watching along at home.
“Trust your instincts and hope that the right words come out,” says the 50-year-old when asked how he does it. “As a commentator, you’ve got to understand that you’re only as good as you are lucky. You’re only as good as the moment served up to you.”
Drury, it seems, has never been more popular than he is today. His narration of Roma’s Champions League victory over Barcelona in April earned widespread acclaim, with clips circulating on social media for days after the quarter-final second leg. But the man himself is keen to emphasise that it’s the players who make such instances special.
“All of these great moments have absolutely nothing to do with me,” he says modestly. “Even the Kostas Manolas moment against Barcelona [the defender scored the goal which sent Roma through to the semi-finals], it has nothing to do with me. I had people asking me whether I had prepared for that moment. I mean, how could I have written that down? How could I have anticipated that?
“Roma went 3-0 up against Barcelona and a Greek centre-back scored a goal. If I note down all those scenarios, you’d never sleep a wink. I was overwhelmed by the reaction, but it has nothing to do with me. If he (Manolas) didn’t score that goal, I wouldn’t have commentated on it any better or worse than I actually did.
“I say this to everybody: people tune in for the football, not for the commentary. You only switch on to watch the match. A commentator might annoy you or he might please you, but he’s not who you’re watching. And as a commentator, you get lucky when you get a great moment like that.”
Drury is used to commentating on big occasions like the latter stages of the Champions League, but he believes that the real beauty of football lies in bringing out stories of lesser-known characters within the game. That’s why he still loves commentating on the early rounds of the FA Cup, even if the facilities aren’t quite of elite standard.
“I remember commentating on a game in the English Fourth Division, as it was, back in 1990. A little club called Halifax Town were 3-0 down with 20 minutes to play against Doncaster and they won 4-3. And that was a beautiful moment. Some of my favourite games aren’t the big games.
“I still love commentating on the early rounds of the FA Cup where amateur teams play. The thrill of the competition lies in the chance for lesser sportspeople to be in the limelight. That’s where there’s a human interest, where someone who spends his day as a carpenter scores a goal. That’s more enriching than a multi-million-pound striker scoring a goal.”
While always quick to play down his own importance, Drury is someone who could speak about football all day. He fell in love with the game as a youngster and also traces his passion for commentary back to his early years, when he would narrate common family scenes such as his dad getting into the car and his mum walking down the street.
“From the very beginning I knew for a fact that I was never going to be good enough as a sportsman, but every young child who loves sport dreams of playing it,” he says.
“My number one dream was to play professional football or play a sport for a professional club, but I was absolutely nowhere near. But I had a real fascination for sport and I followed games on television and radio – especially the radio in those days. I always had a fascination for the way in which sport was broadcast.
“As a young boy – and as lots of young boys do – I was commentating on myself while kicking a ball in the park. I’d say ‘What a goal’, or when taking a wicket in cricket, I’d say ‘Got him’, like commentators do. It was pretending, but it came to a point where I thought, ‘let’s give it a try!'”
A highly articulate man, Drury has a knack for summoning the right words at the right time, routinely keeping his composure to deliver lines which are both elaborate and accessible – something that arguably sets him apart from many other football commentators.
“I’ve always had a fascination with words,” he explains. “I love words. Some would say I use too many of them and people sometimes compliment me for my usage of words, but equally I feel it’s a fair criticism of my work that I can be overly wordy. That’s because I love the words so much and, you know, that’s a strength and a weakness. But certainly, my love for words and language play into the story as well.”
Not that it was inevitable that Drury would one day end up working with words. He was initially a numbers man, briefly plying his trade as an accountant after graduating from the University of Hull without a clear career plan in mind.
“I wasn’t an accountant for very long, believe me,” he says. “I left university in 1988 and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Commentary was just a dream, so I became a trainee accountant but I was only there for a month. And during that time, I thought that this wasn’t how I was going to spend the rest of my working life.
“I made up my mind – because I was young and rash – to try to follow my dream. So I handed in my notice, worked out my month and began applying for jobs in sports journalism.
“I received rejection after rejection. This was before emails, but there was a great pile of letters I had in my bedroom saying that I didn’t have any experience, but after several months I got my lucky break. It was an invitation to go and do some work with a then-very famous sports reporting agency in London called Hayters, which was run by a legend of Fleet Street, Reg Hayter. He was responsible for launching many sports journalists’ careers. and I was fortunate to join his stable.
“After a couple of years of really learning on the job, I applied for my first job in sports broadcasting in BBC Local Radio, in Leeds. That was where I first commentated professionally. I was lucky because Leeds United were the champions of England when I was there in the early 1990s, so some of my work began to get noticed. I also covered Yorkshire cricket, which was a great experience as well.”
Drury admits that it wasn’t easy trying to carve out a career in such a competitive industry, and his mental health suffered as he struggled to move forward. But despite all the rejections and difficulties, he never considered giving up.
“To be honest, I had taken a big risk by giving up what could have been a pretty stable professional life when I gave being a trainee accountant after a month. But I guess I was at a time in my life when I didn’t have any particular ties or responsibility, so I was able to commit myself the time to really have a go at it. There were times when I was pretty depressed and I used to think I wasn’t making any progress, [and] there were certainly some days where I remember wondering what the hell was going to happen next since I was making no headway at all.
“I actually speak to a lot of young people who want to get into this profession and making that first impression – waiting for someone to give you the chance – can be deeply frustrating. And that’s what young people in the field want: a chance. Some are lucky to get the chance. Some are not. I was lucky.”
It’s talent as well as good fortune that has taken Drury to the position he finds himself in 2018, which has already featured dozens of commentaries – including several at this summer’s World Cup. And while the man from Ashford admits he enjoyed seeing Gareth Southgate lead England to a fourth-place finish, there was never any danger of him being anything other than neutral whenever he was armed with a microphone in Russia.
“It’s not that I set out to be unbiased; it’s just that I am unbiased,” he says. “I simply love the game, and I just look to tell the story of the game.
“The other thing – I don’t know if things have moved on in this regard or if I’m a bit old-fashioned – but when I started out with the BBC, the edict from senior management was that we never refer to England as ‘us’ or ‘we’. We were supposed to refer to England as ‘England’. So, if you’re reporting about England losing a Test match, you have to understand that the audience might primarily be in favour of England but you understand that the other nation is just as valid.
“That has, to some extent, changed – if you’re addressing an English audience, you have to acknowledge that the bulk of that audience want England to win. [At the World Cup] I was talking to a global audience [for FIFA’s world feed], so I had to acknowledge that not everybody wanted England to win.”
But with Southgate’s young team winning admirers for their brand of football, team spirit and connection with supporters, even a consummate professional like Drury must have been in danger of getting carried away?
“I can’t deny that in the last week of the World Cup, I was starting to think what I would say if England won the World Cup,” he concedes. “I never got to find out, firstly because I was determined to be unbiased, and secondly because it had to be natural and not scripted.
“I was putting the reins on myself and [stopping] myself thinking that far ahead. But being an Englishman, if I’d have got to call that moment, it would have been unsurpassable. Truthfully, as a proud Englishman, one of the things that was worrying me was that I would choke up. Because on the one hand you’re saying you’re being unbiased, but on the other hand that you’ll choke up when England win. That’s almost like breaking the rules.”
This article was originally published in 2018.