Barry Davies has supplied the voice and words for some of Britain’s most memorable sporting moments. He commentated at 12 Summer Olympics and 10 football World Cups, and has covered a wide range of sports including hockey, gymnastics, figure skating, rowing and tennis. He is about to work on The Jump for Channel 4, but in August last year he was invited to commentate again on the BBC’s Match of the Day, after a 10 year hiatus, to mark the programme’s 50th anniversary. So, how did the comeback opportunity come about?
I was amazed. It came right out of leftfield. BBC Sport held a press day in London celebrating Match of the Day’s 50th birthday and I was invited. The press interviewed John Motson and me side by side which was pretty amusing. We’ve always got on, but we’re very different people with different styles, which has been good for both of us.
The following day, on the Friday, I got a phone call from one of the senior Producers saying that he’d had this idea of me doing a game again. And I said to him ‘Is this just your idea or has it been pushed around?’ I asked him to make sure the idea was fully supported by the other bosses, and if it was, then I’d do it. Three days later they confirmed I’d be doing Crystal Palace-West Ham on that following Saturday. They hadn’t realised that my Match of the Day career actually began at Selhurst Park, which was a nice coincidence.
The fact that they asked me, 10 years on from my last football commentary, was lovely. Everybody was extremely friendly at Selhurst Park and the public reaction was astonishing. People say it helped having the old-style graphics. I’d forgotten how many substitutes were allowed in a Premier League game and the pace was a little quicker too, but I enjoyed it. I was hoping I wouldn’t get a first minute goal! I was quite tickled that I saw one of the goals coming before it happened and I told Big Sam (Allardyce) afterwards that I thought West Ham would have a good season. In fact, I think West Ham may go on to win the FA Cup.
It occurred to me in the build-up that it would be ok if everything went ok, but if I made some sort of howling error then they probably would say ‘He never was any bloody good anyway!’
The reaction was generous, but if I had come back the next week and the next week, would people still have felt I fitted in? I don’t know.
I’ve said that if they bring me out again for the 60th anniversary of MOTD in 2024, they may need wheelchair access up to the gantry! (laughs)
Do you miss doing the football week in and week out?
I don’t miss doing it week in and week out, but I would have loved to have to gone to the World Cup in Brazil for example. I left in 2004 of my own volition, in part because I didn’t feel I was going to get the same number of opportunities anymore. The style I had developed was not the style that the decision makers wanted. I didn’t think I could change my style and neither did I want to.
Radio has to paint word pictures. Television commentary should be adding something to the pictures that the viewers can see. It’s more in your face now.
Is there too much football on TV these days?
A former England manager once said to me that he could virtually sit in his living room and get all of the information he needed on players by watching television. It was a slightly tongue in cheek observation, but there is a lot of truth in it. I think there is too much televised football and as a result everything is pushed to be the bees’ knees, when it’s not.
I do believe that former players being more involved with the coverage is a good thing, but it has changed the style. For example, during a live match, I think that the commentator should be allowed to commentate on an incident and the first replay. He knows what he has and hasn’t seen, so when the replay comes up for the first time, he knows what he’s looking for. The expert summariser, or co-commentator as they appear to be called these days, has then seen the incident and the replay, so he should then have the capacity to add something quite different. I said to Liam Brady at the 1990 World Cup that he should be able to say something that hadn’t occurred to me, because he’d been there, seen it, done it at the highest level as a player.
With the wealth of football on TV now, there must be more opportunities for commentators, but is it fair to say that that must make it harder for one of them to break through and become the next Barry Davies or John Motson?
Yes, that’s a totally fair suggestion and I think it’s a shame. When I first started, there was no local radio, there was nowhere to go. But because of the work I’d done on Sports Report, I was among around eight or nine of us tested at ITV for commentary skills ahead of the 1966 World Cup. We had to commentate on around 10 minutes of a match each and the wonderful Frank Keating said to me afterwards, ‘You woke us up midway through the second half’. And that was the reason I got on.
You became a multi-sport commentator which was, and still is, very rare. Was that because you said ‘yes’ to everything? Was it a case of agreeing to cover a sport and then going away and learning about it?
(laughs) In some cases, if I’m honest, yes. But people sometimes say I only went to other sports because I wasn’t getting asked to do all of the top football matches anymore. That’s not true. I was simply being asked to do other things, like the Lord Mayor’s Show. That’s actually one of my few regrets in broadcasting; that I didn’t get onto the news/events network earlier because I would have loved to do the Cenotaph and various other things.
In terms of other sports, I picked up gymnastics because my daughter happened to be southern area champion when she was a 10yr old! The fact that my son came close twice to making the Cambridge Blue boat helped my case to do the Boat Race. Although Jonathan Martin, the head of BBC Sport at the time, said the Boat Race was part of the British social & sporting scene and not just a rowing race, and told me that he thought I might be quite good at that sort of thing. I then did Olympic opening ceremonies which further increased my regret that I didn’t commentate on more non- sporting events.
I’m going to assume that you are a man that thinks preparation and research are crucial in delivering a good commentary…
Yes, that is true, but I would also say to you that some of the better commentaries I’ve done are when I’ve sat there thinking ‘have I done enough work on this game?’. During the 1966 World Cup, I did all of the matches in the North East and one quarter final. I probably got about 45mins on the air, and probably made a huge number of mistakes that never saw the light of day.
When I got into regular live commentary work, I used to work very hard at the preparation and certainly went through a stage where I found some unbelievable fact that I thought I had to get in. After a while, I realised that that is an impediment to doing a flowing commentary.
I’ll tell you a story. When I worked on gymnastics, you’ve got a team competition, an individual competition and individual apparatus finals so you have gymnasts doing lots of different things. Alongside Mitch Fenner, we had a plastic board with stickers on. We’d write the gymnasts’ names on the stickers and move them around, move them into the next stage or whatever. And I thought ‘this has to work in football’. So I did the European Cup final at Wembley in 1990 when Barcelona beat Sampdoria.
Most people had no idea what team Johan Cruyff was going to pick so I had all of the players on these stickers, ready for any permutation. But when I went to move them around, my board was not as effective as the one we’d used at the gymnastics and I ended up with torn bits of paper everywhere and the whole thing didn’t help much at all on that day. Yet it was one of my better nights because I didn’t have anything to get in my way.
In the latter stages of my career, I quite often didn’t make that many notes on a game. Given my assumed preparation and knowledge, people used to ask me ‘who do you think is going to win today?’ and I’d reply pleasantly ‘I don’t know, that’s what I’ve come to find out’. I never went into a match with a totally preconceived idea as to what was going to happen, so anything that did happen was fresh and not a surprise.
You’re about to head to Austria for The Jump, which you did last year as well. Do you think it’s fair that some people may be surprised that Barry Davies is lending his voice to what is effectively a reality show?
Yes, they might. I had to be bullied into it a bit last year, but I enjoyed it and I’ve always relished the challenge of doing different sports. I’m not doing any great harm. I was in America when the offer came to me and in the end we had a conference call. I said ‘Why me?’. And they said ‘We like the voice and we think you might be able to add something’. So I gave in! It’s not desperately serious from my point of view, but it’s very competitive. Just look at Sir Steve Redgrave last year. He was mortified when he had to pull out injured.
It was difficult at times because of the way they wanted to present some of the results. During the short-track speed skating, two of the contestants crossed the line together. One of them won by a nose and I called the winner, but I had to redo it because when Davina McCall interviewed the pair that night, she was building the tension by asking each of them ‘Do you think you won?’. Well that’s no good if the commentator has already announced the winner!
Is it strange researching models and TOWIE actors rather than footballers?
Yes, and I realise I have considerable weakness in those areas! I’m tending to check things with my kids and I do get given a few biogs by the production team. I got to know most of the contestants during the competition last year, but it’s not an exercise in me showing off how much information I’ve got. And working next to Eddie the Eagle is great. He’s a fascinating character.
You have done other unexpected things…the Robbie Williams video for ‘She’s The One’ and the World Stare Out Championship sketch for Big Train. They have brought you to new audiences…
It’s true. I regretted that I never got to meet Robbie Williams and when the video won an award I was never invited to the ceremony! That was despite me changing their script for the better (laughs). People still talk to me about Big Train. I like being challenged but I wouldn’t accept a stupid challenge.
Is there a sport you haven’t commentated on that you wish you’d had the chance to do?
Well, I love cricket but I’m not Richie Benaud, who I think is still, by a street, the best commentator around. I enjoy watching the golfing Majors but I couldn’t compete with Peter Alliss. I enjoyed doing a wide range of sports in my time and learning from people who knew more about them than me.
Are you doing the Boat Race and Wimbledon this year?
I still do the Boat Race for the world feed, which often means I have to summarise key moments in the race as well as commentate on it. After I did my first Boat Race on BBC One, alongside Dan Topolski, Dan turned to me at the end and said ‘Well, you didn’t say anything to upset the rowing fraternity’. And I said ‘Is that a compliment or not?!’ (laughs)
I’m doing Wimbledon again this Summer and I love it. It’s a gladiatorial event. Ann Jones once said ‘we need Barry because he keeps us in order’. I believe she meant that the former players are ‘in’ the game and perhaps don’t see the wider field, whereas I do. If I’m working with John McEnroe, I might pick him up on something that he says that I want to query or feel needs explaining for the audience at home that only watch Wimbledon. I love working with John…
…and he loves working with you…
(laughs) Well yes, apparently he does! He came out with some extraordinary remark in support of me doing football commentary again for the BBC and it almost got a public enquiry going! (laughs)
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