Talksport commentator Jim Proudfoot has been in the business since 1991 and has also worked for Sky Sports, Capital Radio and Setanta. We spoke to him about his first steps in the industry, his favourite games and we even take the time to dredge up memories of a bad day in the commentary box…
It’s easy enough to get started as a football writer. You just write. But how do you get started as a football commentator?
Some of my colleagues started off by commentating on Subbuteo games they played and things like that, but that was never for me. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do until I went to university where I was doing an economics degree. After six weeks, I knew I didn’t want to be an economist and I also knew that the world of economics didn’t want me to become an economist. I was involved in student radio and I knew as soon as I started that it was what I wanted to do with my life. I was covering games at Torquay, Exeter and Plymouth and I just knew from that point that I wanted to be a commentator.
Anyone who has ever turned the volume down on the television and tried to commentate knows that it’s far harder than it looks. How do you keep going for so long without just repeating yourself?
Well, you’re clearly not familiar with my work, are you?! I don’t know really. As I’ve got older, I think my style has developed, but it’s not a conscious decision. I don’t sit down and think, this is how I’m going to do it. It’s just kind of evolved. I’m in the fortunate position where I do TV and radio. If you’re having a bad day on the radio, all you have to do is say who has the ball and where they are on the field. That will buy you thinking time. If you’re on the TV and you don’t know what to say, you just shut up. That’s the best advice, though it takes a lot of confidence to sit and stay quiet and during a passage of play.
Who were the commentators who influenced you when you were young?
Growing up, I remember listening to Peter Jones on the radio. He had a fantastic voice, quite a sing-song voice in a way and I mean that as a compliment. He just made the games sound like events. Alan Parry and Ian Darke were favourite radio commentators of mine too. When I started work at Capital Radio, I worked for Jonathan Pearce. He was absolutely fantastic at what he did. He was the most groundbreaking radio broadcaster in the industry. He took it from where it had been in the 1980s to a completely different level.
Is there a fraternity among commentators?
Oh yes, definitely. Like any industry, there are guys that you really get on with and guys that you don’t get on with quite so well. John Murray at Five Live was my boss when I was a young man and I think he’s a fantastic commentator and he’s a bloke I really look up to, as a broadcaster and as a fella as well. There are three or four I know who, if they’ve got information on a game I’m covering will let me know what they’ve heard, which is great. A lot of people think that the industry is split into several teams, so for example, I work for Talksport, therefore I will only speak to people at Talksport. It doesn’t work like that. If I’m doing a game and someone else is doing the same game, to some extent there will be a pooling of information. It’s more like the written press than people think.
What’s your favourite football memory?
My best footballing memory wasn’t a game I commentated on, but was when Torquay stayed up at Barnet on the last day of the season in 2001. I’ll never go to another game like that and will always be my favourite moment. Nothing will eclipse it.
Ok, but what’s your favourite football memory from a game on which you’ve commentated?
The 1999 FA Cup semi-final between Arsenal and Manchester United. It was thought beforehand that it was going to be one of those special nights and it didn’t let us down. To have commentated on that Ryan Giggs goal was brilliant. United got battered that night and Arsenal should have been out of sight, so that makes the goal even more special. There was no way United were winning that game unless someone did something remarkable. That was very special to have been there.
I’m very proud to have done World Cup finals and, of course, the 7-1 win for Germany against Brazil. You were sat there thinking this is something they’ll talk about long after I die. It was actually not enjoyable because it was too humiliating for Brazil. It was an uneasy watch, but seminal World Cup moment. When it got to five after 30 minutes, it was like a car crash. A strange game to commentate on, but even more so because I ran out of superlatives.
Is it difficult to familiarise yourself with so many different leagues?
It depends on how much homework you’re prepared to do. It’s easier to get the nuances of what’s going on if you concentrate on one league. When I was at Setanta, I was doing three or four leagues, though I was seeing the big clubs regularly. Research is easier to do now with more stories on the internet, but ten years ago, there was hardly any English language coverage, though what was provided at the time was great.
If you said to me ‘you have to do a Belgian play-off tomorrow’, I reckon I would have a good crack at it, despite not seeing either team. It’s just a question of research. I’m just doing Premier League now, which is great because all the time I was doing European football, I wasn’t seeing as much as I’d like to. But I do miss it – I really enjoyed the Bundesliga and Serie A. They’re two very different leagues to commentate on, as Italy is a slower league meaning more research. It’s a lot more stop-start than Germany, and you have to pace yourself with your notes. But I love Germany and Italy – I would watch that on a rare day off.
Have you ever had a bad day in the commentary box?
I did get a lot of stick for doing the England v Finland game in 2000 on U>Direct, which might still be the only pay-per-view game for the national team. England went there with a scratch side, and I’ll be honest, they phoned me up when I was 27 and asked me if I wanted to do it. I had to! I knew I wasn’t ready, but if someone offers you that, you have to say yes.
I didn’t make a very good job of it, I’m not going to try to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. That was the first time I ever got a scathing set of reviews and I found it hard to take. It tarnished me in the eyes of some in the industry. I went for a job interview – I won’t say where for obvious reasons – and I’d been asked to go, I hadn’t applied. I left that interview knowing I hadn’t got the job, and felt like I’d been pulled over the coals and the only reason I didn’t get the job was because of that game.
It wasn’t Sky. I was freelancing there at the time and they were great with me. They told me where I’d gone wrong, as it was a mare. I think it damaged me. But so be it. It was a chance to commentate on England on the telly – a chance I might never get again.”
What are your ambitions in the industry?
My ambition is to commentate on more Wold Cup finals than any other Englishman. I’ve done four, but if I could do eight or nine, I’d be a proud man. I love doing the Premier League in English around the world – they get huge audiences. I would like, at some point, to do more domestic television. I’m still relatively young compared to my colleagues, so you never know when the old guard retire. There will be a shake-up and I hope to be considered. But then I’m lucky that a lot of my ambitions have already been fulfilled.
You can follow Jim Proudfoot on Twitter (@jimproudfoot)