BY CHRIS CLARK
As a young boy during the 1980s I used to spend hours in my bedroom happily playing with myself. What was this sick obsession I hear you ask. One word. Subbuteo, I bloody loved it.
However the best part of my Subbuteo days were commentating out loud during the many World Cups and FA Cups which were played out in my bedroom. I dreamt of being the next John Motson. Not many 9 year old boys idolised John Motson. I did. He added a narrative to what I already thought was the greatest game ever invented.
As my teenage years passed by, my ingrained idleness kicked in and I never pursued my childhood fantasies. I regret it immensely. What about the modern football commentators, did they have the same dreams? I spoke with BBC Radio and TV/ITV/Setanta/ESPN/BT (I think that’s it!) commentator Jon Champion to see if his journey started with flicking plastic men around a felt pitch.
Did you always want to be a football commentator? I for example used to play Subbuteo on my own as a young boy, and commentate out loud. Did you do something similar?
No, I had no great ambition to become a football commentator. I had wondered about written journalism and had done some work experience with the local paper, but I left school at 19 not knowing what I wanted to do or whether I would go to University
So what was the decision? Did you end up going to University at that point?
I took a job stacking books and periodicals on the shelves of the British Lending Library in Yorkshire…the aim was to earn some money to go travelling whilst deciding what to do as a career. One day I played in a cricket match and got a few runs and was sitting in the clubhouse afterwards when the phone rang. It was the local radio station wanting to do an interview with me. Fortified by a couple of pints of beer I waxed lyrical about my innings. I put the phone down and thought nothing more about it until, a couple of weeks later, I had a call from the same radio station explaining that they were looking for people to go out and report on football and rugby matches on Saturdays. They said they liked the sound of my voice and would I be interested? Of course I said yes!
Good job you got some runs in that game, or nothing would have happened!
After a few weeks there was another call to say they very much liked what I was doing; they thought I had a chance of making a career in broadcasting. They (the BBC) suggested I go off and do a degree for 3 years whilst working for them at weekends on the proviso that as long as I developed well there would be some sort of role for me when I graduated. They were as good as their word…6 weeks before my Finals a job as a Sports Reporter at Radio Leeds was advertised…I got it and they kept it open until I had finished my exams
Amazing really, from that moment of Dutch courage on the phone, that things developed as they did. To quote Question of Sport…So what happened next?
After 18 months in local radio, I was offered a job by the BBC Radio Sports Department in London – at that time all the sport was on Radio 2. Within 3 months I was presenting “Sports Report” with it’s famous signature tune…3 months beyond that I was fronting the 1990 World Cup Final from Italy!
That’s unbelievable! I couldn’t imagine something like that happening today.
It didn’t stop there. I went to all the big events – Olympics, World Cups in football, cricket and rugby, Commonwealth Games, Wimbledon etc. Mostly as a presenter.
So what was your first football commentary?
My first networked football commentary was an FA Cup tie between Swindon and Aston Villa (1992), which I was given at a few hours notice because Mike Ingham had gone down ill. My co-commentator was Martin O’Neill, so I didn’t have to say much! I had done a lot of commentary in local radio, but doing big games on national radio was a big thrill. I had grown up listening to the likes of Peter Jones and Bryon Butler so to do the same job was a dream realised.
So how did your radio commentary work transpire to a TV role?
I had the fortune of being at the microphone on the night Cantona jumped into the crowd at Crystal Palace. The Head of Television Sport at the BBC was listening in his bath that evening and decided he wanted me on “Match of the Day”. So I was given a year long trial whilst John Motson was having a sabbatical and that then turned into a permanent job.
Looking at individual matches, what game do you feel has been your best commentary?
Difficult for me to answer, but broadcasters feast on drama and England v Argentina at the 1998 World Cup provided plenty of that – I did the game for BBC TV.
I bloody loved that game, despite the outcome. I still remember dancing round my mates living room when Sol Campbell ‘scored’. Then one of my friends turned to me and said “Something’s not right…the Argentinians are in on goal here!!”
It’s just not football though, I greatly enjoyed a quarter final of the 2007 Rugby World Cup (for ITV) between New Zealand and France. However few commentaries were tougher than the day Fabrice Muamba collapsed in the middle of an FA Cup tie at Tottenham (live on ESPN).
I remember that game, horrific scenes. However I felt you gave the commentary, and what was occurring on our screens real gravitas.
You’ve certainly had years of experience covering all range of sporting events, what in your opinion was the biggest?
I have been lucky enough to do 7 World Cups including a couple of finals. I’ve done 6 FA Cup Finals for British TV/Radio. So there are a few high profile games to choose from!
Ok, I’m not going to pin you down on one! Moving on, how far in advance do you know what games you’re commentating on?
It’s usually 3-4 weeks in advance.
There is a misconception that football commentators sometimes just rock up to a studio in London and commentate from there. How much travel is actually involved?
Well my car is 3 and a half years old and has done 170,000 miles. Last year I counted up 68 flights. So in answer to your question…quite a lot!
Well you’re certainly building up your air-miles! Finishing up is there a typical week for a football commentator? i.e. split between preparation and travelling to games.
There is no such thing as a usual week – and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy what I do. For big live games I might do 2-3 days prep. That may include a visit to watch the players train. Before a World Cup I will disappear into a darkened room for a month to get myself ready – notes and player identification work. For games in the UK I usually try to travel there and back on the day, but the logistics and distances are such that I feel like I’ve spent half the Friday night’s of my adult life in a variety of hotels.
From scoring runs in a local cricket game, to commentating on World Cup finals, Jon’s career show’s that you never know when that opportunity may arise. Reflecting on my own experiences, maybe I should have pursued my dreams more, but then again I was never any good at cricket!