Interview: Barry Davies
17 September 2011
By Rob Smyth
Wimbledon is a strange home for the football romantic, given the Crazy Gang’s route-one football and the unforgivable relocation of the club to Milton Keynes. For two weeks every summer, however, SW19 and the All-England Tennis Championship offers the chance to hear Barry Davies, surely the most elegant and lyrical football commentator Britain has produced. Davies retired from Match of the Day in 2004 after 35 years with the BBC. In person, he was as warm, charming and passionate as he had been on our screens for all that time.
Your three favourite teams are, in order, Brazil 1970, West Germany 1972 and Holland 1974. What’s so special about them?
The quality that they produced in a simple way, the balance of the sides, the ability to pass the ball, the marrying of individuals into the team. There’s no point me going through all the great names, but the one that people miss from 1970 is Clodoaldo, who was absolutely crucial to the whole thing. He was a more creative player than he was given credit for, but he also had a bit more bite.
With Germany, [Günter] Netzer was the key. They were a far better side to watch when he played in 1972 than they were in 1974. They had so many options: [Franz] Beckenbauer was coming to his pomp, maybe already in it. Looking back a bit further to 1966, what a waste of time it was that Bobby Charlton and Beckenbauer spent the game marking each other in the World Cup final, with the result that neither produced a memorable moment in the game.
Holland 74? Total Football. On that subject, I watched the World Cup final last year desperately trying somehow to transfer a thought to the BBC commentator [Guy Mowbray]. There was an immortal line from David Lacey in the Guardian in the early eighties: “Watching Martin Jol reminds one that before they invented Total Football the Dutch also invented the clog.” It would have been entirely appropriate for Holland’s disgraceful performance.
Did Holland creep up on the world in 1974?
Well, the European Cup finals were shown live and I think they were among people’s fancies. Having said that, I know there was supposedly a bit of a row between David Coleman and our head of football Sam Leitch. Sam had already decided that, when the choice came for the second stage of matches, he would go with Brazil. In 1974 it was possibly the worst Brazilian side that ever played, and quite dirty. Coleman quite rightly wanted to go with the Dutch. They were a remarkable team. I suspect taking Cruyff out would knock them down, as it would if you took Pelé and Netzer out of the others, but even so they had some wonderful players, [Ruud] Krol and [Johan] Neeskens in particular. Two of the three teams, oddly enough, didn’t have a goalkeeper worthy of the name: Félix and [Jan] Jongbloed.
Do you have any particular memories of Brazil 82?
The memory of that team was [Toninho] Cerezo hitting a blind pass about 20 yards across the face of his own defence against Italy [allowing Paolo Rossi in to score]. That turned the game, and the tournament. Actually I remember talking to an Italian commentator after the group phase, and I said to him, “I think you’re going to win this thing.” He replied, with some knowledge, “You must be mad. We’re appalling.” I said, “That’s the key, you know. There’s no expectation now.” And of course they won it, with real style.
Among English teams you’ve always made clear your admiration for Brian Clough. What made him such a genius?
I think it’s actually quite simple. As I once said to him, “If I could have played, I’d have played for you for one of two reasons: either because you made me feel that I was the best player in the team, or because you put me down and I was determined to prove you wrong.”
Do you have a favourite Clough memory? He kissed you after his last game…
Yes, the kiss was memorable. He kissed quite a few people that day. I don’t know where I was in the pecking order — literally. I must say I was very fond of him. He died in the same week as my last game on Match of the Day — for my benefit it was that way round, although possibly not to a lot of other people — and a reporter for the Evening Standard wrote a lovely piece about voices disappearing, in which he made a little comparison between us. I read it on a flight to Saudi Arabia, the Monday after my last commentary, and I was very glad I was on my own. I had to get the handkerchief out. I did an interview once with Brian when he had just been appointed at Forest after failing at Leeds. I put to him, “There are people at Leeds who say you know nothing about football”. He hesitated for a few seconds — it’s the only time I’ve seen him stumped for words — and then he dismissed it. At that stage Peter Taylor hadn’t joined; he was still at Brighton. Some time later I rang Peter, to try to fix up an interview. Brian must have been in the room at the time and Peter said, “Brian wants to know why you want to talk to him if he knows nothing about football.” I put the phone down at the end of the conversation and suddenly thought, “Bloody hell…”, so I called straight back and said, “Peter, can you tell that man in the room with you that if he thinks that was my opinion, he’s got it absolutely up the creek. But why should my opinion bother him anyway?” We had that sort of relationship. I found it very difficult to do the Clough tribute on the BBC; I found it really quite emotional and I was very concerned about how it would end up. But they put it together really well in my opinion. They did a great job.
You said that Cloughie’s old friend Don Revie is the best summariser you ever worked with. What made him so good?
He said what I wanted to hear from a summariser: he said why A were beating B, and what B had to do to change the position. In those days, there was more opportunity for the expert to sit back and see how the game was unfolding. He played the managerial role, which now isn’t done.
One point you have made is that, after a goal or a major incident, the summariser should talk about the second replay rather than the first, so that they can watch the first and pick up what people at home won’t have seen.
I really think that the people who make decisions about these things haven’t thought about them enough. It’s now got out of control, because there’s so much swapping between radio and television. You can’t ask somebody to be talking all the time on Tuesday night, and then be more detached on a Wednesday. Equally, I did a programme about 80 years of sports commentary for Radio Four a few years ago. We had lots of archive commentary from Raymond Glendenning, Peter Jones and so on and so forth, and also more modern commentators. I interviewed Alan Green and John Motson. At the end we put in Ken Wolstenholme’s classic line from 1966, which is a brilliant line because of its simplicity. It came back to Alan, and he said, “Ah, brevity”, which lead me to a different ending to the programme than I had scripted, “ brevity,” I said, “not a word you would associate with modern commentary, but then perhaps each generation has the commentary of its own age.”
Is that a concern, that the value of silence is being lost? If someone like Richie Benaud came along today, would he get a job?
Well, he’d have the advantage of having been a brilliant player and a great captain. Maybe the question you should ask is, “Would I get a job?” And I would argue that the answer to that is “no”.
Has commentary become homogenised? Not just in terms of content but also, to some extent, voices?
Motty and I always agreed that we were each beneficial to each other, because when the two matches were on Match of the Day we offered completely different styles, and that was good for the programme and good for us. These days there are so many more matches, so many more commentators, and I think that the status of the commentator — from the Coleman/Wolstenholme age and then on through John, Alan Green and a few others — was different to how it’s become now.
Match of the Day now covers every match in small chunks rather than showing two or three games in detail. What do you think of that?
I would never judge a commentator on anything other than a 90-minute commentary, and it must be quite soul-destroying for those who regularly only pick up the tail-end matches. The switch to shorter highlights was one of the reasons why I thought, “I’ve probably been doing this long enough.” I felt that for me to get the light and shade of a match would become impossible, and I think it has.
It must be hard to perform as you would like to knowing that 99 per cent of your commentary will be unused.
Yes, I think even in the times when it was longer there was an element of that. I remember once meeting a chap on the train, who told me with great satisfaction that he had spotted some tactical point before the commentator. I said to him, “Well, I’m sure you do it very often, but just note that next time where the point is made by the commentator. If it’s made in connection with a piece of action, after you have spotted it, it’s because the commentator thinks that this is going to stay in and maybe they will use that line.”
Do you have any favourite lines from other commentators?
The obvious one is Ken Wolstenholme’s, which is a beautiful summary of how I believe commentary should be. It was in a different age and a completely different style. But basically, he’s looking down and sees that some people are on the pitch; and he thinks, well, they must think it’s all over. Bang! It is now. It was just beautifully presented, in a very simple fashion.
Does the perception of antipathy between you and John Motson irritate you?
It doesn’t irritate me, but it did get out of all proportion. We always got on very well. I wrote what I thought was a very honest chapter about it in my autobiography. I shall go to my grave not understanding why the balance was so much in John’s favour when it came to major matches. The only thing that does irritate is when people said “Why did you do other sports?” I did other sports because I was asked to do them. It sounds a bit conceited, but I was a better commentator because I knew the problems of other sports than I would have been if I had just done one sport.
Do you find it odd that people recall so many commentaries of yours?
I find it flattering, to be honest, because those are the people you’re talking to, and not talking at. I used to get embarrassed about it but now it’s quite nice, particular as the years go by. I think, “Bloody hell, they still remember I’m alive…”
What do you remember about your commentary for Leeds v West Brom in 1971: “And Leeds will go mad, and they’ve every right to go mad”?
I remember that the delay was so long, between Tony Brown going clear and the referee waving him on. It cost Leeds the league, absolutely. It also cost Ray Tinkler [the referee] the FA Cup final. I really think he would have got it. After the game, when Don Revie came out, against all journalistic decorum I sent him back. I suggested he return to the dressing room have a moment to think, otherwise he would have get himself into trouble.
What about Franny Lee’s goal against Manchester City: “Look at his face, just look at his face!”
I just remember the face — and the fact it sounded as though I needed the operation fairly quickly.
The crack in your voice makes that as much as the actual commentary…
It tends to suggest it’s not what a commentator says, but how he says it, which has an element of truth. People don’t think enough about how they use their words. I was lucky; I worked with a guy called Jeff Goddard, who was the producer of the programme Maestro. In the studio he’d often make me do a voiceover line maybe 15 or 16 times, because he thought the cadence of the sentence wasn’t quite as it should be and so on and so forth, and that made it far better. That’s not to say I was thinking about it all the time while I was commentating, but it became important. I was a far better commentator when I left Match of the Day than I was in some of the earlier days.
When Diego Maradona scored his second goal against England in 1986, you said, “You have to say that’s magnificent.” Were you consciously trying to capture a spirit of fairness?
I just said what I thought. It’s become a bit of a personal cliché: I say what I think and hope the foot is sufficiently far away from the mouth. That was the way I did it. With that goal I remember that I was saying, “He’s got so-and-so here and so-and-so there,” and then I said, “He won’t need any of them,” but you’re almost chasing him to get that line in. He’s beating you to it all the time. I then emphasised you have to say that’s magnificent,” making a comparison with the first goal for which my commentary was poor. Initially I didn’t know what all the fuss was about.
You weren’t the only one, were you?
No, but that’s got nothing to do with it! It was cheating, but compared with today… Cheating is rife, and Fifa are doing nothing about it. I know there’s an if, but if post-match replays prove clearly that a guy has cheated, I would suspend him for six matches. If you did that, you would soon have managers saying, “Son, cut that out.”
What do you recall about Paul Gascoigne’s “Schoolboys’ Own” moment in 1991?
I just remember that moment, thinking, “He’s not, is he? He is.” Again, I opened the mouth and hoped the right words fell out. You can’t script things. I’ve never gone into a match with a few good lines and said “I’m going to use that.” In my early days, if I found a good fact I would want to get it in. But if you can’t get it in, and you want to get it into the recorded version, it begins to affect the entire balance of the commentary.
What are your memories of Gazza? You did that amazing game against Czechoslovakia just before Italia 90, when he made three and scored one.
It was the match that changed Bobby Robson’s view of him. I’m convinced, and I’ve said it to Bobby’s face — he didn’t deny it, nor did he say it was true — that he put him in so that he could say, “Well, I gave him his chance”. And Gascoigne ran the match. He ran the match in the way that Netzer did against Alf Ramsey’s England in 1972.
How does he compare to the truly great England players like Bobby Charlton?
I suppose it’s impossible to say, because the injury so changed him. Bobby was right, he was daft as a brush. I was surprised that Glenn [Hoddle] didn’t find some way of keeping him in the squad for 1998; different characters, but in terms of quality and what he might produce, Hoddle might have understood him better. Glenn was a great player, except that, as I once said to him, “have a look at how often [Michel] Platini finishes what he started”. I don’t think Glenn did enough ahead of the ball. Even so, a great player and a fine coach, who made a right mess of it for quite silly reasons. He then tried to discuss something that has defied the greatest brains, without the words to make the point he wanted to.
And Dennis Bergkamp’s goal in 1998?
I went right off the scale! No one gave enough credit for the pass by Frank de Boer. Bergkamp just pulled it out of the air like it was a tennis ball on a string. It was brilliant. The sad thing is that, in the semi-final, he disappeared. Never really seen. As a result, once again, the Dutch didn’t justify the faith in them. The Dutch have to beat themselves before they beat anyone else. In many sports — it was the same in hockey for ages.
A recurring theme of your commentary was your exasperation with Italy for sitting on a lead…
Yes. They have so many natural gifts. [Enzo] Bearzot changed it for a while, but so often they are in control of a match and they don’t think about a second goal. I just find it irritating. It’s because they’re so well organised defensively. The game against Argentina in 1990 was probably one of the first occasions I noticed it. It was a good atmosphere when they led, but they sat on the lead and then the crowd begin to be concerned about it.
And it perpetuates itself
It does, exactly.
What are your memories of another night when the hosts lost on penalties, at Euro 96?
I remember that being the longest build up to a game where we were just in the stadium. I saw my job as putting the viewer in his or her seat in the stand. Desmond [Lynam] handed over to me, and I think we must have had 10 minutes including the teams walking out, and I said very little in that time. Everybody knew the words of Three Lions, and they were able to hear it in its entirety. It was just a very special atmosphere. Afterwards, there was huge sympathy for Gareth Southgate. If I’m truthful, as he came up to take the kick, I just didn’t fancy him. There’s often something in the body language, the way a player puts the ball down or the way he walks back. I’ve never said it at the time; Alan Green thinks a commentator should. Afterwards there was such an empty feeling, though nothing like as bad as 23 years earlier when Ramsey’s England failed to beat Poland and didn’t qualify for the World Cup.
When Southgate missed his penalty you said “Oh no!” and left a long silence. Is the art of silence dying?
Yes, yes. In my opinion it is.
Is that a generational thing?
I don’t know. I think there’s a tendency for television to want to appeal to the young generation. I’m sure there’s a balance there somewhere.
Do you think people at home don’t realise just how helter-skelter the experience of commentary is?
There are moments when things can get out of balance. It can be helter-skelter if something has gone wrong, or you’re trying to work out what the hell has happened. I did a programme for Radio Five a long time ago with Brian Moore and Motty, and Brian was talking about nerves and saying, “I never get a good night’s sleep from Thursday on if it’s a Saturday match”, and Motty said how he was conscious of this, that and the other. Then it came to me and the presenter said, “What do you think?” I said, “I’m sitting here feeling terribly guilty because clearly I’m not taking this job seriously enough!” You have good days and bad days, obviously, but I just enjoyed it. People used to say, “Who’s going to win today?” I said, “I don’t know, that’s why I’ve come.” Watching sport’s a privileged seat. I still enjoy it. I always will.
Some of Davies’ finest moments:
“And Leeds will go mad, and they have every right to go mad!”
Leeds, chasing the title in 1970-71, are 1-0 down at home when West Brom score a highly controversial second
Davies instinctively came out with lines that others would struggle to think up in a few hours, and this was a perfect soundbite for one of the most infamous football moments of the 1970s.
“Lee… interesting… very interesting! Och, look at his face! Just look at his face!”
Franny Lee, a Manchester City legend, scores a magnificent winning goal for Derby on his return Maine Road
The two separate lines are masterpieces on their own, but the squeak in Davies’s voice as he says ‘Just look at his face’ elevates this to another level.
“Ach!... England just cannot afford to make crass errors like that.”
In a must-win World Cup game in 1986, Terry Fenwick plays an inept pass on the halfway line, straight to a Polish forward
Nobody delivered avuncular bollockings like Bazza. He saved his best for England, whom he loved, and Italy, whose negativity drove him up the wall.
“You have to say that’s magnificent”
A few minutes after the Hand of God goal, Diego Maradona scores an incomparable second
Davies was a fierce patriot, as a couple of commentaries against the Germans in 1988 (hockey) and 1996 (below) showed, but this endearing appeal to Joe Bloggs’s better nature captures the spirit of fairness that was omnipresent in his commentary.
Claudio Caniggia clips a late winner for Argentina against Brazil at Italia 90
“So-and-sooooo scores” was, along with “lovely goal!”, as close as Davies had to a trademark. This is the perfect example, with Caniggia’s name held orgiastically as he moves round Taffarel to complete the one of the game’s great smash-and-grabs.
“Is Gascoigne gonna have a crack? He is, you know. Oh I say! Brilliant! That is Schoolboys’ Own stuff!”
Paul Gascoigne, just back from an operation, slams in a 35-yard free kick after five minutes of the first Wembley FA Cup semi-final, between Spurs and Arsenal in 1991
As with the Francis Lee, this is a commentary in two parts: the disbelief that Gascoigne was going to try a shot, and the sheer joy that English football’s greatest talent had confounded us again.
“Oh no!” (Followed by a long silence)
Gareth Southgate misses for England against Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final penalty competition
Not for the first time in his career, Davies used words by not using them. Few football commentators, if any, have had such an appreciation of silence.
“Beautifully pulled down by Bergkamp. OH, WHAT A GOAL!”
Dennis Bergkamp scores a sublime last-minute winner for Holland against Argentina in the World Cup quarter-final of 1998
The fact that Davies’s commentaries were free of hype and guff meant that, when he really got excited, you knew something seminal had happened. This was perhaps the only time in his career that, for a couple of seconds, he was actually surprising. He had earned our trust throughout the previous three decades, and so his reaction made us intuitively realise that, yes, it really was as special as the eyes had told us.
“And the Italians are out because they will not learn.”
After sitting on a 1-0 lead, Italy lose to South Korea at the 2002 World Cup
Davies was always frustrated by the almost wilfully unrealised potential of the Italians, never more so than during his last World Cup.