3 Jun 2020

Hemmings Way: The colour of commentary

Elite sport has begun taking its first, tentative baby steps, back to normality.

In Germany the Bundesliga has returned. Premier League football here is due to resume in a fortnight. F1 is on its way back, horse racing has resumed and of course last weekend the NRL in Australia began again.

Now, I am not a massive fan of the NRL to be fair. Yes, I have taken an active interest for over 30 years – I love the country and love many of the players and coaches – but I wouldn’t necessarily set my alarm for 6am or earlier to watch a game live. How that changed this weekend though and all the games I saw I loved every minute.

Some interesting new rule interpretations to speed the game up even more, the standard of the play was quite outstanding, and the players showed that during the lockdown they have lost nothing in terms of pace, power and skill.

I thought too that Fox Sports did a magnificent job in covering the game. The production staff deserve a huge pat on the back for bringing us their “virtual crowd” – the sound albeit off ‘tape’ added to the enjoyment and I must say Andrew Voss and all the commentators did a great job of presenting the restart of the competition .

In commentary terms the crowd at the games play an essential, and huge, part in adding to the overall feel of the broadcast. Without a crowd could you ever imagine a Wide to West moment happening again anytime soon? The crowd certainly helped lift me that unforgettable night. 

Would Ryan Hall’s last minute try for Leeds to secure the League Leaders Shield have been such a magic moment… or the Luke Gale Golden Point Drop Goal that took Castleford to Old Trafford in 2017?

The crowd roar certainly adds to the X-factor to moments like those.

Commentary is about a number of things that all must all drop into place at the one time. Obviously as the commentator you are privileged to be at matches like the ones I’ve just mentioned and hundreds more. But the research has got to be right (thank you to the irreplaceable Ian Proctor for all of that over the years). The pictures have got to be spot on too – and thanks to Neville Smith for his expertise there on so many glorious occasions.

The other major factor is the chemistry that exists between the main caller and the man (or men) sat alongside side you. All my co-commentators on Sky had that chemistry in bundles – Terry, Barrie, Phil, Brian – I take my hat off to all of them.

But there was one – the original and, for me, still the best – who sat beside me for 26 years and made my life so easy. I’m talking about the one and only Mike “Stevo” Stephenson of course. We were the double act that was entrusted to bring the commentary into your living rooms for so many years and I’d like to think some of you would agree we got it just about right.

For a start we were unique because we presented the programmes AND called the games too. We were a bit like a Buy One Get One Free offer!!  And from day one we had a Good Cop Bad Cop routine – I’d be the identifier and (I hope) the objective voice that described the action… Stevo would be the one who’d pull no punches in his analysis.

I remember saying to Stevo right from the start – ‘l do the facts – you do the bull****’ He knew he’d be the one they all loved to hate! And it worked.

Stevo too was very gracious – he stuck to our rules – I’d call the game and would take the big moments like those mentioned above, and when the climax had been reached with the try or the goal, he would add the gloss.

During the game, instinctively, he would know when I needed a bit of help. I would know when to shut up – he would know when to dive in. I like to think we complimented each other perfectly. And what’s more we were never afraid to have a laugh at ourselves… but never ever at the game or the players.

He ’d say something, I’d follow up – usually with a bit of encouragement in my ear from Nev in the production truck – and we’d be off.

“Adrian Morley has just hit him with all the force of an EXCERSISE missile!”  

“The wheel’s still turning but the hamster’s left the cage!” 

“Have you never heard of the Groucho brothers? They’re relatives of that Karl Marx bloke!” 

What some of that had to do with Rugby League I really don’t know – but they got us a few laughs along the way!!

Yes, people coined phrases about us like we were the ‘Dumb and Dumber’ of Rugby League… ‘Here they come: Hype and Tripe’ But did we care? Not a bit of it. It was a fantastic way to earn a living – an honour to be there during Super League’s Golden era.

They are predicting a return to action now sometime in August… it cannot come quickly enough and – look out boys!  We will all be watching… and listening… again!

Stay Safe.