Commentating for the club, and essentially being your own boss, is liberating. It was very different when I covered Wrexham’s games for Marcher Sound in the 1990s!
You get nothing for free, of course, and a regular issue at the station was whether they’d be able to get the funding to cover the matches. There was a sliding scale of payments which applied to all Football League clubs, ranging from £25 to phone through updates every fifteen minutes to ten times that much to commentate on the whole game. Local radio is totally driven by the figures, so there was no guarantee we’d actually cover the matches, and no chance of doing so if we didn’t illustrate we’d be able to turn a profit.
Fortunately, we had a sports editor there at the time who was both innovative and enthusiastic who put a lot of time in trying to find funding for the broadcasts. After we’d drawn in the FA Cup at Wimbledon he started scrambling around eagerly to find the cash to cover the replay. After a couple of days looking down the back of the sofa he excitedly announced that we’d be able to commentate on the whole game as an ex-player who’d done rather well for himself after retirement had offered to cough up the fee for a full commentary. There was one condition: he wanted to make his debut as a summariser.
We had no problem with that: an ex-pro lending their expertise to a broadcast is always welcome. Or so we thought. What would transpire on the night would test my powers of diplomacy and my ability to make snap decisions!
As always I arrived to the press box early to set up the equipment, and then settled myself down, waiting for my co-commentator. And waited and waited.
Eventually, about ten minutes before we were due to go on air he appeared from the bowels of the stand, where clearly he’d been making the most of the pre-match hospitality. I got his attention and he staggered over to me, offering his hand. Meanwhile, a 5-a-side player on the artificial pitch at Glyndwr collapsed, overcome by the plume of alcoholic fumes coming off my new workmate!
He said something to me. I can’t be more specific than that, because I’ve absolutely no idea what it was. He might have been introducing himself. He might have been offering a considered opinion on the tactical challenge facing Wrexham that night. He might have been putting forward a complex theory of gravity, drawing upon Albert Einstein’s earlier work and anticipating the recent discovery of evidence of gravitational waves. I just don’t know.
All I heard was: “Bwa wargh hurghel snurken bourgeon warzen!”
He was drunk.
There was no way he could commentate of course. Radio audiences are notoriously old-fashioned when it comes to being able to understand what broadcasters are saying to them. But he’d subsidised the broadcast, so what was Ito do? Tell him to sling his hook and then explain that I’d just cost the station £250? If I did do that I’d also create another problem: the game was a sell-out. Where would he sit? Did I actually have the power to eject someone from the ground because I couldn’t understand what he was saying?
I had to think fast. I chatted away to him about how brilliant the game was likely to be, and got him terrifically excited at the prospect of watching it. Then I talked about how nerve-wracking commentating was, especially for a first timer, and how it made enjoying the game essentially impossible. Through the boozy fog which had enveloped his mind I could see that the penny was dropping. If he commentated, he’d not enjoy the match! Convinced, he agreed to let me do the commentary myself, but now the problem, was where would he sit? I didn’t want him sitting next to me as I could imagine him trying to chat to me throughout the broadcast. Thinking fast, and thankfully operating in an age before health and safety regulations had fully kicked in, I popped downstairs and grabbed a barstool. Plonking it in the space in front of the press box, at the top of the steps to the bar, I suggested he sat there to watch the game, which he did. He seemed to love it too, chattering away to himself throughout, possibly thinking he was on air. At half time he disappeared to the bar and didn’t re-emerge. Bullet dodged.
I don’t want to judge him too harshly though. Perhaps he wasn’t inappropriate, but ahead of his time. If we’d been shooting an episode of “Drunken History”, he’d have been perfect!