Johnny’s letter this week is to a radio legend who was 5 Live’s chief commentator and football correspondent for decades. A man who for most of that time worked alongside Alan Green. That’ll be Mike Ingham, then.
Why the love?
For me, Mike was part of the second generation of great medium wave radio commentators, following on from the likes of Peter Jones and Byron Butler. A man of huge import and integrity, he kept to the previous generation’s standards, even when the game became over-commercialised and ran away from its common folk roots into the arms of electron cold corporate values and mindset. He stood out against the shallow, the facile, the glossy and the superficial.
He started his radio career in 1973 on Radio Derby, moved to Radio London in 1979 and was recruited to work on Sport on Two which was broadcast on Radio 2 on Saturday afternoons. In 1984 he was asked to do commentary and never looked back.
“The first game I did that season was Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United against Watford with Graham Taylor, who became a great friend,” he said in 2014. “The end of that season ended with me going to Heysel with Peter Jones and Emlyn Hughes for the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus. Heysel was horrific, a very numbing experience.”
At that time, he worked alongside Jones and Butler, two radio commentary legends. In 1991, he took over from Butler as the BBC’s football correspondent.
But from 1990 he’d began working with Alan Green as 5 Live‘s main commentary team. They became synonymous with the channel’s football coverage over the following 24 years, working in tandem until Mike’s retirement in 2014 when he was replaced as chief football dude by the estimable John Murray.
Alongside the northern Irishman, they worked on literally every tournament. He also commentated on the first ever Premier League goal in 1992. Viva Brian Deane.
We all loved him because he was a voice of natural authority and the embodiment of the best of BBC values of being measured, thoughtful and even-handed, but never stuffy.
He’s also a record collector and spent time before games hunting out record shops for a spot of crate digging, and that is a reason to love anyone. Apparently, he occasionally worked on Radio 1 sitting in for Andy Peebles too. Amazing.
5 live producer Phil Wye told me:
“I had the privilege of working with Mike as one of his on-site match producers for ten years on 5 Live before his retirement. There’s always something genuinely warm and wonderful about having the opportunity to earn the professional trust and support of a master of a craft; someone you highly respect, and whom you also greatly enjoyed listening to as a teenage boy in the 1980s. I loved growing up and tuning in to him; I always felt his voice was pure velvet.Mike had the very highest standards. He would always demand that things were done the right way. He required focus & took his briefings & his broadcasts very seriously.
“Once we suffered being allocated a truly wretched commentary position at Villareal – at the far end of the ground, pretty much behind a pillar, with no replay monitor, while various other non-commentating fellow broadcasters seemed to be located in much more favourable positions. It annoyed Mike greatly that it was the hand we’d been dealt. And it was only the small matter of the 2006 European Cup semi-final second leg, with Arsenal the away side.
“I’m pretty sure Mike would still wince at the turgid facilities predicament we faced to this day! But to his credit, nobody listening would’ve known how difficult a scenario that was for him to contend with. A real pro.
“I’ve never heard a more eloquent voice. So thoughtful in his summing up, Mike would always find an angle on a match and I imagine I was never alone in hanging on every word as a listener.
“To listen to Mike Ingham’s commentary from under the bed covers in 1984, and be working with him in 2004 – what a thrill it was to get up close to support the man whom those of us on the road all referred to as ‘the Chief’.”
And as lovely as it is to read Phil’s words, I think those who loved Mike’s work are not surprised by any of them. We all knew Mike was one of the good guys.
Before we get to the football, let’s just pause to consider that Mike and Alan Green, at least according to Wikipedia, commentated on the BBC’s coverage of Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 and even more amazingly, co-presented from the stage at the Live Earth concert in 2007 where they introduced The Pussycat Dolls. I can’t imagine Mike and Greeny even co-existing in the same space as The Pussycat Dolls.
When it came to football, he had learned from the masters. In 2014 he told Henry Winter:
“Peter always said to me: ‘Light and shade’ and ‘don’t try to mention every player’s name, just an overview’. Bryon said: ‘Gears, gears, gears; just use the gearbox to build up (a move)’. Alan Parry was always fantastic on the radio doing the guttural. He said: ‘I always take a deep breath if I think something (like a goal) is on. Then I have the lung-power.’ Cliff Morgan always used to go on about ‘breathing, son, breathing, like the great opera singers’. He used to punch me in the stomach and say’ that’s where it comes from’.”
He was very much the oil poured on Alan Green’s troubled waters. Where Greeny would bitch and moan, Mike would uphold the old BBC values of politeness and respect, so that when he was critical or emotional, it had more heft and gravitas.
The lovely man that was Graham Taylor said of him: “As a manager I knew Mike as someone who would not shy from the difficult questions but always asked in a respectful way. He was never aggressive but he had a way of getting the answer. After that, I worked with him for many years on radio and found he was the same as a commentator; always very fair. If he thought the referee had it wrong, he would say so but always chose his words carefully and would never bombard anyone with criticism for the sake of it. You knew his opinion but it was not done with any nastiness.”
Similarly, when he was emotional, you really felt it. A classic moment was when Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005 and Mike called the last penalty: “Shevchenko against Dudek – And Dudek saves! Liverpool have won the Champions League.”
And now with passion rising, tears almost sounding close, his voice rasping with emotion – “walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart”. Oh that makes me tear up just thinking about it. Sadly, I can’t find a commentary clip. Should be on a BBC archive somewhere. And that’s what great commentators do – they distil a moment into a word or sentence and brand that moment perfectly and forever.
Sir Alex Ferguson was a fan. “Radio commentary is perhaps the most difficult of all the media – some are too intrusive, some too opinionated and some too irrelevant with their views; Mike is none of those things,” he once said.
Charlotte Nicol, who worked for years with Mike said: “It was a privilege to work as Mike Ingham’s producer for 18 years – he is not only a superb commentator, but his ability to go on air within a couple of minutes of a breaking story and not only sound composed and knowledgeable and to get to the crux of the story with such authority is a skill for which he is admired throughout the industry.”
It’s well worth digging out some of his interviews because his years in the business have given him loads of anecdotes about managers, such as this one about Joe Fagan.
“Joe Fagan was a lovely bloke, but was not going to get involved in any hyperbole. I remember interviewing him after they beat Panathinaikos to get to the (1985) European Cup final, saying: ‘What a moment for the club, Joe, and what a moment for you.’ He said to me: ‘Well, we’ve got to beat Ipswich on Saturday first’. That was hopeless for the morning interviews!”
He was also a passionate England fan and always wanted to commentate on a final featuring the national side. You could hear the desperate sadness and frustration as he commented on every England exit.
I would wager that even if you can conjure the sound of his voice, you would have no idea what he looks like. Imagine being a national broadcaster and the primo man in your profession and yet being anonymous to the public. In this day and age that sounds impossible, but it was very much the case for Mike Ingham and I think that’s wonderful.
What the people say
5 Live’s Ian Dennis got in touch with me to pay tribute with these fine words about the great man:
“After listening to Mike on Radio 2 it was an absolute pleasure to work as closely as I did with England in his final 5 years. He had gravitas, an ability to see the wider picture, always commanded an instant respect, always measured. He has many quality attributes but one of his greatest is his humility. When he left he was presented with an England shirt signed by 7 of the International managers he interviewed during his time. Every single one of them, spoke in glowing terms about him as an individual. He is a class act both on and off mic.”
Obviously, football on the radio is far less popular in sheer numbers than TV and only a select elite appreciate how fantastic it is and how, unlike TV, it becomes a close friend. So the volume of responses was less than usual this week but those that did reply clearly all loved the same qualities about Mike’s work.
‘Hugely missed. Really composed, relaxed style, when moments of excitement arrived really made you feel them. Sublime to Green’s ridiculous.’
‘The soothing balm to Alan Green’s late middle-age phase.’
‘Is in middle of the three greatest commentators … alongside Peter Jones and John Murray.’
‘Is it true you can exchange him for a horse?’
‘Gravitas. Voice rose as action developed, cadence according to events on the pitch, never overblown or too harsh when describing the actors on the pitch. Sol Campbell’s goal against Sweden 2002 a highlight because radio was 3 seconds ahead of TV. Antidote to Alan Green.’
‘Gravitas, wisdom, warmth, seamless use of language and colour, as well as a brilliant technical commentator. So clearly a passionate student of the game. Along with Alan Green the radio voice of my childhood.’
‘Ingham and Armfield: like Gin and Tonic. Perfect.’
‘Calm, authoritative, authentic, warm. Grew up listening to him. Graciously gave this shy 16 year old his autograph in the late 80’s. Treasured more than a footballers such was my enduring love of football on the radio. Green, Armfield, Ingham-dream team.’
‘I always thought Mike commentated in a measured non hyperbolic style. Wanted to describe rather than be the focus. Seemed very passionate commentating ENG at tournaments.’
‘Appreciate him more now he’s left, any commentary clip of him sounds like it’s coming from a golden age of football. Sometimes seemed like Alan Green’s straight man, but he was so much better than that. Ingham and Armfield the ideal pair for football on the radio.’
‘I think I’ve used the phrase “understated excellence” a few too many times about 5 Live commentators, but I can’t think of anything better. A worthy successor to Messrs Jones and Butler.’
‘Best radio commentator bar none. Everything about him was perfect- tone, description, excitement level, even the sense of realism around England during tournaments.’
‘Was on the mic for the Aguero goal and did it very well and very much in his own style. Civilised man who loves football but knows it is a glorious irrelevance.’
Hopefully he’s enjoying his retirement in the west country. We were promised that Mike would be back to do one-off specials, but I must confess to not hearing him since 2014 and it’s a great shame that such a wealth of football experience and knowledge is not being tapped for our enjoyment. Can I also say that the BBC really needs to make a lot of classic commentary clips available on an archive page? I mean, hey, we paid for it, so we own it, right? Celebrating the brilliant people who have graced the airwaves would be a classy and important thing to do. It’s not like it’d even take much effort.
I shall leave you with comments from the man he worked with and also the man he replaced. At the end of the World Cup Final in 2014 – Mike’s final game – Green said:
“He’s been a wonderful colleague. A really good friend. I’ll really, really miss you.”
And John Murray, the man who stepped into Mike’s shoes, got in touch with me, despite being in Moscow for the World Cup, draw to say: “Mike absolutely loves his music but he himself is the ultimate class act.”
Amen to that. Truly one of the greats of football broadcasting.