A Football365 love letter to… Barry Davies

Matt Stead

Johnny’s got his big love gun out for a new series that celebrates the great people in football media. That’s telly, radio and press, both past and present. This week it’s commentating legend, Barry Davies.


Why the love?
Several generations have grown up with him as a regular voice in our lives, not just on Match of the Day but across so many different sports. He’s done over 30 Wimbledons. He commentated the opening and closing ceremonies for London’s glorious 2012 Olympics. As the most brilliant celebration of our nation, it was just wonderful to have Barry at the helm.

In the 90s he put his voice to football video games too, meaning many of that generation spent hours on end with him in their ears, so to speak. He has become part of our extended cultural family.

Since the mid 1960s he commentated on every major football tournament until 2004, and every big sporting occasion, including the Olympics. He was a fixture on the BBC for almost all that time. Few weeks ever went by without us hearing from him. Big game, small game, it made no difference: Barry was there with that modest, kindly “I’m-telling you-this-for-your-own-good” headmaster-ish way which mixed pragmatism with bursts of high excitement.

It is no exaggeration to say that many of us feel him to be a friend, which is presumably why he was awarded an MBE in 2004.


Superhero skills
An absolutely peerless football commentator and one of the very few to work across many different sports including tennis, badminton, ice hockey, ice skating, gymnastics, hockey, cycling, beach volleyball and athletics. He approached all of them with the same attitude and style, just as he did with this. Indeed, he really sells it and it’s hard to believe it’s not actually a real contest

He has perfect timing and pacing. Never gabbles his words. He also has that great talent of being able to pick up the pace of his commentary to match the pace of the game.

Barry could instil a commentary with light and shade. Sometimes quiet, and then switching to absolutely belting it out. Best illustrated on this occasion in the 1998 World Cup.

His style of commentary is measured and never verbose and this meant that his moments of high excitement had greater weight and power.

He always projected simple, honest decency which invested him with a clean-white-shirt-nice-cup-of-tea-and-a-plain-digestive homely quality, which was both comforting and welcoming.

But his most memorable brilliance was to be able to find often unusual, snappy ways to express what had happened in a game. Not pre-thought or planned out, but the product of on the spot excitement. And these are the moments that we all remember:

“Interesting…very interesting.”

“Look at his face, just look at his face.”

“Where were the Germans, but frankly, who cares?”

“You have to say that’s magnificent.”

His understanding of the game was superb. Another of his classics from the 1991 FA Cup semi-final when he said, of Vinnie Samways “…and Lineker uses him by not using him,” was, if you think about it, utterly brilliant and bang on the money. Even if you were given time to work out how to describe what Lineker did in that moment, you could not sum it up in a tighter sentence. Barry called it perfectly simply out of his own innate understanding of football. You need to have a quick, intelligent brain to be able to do that.

In 1973 he was behind the mic for the iconic night when England failed to beat Poland, a game during which I took all the skin off my knees on our nylon living room carpet, as I leapt out of my seat time and time again. If you want to taste the 1970s and get a feeling of what those times were like, watch the great man on this. Warning: contains heart-wrenching Pink Floyd melancholy.

His England commentaries were often exercises in the slightly indignant frustration that we’ve all felt over the years, chiding players for their mistakes, sometimes with a simple bark of an “ach”. If England played poorly he’d say so. He was simply incapable of dressing up the average as the excellent, and as such was refreshingly honest and trustworthy.

Never being afraid to let the pictures on the screen do the talking when necessary and being silent at moments of poignancy, such as when Gareth Southgate missed the Euro 96 penalty, was part of his wonderfully nuanced performance.

And this was the man who, after interviewing Brian Clough following his final game in charge of Nottingham Forest said “It has been a privilege knowing you, Sir.”

We should all aim to conduct ourselves with such class and grace.


Style guru?
As regular readers will know, I’m a great believer in getting a look in your 20s and sticking with it until you’re dead. It saves so much time and trouble. There are better things to think about than if your facial hair is fashionable or not. Barry is clearly an acolyte of this mindset.

His appearance hasn’t changed one bit since the first time I saw him in 1969 when he looked like this:

No matter what era you see him in, he looks identical. Whether it’s the 70s and 80s…

Or, as in the picture atop this article, in 2011.

Kipper ties, skinny ties, long hair, short hair, flower power, power dressing; it all seems to have been irrelevant to Barry. One of those lovely chaps who has always looked middle-aged and seemed to have lost all the hair he was going to lose by 30. This means he looks pretty much ageless even though he’s now an almost an unbelieveable 79 years old.

Looking at recent interviews with him, he doesn’t sound in any way old-mannish the way so many do. There is little “in my day” about him at all. He seems such a nice, gentle, reasonable man that he’d be incapable of bitter cynicism or rose-tinting his glasses. Which brings us to…


Proper Football Man rating
Yer PFM wants to love Barry. But they can’t.

Considering he worked during the most PFM era of all in the 70s and 80s, it never seemed to rub off on him one iota. This is a man, let us not forget, that was kissed by Brian Clough after that last game in charge of Forest. He once told Don Revie to go back in the dressing room to compose himself or he’d get into trouble after a particularly controversial game. Every PFM would love to have that on his CV.

He’s been married since 1968, which is a very un-PFM stable private life. Mind, the wife was an air-steward, which is something that always flares the Chunky nostrils. His son is a chief-exec at BetFair, and his daughter is the IOC’s Director of Communications. Any PFM worth his Worcestershire Sauce, having kids in these positions, would use and abuse their influence for personal gain at the bookies, but Barry is having none of that. So that’s another mark against him.

He also seems extremely reluctant to make out the past was better than now, none of which will gain him any credibility with the PFM contingency, all of whom who have ‘the game’s gone’ tattooed across both buttocks after a pre-season tour to Amsterdam got out of hand. Deano, I swear I thought he was a woman.

There’s nothing the PFM dislikes more than a legend of the game not being one of their own but Barry is far too clean-white-underpants wholesome for them. It’s even hard to imagine him drunk, so Reidy’s Preparation H, Cocodine and petrol shandies would hold no interest. Also believes shopping trolleys are for use when shopping. Weirdo. Back away lads.


What the people say
When I asked for views of Barry on Twitter, the love that came back was huge and overwhelming. Jim Proudfoot messaged me to say this, and I think it sums the man up perfectly:

“When I started working work for Sky I would commentate on games that the MOTD commentators were also at. Invariably these were BBC productions, and consequently the BBC man would be the first to interview the manager/players after the match, and I would then follow. Barry and Tony Gubba knew everybody – and they would always make a point of making sure that if I didn’t know the interviewee they would introduce us. A wonderful courtesy which gave an unspoken approval of me in the eyes of the interviewee and made for a better interview. There was no need for them to do this, and I always thought it exuded class. I’m sure very few of your correspondents will have a bad word to say about Barry.”

‘Without question, the greatest commentator of all time.’

‘Brian Moore was a good 2nd, but no one could touch Barry Davies. He was what Richie Benaud was to cricket, just a master of his profession.’

‘Commentary as smooth, rich and enjoyable as a fine red wine. Truly the master of his craft – the connoisseur’s commentator.’

‘The absolute master of knowing when to stay silent and let the moment speak for itself. So, so important and effective.’

‘He covered for Jon Champion on Absolute Radio last year and it was like being reunited with a much-loved relative after a long time apart.’

‘Wonderful. He commentated on the LFC UEFA cup win v Alaves. His words after Fowler scored about it being Boy’s Own stuff still raise hairs.’

He’s the thinking man’s commentator, so it’s obvious why it happened as football coverage went full caveman at the turn of the millennium.’

‘Always sounded like he was conversing with the viewer rather than talking at them.’

‘The best ever, in my view. His immortal moments can’t be counted, but my fave has to be: “Brolin, Dahlin, Brolin…brilliant!”‘

‘You have to say Barry Davies is magnificent! Informative and distinctive without falling back on gimmicks, clichés and crowbarred one-liners.’

‘Witty and genuine love of the game.’

‘Greatest football (maybe sports) commentator the UK has produced.’

‘Was able to convey the excitement, magnitude of moments better than anyone before or since.’

‘Loved him. Me and a mate quote verbatim some of his finest moments.’

‘The best ever. All that has ever been said before is merely magnified today.’

‘He brought great passion to big moments but never failed to hide his contempt for the dark arts of the game. That’s why he’s my favourite.’

‘The best by a country mile. The Pele of commentators.’

‘My earliest memory of Barry Davies is he was the commentator on one of my first playstation games. There isn’t an area of my life that wouldn’t be improved by more Barry Davies.’

‘Whenever I hear his voice I am taken back to watching MOTD or Olympics as a kid with my late dad and my brother. For that alone I love him.’

‘True gent as well. Bumped into him before UEFA Cup final in 2001 at the stadium. Was so pleased to stop and chat to us.’

‘Worked at the BBC and overheard him practice pronouncing Korean names, joy!’

‘No one could touch Barry Davies. He was what Richie Benaud was to cricket, just a master of his profession.’

‘Without doubt the great commentator of all time.’

Future days
BBC: What were you thinking?

When the BBC offered Barry a two-year contract extension in 2004, they made it clear there’d be no live football for him and no guarantee he’d work on the 2006 World Cup. What on earth were they thinking? In my view, I believe this was classic ageism. After 35 years, they totally took him for granted. They assumed age equalled old-fashioned. So Barry rightly gave them the Johnny Paycheck and told ‘em to take your job and shove it. Though I’m sure he did so in a thoroughly gentlemanly manner.

Later, Barry said: “My former boss, Niall Sloane… said he thought conversational commentary was the way to go. I beg to differ. I think it’s going too far.”

And I think that, in Barry’s typically polite way, gets to the truth of it. His style was viewed at the time, for no good reason, as old-fashioned and pushed out because of that. Ageism is a pernicious negative in our society. This sounds like a decision made by one of those pointy shoe execs thinking they’re inventing the future, but dumb to the understanding that actually being older means you have widescreen perspective and not the narrow, laser focus of youth.

In 2014, he came back to a do a MOTD 50th anniversary show. Unchanged. Still brilliant.

He’s been around for so long that his style of commentary, if you listen to it now, sounds hip and modern. Respectful but critical when needed. Passionate but not hysterical. Informed but not self-aggrandising. Everything we want in a commentator.

If he was good enough for Wimbledon in 2016, he’s good enough for football on the BBC in 2017. If the BBC were to offer him a gig for a couple of years, they would have a huge PR success on their hands. It would show they’re not ageist. It would appeal to all of us who love him and we’d get a sodding good commentator to entertain us. Why would any broadcaster not do that? I’ll tell you why: because consciously or unconsciously, they’re biased against older people in sports broadcasting. They need to prove they are not.

John Nicholson