A Football365 love letter to… Des Lynam

Matt Stead

This week Johnny lets his sweet, sweet love pour over one of our most beloved broadcasters. He’s a proper old smoothy and the only presenter who could easily have been James Bond. That’ll be Des Lynam, then.


Why the love?
Des was a prominent part of our TV and sporting lives for decades. Did you know he’s Irish? Born in County Clare, he moved to Brighton aged six. Probably not by himself. He worked on radio first, presenting the Today programme on Radio 4 in the mid 70s. But it was for his presenting work, fronting Grandstand, Sportsnight, Wimbledon, the Grand National and of course, most famously, Match of the Day, that he earned notoriety. He made each his own, covering everything including Euros and World Cups.

In the late 90s he made a move to ITV, which in hindsight even the great man recognised was a mistake. He was out of place in a commercial, profit-driven TV environment. Having to drop in and out of ad breaks was just alien to him. It felt like he’d swapped being a librarian to being a newsagent. After the 2004 Euros he bowed out of presenting sport. But he was only just over 60 and this was far too early in his career. I’m pretty sure if Des was still doing tournament TV on the BBC, we’d all be very happy and he’d still be brilliant.

He was an everyman, as putting-a-brave-face-on-it nervous as we were before a big England game, never aloof, never trying to be the star, and yet in doing so, became the biggest star in the football telly firmament..

Always understated, he had charm and personality oozing out of every pour. He wasn’t laid back as such, but he was totally unruffled. You just couldn’t faze him. And he really was a Des, definitely not a Desmond. Always had a touch of the Terry Thomas charmer about him. The whiff of brandy, cigars and Chanel No 5 lingering, as he sped along in a convertible, tie loosened, a pair of still-warm panties in the glove compartment, a phone number written in red lipstick on his pack of Hamlet cigars and the trace of smile on his lips. He really could have been James Bond.

Everyone loved him. It was impossible not to embrace his mixture of measured broadcasting and ever so slightly naughty twinkle which hinted at a hedonistic lifestyle, but never explicitly so. He was, to put it in very 1970s vernacular, Dishy Des.


Superhero skills
When I started to watch clips of Des, I got really emotional, which wasn’t something I was expecting at all. I came to the conclusion that it’s because of the nature and aesthetic of his voice. It is an oak-aged, fine wine of a voice belonging to an old friend who is beyond familiar, but whom you haven’t seen for years. There’s something about his measured medium pace and undemonstrative tone that is both comforting and compelling. And inevitably it is so tied up with times now gone. Sometimes the sadness at the relentless passing of days is almost unbearable, and to see Des and football through the years is to have that truth made all too clear.

We live in a capital letters, exclamation point era, where over-rating and over-selling is commonplace. So, by contrast, Des’s understatement now seems like a lost art form, a forgotten form of communication. Relying on the intelligence of the viewer to understand your nuance would be a risk few would take now. Today likes shouting to prove you’re “a character.” Can you ever imagine Des shouting? No.

He introduced the Euro 96 game between England and Germany with these words.

“Glad you’ve tuned in. You’ve obviously heard there’s a football match on tonight…”

That’s typical Des. As is his France 98 quip – “Shouldn’t you be at work?” – for the mid-afternoon England v Tunisia game, delivered with a slightly conspiratorial lean forward to the camera, and raising an eyebrow. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Never rushed, never in a hurry, he had superb timing. And he could do comedy too. This is absolutely hilarious.

And this April Fool on Grandstand was perfectly delivered.

But when it was needed, he could deliver gravitas. He handled Hillsborough with a calm authority and he did the quite brilliant voiceover for this classic piece of TV. Warning: may provoke your emotions. I was in bits a few seconds in. Where does the time go?

And if you’ve any tears left to cry, check Des out here after a minute. Absolutely typical of the man.

And if you’ll indulge me, just one more. The old silver fox in charm mode. Witty, funny and sharp.

It seemed that he was utterly unsurprised by anything. You just couldn’t throw him off his stride and here Dennis Pennis really tried. But Des just grins and plays along. It is as though, like a great batsman, time seemed to move more slowly for him. He always has time.

Yet this was the man who, live on air, had to deal with the farcical 1993 Grand National and the Ben Johnson drugs scandal at the Olympics. This is the man who, after receiving the tabloid treatment over his private life, opened up a show with an oblique quip about it.

Ed Quoththeraven commented on Twitter that Des was friendly rather than matey and I think that says it perfectly. There’s a big difference between those two things and perhaps some presenters try too hard to be the latter these days.

It’s worth bearing in mind that when he was presenting Euro 96, he was about three years younger than Gary Lineker is now. Quite hard to grasp that, I think, because Des always looked like someone’s dad and Gary looks like your brother. Does this make any sense? I suppose what I’m reaching to say is, these days, maybe we’re all superannuated boys well into our 50s, but Des’s generation, born during the war, were men. They had a paternal quality to them and not even a whiff of metrosexuality. It’s also undoubtedly true that Gary has, perhaps deliberately or maybe just by osmosis, inherited some of Des’s dry understatement and charm. He learned from the master.


Style guru?
This picture from 1981 is quintessential Des. Get close to the screen and you can actually smell the Blue Stratos.

For Des it was always the rakish ‘tache and the slightly tousled Falcon hairsprayed tresses.

Slacks ‘n’ jacket is also the Des way. Although he wore suits, he was more a smart-casual sort of guy. He presented the Holiday programme for a couple of years dressed in a V-neck lemon lambswool sweater, and could occasionally be seen striding through foreign lands like a 1920s Empire diplomat, in a variety of plain open-necked shirts, loose ecru trousers, and expensive suede brogues, or wearing a cricket jumper whilst being shown around a stately home. Suits a panama hat and must surely own a cravat, several striped club ties and at least one expensive blazer with gold buttons. Shoes never not expensive and handmade.

Even now at 74, hasn’t noticeably changed his style at all in 40 years, which is one of life’s great achievements.


Proper Football Man Rating

While no PFM worth his pickled onions respects anyone who talks about football that hasn’t played the game and been up the backside of a defender on a cold Tuesday at Boundary Park, they are prepared to make an exception for Des. Your hardline PFM wants to be Des. He shares his taste in everything and wishes he had as much class and joie de vivre. They loved his V-neck lambswool jumpers and slacks. Many have copied his look in one way or another.

A lifetime of excellent long and expensive lunches has probably invested his liver with the powerful ability to metabolize a few shots of Reidy’s nail polish, Old Spice and tequila worm cocktails, even now. And a trip to the Shaven Haven casino to enjoy a spot of poker and the attentions of Miss Gentleman’s Relish and Salad Cream body of 1978 would surely be a typical weekend’s entertainment.That would very much find favour with the boys. No, he doesn’t drink Joop, Chunky. He’s a Brut33 man. And fasten your shirt up.

The recent flirting with Ukip also endears him to them as every foreigner the PFM knows is fine, but it’s the others you’ve got to worry about.

Des has always been too sophisticated to indulge in the boys’ practical japery but could probably be persuaded to dip Deano in batter and cook him in chip fat after a bottle of courvoisier. They even admire the fact that he might make a move on their wives as they know what she’s like and he’s welcome to it.

Was Des really James Bond, Jeff? I thought James Bond was the actor what played Sean wotsisname in that documentary about a bloke who literally had a gold finger, Jeff, literally, a gold finger, literally, gold, seriously, he did Tommo.


What the people say
I think it’s fair to say people don’t just love Des; he has a very special place in our hearts. The remarkable aspect to the comments I got on Twitter was the unanimity of emotion and bond we all had with him. We all saw him the same way, all felt the same way about him. And he is effortlessly the most influential sports presenter there has ever been. His legacy is that of the easy, natural and informal but informed presenter.

Major BT Sport dude Jake Humphrey got in touch to say: “My Hero. Greatest. Ever. Still the barometer. Effortless ease, glint in the eye, visceral, comforting. No-one’s come close, many have tried.” Well said, Jake.

When you read these, I’m afraid some might leave a lump in your throat. Maybe it’s just nostalgia stirring emotions, but I suspect not. I think it’s just as simple as the fact that he was utterly brilliant and we enjoyed every minute of him. Maybe, as he quit the frontline before the era of social media, we never got a chance to publicly say so before. Thank you for these, there were too many to include them all, but I put a lot in. Some really beautiful from-the-heart work.

‘Always had the air of a man who had just pleasured a lady, had a quick shower and a chablis, and then got to work.’

‘An absolute master of his craft.’

‘Deserves much credit for his efforts with Dick Knight for saving Brighton in their darkest days.’

‘He’s charming, witty and wonderful. It felt like he was your friend not just a sports presenter. His moustache is a thing of absolute beauty.’

‘Even managed to sound cool while being soundtracked by Bruce Hornsby & The Range when reading the results on Final Score.’

‘Class act, Dishy Des, even when he got into the Sunday papers for an affair with a neighbour he managed to maintain a certain dignity.’

‘Difficult not to like Des, has that secret ingredient of relaxed niceness.’

‘Sport’s version of Jason King. In fact could see him remaking The New Avengers with Clare Balding and John Inverdale.’

‘His silky-smooth delivery was the soundtrack to my childhood.’

‘No Lynam, No Lineker. And that is meant as a compliment. To both.’

‘Possibly the last great anchorman? Look at any sports programme and think would it be better with Des? Answer invariably yes.’

‘1997 Cup Final Grandstand opening gambit after coverage started a few seconds before scheduled “Hi, you’re early, I like that in a person.”‘

‘When Cliff Richard did his singalong at Wimbledon, Des echoed the thoughts of the nation by saying: “I hope he’s not gonna do Summer Holiday.”‘

‘As smooth as Nigel Havers covered in baby oil. Best moustache in the business.’

‘The master. Suave, sophisticated, witty & made you feel totally at ease – you weren’t going to be let down whatever the score. Sadly missed.’

‘My Gran fancied him. ‘Nuff said really.’

‘The Godfather! Still reckon the Beeb should bring him back to cover the major footy tournaments!’

‘The benchmark to which all sports presenters should aspire.’

‘Smooth style, a master of unruffleability.’

‘Des Lynam was the Roger Moore of sports presentation.’

‘For some reason, I associate Italia 90 as much with Des as I do Gazza and Scillachi! Calmness and professionalism personified.’

‘The consummate professional and his knowing smile was a breath of fresh air, he never overdid it & was most natural sports broadcaster ever.’

‘If he isn’t spending his retirement the velour-lined harem he so richly deserves then there truly is no God/Allah/Hendrix.’

‘The Rolls Royce of presenting.’

‘Ah, a gentle broadcaster amidst the drama of football.’

‘I was young in his MOTD days, but he came across as friendly, rather than “matey”, which is different.’

‘Like all the best, you sensed he was in his dream job. Was not a failed sportsman, writer, journo etc who just did it cause he was decent at it.’

‘The definition of a safe pair of hands, you knew with Des he’d keep everything flowing no matter what went wrong on the show.’

‘Des was the ultimate big game broadcaster.’

‘A brilliant and engaging presenter, he was superb at Italia 90. With Des at the helm you felt part of something watching the big games.’

‘Smooth operator. Gave the show structure, coherence, direction and a soupçon of journalism when needed. Left the showboating to others.’

‘Unflappable in a ‘crisis’: his steering of the the 1993 Grand National false start and breaking the Ben Johnson story were memorable feats.’

‘Best sports presenter ever. Never pretended to be an expert and always asked the questions he thought the viewers wanted to know. Impeccable.’

‘Worked with him for 10 years. Once wrote a fantastic link into a swimming edit during Olympics. He ignored it all and said ‘now, swimming’!’

‘Following tabloid stories about an affair, Des opened BBC’s France 98 coverage saying: “Don’t know about you, but I’m having a busy summer.”‘

‘So many others try it with varying degrees of success but he is the best at making you feel as if he is talking to you one on one.’

‘The original Silver Fox. I am sure the word ‘elan’ didn’t exist pre-Des.’

‘As a kid, his voice was football to me.’

‘The voice and face of my childhood and the best ever at what he did.’

‘The sporting voice of my childhood, forever ingrained in my memories. I can give no greater accolade.’


Future days
After a stint on Countdown and doing a bit of radio, Des seems happier to make the occasional appearance on anniversary shows and the like. It’d be nice to see him more regularly, as he still seems unchanged after all these years. He must have had offers but probably prefers to sit in the garden, sipping expensive chilled wines, whilst reading 19th century erotic novels. But you’d like to think he could turn up at a moment’s notice, sit down and present MOTD and it’d be like nothing had ever changed. I’d love that to happen one more time, at least.

Thank you Des, for so, so many good times and for being part of the soundtrack of our lives. The brilliant thing is, we had a great time, but I’m sure you had an even greater time. We all won. I leave the final frame of this piece to a story someone tweeted to me. I think it’s the perfect, iconic Des moment, over which to roll the credits, and if you’re like me, you might find your eyes glazed with emotion:

“On a school trip in the mid 90s, he was spotted out of the coach window on the motorway. In a convertible with the top down and a gorgeous blonde passenger. The lads in the coach banged against the windows to get a wave. Des put his shades on, nodded, saluted and zoomed into the distance. A legend.”