A Football365 love letter to… Ian Dennis

Date published: Saturday 2nd September 2017 9:45

Johnny is writing this while listening to Transfer Deadline Day on 5live, so that’ll be Ian Dennis, then…


Why the Love?
Because he’s Proper. An absolutely tremendous commentator on BBC 5live full of gravel, grit and down-to-earth Northernness and the sort of sensible qualities that anyone who went to school in Ilkley has in spades.

Has worked at the great northern trio of BBC stations, BBC Radio Cleveland (now BBC Tees), BBC Radio Leeds and BBC Radio Newcastle. Is now into his 15th year at 5live and is one of their Major Dudes. More often known as Denno.

On Transfer Deadline Day, he’s the go-to man for news of deals but without the embarrassing, undignified yellow hoopla. Just delivers the goods without fuss and bother, occasionally tinged with a pleasing degree of cynicism that is the birthright of every Yorkshireman.

Wrote to John Motson for advice on his to get into sports broadcasting and Motty actually wrote back. Aw. He looks oddly like Ant and/or Dec, or both.

I could go on about Denno and why he’s so loved, but his producer for over 10 years, Phil Wye got in touch with me and sums it up perfectly, so I’ll leave it to him:

“Denno is a top football commentator and bloke. Unashamedly ‘old school’ in terms of his attention to completing his tatty, trusty old book of football notes, he works harder at the behind-the-scenes PR than any commentator I’ve ever encountered.
He’s very well liked and totally trusted by anyone from club owners, board members, managers, coaches, players, press officers, journalists, and the list goes on. Quietly efficient, very well informed, and a real disciple of all things football.

“Ian studies for his broadcasting, goes the extra yard, is a total team player on and off air. Football coverage is never about him – he’s very self-deprecating and thought of really affectionately indeed by the likes of Messrs Armfield, Waddle, Butcher, Claridge, and was a particular favourite of the late Graham Taylor. They shared many cheeky grins and slices of mischief over the years.

“Ian’s ability to combine senior football reporting work (“Deadline Dennis”) with commentating on the big match of a Saturday 3.00 game while being able to recount the scorer of Rochdale’s third goal or Southend’s run of form and cope with no end of talkback is a highly underrated skill. Not all commentators can thrive in that pressure cooker.

“I’ve never met anyone in a media room or a players tunnel who’s turned their nose up at his presence. As one of Ian’s match day producers for over ten years he’d never – ever – forget to thank you and shake your hand shortly after a final whistle for lending your support to him. A very grounded and popular man in the business, to work with Denno was always great fun and a real pleasure.”

I don’t know about you, but that glazed my eyes with a tear.


Superhero Skills
Flat Yorkshire vowels means he can invest reporting with an unimpressed shrug and withering understatement. Can release a gravelly, vicious dog of a roar, as in this instance. It’s like he can’t keep it in. Fantastic.

Would never consider starting a sentence with a random “So…” in the now default modern style and I imagine would look at you with narrowed eyes of thinly veiled contempt if you did so. Same goes for the rising inflective.

In May 2016 I said “He has a rare grit and intensity to his gig. Bluff and straight-talking, his 5live commentary on the Liverpool v Dortmund game was a thing of visceral, thrilling excellence which will live long in the memory. It was probably the best single commentary of the entire season.”

I’m pleased to say I have found his commentary on the goals from that game. It is a beautiful thing and by the final goal, almost overwhelmingly emotional, his voice breaking with passion and incredulity. This is how and why radio commentary, when done by the best, is such a superior art form. Also note how, even in the midst of extraordinary scenes, and despite the heightened emotions, he still doesn’t stumble over words, doesn’t mispronounce a player’s name, he still keeps communicating to the listener throughout. How do you do that?

And remember here you’re seeing the images matched up to the commentary, which isn’t something the radio listener is doing, so you could get away with making mistakes, as the listener has no way to know…but look how Ian doesn’t do that. It is all on point, all correct. The passion isn’t sacrificed to detail one bit, but neither are you left in the dark about what is happening. I genuinely don’t know how he does that. It is very, very clever and I’m sure is borne out of years of hard work and experience. This is exhilarating, skin-prickling, hair-raising, gold standard commentating.



He’s also never afraid to get a bit of a nark on, which is an underused colour in the commentary paint box. Much about modern football can be very bloody annoying and it’s good for commentators to express that too. I recall him being very disgruntled at one of England’s rubbish performances in Euro 2016 and saying to Mark Chapman something along the lines of ‘we could both get a game for this mob. We couldn’t be any worse.’ And in doing that, he was echoing all our feelings. I think the best broadcasters instinctively intuit and express the public mood without even thinking about it. It’s all about an honest emotional response.

There’s often a bit of ribbing between Ian and Mark which is always enjoyable. It strikes me as the sort of broadcasting thing you can only do from a position of love and respect. We tend to take the mickey out of our mates far more than we do our enemies.

One BBC colleague of his told me “I think his greatest strength is how good he is with people – I don’t think I know anyone more genuine. And there is no colleague I would trust more than him.” Another said, “a really lovely guy to work with. No ego to notice, very personable. Also a very good interviewer when given the chance.”


Style Guru?
I don’t recall ever seeing Denno on the TV and I am a big fan of not knowing what people on the radio look like. The recent trend of broadcasting images live from the studio on the BBCSport website or on the red button seems entirely without value. Why would you sit and watch some people in a room wearing headphones? The whole point of radio is that it lives in the brain and colours its own world, via your imagination. Tying it down with images just seems wrong.

However, other video of our man exists doing freelance presenting work and he looks like the sort of handsome northerner who finds clothes to be an irrelevance to a happy life. He knows you have to wear them, but doesn’t much care what they are and that seems an entirely sensible attitude.

My Castleford-born granddad, a miner who had a way with words, would have looked Denno up and down and said “he ‘as the look of a lad who could deliver a good right-hander on the cobbles after eight pints of bitter.”


Proper Football Man Rating

The PFMs don’t listen to the radio because there are no pictures. If you’re not on Sky or BeIn, they don’t know you. Radio is weird, Jeff. It’s a talking box and you can’t tell me that’s not weird. However, they do listen to 5live in their executive saloon car on the way to and from a scouting trip to see a promising young English lad playing for Man City Reserves ‘cos the young English lads don’t get a look in these days, it’s a disgrace. Shortly before returning to the club and signing 12 overseas players from 11 different countries.

Denno ticks a few PFM boxes. Great nickname, Denno, the simply application of an ‘o’ gives great comfort to any PFM and promises the sort of banter that might end up with someone in a hospital in Thailand. Brilliant. He’s a northerner too which means he’ll be able to drink Reidy’s latest fermented bin juice, compost and radioactive waste lager.

But his dedication to the job, to being well-informed and articulate goes against everything the PFM stands for. Their modus operandi is to get paid to shout half-baked notions about things they know nothing about. They rely on groupthink and cliche and assert the veracity of their views purely on the basis that they played the game, seemingly unaware that football is not an obscure arcane sport which you can only understand if you’ve been paid to play it.

Anyone can know about football. They’re suspicious of knowledge and secretly believe that clever people are stupid. The temptation to give someone who actually knows stuff a bacon slicer with a ruler is too great to resist.

No, I’ve never heard of him, Jeff. How can you know who anyone is, if you can’t see them?


What The People Say
Radio audiences are not always huge, so inevitably, many people have no idea who Denno is. However, the elite who know that radio beats TV every time, all find much to enjoy in Ian’s work. He’s one of those distinct voices that makes you sit up and listen, but which also makes you feel like you’re in a safe place.

There’s an honesty and plain-speaking quality to his output that works so well for listeners. Football broadcast media is not without some people who will try to sell shi*e like it’s sugar, but not Denno. Radio is so intimate that you can tell when someone is being honest and when they’re not, and that’s very much reflected in these comments from social media:

– An absolute stalwart of Saturday afternoons and weekday evenings on Five Live. Perfect for radio, would probably be wasted on the telly.

– You know you’re in safe hands when Ian Dennis comes on. The Aggers of Five Live.

– Doesn’t get much chance to show it but is a very capable TV commentator.

– Not many can do both radio and TV well. (A very good point, that)

– Would be a good dinner date. Could talk for hours without pause about nothing, like he is this evening. And would have loads of sauces.

– Ian is great at drawing you into, and retaining interest in a match no matter how prosaic what unfolds in front of him may be.

– Fantastic on Radio Leeds during O’Leary years. Great, passionate, no-nonsense commentator. Impressive range of pitch

– Epitomises best of 5L. Understated, knowledgeable, generous, enlightening. Makes it sound so much easier than it must be.

– Got the quiet authority that makes you trust him, hasn’t got the jaded cynicism that many get after years following the game

– What you want from the BBC – balanced, knowledgeable, insightful and reassuring. We take this level of competence for granted. Like Volvo

– Met him in Poland over the summer. Really nice chap.

– I enjoyed it when he turned up on a deadline day MOTD a couple of years ago with an on-screen clipboard.

– A proper journalist in a world of Sky sources and reading Twitter.

– You just know he loves football & his job. And he’s a really nice bloke too.
Love it when he pops into the studio on deadline night with actual news updates.

– He once patiently and at some length explained to me on here the reason 5live do that infuriating thing of announcing the changes, not line-ups, marked him out as one of the good guys to me.

– I’d argue he represents ‘the voice of football’ more than M. Tyler – spent many a Sunday afternoon listening to him instead of the TV

– Listening all evening when working. A mix of news and anecdote. The perfect medium. The Beatles almost had it: All you need is @5livesport

– Ian is a master of commentating while coping with incoming scores & putting them into context. There was a 5live Saturday at the end of last season that was near perfection. Swansea was going off but he still sorted scores from all 4 leagues & Scotland.

– Typical of the understated excellence that’s 5 Live’s signature

– One of the many reasons 5 Live coverage is so great. In Euro 2016 his disdain for a sh*te England performance was summed up with “don’t suppose you fancy a game Mark” at half time.

– As solid a citizen as you will find on the radio. Also love his occasional half serious, half not, rants at fellow presenters

– He’s someone that – even if you don’t always agree – is someone whose view you always respect. Has wonderful ability on the mic.

– A reassuring voice. You know you’ll get a solid 8/10 from him when he’s commentating or presenting.

– Rare combination of excellent broadcaster/ journalist who does not take himself too seriously. No ego.


Future Days
Has surely got a great and long future at 5live. Now still only in his mid-40s, he seems set to be at the top of the tree for at least another 20 years, should he so wish it.

There is nothing better than sitting down on an evening to listen to some of your favourite broadcasters talking to you across the airwaves. Listening to a comfortable, familiar, amiable voice for a few hours is a simple pleasure but to do it well takes both hard work, commitment and talent – a trifecta of qualities that Ian quite clearly has in absolute spades.

I shall leave you with a lovely tribute to this brilliant broadcaster from his colleague and good friend, Mark Chapman, who wrote to me and said this:

“He is a man with unbelievable contacts, I can’t remember him getting a story wrong but he is conscientious. He won’t take a flier, he will make sure he has two sources.

However, his greatest skill is what he does on a Saturday afternoon. Nobody can do what he does. Nobody. To commentate and give goal updates from all other leagues complete with stats and other nuggets is phenomenally tricky and yet he does it all with knowledge, passion and self deprecation.

He is loved by the 5live sport team and in particular by me. We go back such a long way, he gave me my first job in sport radio and lived with me and my now wife for a time in London. Interesting times!

We like winding each other up, we like arguing but never in a nasty way. I am so grateful he took a chance on me at Radio Newcastle, I am so grateful I get to work with him and I am so grateful he is one of my best mates. However, his dress sense is appalling!”

John Nicholson

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