The abuse of football co-commentators is inexcusable…

If you look at social media when a live game is being broadcast, the names of the commentator and especially the co-commentator will always be trending. It is rarely because people love their work; it is usually because a significant number of people say they’re biased, ignorant, boring, stupid or have a voice they don’t like. They can get very personal, nasty and even aggressive. It is always an unedifying spectacle. And it happens during every single live broadcast.

Favourite targets for the most egregious abuse at the moment are Steve McManaman and Karen Carney, but no-one is exempt. All commentators suffer from time to time too.

I’m not sure what these critics expect from a commentary and co-commentary about a game of football. It’s hardly going to be Norman Mailer talking about boxing, Brian Cox explaining quantum physics or even Mrs Merton chatting with Debbie McGee.

Given the level of contempt so frequently expressed, it raises the question if commentary and co-commentary is even actually necessary? So many seem so wound up by it. Would TV’s coverage of football be worse without commentary, co-comms and without pundits? Would it be better to just broadcast the game in silence and when it’s over, it’s over.

People often say, somewhat huffily, that they’re turning off the sound to protect their precious ears from the broadcasting voice they find so offending anyway. I doubt they actually do.

We can see for ourselves what has happened, or the replay can show us. And football is not hard to understand, even if some ex-players would have us believe it is full of hidden mysteries that only the former professional can de-code for us.

And yet if we do watch a game on mute, it quite profoundly lacks something. Without fans it is already stripped of import, meaning and heft. Without commentary, it looks even more like dancing without music.

Without commentary there is an emotional detachment from the game and the experience is simply made less engaging and enjoyable. While we obviously don’t have commentary when at a game, we have the noise of humanity around us. We hear voices commenting on everything. That is basically filling the same hole. So watching on TV without commentary is like being at a game on your own with no-one else there. It is a mere sliver of the full experience.

Besides, commentators’ words often cement important moments into football’s history. We can all think of examples. Kenneth Wolstenholme’s ‘they think it’s all over’ being perhaps the most classic of all. They are aural bookmarks in our lives, words that stir our emotions decades after they were uttered. While radio commentary has always been the most comfortable, natural home for the poetry of football broadcasting, TV’s sonic power in holding a moment of time in aspic for the rest of our lives is axiomatic to the history and culture of the game.

So we do need them. So let’s stop moaning about them. There are simply no bad commentators. There’s no way you even get near a live microphone unless you are extremely competent. The degree of research needed, from learning how to pronounce names correctly, to having an armoury of facts and figures on hand to fill gaps in play, is astonishing, as anyone who’s seen the works of art that are Clive Tyldesley’s beautifully written out notes for a game, can attest. We all have our own aesthetic preferences, that’s fine, but no-one is no good.

So while commentators are not essential, if we’re to enjoy a full, rich experience of any sporting event on TV they are crucial. But what about co-commentators?

Frequently the focus of serious ire, the co-comm role is an interpretative, subjective artform whereas the commentator is largely concerned with facts. And that’s why they attract opprobrium. God forbid anyone has a view on a game that isn’t the equal of our own well-informed, perceptive, unbiased and even-handed egalitarianism.

Aye, right.

The co-comm gig is to colour in the outlines that the commentator has drawn, not just to draw them again. But being able to analyse on the hoof and without mangling your words is really hard to do. The combination of instant football understanding, coherence, vocabulary and expression leaves you absolutely nowhere to hide, especially in a game that is by its nature often subjective. Just try doing it without making any mistakes of any kind. It’s almost impossible. That’s why nit-picking at errors made, or views expressed, is so weasel-like and small-minded.

And God forbid anyone ever makes a factual error, mispronounces a name or stumbles in any way whatsoever. If they do, the Twitterati of snark descends like vultures on carrion in a truly horrible and inhuman manner. This is a person, not roadkill.

It’s one thing to do this to politicians and people who hold power and agency over our lives, quite another to do so to someone merely talking about football. Worse yet, the consequent feeding frenzy is clearly seen as entertainment in itself – insert your popcorn-eating gif here. That people derive something from reading other people being mean and nasty to some poor sod doing a commentary says much about the world we live in. It doesn’t have to be like this.

And the sight of fans of a club accusing the commentators or co-comms of being biased against them is one of football’s most enervating experiences. Biased person accuses people of being biased against them is a bilious spectacle, almost laughable if it wasn’t so witless. Everyone, be it a co-comm or pundit, just calls it as they see it. It might not be as you see it, but it’s worth remembering views other than your own exist. And there is no stipulation nor obligation to be even-handed, either. That isn’t the gig.

And what does biased even mean anyway? It appears a substantial number of people feel their own view is the default unbiased and neutral standard and anything which strays from that is therefore biased. Be in no doubt, this is insane and it is everywhere, in all walks of life now.

This isn’t the to and fro of discussion; football debate is integral to enjoyment of the game for many. It is the name-calling, the pile-ons, the insults, the ad hominem attacks, the lack of respect for them as a person and worse.

Over the years, many if not all of us have done this to one degree or another. I know I have. But things change and move on. We’re in an era where all forms of abuse are widespread and endemic. We have to have higher standards for ourselves than we once had, even relatively recently. This isn’t being woke, it’s just being decent.

It’s 2021, we live in a very different time to even a few years ago. The whole abuse culture of football is too horrible, too much and too often. It drags us all down and it provides a growing medium for all other flavours of abuse up to and including sexist and racist abuse. It provides a home for extremes to live.

It starts out as the thin end of the wedge, then becomes normalised, then becomes the whole wedge. In other words, it isn’t just a bit of banter or fun on this occasion, it plugs into, feeds and enables more abuse towards more people. It can’t be hived off or seen separately as a football thing, it’s part of a bigger picture.

Perhaps it is a laying-off of powerlessness, lack of self-worth and of feeling insignificance in a depersonalised society that drives it. So much of it seems done without full appreciation of the fact that the target is a person too. An actual human like us.

This repetitious voracious slagging off all feels so worthless and so pointless. It must be awful for the subject of that abuse to work and live through. None of us are ever going to think every person employed to work on TV coverage of football matches is great, or suits our own personal tastes. And some will be better at it than others, inevitably.

I’m not saying don’t be critical, or milky, or even meek, I’m saying just be thoughtful and polite. See how that feels. Give peace a chance. Is that really too much to ask?

John Nicholson