F365 meets Peter Drury – welcome guest in your home

Date published: Wednesday 28th February 2018 7:58 - Sarah Winterburn

It’s a rainy, grey Monday in east London and Peter Drury is bunkered down at BT Sport’s Stratford office. A few days earlier, he provided the commentary for Swansea’s anaemic draw with Sheffield Wednesday and at the weekend he will cover Manchester United’s Premier League game with Chelsea. Tonight, it’s Hellas Verona’s trip to Rome to face Lazio and, not a Serie A regular, he’s been deep in research all day.

This, though, is clearly a labour of love. By his own admission, Drury has been commentating over Subbuteo boards since the age of six. Originally destined for sports journalism, he arrived at ITV in 1998, via stops at BBC Radio Leeds, 5Live and, earlier, a few national bylines in The Daily Mirror and as the school sport correspondent for The Telegraph and, later, The Independent: “I used to ring up the schools on a Monday morning and ask how the rugby went.”

The journey from local radio to national television came, he says, as a benefit of being in the right place at the right time. Yorkshire cricket was and remains of great local importance and his stay in the region coincided with Leeds United’s last league championship, the season before the Premier League began.

After becoming one of the founder commentators at 5Live, alongside Mike Ingham, Alan Green and the late Jimmy Armfield, the call came from ITV after Brian Moore announced that he would retire following the 1998 World Cup. The move between mediums wasn’t without its challenges, though.

“When I moved into television, I made the classic mistake of talking too much and giving too much description. In many ways, television can be quite frustrating for that reason. I love words and words, really, are the stuff of radio.”

Drury does love words. That shows in his work. Among a group of contemporaries with all manner of traits and styles, he’s certainly at the poetic end of the scale, his sentences ending more often with flourishes than exclamation marks.

“I know in my early days I irritated people, I probably still do, but you can’t please everybody. There are certain people who just think ‘Oh, I wish he’d just tell us who’s got the ball’.”

Maybe. But some informal straw polling reveals some interesting trends. Those who enjoy Peter Drury’s work really enjoy it. Additionally, there are many more who will say that while they didn’t initially warm to his style, over time that has changed. That might be partly because of the fading memory of Brian Moore, a generational voice and an icon of his profession, but maybe also because tastes are evolving too.

Most fans are nostalgic. Most fans also imagine football’s past to have been better than it really was. However, while love for the game remains undimmed in the broader sense, many contemporary supporters likely wish that the sport would refocus on the primacy of the pitch. They remember a time when the football was the story. Not the press conferences, not the angry rhetoric slung across the media, and not the pantomime.

Over the course of our conversation, it’s clear that Drury himself shares some of those frustrations. But then that’s something better reflected in the tone of his work; he reacts to the theatre of a match itself, not the themes from its prelude or the repercussions expected in its aftermath. It also shows in the empathy he affords the players themselves, a generosity often overlooked in this airbrushed, avatar era.

“I think I’m a relatively kind commentator, because I think if I was playing in front of 50,000 people I wouldn’t want the ball. If I was playing in front of 2,000 I wouldn’t want the ball. Those guys who actually do want the ball I have a lot of respect for.”

Perspective certainly has a value, but the pressure remains real enough. This summer, Drury will commentate on the World Cup final in Russia and, having been in Rio in 2014, he knows that is the sharp end of the job.

“It’s the frantic moments when you live or die, really, because you can get them wrong. When Mario Gotze scored that goal I just shouted “Gotze!” I was a hundred yards away and I was only 75% sure it was Gotze.”

It’s worth remembering that is not a particularly forgiving world. Or even an understanding one. Commentators occupy a precarious position in the game. Asked to read and react reflexively, their work places them within the crosswinds of the game’s tribalism. Quite by design, Drury is not on social media.

“I can do a game on a Saturday alongside a colleague from another station and sometimes if I see them again on the Sunday they’ll tell me that they’ve spent last night being absolutely destroyed on Twitter.”

Often, it seems, commentators are guilty by association with the events they cover. Martin Tyler has felt the pitchfork of suspected favouritism lately and Drury is quick to defend a colleague from accusations he views as nonsense.

“Martin Tyler is a football addict. He’s got into trouble once or twice because the ball’s crossed the line and he’s gone “yes!”. But that’s just how the moment makes him feel.”

He’s quite right, too. Really, how much of an offence is an exuberant inflection when the alternative is inoffensive sterility? After all, sport is supposed to draw a reaction. Regrettably though, it’s a problem which comes with the territory. Like all commentators, Tyler is beholden to the events in front of him – and, of course, his impulsive response to those events. The spikier criticism can leave a mark, though.

“When you’re young. If someone writes something positive, you feel ten feet tall. But if something critical gets written, you feel as if everybody in the world has read it and thinks the same thing. I’ve had to grow up since I started doing television and try to convince myself that I shouldn’t take so much notice of it.”

Fortunately, sanctuary exists partly in a letter written to him by his predecessor.

“Whenever I’ve had a bad day or somebody has said something unkind in the press, I read that. If Brian Moore said that I’m alright, then I’m alright.”

No longer at ITV, he now works freelance and covers a greater volume of games than at any other point during his career. It’s something he prefers.

“The pressure on each game is less, because there’s always another one in a couple of days. When I started, we had a set game every fortnight and all of your energy went towards that.”

He enjoys it, too, benefiting from the preparatory rhythm between fixtures. While the demands of the job have changed, the craft remains much as it was, dependent on familiar tenets of research and on-air chemistry. The previous Saturday he drew the short straw. While Rochdale were holding Spurs and Wigan were dumping Manchester City out of the FA Cup, Drury was talking the world through that insipid goalless draw at Hillsborough.

Those are the games, he says, which lean most heavily on preparation.

“Swansea haven’t been to a quarter-final since 1964 and that, of course, would come up in a statpack. What I try to do when I find that out is to dig one spadeful further. The last time Swansea played in the fifth round of the FA Cup, Stanley Matthews scored against them. And it turned out to be the last FA Cup goal he ever scored. As a 19-year-old he scored his first FA Cup goal…also against Swansea.”

His eyes dance ever so slightly. “I take great pride in having two or three lines which don’t appear in the statpack.”

Clearly, there’s a co-dependency in the commentary box. For the duration of his tenure at ITV, Drury was paired with summariser Jim Beglin, a relationship he describes as marriage-like in its on-air function.

“Jim is a comfort blanket for me. I have to be careful, because sometimes he comes to games more prepared than me. Also, he knows me so well that if I’m in danger of getting something wrong, he’ll often dig me out.”

Drury has plenty of praise too for many of the new breed, particularly Steve McManaman.

“People don’t appreciate how knowledgeable he is. He has gravitas as a former player, but he’s a great, reactive co-commentator too – if you give him a question, he’ll have an answer. It’s important to be humble, particularly around someone like him. He won the Champions League twice.”

One of the themes he touches on is the true role of the commentator. Several times, he describes himself as “an uninvited guest in people’s living rooms” and is mindful of respecting the privileges of such a relationship. He often listens back to his work when he returns home and – yes – there are times when he doesn’t like what he hears.

He’s a private man, too. Avoiding social media is a smart choice made for different reasons, but his face is, intentionally, rarely seen on television. He admits to having no appetite for being stopped in the street or being asked to recite familiar lines from the past. He’s a friendly, engaging person, though, and his enthusiasm for what he does – even if in a half-built canteen on a wet Monday in semi-dystopian Stratford – is deeply infectious.

A lot of people say that working around or inside football is a privilege. A lot of them say it without any conviction, though, telling others what they want to hear without really believing it themselves.

Peter Drury clearly does believe it. Some people may not like his work, but many more adore it, and that’s likely because it comes from a place of great sincerity – from the Subbuteo felt to the World Cup final with no discernible drop in enthusiasm.

Seb Stafford-Bloor – follow him on Twitter here

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