A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A FOOTBALL COMMENTATOR
It’s may be a Wednesday night but it’s the second Premiership programme of the season, with six games being played, and at 10.40pm some 3.3 million viewers will be watching Match Of The Day. That’s a quarter of all people watching TV in Britain at that time. But how does a match get from the stadium to the television? It takes a large BBC outside broadcast unit and ten cameras, including one Superslomo and two remotely operated pole cameras behind each goal. And of course, you also need a commentator.
Steve Wilson is one of the leading commentators on Match Of The Day, having served his apprenticeship on Capital Radio and BBC Five Live. Most weeks he gets one of the big teams and tonight he’s commentating on Chelsea’s away clash with Middlesbrough. We followed him from arrival to departure, to see how the job gets done.
4.30pm: Steve arrives at the Riverside Stadium. He’s flown up to Newcastle from Gatwick and driven to the stadium, via his hotel. “I work at games on a Saturday and Sunday and I had Monday as a day off, so I started thinking about today’s match yesterday,” he says. “Perhaps I don’t really need to be here three hours before kick-off but it’s really for peace of mind so you’re on the spot if anything comes up and you have an opportunity to talk to the director before he gets busy.”
Steve knows that it’s 20 years since Middlesbrough’s very first game following their liquidation in 1986 – effectively the rebirth for the club (their badge carries the words ‘established 1986’). When the team had arrived at their old Ayresome Park ground, they had found the gates padlocked. The old gates now stand as a monument outside the Riverside Stadium and Steve thinks that they could make an interesting opening shot for the show, so he wanders round to have a look.
5.00pm: Steve goes to the Outside Broadcast van to meet with tonight’s director Andrew Clement. In front of a bank of TV monitors, each displaying a different view of the pitch, Steve suggests his idea about the Ayresome Park gates to the director. “The opening shot is where you’ve got an opportunity to be quite creative,” he says, “and the Middlesbrough anniversary today is quite a nice opportunity.”
Steve compares notes about the game with Simon Brotherton, a regular MOTD commentator who is covering the match tonight for BBC Five Live. “Commentating on radio is quite different from doing Match Of The Day,” explains Simon. “You talk a lot more on radio but you only have to do 20 minutes of each half,” he says.
5.30pm: The two commentators and the director make their way into the stadium. In the tunnel they pass referee Howard Webb and Steve stops for a brief chat. When he gets to the pressroom he also chats to a member of the Chelsea entourage. Any insider tips will help him during his commentary. He learns that Michael Ballack definitely isn’t playing and that Khalid Boulahrouz, signed just a couple of days before, is in the squad and has travelled to the game.
6.30pm: Steve goes pitchside to get a look at the stadium and to see if he can glean any more news and gossip coming out of the dressing rooms. Chelsea coach Josť Mourinho wanders onto the pitch just a couple of metres away, while Steve chats with Sky’s Rob Palmer. There’s very little rivalry here – the two broadcasting companies work together to bring viewers the best coverage of the Premiership and they their resources. Today’s game is a BBC outside broadcast so Sky’s commentators will have use of the BBC’s live feed coming from director Andrew Clement in the OB truck. “They’ve changed the assistant referee and it’s caused a flurry of excitement in the tunnel,” laughs Steve. Having finished his pitch inspection, Josť Mourinho signs a couple of autographs before disappearing back into the tunnel. Steve wanders up with the fruits of his research. “They've changed the assistant referee and it's caused a flurry of excitement in the tunnel,” he laughs.
6.45pm: At pitch side Steve Walford is making sure that the director and commentator have all the latest information they need. “I operate liaison in the tunnel area,” he says. “I check all the info from the referee, the pronunciation of names, I give the director early warning when the teams are coming out and when a substitute is coming on.” He wears a headset so he can communicate with the director, who will relay any messages back to the commentator on the gantry.
7.00pm: Steve Pierson – one of four ‘Steves’ working on the outside broadcast tonight – is in the tunnel to get the team line-up the minute it is released. The two managers have to exchange their teamsheets an hour before kick-off. Josť Mourinho waits patiently in the tunnel to get his first sight of the Boro line-up. Gareth Southgate steps out of the home dressing room and passes Mourinho a blue slip of paper. Morinho leans on his dressing room door digesting the information before disappearing inside. Once Steve Wilson has received the list, he immediately starts to work out the team formations.
7.05pm: Steve Wilson gets to the commentary gantry and immediately gets to work. He has with him a sheet of stats and information on each team that he has prepared in advance. He also starts working on his introduction. “I’ll probably draft that a couple of times before I’m happy with it,” he says.
7.15pm: The cameramen start to take their positions. Simon is in charge of the ‘master shot’, the wide-angle camera that covers all of the main action from the gantry. Next to him is yet another Steve, who operates the ‘personality camera’, a much bigger machine capable of delivering close up pictures of all the main players. “The close-up cameramen will have spent a little time looking at the match programme to make sure they know all the players,” says Simon, “particularly as it’s the start of the season and there might be new signings in the team.”
7.45pm: Kick-off is getting nearer and Steve Wilson is in position with his mic in hand. “It’s a tough one tonight for Gareth Southgate going into the match off the back of that 3-2 defeat at Reading,” he says. “But they beat them here last year… and they beat Man United and Arsenal too and they drew with Liverpool and it’s virtually the same squad. Shocks can happen, but watching Chelsea these days you just never expect to see them lose. It doesn’t happen very often.”
It’s not quite as glamorous in the commentary position as you would imagine. He sit alongside Steve Pierson, their commentary post made up of two old wooden dining chairs and a matching dining table, while their two televisions monitors are simply stacked on top of their silver cases. Steve Pierson is there to make sure that Steve Wilson has everything he needs throughout the game. “Whether it’s drinks or throat sweets, it all contained in this black bag,” he says. “I also keep the match logs for all the basic statistics too.”
7.58pm: Just as the team are coming out, Steve Pierson jumps up from his feet and rushes along the gantry. “There’s been a team change,” he says. “Apparently Arjan Robben was injured in the warm-up and Kalou is playing in his place.” The information has come from MOTD’s man in the tunnel Steve Walford, who has alerted the director of this very late change. Steve Wilson amends his hand drawn team formation by scribbling out Robben’s name.
8.00pm: As the teams walk out of the tunnel Steve Wilson reads his pre-prepared 30-second introduction, but the remainder of his commentary is unscripted and he does the whole match as live. “When you’re doing a game for highlights you commentate on the whole game,” he says. “You are doing exactly the same job as if it were being broadcast live because things happen with no warning.”
8.18pm: Shevchenko scores and Steve Wilson’s commentary jumps into life. He looks emotionless as he concentrates on the action, but the excitement is in his voice as he talks through the goal.
8.35pm: Steve Pierson points his pen in the direction of Shaun Wright-Phillips, who is warming up on the touchline as Drogba receives treatment. Behind the two Steves sits sound assistant Lucy, who is studying tonight’s other scores on her Blackberry. “We sort out all of the pitch side mics, the mics for the commentators, the interview mics, and the link with the director,” she says. “Most of our work is before kick-off so if you see me running around during the game, then something’s gone wrong.”
8.46pm: Steve Walford is obviously doing his job well on the touchline as word comes through that an extra minute’s time will be added on to the first-half. Steve Pierson gets word and gives a signal to Steve Wilson to indicate the news. We don’t talk at all during the commentary,” explains Pierson, “but we have a series of signs. Steve hears the same talkback from the director as I do, but if he’s commentating at the time he might not catch it so I back him up with the info.” A minute later the fourth official holds up the board to indicate the time added on, but it’s all ready old news on the MOTD gantry.
8.46pm: The half-time whistle blows and Steve Pierson goes off to fill his flask with Bovril, while Steve Wilson does a voiceover for the formation graphic that is shown at the beginning of the broadcast of the match. “The managers will never tell you the formations before kick-off so although we work them out in advance, I wait until half-time to send the voiceover down to make sure that we worked it out correctly,” he says. Steve has enjoyed the first half. “I thought Wayne Bridge played well, and it was a great chance for Yakuba from Downing’s cross. Against Chelsea you may only get one chance like that in a game.” As for the goal, he’s not certain he came up with a great line. “I can’t remember,” he says, “but it certainly was a great moment – Shevchenko’s first Premiership goal.”
9.05pm: The second-half kicks off with a little controversy as Didier Drogba is booked for arriving late on the pitch. Steve Walford is still on top of the information from the touchline. A Middlesbrough press officer passes around a slip of paper with tonight’s attendance figure and five minutes later Steve works it into his commentary.
9.40pm: A Chelsea player is booked and Steve reaches for his yellow highlighter, marking the booking onto his team formation. As the free-kick is taken he continues to commentate. "Ten minutes to go,” he utters into the mic. "And with the momentum that Middlesbrough have built up since Viduka came on, you wouldn't bet against a Middlesbrough goal in that ten minutes.” Seconds later the ball is in the net and Pogatetz is celebrating.
9.50pm: In an amazing turnaround substitute Mark Viduka scores a second goal for Boro in the 90th minute and Steve talks rapid fire over the replays as around him the crowd go wild. He’s sitting just inches away from the Boro fans, who are on their feet and waving their arms in front of him. Steve Pierson points to the touchline to give a sign and almost immediately the commentator announces “there are three minutes of stoppage time”.
9.54pm: The final whistle goes and Steve take wraps up the match into the mic. “Chelsea are beaten – and beaten in August,” he says, with all the stats he needs at his fingertips thanks to his carefully crafted notes. “They didn't lose until Novermber 16 last year. They were beaten on August 23 this time. And who is it? It's Middlesbrough again, the team who inflicted Mourinho's biggest defeat at Chelsea have inflicted defeat again.” With the commentary finished Steve takes off his headset. “That was an eventful ending,” he says. “I was pleased with my line for the equalizer though.”
10.00pm: Steve Wilson arrives in the interview room, which is situated in the tunnel next to the dressing rooms. Sky and the BBC have different backing boards against the wall, and they take turns to interview each manager, sharing the camera and mic. First in is Josť Mourinho. Steve Wilson asks the question that no-one else dares to ask that night. “I asked him about Ashley Cole and William Gallas, but Jose gave an answer that wasn’t very much,” he says. “I asked him it again in a round about way, and he said ‘you know this is about the game, you not supposed to be asking that’.”
At least he didn’t walk out. “The only time I’ve ever had a real run in with anybody was last season with Harry Redknapp when the Portsmouth fans had unfurled a big banner that said ‘Walk the plank Judas’. I asked him about it and he said ‘interview over’ and walked out. That’s the only time anybody’s walked out on me.”
10.02pm: At the side of the pitch another member of the MOTD team is packing away his equipment. Graeme has been in charge of Camera 3, which captures all the upclose pitch-level action. It resembles a machine gun emplacement and Graeme has been seated on the revolving camera for the last two hours. He is wrapped from head to toe in waterproofs. “It was raining for the last 15 minutes, but I could cope with that,” he said. “It was an exciting finale to the game – but it can always be eventful with Middlesbrough.”
10.15pm: The interview room is getting busy. The two Boro goalscorers Emanuel Pogatetz and late sub Mark Viduka have been wheeled in to face the cameras. Viduka seems delighted with his goal and insists that the manager took the right tactical decision dropping him from the starting line-up to play with just one striker. It’s very hot under the television lights and Mark is fully suited. He has to wipe the sweat from his brow with his football shirt before rejoining the Boro party. “Cheer lads,” he says to the TV crew as he leaves.
10.35pm: Gareth Southgate enters the room and Steve breaks the ice. “I just told Mark Viduka that you’ll be leaving him on the bench every week if that’s how he play.” Southgate laughs and the interview goes well.
10.45pm: Steve Wilson leaves the stadium. Outside the OB truck he bumps into Simon Brotherton, who has just come from the press conference. Simon’s Radio Five Live broadcast has gone well and he seems pretty pleased. “It was a good night,” he says, “particularly for me, as I was commentating on the last 20 minutes!”
10.50pm: Steve Wilson pops into the OB truck to have one last chat about the game with Andrew Clement. “The programme is on air now,” says the director. “We’re probably the first match on so they’ll still be editing the second half while the first half goes on air.”
For Steve Wilson the night is over. While MOTD's studio team of Gary Lineker, Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen are still on air mulling over the match, Steve heads off to his hotel. Tomorrow he’ll be back at home but will he watch the programme to see how he’s done? “It depends if my missus has remembered to video it, which she probably hasn’t,” he laughs. “So it’s possible that I may never see it!”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007