David Coleman was the face of BBC Sport for more than four decades. But it’s his voice we all remember – a taut and knowing commentary style that became the soundtrack to many of our greatest sporting moments, from Olympic golds to World Cup goals.
Delivered in that famous garrulous gurgle, the passion and simple brevity of it were never better illustrated than when announcing a goal with a short, sharp “One–nil!” Or, if he got really carried away, the more emphatic “One–nothing!”
“I’d get ‘One–nil’ shouted at me in the playground a lot,” says Mike Coleman, recalling his famous father’s most famous words. “Or on the football field, if I scored a goal, the shout would always be ‘One–nil!’ even if it was three. When he was watching us play sport, people would always ask him to do a bit of commentary, or ‘Give us a one–nil’ but he’d always smile and politely decline.”
Such was his dedication to his craft and his reluctance to be interviewed or chase the limelight, little was known about the man behind the mic, although we know more now following the tributes that flowed in after he died in December, aged 87. “He was very much a private family man,” confirms Mike, 51, who is the second youngest of Coleman’s six children. “He seemed to be on the telly all the time but he never made a big thing about it, so to us he was just Dad. On a Saturday he’d go into Grandstand, come back for something to eat and then go out again to do a live broadcast of Match of the Day as if he was just popping to the office.
“The only clue as to what he did for a living was that whenever we watched a sports show at home, he’d be directing and producing the programme from his armchair. If he didn’t like something he’d seen, he’d ring up the production team and tell them. That was a constant of our childhood – Dad on the phone to directors and producers.”
Coleman’s meticulously high professional standards – he’d trained as a journalist of the old school, working his way up from local papers in Stockport to become the BBC’s face of Grandstand for a decade and the corporation’s senior commentator – were mirrored at home. “His whole ethos was, ‘There’s no point doing anything unless you do it properly,’” laughs Mike.
“So whether it was helping us with our schoolwork or watching us play sport he was always urging, ‘You’re better than that, try doing it this way.’ Doing things to the best of your ability was what drove him. But at the same time he was always kind, compassionate and supportive.”
Fellow BBC commentator, and Coleman’s protégé, John Motson, confirms that Coleman was a demanding taskmaster. “He set standards very high and was extremely impatient and irritable with people who didn’t reach them. But that made us all better commentators and reporters, because he simply wouldn’t stand for anything second-best.”
Motson readily admits to learning his craft from the master. “When I first joined BBC TV, I was sent out to shadow him. I was shoulder to shoulder with him on Saturdays and his meticulous approach rubbed off on me. He was brilliant under pressure. The greater the demands, the better he responded.”
It’s ironic, then, that Coleman became known for commentary gaffes, thanks to Private Eye’s Colemanballs – a collection that included the quintessential Coleman blooper, “That’s the fastest time ever run – but it’s not as fast as the world record.” But Coleman never saw the joke, not least because the mistakes weren’t always his.
“What irritated David was that he used to get blamed for things he’d never said,” says Motson. “Colemanballs attributed other commentator’s gaffes to him.”
Hi son, Mike, agrees. “He didn’t find Colemanballs funny. He didn’t like people getting credit for taking the mickey and running people down. It was the same with Mike Yarwood doing impressions of him. He didn’t really get the humour of it, but I think deep down he took it as an honour that he was being mimicked.”
Coleman was equally dismissive of Spitting Image, which created a manic puppet of him that was usually seen sticking a finger in its earpiece while chortling, “Err, quite remarkable” – another oft-repeated Colemanism. “He was never offended by it, but it wasn’t his sense of humour,” says Mike.
Coleman played for Stockport County reserves as a no-nonsense defender in his early 20s. “I can vouch for his athletic prowess,” chuckles Motson. “When we covered the 1978 World Cup in Argentina I remember going out for runs with him well ahead, looking back to urge me to improve my feeble performance.”
But Coleman was most famous for his prodigious memory that enabled him to read the football results as they came in via Grandstand’s famous teleprinter while casually rattling off subsequent changes to league positions. “I used to help Dad prepare,” recalls Mike. “He’d have shorthand notes for every league fixture and he’d get me to test him. So I’d call out, say, Port Vale v Tranmere Rovers, and he’d fire back, ‘If Tranmere win today that’ll be their fifth win in a row and they’ll move up two places.’ He had the statistics for all four divisions in his head so he could effortlessly reel them off as each result came in.”