Barry Davies nearly became a dentist. Not very nearly; he soon realised he’d taken a wrong turning and went into newspapers, then television, becoming the finest all-round sports commentator we’ve ever known. But perhaps something of that early career choice lingered on into half a century of commentating.
“Now this won’t hurt a bit…” The dentist’s eternal lie is surely equally appropriate for someone about to talk us through England’s latest World Cup agony, or the next five-set martyrdom from a British hope at Wimbledon.
Which is the greater sporting occasion? Matter of taste, I suppose. Davies’s choice is simple enough: “I’d always want to do both. To be in both places at the same time, if only I had the ability. More than once, I’ve left the World Cup while it was still going on in order to be at Wimbledon.” Now he’s about to do his last Wimbledon, and his life and work will be celebrated in a BBC1 documentary this week.
Perhaps the most painful of all these moments of national suffering was the Hand of God: the World Cup quarter-final in 1986 when Argentina’s Diego Maradona scored, beating the England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to a high ball despite being seven inches shorter. He did so, of course, by using his hand – and Davies is still upset that he didn’t spot the foul.
Mind you, neither did anyone else, including the ref, so no need to beat yourself up. And Davies has the consolation that he called the next goal just right: Maradona’s exquisite slalom through the England team, starting in his own half.
“I said ‘pure football genius’. It’s usually remembered as sheer football genius, but I said pure, to contrast it with the previous goal, which certainly wasn’t pure.”
If you want to irritate Davies, tell him he became an omni-sport commentator because he wasn’t getting the top football matches. True, he had a career-long rivalry with John Motson, one that was conducted without enmity or loss of mutual esteem.
But it’s a fact of the sporting life that some people see life though the window of a single sport, while others take a wider, more inclusive view. Both approaches have their merits. If Motty was a stick of rock, it would say “football” all the way through him; Davies has found meaning in sport’s diversity. “It’s probably true that working with all those other sports made me a better football commentator,” he says.
He got involved with skating because of the national love affair with Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean when they won the gold medal in ice dance at the Winter Olympic games of 1984 with their immortal Boléro routine.
“I enjoyed the challenge, though I thought it was surprising that some of the dances could be broadcast before the watershed… But you can find greatness in every sport, and if you cover a lot of sports, you learn to recognise it. It’s like the song: ‘You’ve either got or you haven’t got style – if you got it, you stand out a mile!’”