"You can find greatness in every sport": Legendary commentator Barry Davies talks World Cups and Wimbledon
Veteran pundit Barry Davies revisits his most famous moments in British sporting history and what it takes to be a broadcast journalist
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!’”
What Davies likes best in sport is drama, and that is something that it brings us on a regular basis. Television also loves drama in sport above all else. It follows that television loves a commentator who can respond to these dramas the right way, with the right words, illuminating the experience, ushering the viewer into the best seat in the stadium and making everything even more vivid, even more dramatic.
The night of Boléro is on Davies’s list of dramatic favourites, along with the 2003 Boat Race. The Boat Race always has drama, but usually a pretty straightforward plot. That time the lead changed twice and Oxford won by a foot, the smallest margin in Boat Race history. And then there’s football: England’s 4-1 victory over Holland at the 1996 Euros is another favourite, the moment when it really did seem that football was coming home.
If you’re at a sporting event doing a job, professional satisfaction plays a significant part in the way you remember it. That’s why Davies’s recollection of the FA Cup semi-final of 1991 is such a warm one. There was a screaming free- kick goal from Paul Gascoigne – and Davies found the right words. They were even printed on a T-shirt commemorating the occasion.
I was in the stadium myself, and saw Gascoigne line up the kick from a seemingly impossible distance. I, too, felt a moment of disbelief at this choice, and a still greater disbelief as the ball travelled – in an absolutely straight line, no hint of a curve or a swerve – into the net. “Is Gascoigne going to have a crack? He is you know...”
One of the constant questions for the commentator – more so than for anyone else covering sporting events – is the question of partisanship. Should you say “we” when talking about England? Not if you want the Scottish, the Welsh and many others to keep watching. He was concerned that the BBC’s coverage of the London Olympic Games strayed too much into cheerleading for Team GB, and away from acknowledging the abilities of the opposition.
So it's a trifle ironic that one of the greatest lines of partisan commentary in television history came from Davies. It was the gold medal match at the men's hockey tournament in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, when Imran Sherwani of Great Britain made a run through the German defence to score and make certain of the gold medal.
“Where, oh where were the Germans? And frankly – who cares?”
I was in the stadium for that one too, so I didn’t hear the commentary. But what Davies was saying at that moment, I most certainly felt. He captured the moment all right.
But for all the emotional nature of some – quite a lot – of Davies’s commentaries, there was always a sense of restraint at the back of it. “Don’t say too much. Don’t tell the viewers that the ball’s gone over the bar when they can all see it’s gone over the bar. I’ve been guilty of that. We’ve all been guilty of that – but knowing when not to speak is the most important part of commentary. And perhaps the part that’s most in danger of being lost.”
Football, athletics, ice skating, badminton, cycling, hockey (“because I actually played it”) , ice hockey (“because I loved it”), tennis, gymnastics, rowing – and doubtless a few others I’ve missed. So we talked for a moment about what he might do in retirement – he could always go back to dentistry...
A great guffaw from Davies. “I still can’t understand how I ever made the decision to try dentistry. I remember one person I was supposed to be working on at the Royal Dental Hospital. Nearly choked him...”
Dentistry’s loss was a gain for everyone with a taste for sport. Not just one sport, all of them – for after all, any one of them could bring the next eternal moment of pure sporting genius.
Barry Davies: the Man, the Voice, the Legend airs Wednesday 4th July at 10.45pm on BBC1