STEVEN DOWNES wishes a pioneer of sports broadcasting, a consummate commentator, presenter, quiz show host and interviewer, many happy returns
It was a Saturday of international football, and so mindful of the demands of various television stations around Europe, the World Cross-country Championships race in Belfast that spring-like March day 12 years ago were all dutifully done and dusted in the morning.
Once again, as we were becoming accustomed to in those 20th century years, we had witnessed victory snatched away from Paula Radcliffe (even the silver medal was denied “our Paula” that day). So we athletics writers dashed off to the press conference for the quotes, we sent our copy, and then set off back to the centre of town with one mission in mind: to find one bar, any bar, that would be showing the England v Poland match from 3 o’clock, rather than the simultaneous Northern Ireland game or Ireland’s fixture.
This was a much more difficult call than you might imagine, even just 12 years ago, before the proliferation of readily available digital TV channels. But like all good hacks, we put our trust in a local cab driver, and our block-booked taxis from Barnett Demesne dropped us off in the city centre and pointed us, in our muddied boots, for the bar of the Holiday Inn.
And there, already in place in the “front row” for the bar’s TV set, ready for the kick off was Paul Dickenson, Brendan Foster and the BBC television team. And right in the middle of them was David Coleman.
Having said brief hellos, and not wishing to cause the great man any distraction, Ian Chadband, Tom Knight, Mike Rowbottom and the rest of us duly took our proper places at the back of the room.
It is not giving away any great secrets to relate that Chad, Tom and I all grew up in the 1960s, probably watching far too much sport on the BBC, learning from a generation of commentators never likely to be surpassed: the silver-tongued Peter O’Sullevan, the sagacious Henry Longhurst, Dan Maskell (“Oooo. I say!”), and the unparalleled Richie Benaud and (at least most Sundays on TV) John Arlott.
And there at the heart of it all, as Grandstand‘s first regular frontman or delivering heart-pumping live commentaries from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics onwards, was Coleman himself.
Less-well remembered was Coleman’s football commentaries through that golden era, when – post-Wolstenholme’s 1966 finest two hours – he was the main man for Match of the Day, for Gordon Banks’s save from Pele in 1970 and for the 1974 World Cup final. So influential was Coleman’s football commentaries that, long before Spitting Image did their worst, he unwittingly developed his own catchphrase: “One – Nil!”
To this day, I maintain that what followed that afternoon in Belfast was entirely spontaneous, an unwitting tribute by half a dozen athletics writers, and fans, to David Coleman.
As England tore apart a fairly poor Polish side, and little Paul Scholes rose at the far post to head home the first of his three goals that afternoon, all of us at the back rose to our feet and, instinctively, metaphorically punched the air with a cry in unison:
“ONE – NIL!”
Dickenson and Foster, and the late Martin Webster, turned round, perhaps with a smile, perhaps thinking we might be taking the piss. But the great man himself? He sat, still facing the screen, unmoved.
We relate this anecdote by way of marking Coleman’s 85th birthday today, to set the record straight, apologise for any misunderstanding, and to wish the great man well at his retirement home down in Devon.
Even Private Eye has dropped its fortnightly references to him, the Colemanballs column has recently been renamed Commentatorballs – does Ian Hislop believe no one remembers Coleman now? He is certainly not forgotten by devotees of the best coverage of some of the most profound sporting moments of the past 50 years.
Coleman’s commentary of Ann Packer’s Tokyo gold run, as he fought back his own tears of joy; “…His eyes like chips of ice”, his unforgettable description of the cool of Steve Ovett hunting his way towards Olympic 800 metres gold in 1980; and his seven-hour live vigil, working off just one distant fixed camera, at the Munich massacre in 1972.
Stuart Storey, his longtime commentary box colleague, once said of Coleman: “He was an A to Z of television. He had everything: a great ability to read a situation really well. He would always know when to put in the big hit-line, which when you heard it later you always wished you had said because it usually summed up everything perfectly.”
When Coleman retired a decade ago, he was awarded the Olympic Order by the IOC, the first journalist or broadcaster ever to receive the same honour as the likes of Jesse Owens, Emil Zatopek and Fanny Blankers-Koen. Yet the BBC marked the end of an era with a pretty mealy-mouthed press release and no more. “The Monarch of the Mike” has not been seen or heard from since.
Such wanton neglect might be corrected, if only partially, next Tuesday when BBC2 airs a tribute doco to this pioneer of sports broadcasting. The Quite Remarkable David Coleman airs at 9pm on May 3.
85 years young, David? Quite remarkable. Happy birthday.
UPCOMING SJA DATES
Mon Sep 12: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill GC. Click here for more details and to book yourself in for the day.
Wed Dec 7: SJA 2011 British Sports Awards – note the date in your diary now.
All details subject to alteration. Keep checking sportsjournalists.co.uk for updates