STEVEN DOWNES on the life and career of the greatest sports commentator we have ever heard
It was late March 1999, and the track pack was in Belfast for the world cross-country championships. It also happened to be a World Cup qualifier day, too, and TV schedulers had seen to it that the running was staged in the morning. So, once our copy was filed, our real task for the day was to find somewhere that was showing the England match.
Finding a bar in Belfast showing England playing football was far from straightforward. There were plenty of pubs showing the Republic’s match that afternoon, and all the rest – and there are a few – were offering Norn Ireland’s game. Nowhere did it seem a good idea to ask whether the landlord would consider changing their screening plan.
But eventually, and just in time for kick-off, we located a hotel that offered the live feed from Wembley, and a clutch of us athletics writers in our 30s – Tom Knight, Simon Turnbull, myself and maybe one or two others – tramped in wearing our winter coats and muddy boots, only to find that the BBC commentary team from the morning’s race had got there first.
There, in the front row seats, was Brendan Foster, David Coleman and one or two others from the production crew. Nodded greetings were exchanged, but no time for chat as important matters were about to begin, and we went to the back of the room so as not to get in way of the doyen’s view of the screen.
And then the strangest thing happened.
Unprompted, unscripted, as the group of us watched Paul Scholes scoring England’s first against Poland, we all cried out in unison:
And equally in unison, realising what we had just done, we then all looked towards David Coleman. Instinctively, we children of the 1960s who had grown-up from the cradle hearing Coleman’s commentaries, had just recited one of the great commentator’s great catchphrases. It was not a parody or a tease, it was just spontaneous, what seemed natural. It was, you might say, quite remarkable.
Yet Coleman did not flinch nor react to our unintended tribute. An hour or so later, the match duly won, he got up to leave, probably to prepare for the following day’s race commentaries, just as he had done so for the previous 40-odd years.
What none of us knew then, and what Coleman himself may not have known at that time, was that he was about the enter the final year of the finest career of any sports commentator. His detachment and remoteness from the BBC since that retirement after the 2000 Sydney Olympics suggested a deep bitterness and resentment towards the Corporation, where he had played such an influential role.
David Coleman pretty much invented the role of the TV sports anchor and commentator as we know it today. And the firm conclusion of everyone who worked with Coleman or knew him and his work was that what marked him out from many behind the lip- mic was that his background was as a newspaper reporter who understood what a news story is.
“If anyone ever called him a television star, he would, in his own inimitably brusque fashion, point you to his passport where it said simply ‘Journalist’,” Ian Chadband wrote in the Telegraph.
“’That’s what I am. Just what it says there,’ Coleman would say, jabbing that battered old passport. He was proud of the description and, ultimately, he knew the reason he was so feted as a commentator and presenter, and called the voice of British sport, was because, at heart, he was a quite brilliant journalist.”
David Coleman died yesterday, aged 87. The outpouring of tributes since have been well deserved and mostly well-observed. For those of us of a certain age, and who cherished every televised minute of every Olympic Grandstand or who relished staying up late on a school night to watch Sportsnight with Coleman, his voice was part of the soundtrack of our lives. “Magnificent, magnificent, magnificent.”
There would be a month in the spring each year when, with a very BBC-esque trilby and a trend-setting sheepskin coat, Coleman would be seen beside the Thames tideway, in the winner’s enclosure at Aintree, or on the touchline at Wembley, interviewing oarsmen or jockeys, reading news flashes and the latest scores, with a calm aplomb which defied the crude technology with which he was equipped.
The Private Eye parodies and Spitting Image dolls came much later, and only reflected that, in doing hour after hour of live television over six decades, the occasional slip is inevitable.
So what Coleman will have made of his Telegraph obituary today which recalls one of his more notorious gaffes – “… and who cares who’s third?!” – and attributes it, in print, incorrectly to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when it was in fact in Mexico City four years later, could probably not be published on a family-friendly website. “I’m fucking furious!” was his alliteration of choice when he rang in to the Athletics Weekly offices to complain about some inaccuracy or incomplete detail.
It is also a sad signal of how Coleman’s career is becoming lost in the pre-digital era mists that the eponymous column in the Eye long ago became a more generic “Commentatorballs”. Grandstand, the live Saturday sports flagship that BBC Sport built around Coleman, was long ago sunk by the corporation’s apathy and inability to secure rights to key events.
Coleman’s own bitter estrangement from the BBC also deprived the public, his fans and admirers, from his own views and reflections on his career; when the BBC did one of their excellent retrospectives on the man’s career recently, he refused to take part in its making. The result was as if the documentary had been made posthumously.
Yet there was plenty of material to choose from the archive. Coleman covered 11 summer Olympics, from 1960 to 2000, as well as several Winter Games, and six football World Cups from 1958. He presented A Question of Sport for 18 years and Grandstand for 14 years.
He had been a very decent middle distance runner – he was good enough to have won the Manchester Mile in 1949, the only non-international runner to do so, and this in the era of Bannister and Chataway. His best cross-country performance was in the 1952 English National, when he was 116th and won a team bronze. But injuries and his career diverted the grammar school boy from Cheshire towards getting to the Olympics in other ways. “I’d have swapped all the Games I’ve covered for the chance of having run decently in just one,” he admitted to Chadband.
Coleman started as a newspaper reporter on the Stockport Express and after National Service in the immediate post-war years, at 22 he became the editor of the Cheshire County Express. By 1953, he was doing freelance work for the BBC in Manchester, his detailed knowledge of athletics being well utilised. He made his television debut on Sportsview on the day that Bannister broke the four-minute mile. Within five years, the BBC had effectively “invented” a Saturday afternoon programme for him, and Coleman would each week front five or more hours of live sport on Grandstand until the early 1970s.
Coleman quickly understood his role as a presenter and commentator. “This is television,” Coleman told one of his colleagues, former hurdler and coach Stuart Storey, when he joined him in the commentary box. “The commentator says what the picture does not say.”
And Coleman would often not hold back in saying what the pictures could not. “The most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game,” was his assessment of the brawl in Santiago at the 1962 World Cup between Chile and Italy players.
Coleman was “the master who set the standard for sports broadcasting on television”, said SJA member Barry Davies, one of his long-time Match of the Day colleagues.
“He had such authority in his voice which could bring even the most mundane event to life. And at the big events he was superb. I feel privileged to have known him, worked with him and occasionally stood in for him when he was in his prime.”
Another SJA member, Martin Gillingham, had trodden a similar path to Coleman in his career, going from track athlete to the commentary box, via magazines and newspapers, and had looked to Coleman for guidance, especially in respect to attention to detail.
“During my days as an athlete, David Coleman was the first television commentator to pronounce my name correctly,” said the former Olympic 400-metre hurdler whose name uses a hard G, like the Dorset town, rather than the place in Kent.
“Later on, he became my ‘how to’ teacher and style guide as a broadcaster,” Gillingham said.
“I once allowed him to persuade me to leave Shaftesbury Harriers and join the club where he was president, Wolverhampton and Bilston. It wasn’t a hard sell: David was living in a Buckinghamshire village and on the same street as my girlfriend of the time. I’d bump into him occasionally down the pub and that’s where the deal was done. Frankly, I was just flattered that he knew me, took an interest, and viewed me as a possible asset to a club littered with household names.
“In my view, David got the balance of his commentary role just right: a lover of sport yet adamant that he would never compromise his role as a journalist because of it. He was no cheerleader.
“Back in the day, you knew a sporting event really mattered when Coleman’s was the voice you heard and, occasionally, didn’t. Because Coleman’s art was his use of the pause … the silence … ‘The men’s Olympic one hundred metres final…’.”
There were so many other examples of Coleman’s commentaries encapsulating the moment. “Steve Ovett in fourth place. Those blue eyes like chips of ice,” midway through the 1980 Olympic 800m final, or “You don’t become a bad athlete in the space of a week,” after Sebastian Coe came back and beat Ovett over 1,500m at those Moscow Games.
Coleman’s own personal favourite was from the 1960 Olympics, when Herb Elliott destroyed the field in the Rome 1,500m: “And there’s the best in the world, running away from the rest of the world.”
There are some lines misattributed to Coleman, too. Ron Pickering always seemed a bit put out that it was taken for granted that Coleman had said, “Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class”, when he felt it was his claim to commentary fame, or infamy.
Coleman was also notorious as a hard task master on those around him, especially the BBC’s long-suffering athletics stats man, Stan Greenberg. The tale of the 1976 Olympic Marathon showed what Coleman could do from unpromising material.
Based in the press seats in the Montreal Stadium, there was precious little to work with on the two-hour-plus race, beyond the pictures being beamed back to his monitor. Coleman duly recognised the defending champion, Frank Shorter, but he had nothing on the other long-time leader beyond his white vest and race number indicating that it was someone with little pre-Games form called Waldemar Cierpinski, apparently on his way to winning an Olympic medal, Coleman assumed for Poland. Greenberg was duly despatched around the stadium to discover more: “Go and ask Polish TV about him!” came the barked order off-air.
With the leading runners approaching the stadium and the race finish, Greenberg scurried back with one vital piece of information. Cierpinski, though not wearing his nation’s usual blue vest, was from East Germany, not Poland. He thrust a scribbled note in front of Coleman who, without a metaphorical break of commentary stride declared, “… and it’s Cierpinski. From East Germany. But who did a lot of his early training in Poland…”
It was four years earlier, though, and when covering something which was the antithesis of Olympian sport, when Coleman, the “real journalist” at heart, had what was probably his finest moment of broadcasting. The Black September hostage siege at the Munich Olympics in 1972 saw the sports commentator become a live news reporter, delivering a 30-hour, almost non-stop stint guiding the nation through the terrible drama that ended in massacre at the airport.
“Yes, I was a proper journalist then,” Coleman said.
David Coleman is survived by his wife, Barbara, and their six children.
David Coleman, born April 26 1926, died December 21 2013