The driven man who was the master of the mic

NORMAN GILLER takes a personal view of the master of the microphone

David Coleman was one of the greatest sports broadcasters of any time, but there was a cutting edge to him off screen that left scars on many BBC wannabees.

On the ball: David Coleman
On the ball: David Coleman

In my days as a television sports columnist, I was often a backroom guest at the Grandstand studio and saw him rip young sub-editors to pieces if they did not meet his perfectionist standards.

He was at his best when walking a tightrope of tension, showing amazing memory and authority at the teleprinter, where his speed of delivery made today’s No1 machine gunner Jeff Stelling seem almost tortoise-like.

During his 50-year career, Coleman bridged the two worlds of black and white television to colour and high tech, and grew from cub reporter to become the Voice and Face of Sport. He took commentating from amateurish drivel kicking and screaming into a new era, bringing in his wake even better commentators in the shape of John Motson, Barry Davies and my best mate, Brian Moore.

I recall Brian telling me when I was helping him get his memories into shape for a book: “David is a brilliant broadcaster, but a less than friendly rival. He has hardly ever had a civil word to say to me and is always prickly. I used to think it was just me, but then I noticed he was very sharp with his BBC colleagues, so I just accepted he was a driven man.”

Coleman’s marathon session at the microphone during the 1972 Olympic hostage crisis proved he could handle the most serious subjects as well as the more trivial themes. He was at his best when commentating on his first love of athletics , and sometimes found wanting when at the microphone in fast-moving football matches.

Private Eye’s constant spotlighting of his slips of tongue (“If that had gone in, it would have been a goal”) irritated the hell out of him, and he considered legal action when they launched their Colemanballs column.

David took himself very seriously, and hated to think he was a laughing stock. He used to spend a lot of time trying to prove he had not said what Private Eye accused him of, and always had an excuse for some of the sillier statements. “You try talking at 100 words a minute and not occasionally trip over your tongue,” he said.

While he had to suffer much behind-the-back mickey taking, in his profession he was recognised as the king. It was always a mystery to me – and continual frustration to David – that he did not get a knighthood for his 50 years’ service to sports broadcasting.

The BBC are making all the right noises about him now, but David never got over his bitterness at the way he was treated at the end of his career. They allowed him to just fade off screen rather than giving him the sort of glory send-off that, for example, was enjoyed by Motormouth Murray Walker at ITV.

The International Olympic Committee rewarded Coleman with the its Olympic Order after he laid down his microphone following the 2000 Sydney Olympics, an honour never before won by a broadcaster and until then exclusive to the great Olympic champions.

The BBC did not bother to report it.

What a load of Colemanballs.

Rest easy, David. A true Master of the Microphone.



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