Through the highs and lows of sport, they’re the voices in our heads. As we watch the Hollywood levels of drama unfold, they provide the script.
When you look back on some of the biggest moments in sport, a commentator’s iconic lines often come flooding back alongside the memories. Steven Gerrard’s thunderbolt against Olympiacos. Sergio Aguero’s winner against QPR to land Manchester City the title. If you watched them, you’ll remember Andy Gray roaring ‘ya beauty, what a hit son, what a hit,’ or Martin Tyler telling us ‘I swear you’ll never see anything like this ever again.’
Having been deprived of all sport earlier this year as the pandemic wiped out the calendar, all eyes – and ears – turned to Germany as the Bundesliga became one of the first competitions to resume from the shutdown in May.
BT Sport commentator Ian Darke, one of the most recognisable voices in the game, was on hand to talk us through it. But at times, it was a difficult conversation.
In a spectacular operation by BT at the height of the pandemic, directors, producers and commentators all worked from home to put the coverage together.
Darke, a self-proclaimed technophobe with a questionable internet speed, has compared the experience to ‘climbing Everest in plimsolls’ as he sat in his study, being fed pictures from the broadcaster’s headquarters in Stratford.
‘It was scary to be honest, and I don’t usually get scared in broadcasting,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘It was a pretty hi-tech set-up but in the end it still relies on the strength of your broadband signal.’
A game which caused particular distress was Hoffenheim vs Hertha Berlin, as his connection failed at a crucial point in the match.
Home-spun commentary on Bundesliga. Strange days indeed. pic.twitter.com/JKJoQhttX6
‘We’ve all commentated off-cue before, but at one point a guy is taking a corner kick and the picture just froze for 30 seconds. The next thing I saw was the goalkeeper with the ball! The viewers at home are probably wondering why there’s no sound coming.
‘I wasn’t exactly shaking but you’re thinking, “let this game be over without there being any more technical difficulties”. To be honest, the tech guys at BT were the heroes because they made it happen and I don’t know how because it felt like you were sitting at the controls of a Boeing 747.’
Thankfully for Darke, the pandemic restrictions eased enough to allow the Premier League to restart the season in June and for him to get back in the commentary box. But calling games behind closed doors means the buzz of the crowd is gone.
Generating excitement for viewers at home can be a tough ask when the only sounds on offer are the echoes of players shouting and a ball being kicked. The invention of artificial crowd noise helps give us some semblance of normality, and Darke has it fed into his headphones to put him in the groove.
‘At least that just gives you the feel of being real. Without that, you feel like you’re talking in the Grand Canyon, with your voice bouncing off the sides. It’s easier to just get yourself in gear and it gets the adrenaline pumping.’
Darke, one of Sky Sports’ original commentators alongside the likes of Martin Tyler and Rob Hawthorne who helped launch Monday Night Football in 1992, took his first career steps on the playground.
He has no recollection of it, but he’s told he would commentate into milk bottles while standing on the sidelines watching school football matches.
He started off as a local news reporter before heading to Radio Leicester in 1975 and later joining BBC’s Sports Report radio team in London – what we now know as 5 Live. There he worked alongside big names – the likes of Peter Jones, Bryon Butler and future Match of the Day host Des Lynam.
He remained in the shadows for a while, helping out on production in the background, before a big break arrived on the boxing scene in 1980. Lynam would usually handle the fights for the BBC, but he had left to start his TV career.
‘They said to me, “There’s a big fight in America, we need somebody to go out and cover it, you’re on the plane on Monday”. So the very first fight I ever covered was Muhammad Ali against Larry Holmes. Then it’s all downhill from there!’
He had never been to America, let alone covered a fight, but arrived in Las Vegas and headed straight to Ali’s gym to arrange an interview. The novice was left staggered by the reception he received from one of the greatest fighters that ever lived.
‘I went to the gym and [Ali] was doing shadow boxing in the ring. I crept up to his trainer Angelo Dundee and said, “Do you think Muhammad would be able to do an interview with me for the BBC sometime this week?”
‘Dundee shouts out to Ali, “Hey Muhammad! We got a guy from England here!” So, Ali starts all this talk and says, “We’re gonna talk to the guy from England! We’re gonna talk about boxing – boxing started in England, let’s talk to the guy from England!”.
Taken aback and completely unprepared, Darke attempted to line up some questions while the 6ft 3in heavyweight continued in his jestering mood – throwing jabs towards his face that would make most opponents retreat.
‘All I had to ask him was two things and he just went off doing a performance into the microphone, pretending to throw jabs at me, which ended about an inch from my nose!
‘I didn’t flinch and at the end of it all, he just said “not bad, kid”.’
Darke later became Sky Sports’ main boxing commentator and would go on to cover some of the biggest events in the ring.
He was there for Marvin Hagler v Thomas Hearns and that contest between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield in 1997.
He said: ‘I almost had to check and say to myself, “Did Tyson actually bite his ear?” Before I actually say those words on air I’ve got to do a double check in my head.’
While he enjoyed some memorable years ringside, his number one love will always be football. He’s worked on Premier League and Champions League games and covered World Cups for ESPN in America.
But one interesting encounter sticks out from early on in his career – far away from the glitz and glamour of the game.
Darke was sent to cover an England v Wales game at the Victory Shield – an Under 15 event involving the home nations. Just before kick-off he was approached by a fairly confident young Wales player.
‘I’m talking to these young Wales lads and one of them comes up to me and goes, “You’re the commentator aren’t you”. I said, “Yeah”. He said, “Don’t forget to give me a good mention. I’ll be wearing number nine, you’ll pick me up straight away”.
‘This young kid was about 5ft 3in and didn’t even look big enough to be playing. He says,”If you could say in the commentary I’ll be playing for Wales and I’ll be playing in the Premier League”. I said, “Well that’s big talk”.
‘I looked at the teamsheet and it said “number nine, Craig Bellamy”. He was terrible in the game, frankly, then about two years later I picked up my paper one morning and it says “Wonder kid Bellamy, hat-trick for Norwich City”.
Bellamy would often see Darke around the circuit after turning professional and couldn’t resist the temptation to remind him of how things had turned out.
‘He always said, “Do you remember that game? I told you didn’t I? You didn’t believe me, did you?” I said, “No, I bloody didn’t believe you! You were shocking that night!”
Looking ahead to next season, Darke is as much in the dark as any of us about how Premier League football will look. While there are plans to have partial crowds back in grounds by October, things likely won’t return to normal until next year.
The view from the commentary box is that the game is ‘nothing without fans’, according to Darke. ‘It’s a very weird and surreal, strange experience and it’s never going to catch on,’ he said. ‘They’ll be welcomed back with open arms.’
Until then, commentators will have to contend with their new normal. Empty stadiums can have a real draining effect on players and the spectacle of a match. A game of football can be a hard sell even in the best of times – something Darke is the first to admit.
‘l’ll be honest. Sometimes I’m sitting there during a game and think “If I was at home, I’d probably switch over and see if there was a good film on.” So I almost tell myself, “We’ve got to pep this up and find something interesting to talk about”.’
He reminds himself of the words of former commentator Brian Moore – who covered nine World Cups and more than 20 cup finals across 40 years.
‘[Moore] said something in his book that really is quite a simple thing. We should all remember that we’re all guests in somebody’s living room. So, we should all try to be good guests.’