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Radio's Hardest Job?

28/05/2015 12:56 BST | Updated 27/05/2016 10:59 BST

As the football season draws to a close in the UK, it is time for fans, players and managers to take a break from the frenetic nature of the sport. It is also a time for many commentators to lay down their microphones and rest their voices for a few weeks. Football commentary is the radio job I always wanted to do. I used to run around the garden commentating as I kicked a ball into a makeshift net.

For me an early inspiration was Peter Jones, who had a wonderful tone to his voice but also a classic sense of drama. He articulated in a controlled but passionate way what was unfolding in front of him. As a young fan I just liked his voice. It was probably the slightly richer tone from his Welsh routes.

Famously - and rather tragically - Jones had to commentate for both the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters. It was with some class that he dealt with both. He died in 1990, covering the University Boat Race, and his departure left a gap that was tough to fill. When he died, then BBC radio boss David Hatch said that Jones "could make a poor match bearable, and a good match almost unbearable".

For me, I never came close to reaching the level of Peter Jones, either in my career as a commentator or in my quality! The highlight for me - so far - was commentating on my beloved Reading FC against Northampton Town for Classic Gold. I did well considering I had no pundit with me and the line to the studio had no talkback - so I only got to break at half time. But it was a goalless draw. So no famous goal to add to my demo! Despite no goals, afterwards I struggled to interview Reading manager Alan Pardew, as my voice was so croaky.

But this is not meant to a blog of self-reflection. The focus of these mutterings was inspired - although that is not the best word to use - by John Motson commentating on BBC Radio 5 Live recently. He was covering the Arsenal-Swansea Premier League game. In his time, Motson was a good and solid TV commentator with his niche habit of digging extraordinary facts from his piles of paper. Not in the same class as Peter Jones perhaps, but certainly good at his job. He became a nation's favourite.

20 years on from his prime though, listening to this Arsenal match underlined to me why radio commentary has to be one of the most skilled jobs in our business. To be fair, Motson was making it look very hard. Listening became difficult as his voice would go higher and higher, without giving you any sense of where the ball was and the flow of play. To his credit he knew every player's name - but he didn't have the descriptive power to paint the picture.

That last phrase is key. Radio is about painting a picture. The listener, most of the time, cannot see what is happening of course, so the skill is sharing what your eyes are witnessing with the listener. It sounds simple. But it's not. I remember listening to Euro 96, when a young(er) Alan Green was covering a match, and he said "look at the fans, at their celebrations". Of course I couldn't. I shouted at the radio 'tell me what they are doing!' Over the years Green has become too fixated with himself rather than the game itself, and that is another huge mistake. You are in a privileged position as a commentator, often covering games fans would dream to be at. You always need to remember that.

There are some very good sport commentators on radio right now. Jonathan Agnew is a class apart, but the likes of Ed Smith on TMS are learning from a master. Jon Murray on 5 Live enthuses and engages in the way Green could never do, while Sam Matterface on talksport is improving season on season. What my experience listening to Motson underlined was just how hard something perceived as so simple can be. In fact, this point is underlined by a former colleague of mine at BBC London. The excellent commentator Phil Parry says: "for radio you are the listeners eyes. Update score. Where's the ball". Simple. Yet something so simple needs to be done with skill.