The Art of Football Commentary
To celebrate the announcement that music streaming service Deezer has joined forces with the world’s biggest sports radio station talkSPORT, we headed down to talkSPORT studios in London to see what it really takes to be a football commentator!
We don’t know about you but when we were younger we used to silence Jon Champion on our games of Pro Evo (we know – we’ve converted to FIFA now) so we could hone in on our commentary skills. And after our chat with talkSPORT presenter, producer and commentator Tom Rennie, we might have had the right idea all along!
Read on for our interview with Tom where we talk TV, preparation and that all important impartiality…
Average Joes: Hi Tom. So did you always want to be a football commentator?
Tom Rennie: I always wanted to work in radio. I used to make a brilliant a mixtape for our family holidays to the South coast with my sister Kate called ‘Radio Rennie’, which had some great comedic vignettes with Kate hitting me with things and you had to guess what it was she was hitting me with. Sometimes it was a plastic cricket bat and sometimes it would be various fruits. I did community radio for a while and then I worked at Time FM in Romford and we used to do reports on Dagenham & Redbridge, West Ham and some Orient bits. I’ve always been a massive West Ham fan and I play a lot of golf, a lot of football, I play squash twice a week and I’m doing Tough Mudder this Sunday – I’m going to die!
AJ: Well, at least your last photo will be with us.
TR: And it will make me feel like I’ve made it! So, yeah, I was doing Champions League updates at LBC and then this job came up and it’s my fourth year here! Now I’m doing Premier League and expanding into Bundesliga. I always wanted to, and still do, want to host ‘drive’ somewhere. That’s the ultimate thing I want to do really.
AJ: Kick out [Adrian] Durham, yeah?
TR: Well, eventually! He’s got to die some time, hasn’t he!? No, obviously I hope Adrian Durham goes on for a very very long time… He’s very good. But should he ever need a week off, I’d love to step in.
AJ: So you support West Ham? How easy is it to stay impartial during a game?
TR: What we’re trying to do, as compared to what maybe BBC 5 live do, is I don’t think you need to stay impartial on here [talkSPORT]. I don’t stay impartial and I’m pretty clear in the radio persona I’m trying to build is that I am a West Ham fan and that’s quite indicative of what we’re trying to do. I don’t actually tend to do West Ham games. I did the West Ham v Newcastle game and I don’t think it’s that difficult to stay impartial in terms of celebrating the goals because you owe it to the neutral supporters and the supporters of the other clubs. But I also think you owe it to make sure you’re being completely honest with your audience. It’s always professionalism v radio persona and there can be a fine line but whatever game it is you’ll have fans telling you you’re a fan of both teams.
AJ: In terms of social media, do you think it’s more difficult for commentators? One slip up and you’re pounced on. Stan Collymore gets his fair share of abuse, for example.
TR: I’m a massive admirer of the way Stan deals with the abuse he gets online. The guys with the big followers – it’s amazing they still want to stay on it with the amount of abuse they get. But I actually love using Twitter during games! We use Twitter maybe 3 or 4 times during a half. And we actually get a lot of friendly people… we get a picture from some bloke in Canada from his truck every week. “I’m listening in St. Lucia”, “I’m listening in Nigeria”… which is amazing! I have had some abuse, which is fair enough. But you have to be thick skinned. The bigger you get, the better you get, the thicker the skins got to be. I have a particular style where I like to put personality on it and personality draws criticism, unfortunately.
AJ: For a commentator, how much prep goes into a game?
TR: I’ve got a squad list for every team in the Premier League and the Bundesliga, and that takes a few of hours to put together. That’s from various sources collated down the years. So that’s the basic stats – their age, their previous clubs, fees… things like that. Then you would add that to what you know about them. I normally go through all the squad lists before the game. But I’ve got a massive log on each player. From there I’d maybe do a couple of hours on the game. Some commentators maybe take 7 or 8 hours if they’re doing the World Cup Final. But if you’re doing Chelsea v Arsenal, how much effort do I really need to put in to keep learning Chelsea? You can also just get buried in stats. If I have 100 a game, I might use 5. But you know what I like to do as well, especially for the German games where it can take more time? I always play a game on FIFA with the teams before we do it!
AJ: Honestly, we learnt all our footballers and clubs through Championship Manager!
TR: I tell you what, the way those games have gone in this next gen era of consoles is absolutely amazing. Obviously you need to do everything else but I’ve got West Brom v Everton on Monday and I haven’t done West Brom this season, so I’ll play with them on FIFA and I’ll learn the Right Back and whether he’s fast etc… They update the injuries weekly and there’s little anecdotes. It just get you in the mind set! I find it an incredibly useful thing. So that’s a little trade secret for ya!
AJ: Thanks, Tom!
TR: So if the girlfriend comes home early and asks what you’re doing, you can just say, “I’m working!”
AJ: So what’s your favourite ground to go to?
TR: I obviously love the Boleyn…
AJ: You can’t have that.
TR: It’s a great stadium, and I’m going to miss it, but I’m massively pumped for the Olympic Stadium. I couldn’t be happier about it. I’ve found that every West Ham supporter over the age of 35 is livid about it and most under 35 are quite happy about it. It’s an incredible venue and they’ve done some great work on it. I think it’ll be great. The infrastructure at the Boleyn is terrible – you’ve got to park about 5 miles away! But my favourite ground that I’ve been to to work at is the Emirates.
AJ: With the padded seats?
TR: It’s an incredible venue and the padded seats are lovely! We also do quite a lot of games at Wembley, which is amazing obviously. I shudder to say this as a West Ham fan but I’ve also got a lot of time for White Hart Lane. I think it’s one of the best atmospheres still going in the Premier League. It’s another ground like the Boleyn and Stamford Bridge that I think we’re going to miss.
AJ: What is the main difference between TV and Radio commentary?
TR: They are two very distinct disciplines. With TV commentary, it’s always said you can let the game breathe a bit more. You’re trying to add to the pictures. When I’ve done TV before, my biggest problem is I always talk too much. I am a really good radio commentator because I can speak really fast, my descriptions are very fast and my awareness is fast. I can put some personality onto it. There aren’t many TV stations that are asking for a personality commentator. They are extremes professionals who are able to add to moments. But I’ve generally found that the radio generally lends itself to what I’m able to do and what I enjoy doing a lot more. Radio is about trying to give them absolutely everything from the very basics of what’s going on to the entertainment value and the knowledge. It’s a lot harder and you obviously have to continuing talking the whole way through. If you have any silence than 8 seconds in radio commentary, the audience will think you’re dead. If anything, I’m just trying to convince people I’m alive!
AJ: Has working with football everyday ruined your love of it as a fan?
TR: When the close-season comes around and we’ve done 380 Prem games in here (TalkSport studios) plus another 60 or 70 games in cups etc., I don’t watch any football for about 6 weeks. Even when it gets to the World Cups, I don’t watch anything until the groups are over!
AJ: Do you miss going as a fan?
TR: Yeah. The best thing about it was meeting friends at 12 o’clock then going to the game. I had a season ticket with my dad for about 10 years. It’s just very different. I still enjoy football though but definitely not in the same way. But I think if you enjoy football in the same as you do at 30 as when you were 15, then that’s a bit weird. When I was 15, if West Ham lost, it would ruin my week. If West Ham lose now, probably because we lose so much, it doesn’t ruin my night anymore.
AJ: We’ve narrowed it to an hour. Just an hour on our own. Throw a shoe maybe and we’ll be fine.
TR: After the Southgate miss in the Euro 96 semi-final, I stood in the garden on my own for 8 hours. My dad couldn’t get me in the house! Now it would probably take me half hour.
AJ: We’ll aim for that next time!
So there we have it – play lots of FIFA and you could be the next John Motson!
Listen to live talkSPORT commentary from the Premier League and FA Cup with streaming service Deezer through its new ‘football’ section, which includes podcasts, fixtures, results and more. Catch live football action for free at dzr.fm/ftball as well as enjoying the world’s biggest music streaming library.