Behind the microphone

Sports Editor Henry Cowen talks to Guy Mowbray, BBC commentator and York native, about the pressures of his job and how well he really gets on with summariser Mark Lawrenson

Guy Mowbray is one of the BBC’s top commentators and has come a long way since starting with Clubcall. Photo: BBC

Guy Mowbray is one of the BBC’s top commentators and has come a long way since starting with Clubcall. Photo: BBC

“To be a proper football commentator at the top, it has to be basically your life. I think you have to honestly just live and breathe it.” The idea of leaving university is often quite daunting, especially when the job (hopefully) awaiting you on the other side is ‘corporate restructuring, business and recovery’, but we would all push for first class honours if the job awaiting us on the other side was to be a football commentator.

Guy Mowbray fell into football commentary when it became apparent to him, at the age of fourteen, that he “wasn’t anywhere near good enough” to make it as a footballer. A throwaway comment from his father then set the wheels in motion: “Well if you can’t get paid playing it why don’t you try and get paid watching it?”

A job at the John Smiths brewery was soon replaced with Clubcall and five years later Mowbray found himself the youngest man to commentate on a World Cup final as he took the microphone for France’s famous 3-0 victory over Brazil at the age of just 26. Fast forward thirteen years and Mowbray has become the BBC’s lead football commentator, replacing the legendary John Motson.

“If I’m somebody’s cup of tea, I might be somebody else’s poison”. He is realistic about his ability to appeal to everybody when commentating on a game, especially in a job that is so scrutinized by your average punter.

“We are the best of friends…we regularly meet up away from work. People who say that [ they don’t get on] don’t understand…I’m quite happy with him absolutely ripping me to pieces”
On Mark Lawrenson

I asked him whether he still gets nervous when he’s behind the microphone: “A little bit, like Sunday before the Carling Cup final. Not so much nervous, more edgy, wanting to make sure everything goes right.”

So how do you make sure you get everything right? You don’t want to be known as a commentator that makes errors, or worse a commentator that makes a glaring faux-pas (think the legendary ‘the batsman’s Holding, the bowler’s Willey’) and Mowbray has learned how best to avoid such embarrassment, stating they key to being a commentator is “knowledge, preparation and being a decent communicator.”

It is, of course, not quite as simple as that. If it were no commentator would ever be criticised. The BBC’s Jacqui Oatley undoubtedly possesses the skills that Mowbray speaks of and yet head to any online forum and you will be able to access a fair amount of criticism levelled in her direction. This is perhaps because of a larger issue in the game but there are many other commentators in the game to whom the punters fail to warm, generally speaking Mowbray is not one of these.

Frequently it is the co-commentators or summarisers that get the most flack, and the relationship between them and the main commentator is one of the prime aspects of any game.

Mowbray and Mark Lawrenson formed an interesting dynamic in the recent World Cup, having been teamed up for England’s matches and, at times, it seemed they didn’t really get on: “You know what, this has been brought to my attention and I have never read so much rubbish. I don’t know where this came from. I think people misinterpret things, and I think it’s their problem and not ours.”

Mowbray continues: “We are the best of friends…we regularly meet up away from work. People who say that [they don’t get on] don’t understand, we’re basically taking the piss and the fact that we’re so comfortable with each other means we can do it.

“Youth football is where it begins… Eleven a side ‘must-win-the-match’ on a full-size pitch is ridiculous until you’re 16”
On Grass Roots football

“If I make a mistake I want him to cane me for it because that’s the right way to do it. The people at home are doing it, so why shouldn’t he? And vice versa”.

The two regularly commentate together nowadays and they formed a major part of the BBC’s coverage of this year’s Carling Cup, Mowbray continues to speak favourably of his co-commentator: “Lawro, by the way, is the ultimate ex-pro turned reporter. He does his preparation, he watches so much football, he absolutely loves it.”

“When all is said and done it is only a game of football, it’s not the most serious thing in the world so if you can break it up with a moment of light levity, then fantastic, and I think he does that brilliantly. He also reads the game fantastically.”

The dynamic of Mowbray and Lawrenson came to the fore this summer in South Africa. I decided to enquire with Mowbray whether he was able to pin-point exactly what went wrong for Fabio Capello’s England in that disastrous campaign:

“We don’t have half an hour!” before citing the enclosed and security-obsessive view of the England training camp: “I am not surprised they were bored and went a little bit stir-crazy”.

Quick Fire

Favourite ground?
Soccer City, Johburg or Stadium of Light, Sunderland

Favourite team?
York City

Best player?
Zinedine Zidane

Best goal?
Wayne Rooney’s versus Newcastle United

The next big thing?
Jack Wilshere

Favourite manager?
Harry Redknapp/Steve Bruce/Rafa Benitez

Favourite commentary moment?
“There was a moment when I was commentating for Metro Radio on a Sunderland v Crewe game with Eric Gates, and there was a player called Kenny Lunt, and Eric called him Lenny and there was a lot of dead air!”

Mowbray is a man who has almost unparalleled access to and knowledge of the English game and his views on the issues affecting the English game in general are certainly interesting to hear: “The amount of games in this country is ludicrous at the top level, in fact it’s ludicrous at all levels…but it goes far deeper than that. I think it will change but it will be a long process, a little like Spain. Spain twenty years ago had the same sort of thing and, you know, they’ve invested so much into coaching and changing attitudes. Youth football is where it begins…we want small-sided games focusing on technique and skill. Eleven a side ‘must-win-the-match’ on a full-size pitch is ridiculous until you’re 16.”

Mowbray’s answer to the last question of what do you love most about football was clear: “Everything. everything. Honestly, it is everything. The passion, the fact it matters so much.”

“Since I was five years old I’ve been absolutely obsessed with football, I honestly think it’s the colour, the passion and the knowledge it gives you – not just of sport –of the world.”

When Mowbray speaks of the game he clearly speaks of something he loves. He has the passion of a true fan and it is a passion that comes across in his commentary.

He says of commentary “it’s not something that you can learn, I don’t think. I think it’s something that you can do or you can’t do. You could be technically absolutely brilliant at it and not have that X-Factor”.

If you were to have the X-Factor in anything it would perhaps be watching and commentating on football for, as Mowbray says, “it’s not really a job to me”.

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