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England on TV – the David Coleman years

This week sadly marks the fifth anniversary of the death of legendary commentator and presenter David Coleman. During the 1970s he would be the BBC’s voice of football, but unfortunately his years as lead commentator would coincide with the England team going into decline…

The broadcasting exploits of David Coleman were, to use the phrase most associated with the man, quite remarkable. He was as adept at commentating on athletics and football as he was at presenting Grandstand, and he would demonstrate – most notably when on air for many hours on the day of the horrific massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics – how professionally he could handle developing stories when sport and serious news merged into one.

Coleman was certainly a contradictory character. He came from a hard news background and was no media luvvie, taking his work seriously and being competitive with it. He had a reputation in the mould of Sir Alex Ferguson for demanding results from his team and usually getting them, with audio footage surviving of him dishing out the hairdryer treatment to a colleague. His ITV counterpart Brian Moore certainly did not remember Coleman as a matey rival, recalling that “he set an agenda where there was no great friendship” and would get digs in about the channel Moore worked for.


But on the other hand there was the far more easy-going and jocular figure who hosted A Question of Sport and who would be full of humour when doing video link-up interviews with the managers on the morning of Cup Final Grandstand. He would also become synonymous with commentary clangers as the term ‘Colemanballs’ was coined – he wasn’t immune to making errors but this reputation was rather unfair as some gaffes by other broadcasters would become credited to him (most notably Ron Pickering’s “opening his legs and showing his class” line). And it’s perhaps a measure of how well known he was that he warranted being sent up on Spitting Image.

If athletics was the sport Coleman was most strongly associated with – covering it at multiple Olympics until he left the BBC after the 2000 Games in Sydney, a departure he reportedly wasn’t happy about despite being in his mid-70s – then football would warrant a strong second place in his affections. He was the Jeff Stelling of his day in terms speaking with knowledge as the results rolled through on the vidiprinter on Grandstand, while he would also present plenty of other football coverage on Match of the Day and Sportsnight. And his talent was such that he was as at ease behind the microphone as he was in front of the camera, regularly being called upon to commentate on football matches.

It’s clear through running nostalgia-based social media accounts of the esteem Coleman is held in by football fans of a particular age. To those growing up in the 1970s he was the voice of football on the BBC, offering his trademark ‘one-nil’ calls when the opening goal was scored. Today we’ll reflect on his time commentating on England, which cruelly for him would coincide with a barren period for the national team…

“What a save, Gordon Banks”

We’ll pick up the story at the 1970 World Cup. Coleman was already well-established as as BBC sport broadcaster, with his past credits including hosting coverage of the 1966 World Cup and commentating on many high-profile matches. But the 1970 tournament marked a shift in the balance of power when it came to football commentary. The BBC may have happily dined off Kenneth Wolstenholme’s “they think it’s all over” line for the past 52 years, but the commentator himself was not to get much of a direct thank you from the Beeb in the immediate aftermath. Come the 1970 World Cup it would be Coleman who was covering England in their bid to retain the crown.

And it proved a captivating story to follow, with Coleman’s news skills coming in handy when he first had to cover Bobby Moore’s dramatic arrest in Colombia prior to the tournament. Once the finals got under way Coleman saw England beat Romania, before the iconic game against Brazil. It was a match sprinkled with lasting memories, as Coleman found the words to fit the pictures. They included Gordon Banks producing his much-discussed save to deny Pele, as Coleman declared: “What a save, Gordon Banks.” Later there would be the similarly-feted tackle Moore produced to dispossess Jairzinho, Coleman hailing the “perfect timing” shown by the defender. And then there was the game’s antithesis, Jeff Astle squandering a glorious chance to level matters. “You can’t win matches if you miss open goals,” said the commentator (in fairness to Astle it was not technically an open goal).

England had been beaten but the dream remained alive and Coleman was behind the microphone a week later when they faced a showdown with West Germany in the quarter-finals. The BBC was facing a legal headache over who would cover the final, given it was contractually due to be Wolstenholme’s but Coleman was England’s man. The collapse of Sir Alf Ramsey’s side in Leon confirmed there would be a last hurrah for Wolstenholme, as Coleman was instead left to find the words on England being dethroned.

“And England are now struggling in a match they’ve never looked like losing,” he summed up as West Germany pulled it back after looking dead and buried. He could see the way the tide was turning and the West Germans went on to win it in extra-time, Coleman concluding with: “And West Germany have beaten England and gained revenge for ’66.” What he could not have anticipated was that he would never again commentate on England in a World Cup tournament…

“Moore was too casual”

The 1970s were to be a barren decade for England and Coleman would see their continual decline. Two years after England lost to West Germany in the World Cup quarter-finals, he was behind the microphone as the sides met at the same stage in Euro ’72, with the first-leg played at Wembley. England were again beaten, but this time more comprehensively as they were second best in a 3-1 loss. They were in trouble from the moment Bobby Moore was surprisingly dispossessed for the first goal. “Cool by Moore… too cool,” said Coleman as his voice conveyed the surprise at what he had just seen.

Coleman didn’t cover England’s infamous draw against Poland in October 1973 that led to them missing out on a place at the 1974 World Cup, but he had seen the two games that left them deep in trouble prior to that – the home draw with Wales and away defeat to Poland. The former proved a frustrating night in keeping with the subsequent home match against Poland, but it did at least include a thunderous goal for England from Norman Hunter past Leeds United colleague Gary Sprake. Coleman told viewers: “Sprake knows all about Norman Hunter but he knew nothing about that.”

The away game in Poland brought a 2-0 defeat that started to get alarm bells ringing that England could potentially not make the finals. The second goal would be the killer and once more it was an uncharacteristic error by Moore that contributed to it, as he lost possession and was punished. “Moore… oh in trouble… Lubanski, Moore was too casual… two-nil.” It was simple but effective commentary on a sad moment, as arguably England’s most celebrated player took the blame during a real low point for the side. Coleman would be the BBC’s number one commentator out in West Germany for the finals, but England would not be there. It was to become a familiar pattern.

“And Clemence’s day is complete”

The annual jousts between England and Scotland remained a big deal in the 1970s, with Coleman regularly commentating on the fixture. In 1975 he had a rare high spot when covering England as he described the 5-1 win over the Scots at Wembley. “He loves that. He loves that,” he cried as Gerry Francis scored from distance.

But 12 months later England were beaten 2-1 at Hampden Park. “And Clemence’s day is complete,” Coleman declared after Ray Clemence allowed Kenny Dalglish’s effort to squeeze into the net. It summed up a bleak period for England, who had been eliminated in the qualifying group for Euro ’76. Coleman saw the decisive away defeat to Czechoslovakia, who went on to win the competition.

Football fans didn’t hear much from Coleman in the 1976-77 season, amid a dispute taking hold that would even lead to him missing the FA Cup final. But one game he did cover was England’s vital World Cup qualifier away to Italy in November. The finals may have been almost two years away, but whoever lost knew they would be very unlikely to qualify.

Coleman ramped up the tension ahead of kick-off. “This is no place to try new ideas. This match being watched on television across the world – the interest massive,” he said in the same sort of quiet but telling tone reserved for his words shortly before the start of the 100m Olympic final. And it proved pivotal, with England beaten 2-0. As soon as the words “Bettega… 2-0” left Coleman’s lips, it was evident just how much trouble England were in. Goals would indeed pay the rent as England missed out on a place at the finals in Argentina on goal difference. Coleman would go to the tournament, but England wouldn’t.

After this Coleman began to retreat from football commentary and it was typical of his luck that England then began to emerge from the wilderness and start qualifying for major tournaments. His last live match did at least provide some English joy with a 3-1 win over Scotland at Wembley in May 1979, as Kevin Keegan played a delightful one-two with Trevor Brooking before scoring.

But it wasn’t the end of Coleman’s football involvement, as he hosted Cup Final Grandstand until 1984 and fronted the station’s coverage of the 1982 World Cup. He would remain in London for the finals, seeing England grace a World Cup for the first time since that summer in Mexico 12 years earlier and effectively bowing out at the same hurdle.

He still had many years left in him as host of A Question of Sport and an athletics commentator, not finishing the latter role until after the 2000 Olympics. After this he led a rather reclusive retirement until his death shortly before Christmas in 2013, at the age of 87. A BBC celebration show of his work had been broadcast while he was still alive and the tributes now flowed again. BBC director general Tony Hall would state: ” Whether presenting, commentating or offering analysis, he set the standard for all today’s sports broadcasters.”

Coleman’s broadcasting credentials were such that commentating on football only represented a proportion of his work. But even decades later some of his commentary lines are fondly recalled and his fans miss the sense of authority he brought when holding the microphone. It’s just a shame for him that when it came to commentating on England, the national team would so often disappoint…

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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