Hugh Johns

Faces of ’66 – Hugh Johns

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This week sadly marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Hugh Johns, the man who commentated for ITV on the 1966 World Cup final. But there was far more to his career than simply being the answer to a pub quiz question…

On the afternoon of July 30, 1966, Hugh Johns completed his live commentary for ITV on England’s World Cup final win over West Germany. It had been job done. ITV were heavily beaten by the BBC in the ratings but Johns – so exhausted from describing the drama that he retired to bed early after a few gins – could feel satisfied at having described such a famous and dramatic occasion. 

And then, at some point in due course, Johns would be made aware of what the BBC’s Kenneth Wolstenholme had said in the dying seconds of extra-time. “They think it’s all over. It is now…” would become immortalised and known by generations to come. It meant that whatever Johns had said during the afternoon became totally’ overshadowed by Wolstenholme’s words as Geoff Hurst completed his hat-trick. But not that Johns’ description of the moment has been ignored. A certain intrigue has built up over what was being said on ITV. And here it is:

“Here’s Hurst, he might make it three. He has, he has… so that’s it. That is IT!”

While the line may have lacked the impact of Wolstenholme’s, it still told the viewer what they needed to know (save for mentioning that fans thought the final whistle had already sounded) in just a few words. Simplicity and repetition – helping to emphasise the significance of what was happening – would be two of Johns’ trademarks and he utilised both to describe the much-recalled moment .

 

Hugh Johns in later years.

In the BBC’s shadow

ITV’s football coverage has, rightly or wrongly, come in for its fair share of stick down the years and in 1966 it was certainly not winning many plaudits. In 1962 they opted not to cover the World Cup in Chile at all – in fairness they could only have shown delayed coverage a couple of days later, but this did not deter the BBC – and then in October 1965 the channel missed Austria’s winning goal over England at Wembley, an error compounded by commentator Gerry Loftus offering the double entente of “Alf Ramsey will need to get his chopper out” when summing up the game. Then come the World Cup in England the commercial channel would allow the BBC to steal a match in securing viewers as ITV often joined big matches either later than their rivals or didn’t show them live at all – possibly fearful of alienating the non-football audience in the days when viewers had just the BBC and ITV to choose from. There was little to persuade football fans to switch over to ITV during the tournament.

But for the minority who did opt to watch the World Cup on ITV, Johns would become the most familiar voice over the three weeks. He was joined by Wales manager Dave Bowen as summariser (co-commentator in today’s money) to cover the opening match against Uruguay and the same partnership would remain in place for the rest of the tournament. It was one compensation for Welshmen after seeing their country fail to qualify.

Over on the ‘other side’, Wolstenholme was the lead voice and synonymous with football coverage. Johns knew that trying to directly take on the broadcasting great by mimicking him would not work; he would have to develop his own distinctive style. “There’s no doubt about it, he was great. And so if you were going to do it you had to find a way of beating Ken, or doing something Ken hadn’t thought of,” Johns said many years later. He would offer affectionate respect rather than resentment towards his BBC counterpart, despite the national obsession with Wolstenholme and his “they think it’s all over” line. 

Over the years, when the BBC and ITV have gone head-to-head and shared live coverage the latter has usually come off well-beaten in the ratings war. As a result, the nation tends to recall more readily Barry Davies describing Argentina against England in 1986 than Martin Tyler; John Motson’s on England’s Italia ’90 semi-final against West Germany more than Brian Moore; and Davies describing the epic Euro ’96 semi-final between England and Germany instead of Moore. It generally applied in the days they both showed the FA Cup final live too. For example, Motson’s description of Ricky Villa’s amazing goal in the 1981 replay for Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City is still regularly recalled. Few seem to reel off Moore’s words at the same moment.

And so in that respect Johns – whose name led to him being affectionately known as  ‘Huge Ones’ – was always going to struggle to make a lasting impact with his commentary on the 1966 World Cup final. Indeed, hypothetically speaking had Johns been the one to come out with the “they think it’s all over line” it’s questionable if it would have passed into national folklore like it has thanks to Wolstenholme. We will never know. But watching the 1966 final with ITV commentary is a bit like seeing a film remade – the outcome is the same, but yet it also feels very different to what you are used to. A fair chunk of the nation can recite at least a couple of Wolstenholme’s lines from that day; sadly, the same does not apply to the work of poor old Johns.

So good he said it twice

It has to be said Johns did not give a faultless display on the final. Prior to kick-off he said England had won the cup when he meant the coin toss (he chuckled on air over that one); he bemusingly spoke of “Harold Ramsey” as England’s manager came into view ahead of extra-time; and he erroneously identified the England player bearing down on goal in the dying seconds as Martin Peters, but quickly corrected himself as he realised it was Geoff Hurst. It wouldn’t be the last time in his career he mixed up the duo.

One trademark of Johns’ commentary on the final was to repeat himself, stressing the significance of what had just happened.  “A goal. A goal,” was the simplistic description of West Germany’s opener; “It’s there. It’s there,” he roared as Hurst equalised: “It’s Martin Peters. Martin Peters,” came the cry as Peters put England 2-1 up. “It IS a goal. It IS a goal,” he proclaimed as the third England goal was eventually given. And so on, including his description of Hurst completing his hat-trick (“He has. He has.”). It was parodied when Martin Peters appeared on Fantasy Football during Euro 2004 in a Phoenix from the Flames sketch. “He said bloody everything twice,” joked Peters.

For all the differences with Wolstenholme’s commentary, there were similarities too. The words offered by Johns over Hurst’s ‘did it cross the line?’ goal followed the same pattern as those of Wolstenholme, switching between it being a goal to not being so and back again before it was finally awarded. And Johns would also refer to the Jules Rimet Trophy as being “only 12 inches high” as Bobby Moore went up to collect it from The Queen. 

Covering the decline

Despite his strong Welsh heritage, war veteran Johns was actually born in England and like many of his contemporaries served as a print journalist before landing his broadcasting opportunity. The nation of his birth would continue to feature prominently in his TV career beyond 1966. 

Unlike Wolstenholme, Johns would commentate on England matches at the 1970 World Cup – a tournament where he enjoyed increased exposure thanks to ITV unusually winning the ratings war amid the popular studio panel back home. Johns seemed to have grown as a commentator in the four years since 1966, although the tournament saw him again confuse Hurst and Peters – this time crediting the former with putting England 2-0 up against West Germany before quickly realising it was Peters! Johns was left to describe England’s shock collapse in the same game, a week after covering the iconic match against Brazil. “And that’s a fantastic save by Banks,” he proclaimed after that unforgettable save was made.

Three years later, Johns found himself covering the antithesis of the 1966 World Cup final. England had to beat Poland to qualify for the World Cup and it was being shown live on ITV. As is well-known. England were held to a 1-1 draw and failed to make it. Johns was left to provide the words as the nation watched with disbelief when the final whistle sounded. “It’s over. It’s all over,” he uttered, as he again used repetition to emphasise the significance of what was happening. “And for England, one of the blackest days they’ve ever had.” In a broadcast best remembered for the comments of Brian Clough about Jan Tomaszewski, Johns had also played his part.

With lead commentator Brian Moore continuing to stay at home to present the tournaments, Johns remained ITV’s choice to cover the World Cup Final in 1974 and 1978 – competitions which England were sadly absent from. They were there in 1982 but by then Johns had made way for Tyler as lead commentator at the finals and he was restricted to just covering highlights on a few games, as he slipped well down the pecking order. 

1982 also saw Johns turn 60 and make way for Peter Brackley as ITV’s man in the Midlands, but the ensuing years saw him still regularly hold the microphone. He would work for more than a decade for HTV Wales and in the mid-1990s he was still regularly covering matches involving Cardiff City, Swansea and Wrexham for the station’s Soccer Sunday programme, with the nation catching glimpses of the veteran’s efforts on Football League Extra – a show which broadcast the delightful feature below about him. In an era where Sky Sports, the Premier League and “a whole new ball game” were taking hold, it was refreshing to hear there was still room on our screens for an old-school commentator who could utter an “oh, good gracious me” after a goal was scored. 

And in September 1994. Johns was called upon to commentate on highlights for regions including Central and Granada on Port Vale hosting Manchester United in the League Cup. It was a night that saw a new generation of English players really start to come to the fore, with youngster Paul Scholes scoring twice and others including David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville all starting. Having Johns covering it seemed as much an unlikely generational crossover as it would be to hear Clive Tyldesley commenting on members of England’s 1966 side in action. But on a night otherside about the future, Johns was rolling back the years with the disctinctive and charming style still there. It was a bit like watching football with your grandad – one who freely admitted to smoking more than 20 fags a day for decades and who loved drinking Banks’s Bitter. He even managed a trademark “one-nothing” when Vale took the lead that night. Memories of his heyday came rushing back.

Johns was now in his 70s and would end his commentary duties later in the decade, but he had left a fine legacy. Dismissing him as simply the ‘other’ commentator on the 1966 World Cup final would be unfair. He covered the next three as well and his years working for ATV (and briefly Central) coincided with Midlands football thriving, with Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa being First Division champions and the latter two lifting the European Cup – plus such characters as Brian Clough and Derek Dougan were operating in the region and there was the celebrated West Bromwich Albion side under Ron Atkinson. It was certainly a far greater era for the region than the ensuing 35 years.

Johns provided the soundtrack for that and other famous moments in that era such as Manchester United winning the European Cup in 1968. He wasn’t Wolstenholme, he didn’t claim to be. He was Hugh Johns and he had the honour of describing England winning the World Cup for ITV (something to elude successors such as Moore, Tyldesley and Tyler). He did. He did.