Guy Mowbray’s is undoubtedly one of the most iconic voices in modern football commentary.
Indeed, the myriad places and competitions his career has taken him read like the ultimate footballing bucket list.
Only 47, he has covered five World Cups, the Champions League and Europa League, countless Premier League and FA Cup matches, and England internationals for the likes of Eurosport, ITV, BBC and BT Sport during his career to date.
It was therefore no surprise that his talk at The Union Society on Thursday 21 November was as enlightening as it was entertaining.
Before becoming a regular commentator on competitions of worldwide notoriety, Mowbray worked in local radio in the North East, covering Sunderland’s exploits in the Premiership and old First Division during the 1990s.
“When I worked for Metro Radio covering the Sunderland games, I had Eric Gates, an ex-Sunderland winger, as my co-commentator. Eric was brilliant, he taught me so much about how football works and what to avoid. He was a great education for me but an absolute liability on air.
One of the most iconic voices in modern football commentary
“He used to collapse in fits of giggles at anything. Crewe Alexandra against Sunderland, live on the radio. Crewe had two players in their team at the time, one was Marcus Bignot and the other one was Kenny Lunt. To which Gatesy said ‘do his mates call him Lenny?’
“Sheffield United versus Sunderland, 4-0 to Sunderland in 1999. Steve Bruce’s last ever game as a player as player-manager of Sheffield United. He subbed himself off at half-time because Michael Bridges had ripped him a new arsehole, basically.
“At the start of the second half we come back after the adverts and I say, ‘one change to tell you about, Steve Bruce has pulled himself off at half-time’. To which Gatesy replied, ‘well it might relax him but I don’t see how it’s going to improve his performance’.
“We used to get away with murder, we really did.”
Mowbray’s praise for Gates as a co-commentator contrasted rather vividly with his experiences with then Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson at the 1998 World Cup.
“Bryan wasn’t really cut out for co-commentary and he actually went home after the first knockout round to manage Middlesbrough, which you would have thought he knew he’d have to do anyway.
We used to get away with murder
“We got off on a bad foot really, me and Bryan. I was only 26, it was my first major tournament and Eurosport was quite a small, hands-on operation. I’d been there a couple of days and Bryan was flying in just before the first game of the tournament so I’d gone to the airport to pick him up and take him to the hotel.
“About five days later we were down in Marseille for a game. I’m there with a French producer waiting to do the commentary and Bryan’s talking to Terry Butcher, who was working for the radio about four seats down.
“It gets to five minutes before kick-off and Bryan’s still talking to Terry Butcher and hasn’t talked to me at any point. I’m thinking ‘he’s cutting this a bit fine’ so I run down to steps to say, ‘we’re on air in a minute, we better do it’. He says, ‘oh right, where’s the commentator?’ Yeah, that’s me. ‘Oh, I’m sorry mate, I thought you were the driver’.”
It was during his time covering Sunderland that Mowbray remembers one of the more confrontational moments of his career, at least in England, anyway.
It was September 1996 and Sunderland, promoted as champions of the old First Division the previous season, were away to Arsenal at their now-demolished Highbury ground having won just two of their opening seven games of the campaign.
“Sunderland had two players sent off very early so they resorted to a tactic where Tony Coton, their goalkeeper, just played rugby union style where every time he got the ball he would just kick for touch as far in the opposition half as he could.
“As a commentator for the north east where you can be biased for your audience, we were loving it.
“It took Arsenal until the 75th minute to break through and when they did, I said something like ‘they’re celebrating around us like they’ve just won the FA Cup, but it’s taken them over an hour to score against nine men’.
“And someone behind me just started hitting me over the head going ‘shut up, shut up, northern monkey’.
“We got the stewards to remove him so we had the last laugh.”
When covering three or four matches a week, Mowbray explained, comprehensive preparation regarding players, statistics, form and recent news is of the utmost importance, but keeping abreast of all the latest footballing developments can be difficult.
“It never ends. Some of my colleagues, you might’ve heard of a colleague of mine who works for Sky Sports, Daniel Mann, his notes are a work of art. He handwrites everything, all colour-coordinated. I wish I had the time or the patience.
“I’ve got all mine on the computer on a template and I update for each team I’m doing as I’m doing them. This weekend I’ve got Palace versus Liverpool so I’ll look back at the last Palace game I did, which was away to Arsenal, and I’ll update the stats since that game on every player.
“So it never actually ends. I’m prepping now for Christmas games and the irony of it is that you do all this work and it takes hours and hours but if it’s a really good game you don’t look at it. The game takes care of itself.
“It’s quite a bane of my life that all of the awards at the end of seasons always go to someone who’s done a bloody 5-4. Anybody in this room could do that! Give the award to someone who’s ground out a 0-0 and held the audience, kept it interesting, thrown some jokes in there. That’s a good commentary.”
Mowbray was keen to stress the importance of ensuring preparedness doesn’t cross over into restrictive scripting, for example in relation to pre-prepared lines.
“I did that once in 1995. I was a very young commentator working for what is now Sun FM in Sunderland but at the time we had the really catchy name
‘Sun City 103.4 Super Sport’. Sponsored by Sunderland City Council − really exotic.
“I think it was Sunderland against Millwall and I said, ‘if Craig Russell scores today, I’m going to say’ and I got this line in my head so I did it but we’re not actors, we can’t deliver lines.
“You just don’t pre-prepare. It sounds dreadful, it sounds wooden, it sounds staged. You go with whatever comes out.”
Mowbray’s job, on the face of it, may perhaps be seen by some as one of comfort
Mowbray’s job, on the face of it, may perhaps be seen by some as one of comfort, luxury and sporting indulgence; having the perfect view of high-profile national, continental and international games in state-of-the-art arenas with pristine pitches and high-end hospitality suites can sound rather agreeable to the average Bovril-filled, numb-toed supporter.
But that is not always the case, remarked Mowbray, in the early rounds of the FA Cup and in the more remote European fixtures.
“Hartlepool is one of the classics. Because they didn’t have a permanent commentary position, they erected some scaffolding on the roof with some tarpaulin around it. At Hartlepool, you’re backing onto the North Sea so that tarpaulin isn’t going to stay on very long.
“I could feel something stuck underneath my chair all the way through the first half so at half-time I looked under the chair and there was a dead seagull. I’d been kicking it and playing with it all game.
“Kharkiv. Russian-Ukraine border. The weirdest place you’ve ever been to. We stayed in a place that was deemed a luxury holiday report, but it was like Butlins meets prison camp.
“There was this guy called Vladimir and as we arrived and checked in, he greeted us with a bottle of vodka which he had already had half of, toasting his guests from England. But he was toasting us every time he saw us.
“The ground wasn’t too bad. It was full of racist twats but apart from that.”
Image courtesy of The Union Society