Since yesterday the media has be awash with tributes to David Coleman, one of the all-time great sporting commentators, who has died at the age of 87.
Greater authorities than your author today have produced acres of newsprint and many memorable personal reflections upon Coleman’s outstanding qualities, not least his influence upon both sports broadcasting and those who have followed – and indeed, before that, were inspired to follow – him.
It seems to me that what stood out about Coleman, and most of his generation of sports presenters and commentators, was their background in journalism.
I once worked with Brian Cowgill, one of the BBC greats, who, along with Paul Fox, established programmes such as Grandstand and Sportsnight With Coleman as gold standard benchmarks for the genre.
One of Cowgill’s key and oft-repeated mantras was that ‘learning the grammar of the trade’ was vital in broadcasting. People such as David Coleman epitomised this creed. In these modern times of instant celebrity, youngsters all over the country see people like themselves anchoring live television programmes and think “I could do that!” – rather than “I wonder how I could learn to do that”.
It was Coleman’s grounding in journalism that took him to the top and, of course, carried him through probably his finest hour – his coverage of the Israeli massacre at the Munich Olympics in 1972. It also enabled him to bring his uniquely authoritative tones to any sport, and not just those he loved dearest (athletics and soccer).
For me personally, the phrases “ONE – nil!” (as the first goal in a football game went in), “Quite remarkable …” (whatever the circumstances) and the near-hysterical “Hemery, Great Britain! … Hemery, Great Britain! …” (as David Hemery came into the final straight of the 400 metres hurdles at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, going on to win the gold medal in a then new world record of 48.12 seconds) sprang straight to mind when I turned my thoughts to how I’d remember him.
His occasionally gaffes, not least his initial complete disregard of John Sherwood’s epic bronze medal performance in Hemery’s race, were part of the reason he was so loved.
Nobody is infallible and Coleman would never have claimed to be.
But the impressionists – and Private Eye, which instigated the famous ‘Colemanballs’ column featuring similar sports (and later other) broadcasting slips – were indulging in homage borne of deep respect, not ridicule.
When push comes to shove, we must accept that those who provided the background commentaries to our younger selves are those we tend to remember with greatest awe and affection. However, Coleman – and those few like Peter O’Sullivan (horse racing) of my era – transcend that rule of thumb.
To be honest with you, the one thing about the reports of Coleman’s passing that surprised me was that he was as ancient as 87. Somehow, to me, he seemed ageless. Or should have been.
In that sense, I pity future generations. In a perfect world, greats like David Coleman would be commentating forever.