Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Sky Sports’ Gary Taphouse discusses the art of football commentary

Posted on 10 June 2019 by Benjamin Lang

The commentator is everyone’s favourite chaperone. They quietly steer us through the occasion before delivering a punchline we’ll never forget, while adding a layer of durability to those manic moments. Anyone who has tried their hand at sports commentary will be quick to disclose how challenging it is to perfect as an art form. It’s a colossal balancing act.

How do you tell your audience what’s going on being patronising? At which point should you stop yourself from speaking? How do you fill the air time when close to nothing has happened for the last 20 minutes?

The challenge is even more pronounced when you’re interchanging between the vastly divergent mediums of radio and television. But this is a standard day at the office for football commentator Gary Taphouse.

Taphouse made his name on the radio in the early part of his career, and he still provides his voice for talkSPORT occasionally. However, he is most widely renowned for his work with Sky Sports, where he has been based since 2005. For both providers, he has delivered commentary for matches in the Premier League, FA Cup, World Cup and European Championships during a career spanning across 25 years.

His commentary experience across different platforms means there are few people better-placed within the football media industry to divulge how the transition between radio and television can be made.

“What you need to do on air is very different for both,” he noted.

“With radio, you are trying to just describe what is happening to people that can’t see it. Television is totally different because you are trying to supplement what people can already see. You have to know a lot more about the background of, not just the match, but the players as well. It is a totally different situation.

“You’re painting a picture on radio, rather than going into the background as much. For television, I like to talk to people in the background and people who are involved, in order to get information that the audience might not know. You cannot go into that level of detail on radio. You don’t have the time.”

Clearly, the two mediums require very different skill sets. Taphouse has learned this from experience, and he even thinks audience feedback from over the years has helped dictate the way he delivers a match commentary now. This is particularly the case since the dawn of social media, with it having never been easier for an audience to make their true feelings known.

“If you keep rambling on about other things during the radio game, you get people messaging you saying ‘Please can you just tell me what’s happening on the pitch!’”

“I can have as many interesting stories as I like, but if I’m not telling people what’s happening on the pitch, I’ll get told on social media. Over the years, I’ve learned what to do and what not to do.”

Whereas radio requires constant speech, Taphouse believes the biggest art when it comes to television is knowing when not to speak. There has been a marked increase in the number of statistics at Taphouse’s disposal since his career began around 25 years ago, with core analytic companies such as Opta Sports expanding its coverage exponentially since launching in 1996. However, Taphouse says he tends to use as few of these as possible in order to avoid flooding the audience with unnecessary information.

“I actually think it becomes quite irritating to the viewer,” he said.

“When I go to matches to support my team, I don’t want some muppet behind me describing everything or telling me stuff that’s not interesting.

“After years of doing it, you realise that you’re actually being paid to do a job which isn’t necessarily to talk. It is understanding when not to talk as well. You could literally fill your commentary with stats. How much value is there in that?”

The skill of keeping quiet was best elucidated by Martin Tyler when Sergio Aguero scored a 94th-minute winner against QPR to clinch Manchester City’s first Premier League title. Tyler screamed Aguero’s name as the Argentine drilled the ball into the net, but he then stopped talking for a whole 12 seconds. It was the most defining moment of the Premier League era, and Tyler didn’t say a word.

“So much of TV is about knowing when to say nothing. I still think there are a lot of younger commentators out there who ae still learning that, because it requires a lot of bravery.

“The best example of it is Tyler’s call of that Aguero goal. I interviewed him about it and he said the director did all the work for him. The pictures just tell the story. There’s nothing you can say that add to those pictures.

“A commentator my age would not be able to say nothing there because its such an iconic moment. It’s about having that vast experience to understand that those pictures are telling all the story you need, and anything you say might detract from it.”

At a time where information is becoming more and more readily available, televised football commentary has steered clear from the traps of the wider world. As society ventures deeper into the Information Age, it almost feels like a commentator’s responsibility to keep football pure.

“One of the best quotes I really try to live by came from Richie Benaud,” Taphouse said.

“If you can say something that enhances what’s there, say it. If not, shut up.”

Featured photograph/Gary Taphouse