The Joy of Six: commentators losing themselves in the moment

Bjørge Lillelien

Long before Gary Neville’s “goalgasm” over Fernando Torres in Camp Nou or Roy Keane destroying another Manchester United display, there was the authentic GOAT of gloat: Bjørge Lillelien. The situation: Norway had come from behind to stun England 2-1 in a World Cup qualifier in 1981 and a beyond ecstatic Lillelien began telling us all about it at the top of his voice. “We are the best in the world!” he crowed in Norwegian. “It’s unbelievable. England, the home of giants!”

Then Bjørge began putting his O-level in English history to good use. “Lord Nelson! Lord Beaverbrook! Sir Winston Churchill! Sir Anthony Eden! Clement Attlee! Henry Cooper! Lady Diana! We have beaten them all!” Before he switched to English for the coup de grâce: “Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher … your boys took a hell of a beating!”

Far be it from us to point out that not many England fans cared what Beaverbrook (died 1964) or Attlee (1967) made of this defeat and that Lillelien could have updated his references a bit (Elton John! Kate Bush! Steve Davis! Bruce Forsyth! Lord Blackadder! Cilla Black, can you hear me, Cilla Black? etc). What did strike a chord was the Scandinavian’s glee in the moment. The phrase “Your boys took a hell of a beating” has lasted longer than the memories of the match that inspired it.

Murray Walker

Murray Walker had the perfect pitch for Formula One, his voice rising and revving like an engine reaching full throttle. The thought of him finding a new high gear for emotion is mind-boggling, but he did just that in Japan in 1996. Damon Hill had not found it easy to win over the British public. The son of a charismatic former world champion, Graham Hill – who died in a plane crash when Damon was 15 – he came on the wheels of blunt, beloved Nigel Mansell. Hill was a more reserved type of chap and perhaps that made Walker feel particularly protective of him.

After two years finishing second to Michael Schumacher, the Williams driver had a chance to claim an F1 title of his own by winning the last race of the ’96 season. “Damon Hill exits the chicane and wins the Japanese Grand Prix,” Murray announced. “And I’ve got to stop, because I’ve got a lump in my throat.” In the silence that followed, as Walker sobbed off mic, it became apparent that the man who had all the words – who could bluster excitedly about the dullest F1 procession – had suddenly become most eloquent when saying nothing at all.

Damon Hill is soaked in champagne by Mika Hakkinen after winning the race Japanese Grand Prix and the F1 drivers’ championship. Photograph: Sipa Press/Shutterstock

Harry Carpenter

Frank Bruno’s double act with Harry Carpenter was a staple of the British boxer’s almighty popularity in the 1980s. But for Carpenter, while the odd-couple banter was fun for TV interviews, it was important to maintain a disciplined, BBC neutrality when calling a fight. That veneer was blown apart when Bruno went to the US to challenge the brooding, brutal heavyweight world champion Mike Tyson in 1989. Tyson knocking down Bruno early in round one was no surprise, but the challenger returning fire to wobble Iron Mike was a shock.

“Bruno’s face is already marked up but he’s fighting back and he’s hurt Tyson with a good left! He knows he can hurt him now,” Carpenter cried, before hoarsely urging him to keep slugging: “Get in there, Frank!” On hearing himself back, the commentator was mortified. “It should never have happened,” he said. “I suddenly found myself yelling out: ‘Get in there, Frank’. I’m ashamed of that today, because it was very unprofessional. But I couldn’t stop myself … I wanted Frank to win.” Bruno lost by fifth-round KO but those four words, uttered when ’Arry briefly let his guard down, told viewers how he truly felt about his friend in the ring.

Frank Bruno is pummelled by Mike Tyson, despite the ringside support of Harry Carpenter. Photograph: AP

Verne Lundquist

Sometimes we must accept: Americans do it better. The most famous shot in Tiger Woods’s storied career is that chip at the 2005 Masters. The world’s best golfer was in trouble on the 16h hole of his final round, playing on to the green from the rough. But as his perfectly placed shot landed 25 feet from the pin, then started to trickle unerringly towards it, the US commentator Verne Lundquist picked up the thread, accelerating from whispering to whooping in seconds.

“Here it comes … oh mah goodness,” he intoned as the ball drifted towards the hole, teetered on the edge, then – Nike logo perfectly poised – dropped in. “Oh WOW! In your LIFE have you seen anything like that?!” Lundquist exclaimed, as an elated Woods high-fived his caddie and the patrons of Augusta went bananas. Meanwhile on Auntie Beeb, the venerable Peter Alliss could only offer a deadpan “thank you”, as the ball fell, while someone else in the commentary box (Ken Brown?) – having possibly just spilled hot tea on their lap – added a faint, disappointed “oh no” in the background. A case of CBS 1-0 BBC.

‘Oh mah goodness.’ Photograph: Elise Amendola/AP

Aimee Fuller, Ed Leigh and Tim Warwood

The trio prompted over 300 complaints to the BBC and were labelled “a handful of unemployed children’s entertainers” by the Guardian’s Stuart Heritage – and he was defending them. All this in response to Britain’s feelgood moment of Sochi 2014. Jenny Jones, 33 and in her last Games, won a slopestyle bronze – GB’s first ever Olympic medal on snow – and commentators Ed Leigh and Tim Warwood, plus snowboarder Aimee Fuller, did not fake neutrality.

The cheerleading during Jones’s second run was merely an appetiser: 10 athletes could better her 87.25 score, so eight had to fall short for Jones to claim a medal. Cue some elite-grade schadenfreude, particularly when Austria’s Anna Gasser fell and the trio began whooping in delight. “Are we supposed to do that? Probably not,” Fuller correctly assessed. Thankfully Warwood was there to bring some balance: “You can cry Aimee, it’s all right. Both Ed and Aimee crying – and now I’m going! All professionalism goes straight out the window.”

Not commentary overflowing with the gravitas of the greats (we cannot imagine Barry Davies, for example, saying “this feels like I’ve got slugs in my knickers” as the tension ratchets up). But 300+ spoilsports be damned, it was a genuinely joyful moment in a Games that had been clouded by negativity from three people who knew the impact Jones’s bronze could have on the sport they loved.

Mick Morgan

Mick Morgan’s take on Castleford thumping rugby league powerhouse Wigan in the 1994 Regal Trophy final should only really have been heard by Tigers fanatics, as he was the club’s in-house commentator. But the Yorkshireman’s vibrant prose eventually garnered a cult following, racking up seven-figure YouTube views and coining a three-word catchphrase later pinched by darts commentators and many more. I’ve never seen the like!

A swinging forearm from Wigan prop Kelvin Skerrett into Andy Hay’s face is the spark to light Morgan’s fuse. “Oh what about that? Send him off! Send the dirty git off … that were diabolical. Get him off the field! That’s just typical of what he is.” But the flourishing of a yellow from the referee, Dave Campbell, helps Morgan find a whole new level of apoplexy. “He’s given him a yellow card. I can’t spake! You bottle-less git, Campbell. You dickhead … I can’t spake.”

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3️⃣0️⃣ years ago today…

Our very own, Mick Morgan!#COYF pic.twitter.com/In9lu3zVys

&mdash; Castleford Tigers (@CTRLFC) January 22, 2024

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Yet urged on by Morgan – “Come on Cas, rub it in!” – Lee Crooks’ try from the resulting penalty sends the former England international from commentary rage to rapture. “What a magnificent try! Shove it up yours. He’s the best prop in the world, never mind anybody else.” Before Mick finishes in style: “What a magnificent performance! We all can’t spake.” Quite the opposite; turns out Morgan could spake for us all.

The Guardian

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