Tuesday 20 March 2018

He carved not only a career but an empire

Like none before or since, David Coleman was a man who bestrode his profession

BBC sports commentator David Coleman – who has died at the age of 87 – at Manchester United's Old Trafford ground for the first division game with Sheffield United in 1971 BBC/PA Wire
BBC sports commentator David Coleman – who has died at the age of 87 – at Manchester United's Old Trafford ground for the first division game with Sheffield United in 1971 BBC/PA Wire

Jim White

It was not the most complex of catchphrases. Nor was it a saying of great linguistic depth. But during the 1970s, you only had to hear the clipped certainty behind the words "one nil" and you were transported to the side of the pitch, to be instantly there as Allan Clarke put Leeds into the lead, or John Toshack seized the initiative for Liverpool. In a way no one managed before or since, when David Coleman said "one nil", you knew it mattered.

Coleman, who died on Saturday aged 87, was the first giant of television sports reporting in Britain. Not just quick, precise and forensic in his delivery, he was absolutely unimpeachable in his research and background knowledge.

When, as the studio presenter, he presided over the teleprinter in the 'Grandstand' studio as it spewed out the day's football results on a winter Saturday tea time, he did not need communication through his ear piece from a researcher to tell him that was the first time Grimsby Town had lost at home in the league this season, or that Alloa Athletic's three goals at Stenhousemuir signalled their highest away return in 40 matches.

He had already informed the watching audience. This was the master of the arcane.


He was also a man whose range across his medium, from live commentator to quiz master, from compere to interviewer has never been matched. For a whole generation, if it was big and it was on telly, Coleman was there. Like none before or since, he bestrode his profession.

And that is without even mentioning the fashion boundaries he vaulted in those busy jumpers he wore on 'Question of Sport', knitwear that might have embarrassed Gyles Brandreth.

Or, indeed, the Colemanballs. The unwitting progenitor of Private Eye's long-running satirical column poking gentle fun at his calling, the truth is Coleman was not particularly prone to gaffes. Yes, he was the man who said "that's the fastest time ever run -- but it's not as fast as the world record".

And he was responsible for "We estimate, and this isn't an estimation, that Greta Waltz is 80 seconds behind." Not forgetting "for those of you watching on black-and-white sets, Everton are wearing the blue shirts".

But the titular column was not born from any great propensity to verbal stumbling. More, it was evidence of his ubiquity as a broadcaster.

Such was his portfolio, that for 20 years from the early 1970s to the early 1990s if you heard a voice reporting on sport on the telly, the chances are it was Coleman's. His was the name most associated with the delivery of sport.

He first appeared on 'Sportsview' in 1954. A grammar school boy from Cheshire who went straight into newspapers when he left education, he was a decent amateur runner in his youth. When injury precluded his participation in the Olympic trials for the 1952 Games in Helsinki, he successfully persuaded the BBC that he should be reporting on athletics.

It was a bold bit of self-promotion, one which characterised the authority which oozed from his every pronouncement. This was not a man much constrained by self-doubt.

Over the next half century he carved himself not so much a career as an empire. He reported on 11 Olympic Games, from 1960 to 2000. He was there for six World Cups, his Cheshire vowels mimicked in playgrounds across the nation, as small boys used the way he described Brazilians or Germans to soundtrack their schoolyard kickarounds.

Phrases like "goals pay the rent and Keegan does his share" were endlessly repackaged: if it was Coleman who used them, then they were more than just part of the fabric of the game. They mattered. The manner in which he conquered television sport has never been replicated. The big figures of the genre these days rarely stray beyond the boundaries of their specialism. Excellent as he is, Jeff Stelling means little if you do not like football.

You know nothing of David Gower's smooth delivery if you do not follow the cricket on Sky. But in his heyday, Coleman was everywhere, constantly coveted by ITV but remaining loyal to the BBC throughout his career.

An inescapable fact of broadcasting life for more than two decades, he fronted the sort of hours of television that Ant and Dec can only dream of.

In the brawling 1962 football World Cup encounter between Chile and Italy, for example, which became known as the Battle of Santiago, the first foul came in 12 seconds, and the first sending off came after only eight minutes. "The most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game," was Coleman's on-air verdict.

Coleman's epic hour in journalism came in 1972 with his prolonged and sombre vigil, working off just one distant fixed camera, during the unfolding of the Munich Olympics atrocity. He had gone to bed at 5.0am after a drink or two and was woken four hours later to be told that Black September terrorists had taken Israeli athletes hostage in the Olympic village.

For the next two days, as nine Israeli hostages were murdered, Coleman continued to broadcast single-handedly and live from the Munich studio in a 30-hour tour de force -- at one stage he interviewed an Israeli weightlifter who, still in his pyjamas, had escaped through a downstairs window.

Drawing on his early journalistic training, Coleman demonstrated a grasp of drama and detail that could turn in a moment into impeccable, measured, sensitive reportage. The episode took its toll on him. "I didn't find it very easy to get restarted," he reflected. "The thought of shouting about a race as if it mattered at all so soon after this was too much."

His name was there in the title of one of the shows he presented. 'Sportsnight with Coleman' brought football and boxing highlights to midweek television, always presented with due import by its eponymous host. This was not a man unabashed about taking himself seriously.

For him, the messenger mattered almost as much as the message. That is not to say he could not chuckle. As presenter of 'Question of Sport', he was contractually required to unleash his chortle at the laboured banter of Bill Beaumont and Ian Botham.

He presided over the only known occasion a child of the monarch has appeared on a television quiz show, when he introduced the princess royal with a deference that would not have looked out of place in a medieval court. But when anyone, even the princess, tried to challenge his authority, he quickly demonstrated who was in charge. In television for half a lifetime, it was without question David Coleman. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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