Interview with the BBC’s lead commentator Guy Mowbray

Commentary has always defined my sporting experience. From my early years listening to Murray Walker describe in his high-pitched, cracking voice the moment Damon Hill crossed the line at Suzuka winning the World Championship in 1996 with “he took the lead and he stayed there, and Damon Hill exits the chicane to win the Japanese Grand Prix, and I’ve got to stop, because I’ve got a lump in my throat”, to Ed Leigh at the 2006 Winter Olympics describing Lindsey Jacobellis’ infamous fall in the final of the Snowboard Cross paving Tanja Frieden’s way to gold with total and utter disbelief at the events unfolding in front of him as she fell, “This is a lap of honour for Jacobellis, DRAMA, Jacobellis is down! Frieden! Frieeeeeedeeeen!”, and finally landing squarely at the feet of Guy Mowbray’s description, now in footballing folklore, of Sergio Aguero’s last second, title winning goal against QPR in 2012, “it’s Sergio Aguerooooo!”

Mowbray, on the other end of the phone in his house in York agrees that those voices define our sporting lives, “I still hear Motty’s voice, I still hear Barry Davies’ voice, Brian Moore’s voice. I think the ones you grow up with will be the ones you think are best all the way through your life. I’ve got such evocative memories of Peter Jones on Radio 2. I remember laying in the bath listening to European games on the radio and finding it the most glamourous and exciting thing in the world, so without knowing it subconsciously that probably had a massive impact on me.”
Currently the lead commentator for the BBC, providing the soundtrack to every World Cup and European Championship since 1998, Mowbray has become one of the most recognisable voices that the BBC currently hold dear. Along with fellow commentators at the BBC such as Andrew Cotter for golf, Eddie Butler for rugby union, and Steve Cram for athletics, Mowbray has come to define the football coverage provided to the masses by the corporation.

Born in York in 1972 with a PE teacher for a father, Mowbray grew up in a house backing on to a playing field, beginning his life-long obsession with sport, especially football and cricket. “I was born into a sporting family so I’ve never known anything else” he says, “[my father] was deputy head at a secondary school, so we had cricket stumps and footballs. There was always equipment so particularly in the summer, cricket season, everybody came round to our corner of the field because we had all the stumps and the wicketkeeper gloves that people didn’t have, so we could get proper games on. I basically spent every waking hour out on the playing field playing football in the winter and a bit of cricket in the summer with a bit of overlap and that was it!”

While Mowbray dreamed of playing football for a living, it was a brief but influential conversation with his father that lead Mowbray into the world of commentary. “I had a job in London for six months working for a bank in the city in the back office as an admin clerk with a view to being a banker” he describes, “I basically came back home, I hated it, and my Dad said to me almost as a throwaway line, ‘look you’re never going to get paid for playing, why don’t you try and get paid for watching it?’”

From that moment on, Mowbray put all his effort into getting into football journalism. “There were no sports media courses around then” he explains. “There were journalism courses but I wasn’t particularly interested in news journalism, that wasn’t floating my boat at all.”

Mowbray’s break into the industry came after getting a reply to one of ‘a million letters’ he’d sent out to newspapers and radio stations, the head of a company called ClubCall calling him. “Before the internet people paid a lot of money to ring up and listen to news and commentaries on their club via ClubCall” he says, “Elton John famously used to ring up from America and stay on the phone for two hours and listen to entire Watford matches at god-knows-what pence per minute.”

“I’d written a letter to ClubCall HQ and he rang me back and said ‘do you want to shadow me I’m at York v Brentford’, it was October 1993 was this, and my initial response was ‘I’d love to be unfortunately I’ve got tickets with my mates to go and see Man City v Liverpool, so I can’t make it’. So I sort of put the phone down and I came back in and my dad said ‘who was that?’, said ‘Ah it’s the fella from ClubCall but I can’t make it this weekend’ and he said ‘ring him back immediately, do it’. ‘What about my ticket?’ ‘Never-mind that’”

It wasn’t an easy introduction into sports broadcasting, after a couple of weeks of shadowing Mowbray was on his own in York City FC’s stadium Bootham Crescent’s press box commentating on games, and after a month was going to York one week, Hull the next with the odd trip to Leeds United. “I was basically getting on the job training” explains Mowbray, “I still think that is the best way [to learn], to do it.”

After a few years working for local radio in York with Minster FM and BBC Radio York alongside working at Sunderland-based radio station Sun FM, Mowbray got his first big break in the TV world. “I got the Eurosport job at the same time that I got a job at Metro Radio [in Newcastle] full time as their sports editor in the North East” he explains, “I spent two days a week in Paris at Eurosport and the rest of the week up in Gateshead, Sunderland, producing, presenting and commentating for Metro, so it worked quite well. It was a good grounding, the basics of television and quite established radio.”

It was in 1998, working for Eurosport, that Mowbray got his first major break in TV. After only working for Eurosport for slightly over a year, the France-based company chose Mowbray as their first choice for the World Cup Final, the second of its kind in France and the first World Cup with an expanded 32 team format.

Infamously, the final, played at the Stade de France between the hosts and eventual winners France and Brazil, began in the most bizarre of fashions. “The build-up with Edmundo and Ronaldo was just bizarre,” Mowbray says, “and what was even more bizarre for us, my co-commentator was Trevor Stephens, ex-Everton and England, was that we had Pele sitting right behind us for Brazilian TV, we did a support thing for a French owned company that was linked to the host broadcaster TF1 so we were getting the information before anyone else about Edmundo and Ronaldo, and the team sheet kept changing. We’d heard that Ronaldo was actually starting after all, so I thought I’d just take a punt here and turned round and said ‘Excuse me’, and I didn’t know what to call him so I called him Mr Pele, ‘Mr Pele, Ronaldo, is he playing?’ He just sort of nodded and said ‘yes, yes, he playing.’ You know it was like we’ve got the decree from the emperor here, he must definitely be playing. It was still one of the best nights, great night in my career that was.”

It is almost too tough a question to ask someone who has seen it all when it comes to World Cups to pick a favourite. Mowbray has seen the biggest competition in sport break new ground in Asia and in Africa with the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, and in South Africa in 2010 respectively, as well as the first Brazilian World Cup since 1950. “I’ve always treasured them” Mowbray says. “I’ve enjoyed every one in their own way I think. 2010 in South Africa was superb. 2014 Brazil , I said at the time was such hard work travelling in between places, we were constantly on the move that you never really got to enjoy the country as much but I remember saying at the time that in a years’ time we’ll look back on Brazil and think ‘that was amazing’, and it’s true with every day that passes it becomes a better experience to remember” he explains.

“That’s the icing on the cake, to cover Premier League football every week of the year but then sort of every two years to get away to a Euros or a World Cup, which for all I’ve said is hard work and it is, it’s the hardest you’ll ever work when you’re at these things because you are constantly at work, there are no days off really, but you’re away with like-minded people living together, eating together every day, following it absolutely obsessively, and for everybody it’s interesting football, and that is just an absolute dream.”

Would he cope with an England World Cup Final? “I think if England were in this [a World Cup Final] I’m not sure if I could do it, I think I’d be a wreck. I think I’d be in tears from moment one till it finishes. So I don’t know. I think you’d do it because of the build-up. You’d have had the quarters, the semi, and you’d be building to it, so I think that’s how you’d do it, that’s how you’d keep your emotions in check.”

Mowbray now gets the pick of the games on the BBC’s weekly highlights show Match of the Day, often commentating on derbies, title-clashes, and top-level football, but for him there’s no difference between any game he covers, be it a World Cup Final, or Stoke v Crystal Palace. “I’ve never thought, from the early days to now, about who I’m broadcasting to. It doesn’t even cross my mind, people come out with audience figures for things, I’m not bothered! I’d do the same job if there were two people or twenty million! It doesn’t matter I can’t see them, you do exactly the same job.”

“I still think that Match of the Day is incredibly important” says Mowbray, despite the rise of pay to view channels and services like Sky and BT. “It just gives you a package that is a lot easier and the figures have never really changed and have even come up a little bit. It’s quite weird as everyone thought live football would be the death of it but I still think that people like to see a bit of every game rather than every game, I still think that’s the general nature.”

With 38 games a season, and the usual summer of major international championships of some sort, the work that goes on before games, according to Mowbray, is always the same. “[I prepare] probably more than I need to but you are always better prepared than not, you don’t use 95% of what you’ve done, but if you haven’t done it you wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s having that reinforcement in your mind that you know exactly what’s going on, and that you know the backstories, every single backstory that could develop, because you don’t know what’s going to happen so you’ve got to be prepared. No game is the same.”

It’s not an extended holiday either, and while Mowbray admits that he is ‘never really working’, a typical Saturday for him sounds more full-on than many imagine. “Any given Saturday I won’t just do the commentary, I’ll also do pre-match interviews for the world audience, I’ll usually do a bit for 5live into their coverage, I’ll also write a preview for the website which never used to happen, I’ll also have to do a bit of Football Focus or Final Score before the game” explains Mowbray. I’m loath to call it intense because it’s something you love doing, but it’s a full-on day.”

It’s not all hard work though, Mowbray is well aware of how lucky he is to do something he loves, in cities, and stadiums that he loves. “Newcastle United is fantastic, that’s one of the best, just from the amount of space you’ve got. You’ve got loads of room, you’re at the perfect height and distance away from the pitch. A lot of people complain about Everton’s because you have to climb up a ladder, which leans backwards a little bit, then you go over the top of the roof, holding on to the railings where the wind’s blowing and the wind’s up it can get a bit slippy. Then you have to come down another ladder, but I love that to be honest” he says.

How does the home of his beloved York City, Bootham Crescent, stand up to the titans of the Premier League? “It’s only just standing up!” laughs Mowbray, “hence the reason for moving to a new ground.” The stadium, home of York City for nearly a century is being demolished at the end of next season. At the time of the interview, Mowbray was planning to attend the final home game at the stadium this year, but with construction delayed will now have to wait until next season.

“I absolutely have to be there, and I know now I’ll be in floods of tears all afternoon, because I have actually grown up watching football there, been lucky enough to play there a few times” he says. “I want a bit of turf for my garden, I want a couple of seats for my garden, I want a crash barrier if I can from the Shipton Street end, I’ll be bidding like everyone else for one of those.”

Despite the stadium being close to Mowbray’s heart, he admits it is no longer really fit for purpose. “You’ll be sad to see it go but it’s not great to work from” he says, “I remember the cup tie a few years ago against Man Utd and then against Everton in the League Cup, and before then against Arsenal in the FA Cup when I was only 12.”

“I can vividly remember pictures from the Arsenal game” he explains, “if you watch the Match of the Day edit now from 1985, John Motson actually mentions it, there isn’t enough room in the press box, there’s only about 10 seats in the press box, and they’re all cramped side-by-side. So half the national press were having to sit on the touchline on chairs with their notes on their lap, and they were actually sitting in front of the crowd, by the touchline just off the pitch, it was the only way to get them in! That kind of sums it up, not really fit for purpose anymore, it’s a wonderful place, so many memories, but like any other ground, it’s got a timespan.”

Would he be able to cope with covering a York City FA Cup Final? “Never wish for anything, just see what happens. When York went back into the league and I was at Wembley, not working but I was just there, I was crying my eyes out there. Maybe I couldn’t do it, if they were in the FA Cup final maybe I couldn’t actually do it, I’m not sure I could manage it, it would be a bit of car-crash television, weeping and wailing the whole way throughout the game. We’re all fans, that’s the problem.”

Image courtesy of John Lord.

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