Ian Crocker needs no introduction to football fans north or south of the border. Beginning his commentary career 25 years ago, he gradually worked his way up and was involved with Sky Sports from 1992, joining permanently five years later.
Nowadays if you’re watching a game on Sky from the Scottish Premiership or a Scotland international, the chances are Crocker is in the gantry. Incidentally this interview begins just after he finished covering Scotland’s opening World Cup qualifying win away at Malta, which was followed by his trip to Cyprus to cover Roberto Martinez’s first competitive game as Belgium boss.
It is true that we all have to start somewhere and for Crocker, his first experience of live commentary wasn’t a glamour game or indeed the perfect performance as, by his own admission, it wasn’t one to remember.
“I can but I try not to!” said Crocker recalling his first taste of commentary. “It was Barnet v Carlisle on a rainy Tuesday night in the bottom division of English football. I shared the commentary with my Capital colleague Steve Wilson, now heard on the BBC’s Match of the Day. I suppose we’ve both done alright for ourselves but I had an absolute shocker of a debut. It ended 4-2 and I struggled to spot a Carlisle scorer! Ah well, you’ve got to start somewhere I guess.”
Another memorable experience for Crocker included being trapped inside Carrow Road having completed a radio phone-in show, before proceeding to set off the alarms as he searched for an exit. Incidentally he also recalls his experience of a commentator’s worst nightmare from his day’s covering Birmingham City, when a slip of the tongue at the wrong moment left him red-faced. Crocker reveals all.
“People often ask if you’ve ever made a mistake and I don’t think I can top this one. Again it was on radio covering Birmingham City who had a player called Jonathan Hunt. I was constantly being fed scores from other games through my headphones from the producer. This was second nature but you had to concentrate,” Crocker says. “At the point I lost concentration I was trying to say “Jonathan Hunt cuts inside.” You can probably guess the rest! I could barely speak for five minutes after that due to a severe attack of the giggles. What a pro eh.”
The difficulty with breaking into an industry as popular and cutthroat as the world of football broadcasting can often be the fact that, depending on who you speak to, there is no set pathway in. This is only highlighted by the growth of social media where every fan has an opinion and it is easy to feel crowded out. There really is something for gathering as much experience as you can though and it’s the advice Crocker provides for budding journalists and broadcasters.
“Getting as much experience as you can sounds boring but is so true. I did hospital radio for starters which gave me a great grounding in the basics of broadcasting,” says Crocker. “I wrote to every radio station in the land looking for work or asking to go in and watch a show going out live. Some were actually quite helpful in that respect. I know people who started out making the tea in radio stations who ended up on air. It can happen. The more on your C.V. the merrier.”
Commentary can seem like a niche part of the world of sports journalism. It certainly is hard to master and, for many, can seem like a daunting thing to approach given the lack of opportunities for aspiring broadcasters to cut their teeth. For Crocker, his transition to life behind the microphone was a gradual one but he admits it also came about as a result of being in the right place at the right time.
“I initially wanted to be a newspaper journalist but then took a huge interest in radio, largely fuelled by a guy called Peter Jones who used to broadcast on BBC Radio’s Sport on 2 in the old days, before Five Live came into being,” Crocker told me. “He had the most fantastic voice and made you feel like you were there. I was working at the BBC in an office job but couldn’t break into broadcasting.
At the age of 21 I got a job as match day public address announcer at West Ham. I supported them so it was a dream job!
“Through that I met the guys from Capital Radio in London and ended up getting a job with them. I was on the breakfast shift one Monday reading bulletins on Tony Blackburn’s show,” Crocker continued. “In our desk diary it said someone should attend a press lunch announcing Sky’s launch of their Premier League coverage. I’d been up since 4am and didn’t fancy it but there was nobody else to go so along I went. I ended up sitting next to Sky chief Vic Wakeling, had a few glasses of wine, and pestered him for a job. He gave me some Bundesliga games a few months later. There’s a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time in this industry!”
Crocker juggles his work as Sky’s chief commentator on Scottish football with regular commentaries of the Premier League’s 3pm kick-offs for football feeds around the world, hence why he can often be heard on Football First. So does the preparation vary depending on the magnitude of the game, or is it the same no matter who is playing?
“It depends on the game. I did Norway v Azerbaijan a while back so spent a week watching Azerbaijan DVD’s to suss the players!” says Crocker. “When I did the Football League in England I used to visit training grounds to get a closer look at players and chat with managers to earn their trust. As a result, I could ring 22 of the 24 managers on match day for their team in advance, which always helps a commentator’s preparation. You want to know who the other two were don’t you?!” Crocker jokes.
“For every game I cover I’ll have 2 sheets of A4 paper with stats and relevant information on the players and managers. I’ll have about 30 other general stats about the game too. This usually takes a whole day to prepare. If a game’s good you don’t use many stats because there’s enough going on to talk about. I can’t imagine I’ll need to fill many gaps on Celtic v Rangers for example but Norway v Azerbaijan finished 0-0 with barely a shot on target. I’d used all my stats by half-time and regurgitated them for the second half! I cover around 80-100 games a season. I’ve been commentating for 25 years now and wish I’d kept a count of how many I’ve done overall because I wrote a book about my experiences last year. Sometimes I hear myself on games from years ago and don’t even remember doing them. Worrying eh?!”
With a packed schedule taking in grounds from the Hawthorns to Pittodrie, Crocker insists he enjoys covering both the top divisions in Scotland and England. His work last season also enabled him to visit the King Power Stadium to cover Leicester’s incredible march to a first top flight title. The atmosphere is one he vividly recalls and describes their story as a breath of fresh air.
“I like both and don’t really feel the need to compare them. The Premier League is at a different level but having said that you can get bad games in any league! I’ve been at some big grounds in England where the atmosphere is not quite what it should be. It’s as if the fans are just waiting for the team to do something before they shout and scream. The best atmosphere last season was at Leicester, not just because of what they were achieving. The atmosphere was the same the season before when they were losing. The fans could see the players putting in exceptional effort and backed them to the hilt. That takes a special kind of fan. Mind you, as rewards for such loyalty go, winning the title’s not bad! What a refreshing story.”
But what about Scotland? Crocker argues that there is more of an honesty about the Scottish game that is missing from its English counterpart. He has a point, as anyone who has visited a game north of the border will testify. After all, the Scottish leagues are among the best-attended leagues, per-head of population, in the world.
“That’s what I love about Scotland too, you can feel the passion. At the Glasgow clubs obviously, but also at the compact Tynecastle with it steep stands and with Aberdeen’s tremendous travelling support,” Crocker says. “Plus every single player gives their all. There’s an honesty about the game. Sometimes down south there can be quiet spells in games. In Scotland everyone’s happy to go full pelt all the time!”
Crocker worked on Sky’s Football League coverage from 2002-2006, covering play-off finals including ones featuring his beloved West Ham, alongside the likes of Chris Kamara and Garry Birtles. But he returned to cover Scottish football and, while he admits it is a challenge to single out the best game he’s covered, he reserves a special mention for the Old Firm fixtures. Thanks to Rangers’ return to the top flight for the first time in four years, league meetings are now a regular staple once again.
“It’s hard to single a game out,” admits Crocker. “I’ve commentated on over 40 Old Firm games and there is nothing quite like them. If I had to pick the best two I’d go for the 2002 Scottish Cup Final when Rangers scored a last minute winner after Celtic had twice been ahead. Just before Neil McCann delivered the cross for Peter Lovenkrands I uttered the words, “is there going to be a twist in the tale?” I’d probably uttered that line a few times and nothing happened but this time, it fitted!
“Celtic’s 6-2 demolition of Rangers in 2000 was probably the fastest moving game I’ve ever done. Celtic were 3-0 up in 11 minutes and so much went on in the game it was utterly breathtaking. Henrik Larsson scored a magnificent chip and Celtic fans kindly still mention my “that is sensational” line to this day. That’s very humbling, but Henrik did the hard bit!”
Closer to Edinburgh, Crocker has covered several derbies between Hearts and Hibs and he also had the good fortune of covering a midweek game in 2010 that went down into footballing folklore. Motherwell and Hibs served up an absolute thriller at Fir Park, a game that produced 12 goals.
“I also covered Hibs beating Hearts 6-2 that same season [2000-01] which was pretty amazing too, although not for Jambos’ I guess! On a Wednesday night in 2010 I went along to Fir Park, not expecting too much from Motherwell and Hibs. It finished 6-6 after Hibs were 6-2 down and Motherwell missed a penalty at 5-6! We may never see the like again!”
Crocker also has his voice indelibly marked on another piece of Hibs history, commentating on their historic Scottish Cup triumph this May – as they claimed the trophy for the first time in 114 years. So how did he keep his cool after David Gray’s stoppage time winner saw off Rangers?
“I wrote a column for the SFA’s match day programme for the final and said “it’s got to happen one day, hasn’t it?” I mean, 114 years, come on! I’d tipped Rangers to beat Celtic in the semi’s but I just fancied this might be the time for Hibs, at long last. I’m happy with the commentary on David Gray’s winner but I didn’t really know what I’d said at the time. Before the corner is taken I cried, “what a moment this is.” I don’t even remember saying that at the time but it sure turned into a moment! I’ve seen my commentary on an impressive framed sketch of the winning goal and am told some Hibs fans have it as their ringtone. Once again, very humbling. I was just trying to capture the moment and if I managed it then that’s a relief!”
“You are basically ad-libbing, not knowing what to expect over the course of the 90 minutes. But at 2-2 during the Cup Final I suddenly thought ‘blimey what do I say if Hibs actually do this?’ I decided on “Hibs are standing on the brink of history” and snuck it on the winner. The goal came so late they weren’t standing there for long, they’d soon made history!”
Rangers’ return to the top flight is undoubtedly a huge positive for Scottish football, which, according to Crocker, suffered enormously in their absence – even if lower league clubs temporarily benefited. Crocker covered the first Old Firm derby of the season which ended in a crushing 5-1 win for Celtic last weekend.
“It’s great to have Rangers back where they belong. I don’t think the lower leagues should have got a piece of Rangers on their way back,” says Crocker. “I’d have preferred keeping them in the top flight, albeit with severe punishments imposed. Their absence from the Premiership has affected other clubs at that level, as proved by empty seats galore at too many venues. There is renewed interest in the Scottish game now that the Old Firm game is back. Last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final between Glasgow’s big two showed us what we’ve been missing. We need Hibs and Dundee United back too.”
So can Rangers as well as Aberdeen and Hearts realistically maintain a title challenge or is it Celtic’s for the taking yet again?
“At the moment it’s hard to see past Celtic,” Crocker says. “Rangers haven’t hit any heights yet but I still think they’ll be challenging near the top. Aberdeen remain strong and I hope Hearts can hang in there. The more challengers the merrier. We could do with a proper title race.”
Some may argue Scottish football is undergoing a bit of a renaissance with the return of the Old Firm and Celtic qualifying for the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in three years, evidence perhaps of the impact Brendan Rodgers has made already.
“The financial side of it is obviously lucrative but I prefer to look at it in footballing terms. It’s a huge boost to Scottish football to have Celtic back playing among the elite of Europe in the Champions League,” Crocker says. “Brendan Rodgers has had quite an effect for sure and this is what he wanted. The domestic stuff is all well and good but Celtic need the Champions League to go with it. And by the way, I bet UEFA are glad to have Celtic back too. No other club can match Celtic Park for atmosphere on a Champions League night.”
During his commentary career, Crocker has had the privilege of witnessing some extraordinary moments north and south of the border, including Manchester United’s treble winning season. He’s also covered some of the world’s greatest players, including a young Gareth Bale at the beginning of his road to stardom.
“Obviously Henrik Larsson is a stand-out in the time I’ve been commentating on Scottish football. And no, that doesn’t make me a Celtic fan! I’ve been privileged enough to see so many top players including Messi and Ronaldo. I commentated on Gareth Bale when he couldn’t win a game at all at the start of his Spurs career. I remember shaking his hand ahead of a post-match interview back then and it was rather limp. I reckon he’d crush my bones now! I’ve enjoyed watching his progression, especially as he’s a nice lad.”
“I was fortunate enough to cover Manchester United quite a lot in their treble winning season and just after that, in 2000, I saw them demolish my team West Ham 7-1. The Hammers actually took the lead, which I think annoyed United. Scholes scored a terrific hat-trick including a cheeky back-heel and Beckham floated in a fabulous free-kick. It was one of the best team performances I’ve ever seen. Trust it to be against my team!”
Crocker’s commentary of Scotland games began just after their last appearance at a major tournament, the 1998 World Cup, something he made reference to during the Malta qualifier. So how does he assess Scotland’s chances of making it to the 2018 World Cup under Gordon Strachan?
“I first started commentating on Scotland 18 years ago funnily enough but hey, it’s not my fault. I have a strong affinity for the national team even though I still get stick for being an Englishman. Sorry can’t help that! I’d rather watch Scotland than England these days mind and I think they’ve got a chance under Gordon Strachan. I don’t see an awful lot to fear in Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta. But you never know do you? There could be a Georgia among them. I sincerely hope not. The time has come. Unlike some national teams, the Scottish boys give their all regardless. I hope they get a long overdue break and the Tartan Army get to head to Russia.”
After all, as Crocker puts it, “if Leicester can win the Premier League and Hibs can win the Scottish Cup, why not?!”
Image courtesy of Raymond McCrae