If you’re a football fan then at some point during the last year you’ll have flicked over to ITV and become unwittingly complicit in the ongoing employment of Andy Townsend. Run a Twitter search for his name during any Tuesday night Champions League game and your phone will struggle to keep pace with the avalanche of criticism that meets his every word. It seems that for many, his official title as ‘colour-commentator’ is a sneaky upsell on behalf of ITV. Instead, each week we’re subjected to the equivalent of The Sistine Chapel recreated by a bloke clutching a Wilko’s paint roller, his streamlined lexicon reducing The Beautiful Game to a series of platitudes so banal you can almost hear the PlayStation disc whirring in the background. Do we not deserve better than these refried stodges of received wisdom? Perhaps more pressingly, why doesn’t a man who’s captained his country in World Cup Finals have more to offer this captive audience of millions?
One of the main problems is that Townsend frequently commentates as though he’s forgotten he’s on TV. Instead we get the sort of real-time reactions you might expect from hidden-camera show GoggleBox. Here’s Townsend glued to the game, sloshing Carlsberg on the carpet as he rises from his chair, ‘GO ON’ he shouts, animated now, feigning a header at the screen, ‘BETTER…’ he continues, grabbing a handful of pork scratchings before the decisive curling kick bulges the top corner, ‘GET IN!!’ Townsend reaches into the fridge for another cold one, except, what’s that giant headset? That row of blinking monitors? Oh yeah, national television.
Whilst these impromptu celebrations might be endearing at International level, during Champions League matches they’re at best jarring and at worst simply inappropriate. For Townsend, impartiality is thrown out the window and replaced with a ‘V for Victory’ model of patriotism seldom seen outside the pages of a BNP pamphlet. The mentality is one that ‘our boys’ need to ‘go out there’ and ‘get the job done,’ an opinion shared by precisely 0% of football fans who’d rather see a rival team battered into submission than triumph for the sake of our flowering, gentle England. (Though there are times when Townsend’s loyalties waver, as with this inexplicable moment of Marseille fandom against Arsenal)
What’s frustrating is that Townsend never draws upon his considerable experience as a top-flight athlete to add a glimmer of insight into the psyche of a professional footballer. In fact, there are whole rainforest-sized areas of analysis which Townsend simply doesn’t engage with. Want to know the importance of a deep-lying playmaker to a side with a first-leg lead to protect? Don’t ask Andy. Want to know the limitations of a high-pressing 3-5-2 against a more conservative 4-4-2? Don’t ask Andy. Want to know what goes on in the tunnel before a big game? Don’t ask Andy. Want a drinking game where you’ll end the night slumped in a pool of your own vomit? Count on Andy and have a shot every time he urges on the English team with the phrase ‘that’s better’; you’ll be under the table by half time.
For the modern football viewer it seems his ongoing presence is anachronistic, a crude anathema to the Opta-enhanced couture football that holds sway amongst the likes of Four Four Two and Zonal Marking. But the widespread criticism of Mark Lawrenson’s punditry and Michael Owen’s commentary suggests there isn’t some invisible demographic who rely on this worn fan-belt of redundant clichés for entertainment. In tennis for example, the likes of Jim Courier and John McEnroe bring valuable charisma and depth of knowledge to the sport, and not once do they compel players to ‘stick their strings through it’ or ‘put their racket on the end of it.’
Perhaps the best example of football commentary that’s at once inventive, enthusiastic and analytical comes from beIN Sports’ Ray Hudson. At first he seems almost outrageous, his swashbuckling language drawing from sources way outside the accepted lexicon of commentary as we know it. But the more you listen, the more he seems to tap into the beating heart of what binds football fans in passion for the sport. He even has his own Twitter fan account, @liverayhudson collating his most quotable lines together in one place.
Whilst you could argue this lyrical style is far-fetched, you could make an equally convincing argument that Andy Townsend presiding over the UEFA Champions League Final is no more suitable than The Academy Awards hosted by Bradley Walsh. Colour-commentators should possess the ability to verbalise the histrionics and exhilaration of these operatic nights where the eyes of an entire continent fall on the spot-lit stage of a single stadium. Until then I’m hoping for an option to turn the commentary off so I can sit back in my chair and enjoy the roar of the crowd.