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Are the commentators actually there?

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Paul Armstrong | 16:03 UK time, Wednesday, 20 December 2006

Having explained last week why we nearly always transmit Match of the Day live, I thought I'd deal with another subject raised in a number of responses, and even in the letters column of this month's "When Saturday Comes".

It concerns the people who are on the air for 80% or so of most football programmes: our old mates, the commentators.

An urban myth seems to have spread that we don't always send our commentators to the matches for MOTD and MOTD2.

I can exclusively reveal that we definitely do - every single Saturday and Sunday since we regained the contract, we have had a commentator at every game.

So too, I believe, have Sky. If you find yourself at a weekend Premiership game, have a look up at the gantry and you should see at least two worried-looking individuals in headphones up there, clutching a set of notes and talking ten to the dozen for ninety minutes.

And, with any luck, not just to themselves...

To be fair, in the past when there were two or three designated commentary games, there were occasions when an extra commentator was kept back at the BBC or ITV studios to add a dubbed commentary if another game was upgraded to a short edit.

In my assistant producer days, I was party to the occasional exercise in TV sleight of hand along those lines.

There was an art to pretending to be surprised by something you'd already seen. Some commentators - an up-and-coming Clive Tyldesley springs to mind - did it disturbingly well.

Others tended towards the Mystic Meg approach: "He's perfectly capable of beating three men from here, then curling it into the top corner... oh my goodness, he has! It's the second goal of his hat-trick...!"

These days, we know in advance that every game is going to be given at least five minutes' airtime, so we do send commentators to every game.

This coming Saturday, for example, there'll be ten of them on the loose. They commentate live for 90 minutes, the majority of the time they also do the post-match interviews, then they go home.

A producer in TV Centre makes notes throughout each game, then spends the evening editing their match to duration.

This involves trimming the words and pictures, and one of the advantages of recorded highlights, rather than live games, is that anything that goes wrong can be tidied up by the time it's transmitted.

A miscut or unhelpful replay angle can be removed, and so can an errant line of commentary. Quite often though, an old hand like John Motson will specifically ask for an uncertain reaction of his to be left in the edit for authenticity's sake.

If the ball ricochets around the penalty area, or an offside decision is tight, it's perfectly natural for a commentator to hedge his bets, or wait for a replay to clear it up.

By the time a commentator leaves the ground after an MOTD highlights game, a whole kit of parts - action, commentary and interviews - should be safely in the possession of a producer back at base.

However, at a live game, the commentator is in many ways the most vulnerable person in the whole operation.

Take for example, this summer's World Cup Final. Play stops in extra-time, and virtually no-one in the ground knows why.

Seventeen million people are watching our coverage, and John Motson in the stand gets a message over talkback that the extra BBC camera we've trained on Zinedine Zidane has seen him headbutt Materazzi.

The host director has not yet offered a replay or relevant close-up, so Motty takes the plunge, explains what he's heard, then, with the help of Mark Lawrenson, leads the viewer through one of the most extraordinary episodes in World Cup history.

Here's another example from this summer: we leave Brazil v Japan at the final whistle to cross to Croatia v Australia, which is still in progress.

As Guy Mowbray is cued to speak, Graham Poll is about to issue Josep Simunic with his third yellow card of the game.

Not only does Guy have to launch into an unexpected burst of live commentary on a crucial group game for 8 or 9 million people, he has to summarise the bizarre events which are unfolding before him.

He also has to get his facts right: as things stand, Australia are going through, and he'd better be right in thinking he's seen three yellows shown to Simunic!

As it turns out, he called both things correctly, and coped brilliantly.

Personally, I'm very glad that any instant decisions or judgement calls I make are only heard by a few dozen people in the office, or over talkback during a programme, rather than instantly reaching the public domain for all to hear and dissect.

The pressure involved explains why commentators occasionally gain a reputation for being a tad obsessive. In simple terms, they need to be.

If someone no-one's ever heard of comes on as a substitute, they have to tell us all about him. If Chelsea go 6-0 up, they have to know when Chelsea or anyone else last scored seven, and so on.

An illustration from this week sums up the level of devotion required. Steve Wilson and Mark Bright will be the commentators at our live FA Cup tie between Tamworth and Norwich in the New Year.

With the best will in the world, neither of them is as familiar with Tamworth as they are with most Premiership teams, so they set off up the M6 on Tuesday afternoon.

Destination: The Lamb, Tamworth for an FA Trophy tie against Altrincham.

Unfortunately, the same thick fog which put paid to the Liverpool v Arsenal Carling Cup tie descended on Staffordshire.

After 45 minutes, Steve and Mark had just about seen enough through the murk to piece together the way Tamworth's left side operated.

Then the game was called off at half-time, so the recce of the right side of Tamworth's XI will have to wait for another day.

Anyway, I'm not on duty this weekend, but fortunately Villa Park (and a rather tasty-looking encounter with Manchester United) is just down the road from my in-laws.

My next Match of the Day is on Boxing Day and, contrary to a fantastic urban myth aired in one of last week's responses, we will actually be in the studio.

It's a great idea in theory to record all the links and all possbile permutations of the chat at an earlier date, and not turn up at all, but it just might not work in practice! .

So, season's greetings to one and all, and enjoy the extra helpings of food, festivity and football!

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