Friday 23 August 2013
Being a football commentator may look like a breeze but there is more to talking through 90 minutes of the beautiful game than meets the eye. Premierleague.com caught up with commentator Ian Darke to find out what it is really like to be the voice of the Barclays Premier League for BT Sport.
"At this time of the year, we all have the problem of getting to know each team's new signings"
Over the course of a distinguished commentating career of more than 35 years Darke has graced the airwaves on behalf of numerous major networks, including the BBC, Sky Sports and ESPN, and if he owes his longevity to anything the 59-year-old feels it is the importance of preparation and extensive research.
"Your prep for any game might start almost from the moment you know you're going to be covering it, which might be three weeks in advance," Darke says. "You'll start taking a bit more notice of those two teams and keep a close look on who’s playing and what formation they're using."
At the start of the season, however, identifying the latest newcomer from Celta Vigo or an aspiring development player trying to make the grade in the first team is not always straightforward.
"At this time of the year, we all have the problem of getting to know each team's new signings," says Darke, who commentated on the Barclays Premier League curtain-raiser between Liverpool and Stoke City last Saturday. "For example, what does Iago Aspas of Liverpool look like? What is the correct pronunciation of Jordon Ibe's name?
"I think, beyond that, it's doing a lot of reading about the two teams you’re going to be covering. To be honest, a lot of people might find the actual prep side of the job quite boring. It's a lot of hours of just plugging through and checking stats. Things like: 'He's gone 23 games without a goal, so who did he last score against?'"
"Statistics can be boring if there are too many of them"
Darke reveals that statisticians behind the scenes provide some lines for the commentary team for use during the broadcast, but says the commentator must be wary of an over-reliance on figures.
"I don't like a commentary that is statistically driven, because statistics can be boring if there are too many of them," he says. "The acid test of a stat is that the football fan sitting at home goes, 'Wow, is that right?'
"The Barclays Premier League has a very knowledgeable audience. People know the vast majority of the players and certainly the high-profile ones, so it's finding something a little more off-beat to say about them or something new."
Ultimately, the match and how it unravels is what takes precedence for the commentator.
"You can do a mountain of research for a game but, if it’s a good game, you might not even use 5% of it," Darke says. "To any young commentator starting out, I would say let the game dictate to you.”
On matchdays Darke gets to the stadium with plenty of time to spare to avoid getting stuck en route and to soak up the atmosphere.
"I would always look to get to the ground three hours before the game," he says. "I don’t want to be sitting in traffic somewhere thinking, ‘Crikey, am I going to make this in time?'
After speaking with the broadcast director on arrival, Darke is still looking for topical news and angles that may have to be reflected during his upcoming stint in the commentary box.
"I go down to the press room, hang about there and talk to some of my broadcasting colleagues and maybe a couple of the reporters – they might give you something they know, you might give them something you know.
"When the Barclays Premier League first started, you'd be the only commentator – there are six or seven nowadays"
"An hour and a half before the match I'll go down into the tunnel, where the teams are officially first announced. The other commentators are usually down there – there's probably six or seven nowadays. When the Barclays Premier League first started, you'd be the only one."
With the match only an hour away, Darke continues to absorb his notes, which have taken weeks to compile, before finally heading to the gantry.
"I'd just really sit down and look through my information, get numbers in my head, a few key facts and generally marshal my thoughts," he says. "I will have produced two hardback A4-sized cards with the teams on and the players I think are going to be involved, their squad numbers and what I consider to be the best couple of lines that I've got about them.
"What you're really doing through the whole week – but especially that last three hours – is being like a sponge and soaking up quite a lot of information. You hope that, when you do the commentary, it comes out in something like the right order and you might use something when it becomes relevant."
Despite his many years at the top of his trade Darke is not one to rest on his laurels. Indeed commentary is an art he feels he is continually striving to master.
"I've never done a commentary yet, and I think all the other commentators would say the same, where you're totally happy with what you do. It's a 90-minute ad-lib and, if I’m honest, you always end up after a game thinking, 'Why did I say that? Why didn't I say that?'"
Having commentated at numerous stadia all over the world, Darke nonetheless feels that the Barclays Premier League offers the best conditions for a commentator to work.
"We're lucky in England because the commentary positions are near the action and you need that"
"We're quite lucky in England because the commentary positions are quite near the action and you do need that," he says. "I did a World Cup in Soccer City in Johannesburg and that was like commentating from a Boeing 747. Barcelona is very high, too."
"We always judge by how good the view is and how easy it is to commentate from, as well as comfort and ease of working, so I'd say Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United are the best commentary positions. You have a great view from all of those clubs."
It's not all posh seats and VIP treatment, though: "At Everton, you have to clamber across a roof!"
Craven Cottage, from where BT Sport’s next live match will be broadcast on Saturday early afternoon, also ranks highly with Darke, who is complimentary about the West London venue, even if he will not be there for the 12.45pm kick-off between Fulham and Arsenal, where commentary will be led by Darren Fletcher.
"That's a good view, too," Darke says. "You are near the pitch and not too far back. Craven Cottage is a nice place to commentate from, but in a different kind of way. It's very laid-back and relaxed, coupled with the nicest walk to any ground in the country alongside the River Thames."
BT Sport will provide live coverage of Fulham v Arsenal, on air from 11.30am, kick off 12.45pm, Saturday, as one of their 38 exclusively live Barclays Premier League matches this season. BT Sport is free with BT broadband, to find out more visit www.btsport.com