How do you become a football commentator? Broadcasting stars reveal life behind the microphone

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Their voices are some of the most recognisable in the world, describing in detail all the greatest games, but what is it like being a commentator?

Think of a famous moment from football history. In your mind, you visualise the movement of the players, the bulge of the net as the ball goes in, the scenes of jubilation from team-mates and supporters, with a soundtrack that perfectly describes the poetry of the play.

Each iconic goal is intrinsically attached to a particular piece of commentary, such as Manchester City's Premier League-winning goal in 2012 as Martin Tyler screamed "Agueroooo" before noting "I swear you'll never see anything like this ever again. So watch it, drink it in."

Commentary shapes how we watch football matches, with good commentators knowing what to say, when to say it and even when to stay quiet and allow the action to speak for itself.

Many football fans have their favourite football commentators and many young supporters grow up imitating the distinctive voices they hear on screen.

But how do you become a football commentator? Goal spoke to some of the best in the business to find out what it involves and what life is like for commentators at the top level.


How do you become a football commentator?


Sergio Aguero Man City Crystal Palace 13052012

Becoming a football commentator is a difficult prospect, with only a select few actually making a lifelong career out of describing football matches.

Many notable names see it as a vocation, having worked their whole lives to get to where they are, putting in hours and hours of hard work and practice in order to make them stand out among their competitors and get their voices heard by the masses.

Getting a job in commentary is difficult as sometimes it is not always easy to receive an opportunity, but persistence and connections can be key to breaking into the industry. Derek Rae is known as the voice of the Champions League to viewers in the United States and has worked with BBC, ESPN, BT Sport and a host of other broadcasters. Now one of the commentators on FIFA 19, he has been working in the industry all his life but devoted a lot of time and effort into getting to where he is now.

"It was always something I wanted to do from a very young age," Rae told Goal. "I started as a seven-year-old in Aberdeen making tapes of the 1974 World Cup, which is the first tournament I really fell in love with. From that point on, I always knew that's what I wanted to be.

"But wanting to do something and actually doing it is a different matter. From the age of 11, 12, I used to go to games, usually Aberdeen reserve games, and make tapes for myself and people around me would give me funny looks, saying: 'You're that strange laddie that makes tapes to himself.' From the age of 13 on, I went on to hospital radio where you're making programmes for the patients in local hospitals. I got the gig as one of the commentators for Aberdeen games on hospital radio, which was the only way you could broadcast Aberdeen games in those days because there wasn't community radio or a local station covering the team week in, week out. I continued doing that all the way until I went to university.

"I also had written to my broadcasting hero David Francey who was the voice of Scottish football on radio. I worshipped his broadcasting style which was a rich distinctive Scottish style. I sent my tapes to him and got some great feedback from him and we stayed in touch. I sent another to him when I was at university when I was 19 and instead of just sending back a letter of advice, what David did for me was he passed it on to the BBC. I got a call back from the producer there and I ended up on the air at 19. My second game as a commentator was England vs Scotland at Wembley in 1986 because David was unable to do the game."


Are there college courses to help become a commentator?


2015 Confederations Cup commentators

Many universities and colleges in the United Kingdom, United States and worldwide offer courses that can help pave the way for a career in sports commentary.

There is not just one course that is fully focused on football commentary, but many avenues into the industry. Places such as Leeds Trinity College, Southampton Solent University and the University of the Arts in London offer degrees in sports journalism, which can help build skills and contacts for a variety of roles in sports media.

A popular course undertaken by many current commentators is a broadcast journalism degree. Kevin Hatchard has extensive experience calling games for talkSport, BBC, RTE and is currently one of the main commentators for the Bundesliga in English, having gone to university in England to help him work his way into the industry.

"I did the broadcast journalism course in Nottingham Trent University," Hatchard told Goal. "Many commentators have come out of that, including Adam Summerton (BT), Mark Scott (BBC), Phil Blacker (Sky). If you look at the success rate of those people who came out of that course, you can see it had a beneficial effect. If you have the resources to do it, it's definitely worthwhile.

"From my experience, a vocational course is definitely better than a theory-based course so something like a broadcast journalism course is really good. It's not essential, but it can't do any harm. It helped me with things like editing, being tidier and sharper with writing for broadcast, and because it did radio and TV, it shows you what is required in a newsroom. You're also surrounded by other people who want to do it, so you see how serious you have to be to succeed."


What is it like being a commentator?


Life as a football commentator can be very glamorous, covering Champions Leagues and World Cups as well as high-scoring local derbies and title-clinching games.

Rae recalls what it was like covering Europe's elite club competitions during the 2010s, with Liverpool's historic Champions League triumph being his most memorable game to date: "The Champions League has given me so much as a commentator and hopefully I've done a job that people have enjoyed all around the world. The 2005 final in Istanbul when Liverpool came back against all odds with Milan, I was lucky enough to be there that night for ESPN. I remember saying after the game to my producer: 'We will never ever get a final like that again.' To have been able to provide a soundtrack to that, I don't think it gets any better than that as a commentator."

However, he also warns that getting into the business is very challenging and staying at the top of the game is just as difficult. He is always happy to give advice to young people who believe they have what it takes, but believes that even the most committed could find it tough to hold down full-time work as you develop your voice in the same way a singer would before embarking on a world tour.

"Number one, realise that it's a very difficult industry to get into," Rae admitted. "You have to be quite patient and you have to not expect that you will make it. That's the harsh reality of it. You have to put an awful time and effort into it. You have to, and I can't stress this enough, really work on your voice. The job is not shouting, the job is like that of a singer. You are a professional voice person and you have to treat your voice as your musical instrument.

"You have to really love it and have to realise that commentating is a job outside football. You have to love the football, that's important, but you also have to love the broadcasting. You have to spend a lot of time working on your craft and realise it's going to take many years to get to close to even where you want to be. When I listen back to my early stuff, it wasn't that great. You do end up being your own harshest critic.

"That's probably sobering words for a lot of people trying to get into the business, but it's not something you fall into and it all falls into place. It does take a lot of time and effort and there will be a lot of setbacks along the way. A lot of people think they can do it because they think they can sit in front of a screen and talk, but could they do it for 90 minutes and could you do it flawlessly? It's a difficult job and in this age of social media, you have to have very thick skin, thicker than ever, but if you can break into it, it is a wonderful job."


How do commentators prepare for games?


Commentator's notes

Just like how each team prepares differently for a match and each football manager has their own approach for every game, no two commentators are the same in how they prepare.

Commentators do not just turn up on the day and call out what they see, but instead spend days poring over information ahead of a match and even keep long-term databases, spreadsheets and notes of information that they can call upon depending on the teams involved.

"I would start on a Monday [for a weekend game]," Hatchard explains. "I would try watch the footage of the teams' previous games. I also start collecting newslines and snippets that I have seen. That could range from a coach's comment about a transfer or it might be something funny I have seen. I like the fun stuff, the silly stuff that does not appear in a stat pack or any official documentation.

"I also have a database of information and stories that I keep, so as time goes on, if I don't use it one week, I can use it the next time I cover that particular team. Then once I get towards Thursday, I start putting stickers together with the stat pack. I do a sticker for every player in both squads. It won't have all the same stuff on every player. It'll have four lines of information that's important to me. In terms of ages, I know a lot of commentators have the age of every player on every single sticker, but if a player is 26 or 27 I don't care, if they're 19 or 35, then it's a story for me.

"If a player has a great record against a particular team or a player has said something inflammatory about a team that might influence the main story, then that will go in there. Or even silly stuff like if they've just gotten a new tattoo, that'll go in there. I have a set of stickers for each team and then a set of statistics for each team, e.g. their defensive record, the last time they've won a trophy, their record against the opponents, recent form.

"As well as the stats for each of the teams, I'll have a set of newslines for each of the teams: What the coaches said about their team, about the opposition, have any players said anything interesting recently. What I eventually distill all that down into is three or four sheets of paper and then stickers on my main book where I then can look at formations.

"If I read something or see something on TV, or even notice a Tweet that's someone's sent, I'll do a note on my phone and send that to myself and then copy it into the database I have on my computer.

"That's just the way I do it. All the commentators have totally different ways of doing it. I've never found anyone who does it exactly like me, but I've never found two commentators that do it exactly like each other."

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