Far from over for voice of soccer

 

A CHARMING bungalow in the picturesque village of Ewell in Surrey, is home to a celebrated commentator with a unique distinction in broadcasting. For those of us old enough to remember the occasion, nothing can ever match the words of Kenneth Wolstenholme, who captured the sporting dreams of a generation in the immortal phrase: "They think it's all over . . . It is now."

Happily, those words have no relevance to the current well-being of their creator. At 75 and living with Joan, his wife of close on 52 years, Wolstenholme remains remarkably active, as viewers of the Italian soccer segment on RTE and Channel 4's Gazzetta d'ltalia will be aware. And the year ahead, which happens to be the 30th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup, is providing him with a particularly full schedule.

At the moment, he is deeply involved in a book of reminiscences of that famous triumph by England, which is due to be published in April. And, of course, the splendid voice which has softened appealingly with the years, continues to be heard on Channel 4. To his contemporaries, however, Wolstenholme will always be the voice of soccer on the BBC.

Interestingly, he has achieved renewed popularity through THAT phrase, particularly its use as the title of a sports-comedy quiz programme on the BBC, headed by Nick Hancock. But the development offends him. "I hate to see it being trivialised in this way, not least because I suspect it doesn't mean anything to the people involved," he said.

That and other observations leave no doubt about his anxiety to protect cherished memories of a marvellous occasion. He is aware that for sports followers, the 1966 World Cup ranked alongside the Munich air disaster as a special milestone in our lives. In fact he proceeded to ask me where I was at the time and I was pleased to be able to recall that I was visiting a married brother in Derry.

THEN, no doubt for the umpteenth time, he brought himself back to those fateful moments in extra time, when England were leading West Germany by 3-2. "There was only a short time remaining and I can remember a lot of whistling around the ground," he recalled. "Then I noticed some spectators coming onto the pitch and I said on the air `they think it's all over.'

"As I spoke those words, I could see Bobby Moore passing the ball to Geoff Hurst and as Hurst shot for goal, I finished the phrase `it is now.' Instinctively, I knew he was going to scorn In fact there's a marvellous picture of that shot, taken by a photographer from behind the goal."

Wolstenholme went on: "It was July 30th, 13 days past my 46th birthday. And it was a carnival occasion. In the build-up to the match there were the inevitable suggestions of a renewal of England-German hostilities, but it never turned out that way. Unlike nowadays, the German and English fans were mixed throughout the ground and between them, they created a helluva noise. Particularly the Germans with their hunting horns.

"I remember thinking how well behaved the English fans were when that stunning equaliser came just before the end of normal time. And ultimately, how graciously the German team behaved in defeat. Then, afterwards, there were the unbelievable crowds in the streets around Wembley. And I remember being staggered by all the empty champagne bottles in the car park.

"Obviously, it was a very emotional occasion. I had commentated on other World Cups but this had to be different. England had won. And nowadays, when people are tempted to suggest that we may be making too much of it, I feel obliged to remind them, gently, that it's the only thing England has ever won in soccer. Quite apart from that, it happened to be a very pleasant occasion and unquestionably the high point of my career."

He was born outside Manchester on July 17th 1920 and became a Bolton wanderers fan at an early age. Those were glory days at Burnden Park from where victorious FA Cup teams were sent to Wembley in 1923, 1926 and 1929. And in his teens, his idols included Henry Rose, the then sports editor of the Daily express in Manchester.

Wolstenholme later enlisted in the RAF, served in the Second World War, and was demobilised in 1946. "I remember getting hold of a press ticket for the FA Cup semi-final between Charlton and Bolton at Villa Park," he recalled. "Since I clearly had no right to be there, I was tremendously relieved to hear a friendly voice. It belonged to Harold Mayes, the sports editor of the Empire News, whom I had met during the early days of the war.

"The outcome was that he invited me to write for his paper on league cricket, of all things. And it was on cricket that I did my first broadcast for the BBC." It wasn't long, however, before Wolstenholme moved to soccer, albeit at a decidedly modest level. "It was an amateur international trial match between the Southern Counties and the Northern Counties and the powers-that-be in London thought it might be appropriate to have somebody with a northern accent," he said.

So, he was on his way. Soon he graduated to television and to "Sportsview" which was introduced by Peter Dimmock on Wednesday evenings. Then, on Saturday September 10th, 1955, he was a member of the team which brought "Sports Special" onto the air for the first time.

"Eurovision, which had started by that stage, provided a great breakthrough for soccer," he said. "It meant the televising of the 1954 World Cup from Switzerland. And I also have fond memories of the 1958 finals in Sweden, where Northern Ireland made such a wonderful impact."

He went on: "You probably know that Sweden is a very protestant country: religion seems to be very important there. Anyway, they concluded that the reason Northern Ireland were doing so well was because they were playing for the Pope. That raised a great laugh because, as I remember it, Peter Docherty, the manager of the side, was their only Catholic. But with a view to taking a rise out of their hosts, the entire Northern Ireland party went to church the following Sunday. Eventually, the Swedes learned the truth and they loved it."

BY 1959, he was considered professional enough to attempt his first All-Ireland final. In fact both All-Ireland finals, including a replay in the hurling. He smiled at the memory. "The football (between Kerry and Galway) was straightforward enough, but the hurling was a different matter," he said. "Michael O'Hehir, who was commentating for Radio Eireann at the time, was a great help, acquainting me with the established cliches of the game, such as `the clash of the ash."'

Wolstenholme didn't remember the competing teams, only that the first match was drawn and that as a gesture to their visitor from the BBC, officials at Croke Park presented him with a hurley. In fact the burley was the one used by Waterford's Seamus Power in scoring the equalising goal against Kilkenny. And, of course, Waterford went on to win the replay.

"I enjoyed my visits to Dublin, particularly my meetings with Padraig O Chaoimh, the secretary of the GAA," added the man from the BBC. "His liberal attitude to sport surprised me at a time when I was aware of the GAA ban against `foreign games.' But there were a few embarrassing moments. Like when I was offered a drink and I replied `Scotch and water' only to be told that the only whiskey they had was Irish. And when my report on one of the matches was edited for Sportsview and the director devoted quite a bit of time to players fighting. I know the Irish blamed me for that, but in fact the matter was outside my control."

Veteran sports journalist David Guiney, a long-time admirer of Wolstenholme's, remembers the occasion. "His visits here created quite a stir at a time when we didn't have our own television service. There was a great buzz at Croke Park over the fact that the BBC had sent an outside broadcast unit to cover the All-lrelands," he said.

Soon, with the establishment of Telefis Eireann and O'Hehir's appointment as its first head of sport, the country was in a position to provide its own service in televised sport. Yet, Wolstenholme remained a highly influential figure. As Jimmy Magee recalls: "The World Cup of 1966 had a huge impact on televised sport here. And the positive response of Telefis Eireann was due in no small way to the progressive attitude of Michael O'Hehir.

"For instance, I remember being sent to cover my first FA Cup final at Wembley in 1967 and a year later I was back there for my first European Cup final, when Manchester United captured the trophy. I have no doubt that those decisions stemmed from the huge upsurge in interest that had been generated in these islands by England's World Cup triumph."

Five years afterwards, and apparently at the peak of his powers, Wolstenholme parted company with the BBC. In fact his last broadcast for them was the 1971 European Cup final in which Ajax beat Panathinaikos. Despite my gentle probing, he was prepared to say little of what was clearly a painful parting.

"My contract had expired and there was a disagreement over its renewal," he said. "Of course I was disappointed. In those days everyone wanted to work for the BBC." But his superb talent as a broadcaster continued to be recognised by ITV who employed him on a freelance basis. More recently, he has been commentating on Italian soccer for a London production company who distribute his work to RTE and Channel 4. And he is delighted at the idea of reaching an Irish audience.

Meanwhile, one sensed his conviction that he had experienced the best of times in televised soccer. "They have got magnificent camera equipment nowadays but they don't seem to know how to use it," he said. "For instance, I was watching the Arsenal v Newcastle match the other night and the key aspect of the game was that Ginola was sent off yet the camera missed it completely. As for the quality of the match itself: it looked like a repeat of the gladiators."

He went on: "Quite frankly I hate what's happening to football. The behaviour of some spectators is appalling. And there is no doubt but that the game is being over-exposed. Looking through last year's viewing figures, I noticed that the biggest television audience was eight million, whereas we regularly had 20 million for the FA Cup final.

"Even after all these years, I'm still mad about the game. But it is an inescapable fact that the more exposure it receives on television, the smaller will become the attendances at matches. And when the decline reaches serious proportions, sponsors will start complaining. In the meantime the organisers are pandering so much to television that we've reached a stage when it's hard to figure out when a match is actually kicking off. Stay at home and you can watch almost non-stop football for literally an entire afternoon.

"I'm familiar with both sides of the argument and the amount of money that Sky is pumping into the game. When the national team is competing, however, there can be no dispute: it should be shown on terrestrial television."

WOLSTENHOLME has had a full, satisfying life. Certainly, there was the crushing disappointment of his break with the BBC and the tragedy of losing one of his two daughters to leukaemia. But on the credit side, he has enjoyed the enormous, personal satisfaction of becoming virtually a household name to successive generations.

"Of course I'm glad I said it," he said, referring to a phrase that is quite correctly acknowledged as the most famous in the history of sports broadcasting. "The BBC have been very good in allowing the particular segment to be shown in all sorts of circumstances. Which means that through royalties, I have made a lot of money out of it."

Then came a gentle chuckle as he mused: "I've often wondered why some newspaper has never bothered to track down and interview one of those people who encroached on the Wembley pitch. Without them you know, I would never have said it."