Transported to Another World: The Art of Radio Football Commentary

Time and time again, radio football commentary has engaged me in the game like no other medium. My infatuation with it was actually born from my environment rather than personal interest. I will never forget the long family car journeys as a kid—my brothers and I crammed into the back of our car, fighting for leg space as we endured the hours of motorway to some random holiday destination. More often than not, my dad would tune the radio into whatever football match was being broadcast on local or national radio to pass the time, and to most likely have some relief from the jam-packed, overfilled, and usually too hot or cold family car. Looking back now, I realise that I would also use the football commentary as an escape through the commentator’s words. For a professional daydreamer like me, having someone paint a portrait of a football match through spoken word was the perfect way to transport myself to the ground. I would try to create a personal image in my mind’s eye of watching the players in their positions, hearing the fans roar or groan as the action unfolded.

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Artwork by Shivani Khot

What began as passive listening on long car journeys soon developed into a genuine, all-encompassing love for football radio commentary. As I got older, went to more matches, and started playing football, my infatuation with commentary didn’t stop once a broadcast had finished or when our journey had ended. I was so fixated on the commentary that I would narrate when practising my shooting or dribbling skills in the back garden or when playing in the park with friends, leading to remarks that I should take up commentating as a future career. In particular, I developed a rather strange and humorous combination of my love for radio commentary and the 1990s broadcasting of Football Italia—as a result, I had the blend of using English terms and phrases whilst using iconic footballers’ names from Serie A like Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, and Paolo Maldini. 

As my lack of childhood inhibitions wore off and I became a more introverted teenager, I lost some of my knack for commentating on my football experiences, and the freedom to pour words out of my mouth whilst simultaneously trying to play a defence-splitting through ball on the pitch started to decline. Instead, I became much more focused on playing the game and trying my best to look cool like Andrea Pirlo rather than a gangly awkward teenager playing on a grass-lacking, sodden, bumpy pitch in South London. 

Yet, deep down behind the moody teenage persona, and listening to football via the radio was a leisure activity and a passion that I have never lost. Football matches on Sky Sports and other outlets weren’t always available for me and my family, and they aren’t even today due to astronomical costs, so listening to the radio or online was, and is, an essential bloodline straight to the regular mid-week or Saturday afternoon matches in the UK. I was also incredibly grateful that I could keep up with the action in an engaging way that allowed my mind to wander. 

Moreover, supporting my favourite team, Crystal Palace, was infinitely easier on the radio when they were a rubbish second-division team travelling up and down the country. Luckily, there was more coverage on radio compared to TV for the crap teams in the 1990s and 2000s and I was able to keep track of the live action. Sometimes my obsession with following Palace would lead to unusual situations, particularly at university when I’d be out with friends on a Saturday afternoon in Swansea, but I’d have one headphone in so I could relay myself back to South London through commentary on the BBC. Luckily, my friends understood my passions and didn’t perceive me as strangely unsociable between 3 and 5 p.m. every Saturday! 

Listening to Palace via the radio has also given me some treasured moments as a fan—these memories are so well remembered by myself and other Palace fans that they often get re-posted on fan groups and social media. One such memory is of a match I will never, ever forget, out of the thousands of games I’ve listened to via the radio (most of them involving Palace). 

Whilst in the back of our family Volvo on the road again for another Sunday outing in the spring of 2001, Palace had travelled to Stockport in a must-win fixture to avoid relegation to Division 2. We tuned in for the closing stages of the contest to follow along as Jonathan Pearce provided succinct updates on Capital Gold Radio, and even now I can feel the anxiety and nerves forming in the pit of my stomach 

As any quality commentator would, Pearce filled us in on the lay of the land with consistent updates and a vivid picture of what a draw would mean for the Eagles: certain demotion. The score was deadlocked at 0-0. It was tense as Stockport were pushing, even as the red and blue away end had portable radios pressed against their ears listening to the other results that could impact Palace’s chances of survival. Inevitably, Palace were running out of time for their vital winner to beat the drop and you could feel the pressure all the way from Edgeley Park, down the length of the country, and through the car speakers. 

As is often the case in radio commentary, there was a slight lull—a calm before the storm—directly before a moment of sheer pandemonium. The clock was ticking down; three minutes remained when Pearce’s voice suddenly became incredibly animated as he described Dougie Freedman picking up the ball from distance, racing into the penalty area and slamming the ball into Stockport’s net in a heroic act that secured Palace’s Division 1 safety. 

To this day, I can hear Pearce’s voice going hoarse as he erupted into excitement via the static car radio to produce spine-tingling commentary, “Freedman into the Stockport penalty area… still Dougie Freedman… still Dougie Freedman… It’s the Boogie Woogie Doogie boy from Selhurst Park!”

His iconic recollection of that moment at Edgeley Park is quoted by myself and a certain generation of Palace fans to recapture the tension, the drama, the significance, and the pride of that day. It was a seminal moment for me personally and one of my best-ever moments as a supporter when I wasn’t at the ground. But it also signified what radio commentary is to so many people. It is not just recalling the action, but an emotionally trusted medium that connects fans to their club. For me, I was stuffed into the backseat of a car—not the most creative-inducing environment and usually a setting for life’s most boring moments. Yet, Pearce’s commentary elevated me to Edgeley Park for a brief moment. Thanks to his voice, his dedication, and passion and understanding, even as a neutral, of what Freedman’s goal meant to Palace, I felt like I was in that away end, that I was bouncing with red and blue shirts, scarves and memorabilia, and connected to the heart of my club. 

Experiences like this have shaped me as a football fan and, more recently, my career choices as well. As a budding football writer, I was given my first big reporting opportunity in August 2019 as I went to report on my first live English Football League match: AFC Wimbledon vs Shrewsbury. Not only do I remember this event so clearly for the excitement, the nerves, and because it was a turning point in my professional career, but it also confirmed why I adore football radio commentary so much.

On a sweltering hot August day at Kingsmeadow, I found my way to the tiny press box full to the brim with journalists and media personnel. It was a tight squeeze and I was literally rubbing shoulders with a radio commentator for BBC Shropshire, who greeted me warmly as I nestled into my seat. We had a quick conversation about the game and pre-match thoughts, just like any football fan would, and I immediately felt at ease and calmed into my position on the halfway line as the pre-match hustle and bustle took place around me. After the pleasantries and some last-minute stats searching with the help of some other reporters, the match began. 

Despite being focused on my own notes and observations, it was hard to ignore the absolute brilliance of the commentator’s immense broadcasting skills. 90 minutes of monologue where the commentator conveyed the action succinctly, barely taking a breath. His choice of language, attention to detail, the ability to fill low periods with humour, engaging stats, and poignant perspectives highlighted how this was a true professional who took incredible pride in their craft. 

I was hooked, and if I wasn’t also working at the time, I would have happily sat next to him out of leisure and just listened to the beauty, so I imagine listeners back in the West Midlands were equally as tuned in as I was.

This live reporting experience in a stadium was the first time I experienced radio commentary from the reporter’s side of the microphone, and hearing the beauty, the drama, and the effortlessness of the commentator’s voice affirmed to me that I was in the right place, that I had found the passion that had led me to give up teaching and become a football writer in 2019. 

Today, I still listen to radio commentary frequently, whether it’s for work research, to follow Crystal Palace, or just for a bit of easy listening while doing DIY or mundane housework and when I have a Saturday afternoon off from work or social plans. As the demands of adulthood have dawned upon me in my 30s, I need time to relax and, although a rarity these days with social plans and work commitments, there is nothing I cherish more that turning the radio on, making a cup of tea and just listening to the commentators relay the updates from around the grounds. 

While myself and millions of football commentary listeners rely on the radio for our football fix, it is unfortunately a medium that is fading from existence. Budget cuts have seen less radio commentary in recent years, particularly for the lower league teams, and some of the most knowledgeable, passionate and truly great commentators have been sacked and replaced by more broad panel shows and general coverage, especially for the EFL.

But there is an argument that radio commentary is more relevant and more needed than ever to connect fans with their clubs and communities. With the cost of living crisis in the UK, and the rising costs of several mainstream broadcasting television companies to watch football in the nation, fans are being priced out of following their clubs on the traditional media forms. From a personal viewpoint, I would much rather listen to a local broadcaster cover my club or their favourite team than listen to Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher give their thoughts on a team they clearly care little about. Some excellent media companies do continue to provide exceptional live radio coverage of some high-profile matches, but there is nowhere near the amount there once was. As a result, fans are missing out on some of the most awe-inspiring moments that were once regularly provided at nearly every professional club up and down the UK. 

Without radio commentary to keep me entertained throughout my childhood, adolescence and into adulthood, I could have turned into a different person with different hobbies and interests—I still find the joy and beauty in my ritual of switching the radio on, tuning into the radio station, and immediately hearing that roar of the crowd in the background or the hum of chattering voices, expectant of their team producing something spectacular. It is near impossible to get the feel of football anymore if you are not in the ground because we are overloaded with so much stimulation from social media, video clips, and over-analysis, but the humble radio still has a pride of place in football and I truly hope those voices that have so often provided the backdrop to my life never fade into non-existence.

Alex Waite

Following a five year career as a primary school teacher, Alex packed in the classroom for the press box in 2019, when he began his journey into freelance sports journalism. Alex has honed his skills in live reporting, feature writing and interviewing and has since produced work for Sportsbeat, Flashscore, the Sporting Blog and Reader's Digest. As a lifelong Crystal Palace supporter, Alex maintains a keen interest in all things South London and football and he is a big fan of non-league football in the region too.