TV and radio commentator Jonathan Pearce has his critics, but there’s nothing wrong with enthusiasm
WORDS: LEE GALE
[The headline on this is typically lads-mag-esque and decades on it feels very poor. Other than that, the interview went well and I’ve an appreciation of football commentators going back to the 1979 FA Cup Final. Jonathan Pearce was getting a lot of stick for being the underwhelming face of the new generation of commentators. Of course, he became a safe pair of hands, with research central to his style – LG, 2023]
British football commentators shape our lives. In season 1981/1982, Glenn Hoddle spun round on the edge of the 18-yard box, lost a defender and chipped the Watford keeper with mainframe computer accuracy. Barry Davies crooned, “Hoddle, ohhhhhhhhh,” as an art critic might on coming across a work of true beauty. That fantastic moment, oft uttered on big nights out, has stayed with a generation.
Jonathan Pearce has the potential of being the next Barry Davies, Motty or Brian Moore, because he’s got style. And if you have style everything else falls into place. He’s like a naughty supporter who has miraculously found himself on air because the usual commentator has banged his head in the toilet and forgotten who he is.
On Robot Wars, has Matilda ever put that spike up your back passage?
Well, one can always live in hope.
Is it Matilda who’s got the spike?
Matilda’s got the chain saw.
Oh right. So Sergeant Bash has got the spike?
Sergeant Bash has got the flame-thrower, Shunt has got the snowplough with the little spiky thing, and Killalot’s got everything.
Who do you fancy most, Philippa Forrester or Julia Reed?
Ha! You sound like you enjoy commentating on Robot Wars.
I do. It’s great fun. Obviously it’s different from football, in that football’s now become such a huge, financial beast. Robot Wars is more innocent. You’ve got kids, you’ve got professorial types, and you try and put one over the professorial boffins. Their hugely manufactured machines last five minutes and end up in a ditch and that’s great.
What’s your first memory of football?
Everyone talking about the World Cup Final in 1966, when I was six and living in Cornwall. The first League game I went to see was Bristol City against Derby in September 1968. Bristol City are my team.
Not Crystal Palace?
I’m a season-ticket holder at Palace. Mandy, my partner, her family are all massive Palace fans. My little boy, who’s two, goes, and my youngest, who’s six months, will go there as well.
Do you ever go and see Bristol City?
I don’t get a chance, but I keep in touch. Their result is the first one I look for in the paper.
You must be happy that Bristol Rovers have dropped down to the Third?
No, well… I’ve still got friends from when I worked down there, the Dunfords who are on the board, and I knew them well. When I worked in Bristol I had to cover Bristol Rovers. Bobby Gould was down there as manager, then Gerry Francis. I really got to know the Rovers well, so I was disappointed when they went down. I’m disappointed that a city like Bristol hasn’t got a Premiership team.
Bristol City must have the potential to pull 40,000 if they get their act together.
Yes. You’ve got the whole of Somerset, Devon, Dorset, and it makes my heart bleed when I see coachloads going up and down the motorway network, from St Austell to Old Trafford, instead of stopping off nearer to home. The one thing about Bristol, it’s got a huge rugby fan base. Bristol and Bath have been massive for so many years, and it is a very big rugby playing city. Having said that, I still believe they should certainly have a top-ish First Division club.
Were you any good at football at school?
It was a rugby-playing school I went to. I had trials at Bristol City – I used to train there on a Thursday night. No one in school could ever know about it. Had they known about it, they’d have stopped it. It was a very traditional rugby playing school.
Did you used to commentate on yourself playing football in the back garden?
Subbuteo I used to commentate on, to the state where no-one would play with me. My parents used to send me up to a room in the attic to play it. I then took it to university.
Were you obsessed with Subbuteo?
I think I was, yes. To my eternal embarrassment I do have the Subbuteo astro-turf pitch, which actually didn’t come out until I was 23.
Everyone plays them computer games now.
Terrible. It’s terrible. We moved house the other day and I got my Subbuteo out of storage for my two little boys and it’s ready for them, with my 29 Subbuteo teams.
Bloody bell, 29? International or League?
It was World Cup. England used to win it every four years.
Did you used to work out all the tables as well?
Yeh. The first journalism I ever did was my own magazine of the Subbuteo 1970 World Cup Finals. Every qualifying result in, I played every single qualifying game, and played it all the way through, every single game. Every match was logged, as was every scorer.
Women can’t understand why young lads do things like that.
I know. England beat Scotland 7-6 in the Final, held in Mexico City, because it was real. And the result was real. Eddie Gray was my favourite player. Unfortunately he was playing for Scotland but he still scored two hat-tricks.
Double hat-trick in the World Cup Final and still on the losing side. It’s a cruel world.
Beaten 7-6 – marvellous stuff.
What makes football such a brilliant game?
I love cricket, but compared with football it’s more mathematical and there’s no physical contact. Close up in football, you can be in Row A and see Roy Keane come smacking into Haaland, and it’s right in front of you. You’re not 80 yards away because of the boundary row. Rugby union, while I hated playing, when I was in Bristol I got very close to the Bath players during their great run, people like Gareth Chilcott, and I’m an admirer of top class rugby. When you see the ball move in rugby union, brilliantly, and the precision, it’s wonderful.
But it doesn’t have the panache of football.
In football, you’ve got such a mix. It’s a theatre, and the whole passion of it. At Old Trafford you’ve got 67,000 different interpretations at the same theatre that’s in front of you. The pure thing that is a football match, whether it be Hackney Marshes or the Maracana, there is no difference in the mentality. There is no difference between Billy Bloggs wanting to score with a far-post header and Patrick Vieira wanting to score with a far-post header.
Do you ever watch grass roots stuff?
Oh, I’m terrible. I can’t walk past a game of football without stopping. I remember Chris Waddle told me how his wife used to hate him going out for the Sunday newspapers because he’d stop and watch a game of football, and then another one.
As a commentator, do you feel you’re coming into your own? You seem to be a lot calmer than you used to be…
I think what happened was, when I first came into it, people said to me, “You can’t do what you do on the radio. You can’t be as in-your-face. You have to rein in a bit.” Channel 5 never said that to me. Other people did. So I went too far the other way, then l’ve come back to a more balanced style. Other people have helped me. John Motson has been supportive.
What’s he said to you?
When the newspapers slagged me off, he’s phoned me up and said, “Just be yourself.” We’d swap notes on games and he’s just been very helpful and told me to keep going. Programmes like Robot Wars have given me a lot more confidence with what I can do on television, a Robot Wars is a lot closer to the radio commentary. You can really go for it.
Hang on, are you telling me that Jonathan Pearce suffers with confidence?
It’s not pleasant if you see yourself castigated in the national newspaper. Barry Davies once said, “One person’s favourite commentator is another one’s favourite earache.” And that’s true, but it upsets me when it gets to my family.
Has that happened?
Yes. It upsets my mother, who’s 72, and that upsets me. And at first Channel 5 was there to be lambasted and pulled apart. Things they’ve done, they take on games in the old Eastern Bloc that no-one else will touch because of technical reasons. Now they’re doing France and Holland games, and they tried the Confederations Cup. What they’re trying to do is get football on the television when they can.
As an England fan, do you like commentating on Germany games?
With England winning. The most difficult game I had to commentate on was one of the biggest games I’ve ever had to do, which was Germany against Argentina in the 1990 World Cup Final, because I felt the way Argentina had played was disgraceful. I felt animosity for one side and no affection for the other side at all.
Gascolgne, when he was crying in Italia 90, surely that’s the best football moment ever.
I think when Arsenal won the Championship at Liverpool, it was heart-stopping drama. When Venables put his arms around Southgate, when lan Wright scored two at Wembley in 1990 in the Cup Final. The actual importance of Mark Hughes’ extra time equaliser that day, the whole fabric of our society for the past ten years would have been different. Sir Alex Ferguson would have been sacked, Manchester United wouldn’t have been the team they are, so you wouldn’t have people from the stockbroker belt in Surrey going up to Old Trafford. They would have had to spend their money on Leyton Orient, who would be League Champions by now. There you are.
How do supporters react when they meet you?
It’s mostly good. We get the train to games if we can and people come and sit with myself and the commentary team. When we’re abroad we’ll go in bars and sit with the fans. I think that’s important. You can’t judge what the feeling of the listener is, or viewer, unless you talk to them, and most are very, very good. The most annoying person is the one who comes and sits with you, talks to you for 40 minutes, then stands up and says, “I think you’re a f***ing wanker,” and walks away. You can’t do anything. You have to sit there and take it.
Bugger ’em. Predictions for the season, please.
I think Arsenal will win the League, Manchester United, Liverpool and Leeds will fill the Euro places, and l’d love to see a team outside those four win the FA Cup. I’d like to see the FA Cup restored to its former place. And I think Hypnodisc will win Robot Wars.
Jonathan Pearce is on Robot Wars throughout September on UK Horizons, Monday to Friday at 6pm, and Sunday from 8am till 12 noon.