If you think that commentating on televised football matches is as easy as sitting on a nice comfy sofa waiting for Roy Keane to stare you out you’d be very wrong indeed.
ESPN lead commentator, Jon Champion talks to Total Football about researching games, celebrating inequality and the MK Dons All-Stars.
Preparing for the live Altrincham v Burton Albion replay
ESPN has live and exclusive coverage of up to 25 FA Cup matches this season, from the first round through to the final.
On Thursday night, non-league Altrincham play host to League Two Burton Albion in an FA Cup first round replay.
Altrincham nearly claimed Burton as their 17th league scalp in the FA Cup but a last minute Calvin Zola equaliser earned Albion a replay after a thrilling 3-3 draw at the Pirelli Stadium.
Champion (pictured) will be commentating for ESPN on the replay at Moss Lane on Thursday and he admits that preparing for matches in the early stages of the FA Cup are different to researching Premier League or European games.
He said: “With the best will in the world you don’t really know many of the players so identification is key for a television commentator.
“There’s no excuses if there is a corner in the first 30 seconds of the game and four heads go up.
“I have to be able to see a) which head knocks it into the corner of the net and b) name that person at the same time.”
“I’ve done the miles on this one. I went down to Plymouth last Wednesday to watch Burton play and had a chat to the manager Gary Rowett and some of the directors and one or two of the players and just got fixed in my mind the body shapes and running styles of the players so I can identify all of them.
“Then I went to Worcester City on Saturday to watch Altrincham play in the FA trophy and did the same with them.”
When all the leg work is completed, Champion compiles all his notes into a few A4 sheets on a clipboard and climbs onto the gantry knowing that he can identify every player on the pitch. It is quite a skill to master.
As for Altricham’s chances, the veteran commentator thinks that the non-league team may have lost the element of surprise and that Burton Albion will be “conscious that they can’t really be seen to lose to a side like Altrincham.”
ESPN’s lead man, who has commented in the past for ITV and the BBC doesn’t mean this in a derogatory way.
He holds non-league clubs in very high esteem and his pick of the second round FA Cup draw is the potential game between Harrogate Town and Hastings United.
He explained: “If I was going to pay my £10, £12, £15 to watch a game it would be that one.”
It excites Champion because it guarantees a non-league club a fixture in the third round, potentially against one of the big boys.
In times were diversity and equality are big issues in football, the commentator embraces the fact that the FA Cup celebrates inequality.
“It seizes upon the fact that sides come from different levels but yet they’re equal for the day.”
“We get used to the everyday grind of the Premier League which is wonderful and glitzy in it’s own way but the FA Cup produces out of the ordinary stories, out of the ordinary occasions and out of the ordinary results.”
One of these out of the ordinary occasions was confirmed on Tuesday evening.
Speaking prior to MK Dons 6-1 replay win against Cambridge City, Champion believes that the prospect of the grudge match between Milton Keynes and Wimbledon is less exciting for the AFC Wimbledon supporters.
“I think they (AFC Wimbledon) would rather it didn’t happen but equally they realise that so meteoric has been their rise up through the non-league and now the league that it’s a game that is going to happen one day and they’ll be thinking let’s get it out of the way now.”
Now the fixture has been confirmed with the Dons victory over Cambridge, so AFC Wimbledon fans will have to prepare themselves.
Champion sympathises with the Wimbledon supporter’s group campaign to force Milton Keynes to change their name.
“I think the biggest bug bear is that word Dons in their title. I think if they were the MK All-Stars, MK Rangers or MK anything but Dons, AFC Wimbledon would be fairly happy.
“They just feel that part of their heritage has been stolen. I would be surprised if in 10 years time MK are still the Dons.”
With the research contacts and dedication to football, I’d believe anything Champion says.