How I made it as a BBC football commentator

Conor McNamara is a BBC football commentator for Match of the Day and 5 Live. Here, he shares his journey from growing up as a football fan in Ireland, to studying TV and Radio at University of Salford, and then building his dream career.

When did you decide you wanted to be a sports commentator, or was it more of a gradual process?
“Definitely a gradual process. As much as anything that was because there didn’t seem to an obvious route to becoming a commentator. It felt as remote a possibility as becoming an astronaut. Through my teenage years I would have been more interested in the idea of being in a band or something, rather than a commentator. My 15-year-old self would be very impressed at being interviewed for NME! But then at the end of my teens things escalated very quickly and I went from being a complete novice to actually commentating on games at Wembley Stadium.”

Why did you decide to study Television and Radio at University of Salford, and how did it help you hone your commentating skills?
“It was the only course of its kind at the time. There were plenty of ‘media degrees’ but this was the only one specialising in TV and radio. Actually, there was no commentary as such covered in the course. And I don’t believe you can ‘learn’ commentary in a classroom anyway. But being on the course led to me consuming a lot of different sorts of media and definitely helped my understanding of how the industry worked.”

You actually did some commentating for an Irish national radio station while you were still studying at University of Salford. How did that opportunity come about?
“This was the classic ‘right place at the right time’. I was a young Irish student living in the UK, just when a new Irish radio station started up with plans to cover English football at the weekends. I sent in a tape – a proper cassette tape – recorded in my student bedroom. I made up a match report of a fictitious Manchester United game and sent it to the station. I didn’t include much of a cover letter, and this proved to be a smart move because if they knew I was only a teenager I might not have got a call back. But I guess my voice sounded a bit older on tape and I got the chance to try out as a reporter. I did a trial that wasn’t broadcast, but obviously things went well because I was asked back to do more and soon I was reporting from Premier League matches up and down the country every Saturday and Sunday. I would go to Anfield, Old Trafford, Highbury, Elland Road, Stamford Bridge, up and down the country on the train. There were no apps or websites back then, so I’d go to the station and look up the train times on the notice board. It was a different world!

“By the end of that first season, the Irish station had got the rights to do commentary on the FA Cup Final. They’d never done a live commentary and so didn’t have a commentator. I’ve always assumed that someone else was lined up to do it, and then pulled out. I got the call on the Thursday: ‘Do you think you’d be able to commentate on the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium on Saturday?’ One of the best questions I’ve ever been asked. I was never going to say no!”

After you finished uni, how did you go about lining up more paid work?
“After doing that first commentary at the FA Cup Final for national radio I was no longer a ‘student commentator’ or a ‘wannabe commentator’. I could justifiably claim to be a bone fide commentator. The radio station only got the rights to a couple more commentaries the following season. But by the summer of 1998 I’d worked out a deal with them to go to France to cover the World Cup. Looking back now, I did have to show a lot of balls. I basically pitched the whole idea to them. I agreed a small daily fee, but by producing reports every day it paid enough to fund my trip. I organised all the flights and trains myself. I stayed on couches and spare beds of people I met. It was a proper adventure! Then, a new TV station started up in Ireland that summer and their sports bosses heard me doing my daily radio reports from the World Cup. And that was enough to get me a job on TV.”

What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome in your career so far?
“It sounds very ‘first world problems’ but the biggest obstacle of pursuing a career in football broadcasting from a young age is that you end up making a commitment to work every weekend. I mean every weekend. I’ve missed so many weddings, birthdays, stag-dos. You can’t get away with late nights and then expect to commentate live on air the next day – as much as anything you have to mind your voice. So unfortunately, being a bit anti-social becomes part of the job. Every Christmas when my friends would be home in Limerick meeting up, I’d still be in England as it’s one of the busiest times in the football calendar.”

What’s the most difficult aspect of your job?
“The only difficult part is concentration, which can be a challenge. There’s a lot going on during a live football commentary and everyone listening is an expert who notices any little slip-up. But everyone make mistakes at some stage – even the very best commentators, it’s impossible not to. So you need to be bulletproof and not let the occasional slip-up get you down.”

Finally, what advice would you give to a young person who wants to follow in your footsteps and become a sports commentator?
“If you want to become a commentator, you have got to do lots of actual commentating. It’s not about ‘being a big fan of football’. It’s about being able to paint a picture using words and describing the play in front of you. If someone wanted to become an artist, they’d compile a portfolio of work. If someone wanted to become a musician, they’d make audition tapes. It’s the same if you want to become a commentator: Go to a game – a local game, even a school game – and sit away to the side where no one can hear you and record your voice commentating on the play. I guarantee that anyone who does this 20 times and then compares their first tape to the 20th tape will find that the 20th tape is much better. It may sound easy, but commentating isn’t for everyone. By actually doing it, you’ll figure out if you’ve actually got potential or not. Then you can worry about things like breathing and vocabulary and statistics. But first and foremost, it’s about being able to describe the action in front of you as it happens.”

Follow Conor on Twitter @ConorMcNamaraIE