The renowned football commentator shares his tales of following the Three Lions

In the latest edition of 'What England Means' powered by BT, football commentator John Helm takes us through seven decades covering England and explains why he has the nickname Stan...

Sunday 17 May 2020
John Helm has seen England play in ten World Cups over the years

There aren't many of us left who can, or want to, remember the events of 29 June 1950. It was just before my eighth birthday and I was in disbelief as England's national football team lost a World Cup match to the United States in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

The score was 1-0, but so disbelieving were certain newspapers that they printed a 10-1 England victory. As an aside, England would genuinely score ten against the US 14 years later in a 10-0 friendly win.

Little did I know back in 1950 that 64 years later I would be in the same Brazilian city to commentate on England's 0-0 draw with Costa Rica. Sadly, that wasn't a particularly fond memory either!

In 1950, I was a just little lad in short pants but my nickname was Stan because I used to dribble a tennis ball to school pretending to be Stanley Matthews. There are people in my local village Baildon, just outside Bradford, who still call me Stan to this day.

It was the incomparable Sir Stan who made me fall in love with both football and England. It has been documented a million times how he inspired Blackpool to a 4-3 FA Cup final victory over Bolton Wanderers in 1953. I watched the game on my next door neighbour's black-and-white telly and from that day forth, like most boys, I wanted to Matthews and to represent the Three Lions.

With big Jack Charlton at the 1994 World Cup in USA

But by 1966 I knew I wasn't going to cut it as a professional footballer. We all know what happened that year...

I was still in the embryonic stages of my journalistic career, so miles behind in the pecking order to actually go to Wembley Stadium and cover England winning the World Cup.

Instead I was busy playing for my local club side in the Bradford Cricket League; but by some miracle both teams were hustled out for just 26 and the last wicket fell at 1450, ten minutes before the final kicked off!

Having abandoned any dream of playing for my country, by 1974, I was yearning to at least watch England in the flesh. Fortunately by then I was covering Leeds United matches for BBC local radio and was on first-name terms with Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Allan Clarke, Paul Madeley, Terry Cooper, Paul Reaney and, of course Don Revie, so my appetite was whetted even further.

Excitement mounted that summer when I was put on standby to go to the World Cup finals in Germany because one of the commentators, who shall remain nameless, had been a 'naughty boy' swigging down a few too many lagers. But he decided to toe the line, so I never got the call.

I didn't have to wait long, though. After moving to BBC headquarters in London, I was appointed as network football producer, a role that entailed organising coverage of all England matches at home and abroad.

This involved things like sorting out commentary positions for domestic and foreign broadcasters, arranging interviews with managers and players, and even once paying fines for two England players (who shall remain anonymous) for walking through the streets of Bulgaria bare chested – a ghastly crime!

It was pure ecstasy then when in 1978 I was dispatched to Buenos Aires to cover the draw for that year's World Cup. I travelled with Bryon Butler, the BBC Radio football correspondent, and Peter Jones, the foremost commentator of his time.

Believe it or not, there were just 12 other journalists in the room. At a rough guess, for the same event in Moscow two years ago, there were probably about 800 present. How times change!

At the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, I recall seeing one commentator's 'meticulously' prepared notes. They were written on the back of his cigarette packet! Even the match day programmes for World Cup games back then were pocket-sized.

I'll also never forget England manager Ron Greenwood, who was working with us during that tournament, hiding in the back of one of our cars as a madman called Horatio took us down the wrong side of a motorway to beat the traffic on the way to the River Plate stadium. Ron also once berated me for referring to Peter Barnes as a winger – there was no such species in his view.

About to commentate on a game with Denis Law

I have been fortunate enough to commentate at ten World Cups to date and gotten to know most of the England managers pretty well. As commentators, we try to remain impartial but it's not always easy when covering England. Underneath our professional facade, we are all England supporters at heart and passionate for the team to do well.

Of course covering so much football, we do fall in love with other teams, too, as I did with Brazil in 1982. How could you not watching the likes of Zico, Socrates and Falcao?

I now know Zico quite well through his role as manager of the FC Goa team in the Indian Super League, which I have covered for the past six years.

I mention this to illustrate the wonderful and varied opportunities for commentators these days. Along with covering England (and, dare I say, Scotland), I've also worked at European Championships, Olympic Games, Asian Games and even Pro-Celebrity Mixed Beach Volleyball!

Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing trend for companies to ask commentators to work off-tube, meaning we are increasingly locked up in a broom cupboard instead of inside the stadium.

You simply cannot replicate the experience of being at the game, nor in these days of behind-closed-doors matches can you manufacture atmosphere where there is none. Sport is entertainment and performers, which both players and commentators are, need an audience. Enough said.

Sadly, many people will also recall that I was the commentator who had the horrendous task of talking live to a television audience while 56 people lost their lives at the Bradford City fire in 1985.

I was grateful that day for all the experience I had picked up over 26 years of working in the industry. That figure has now risen to 61 years and I assure you I'm still learning. The art of commentary is constantly evolving.

There have been so many laughs along the way, too. I remember a day out in Fort Worth with 'big' Jack Charlton during USA '94, when he asked a local, "Is this where the Gunfight at the OK Canal took place?" Of course, he meant Corral. Jack was never great with names. He also once called Zico, 'Psycho', but he was still a magnificent and insightful co-commentator.

I was also in a taxi with Jack, Denis Law, Ray Wilkins and Don Howe en route to a restaurant in Dallas. We got talking to our driver, Sue, and Denis told her we were all cardinals. When we arrived, she refused to take a fee, but instead asked for us all to get down on our knees and bless the car. We obliged... right outside of Hooters bar!

Another favourite footballer (and ultimately England manager) of mine is Kevin Keegan. He was so erudite after England fans rioted during a European Championship match in Turin against Belgium in 1980. And I also recall him handing out bars of chocolate to kids at Euro '96, and once inviting a bewildered Ipswich fan to join us for coffee in an airport.

These are just some of the many laughs I have had. And I have hopefully made plenty of people in football smile, too, sometimes even by accident.

I suppose my funniest blooper was after a David Beckham goal against Ecuador at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. He scored with a trademark freekick. The camera then panned to Victoria Beckham in the crowd and for some reason I said: "He knows how to satisfy her!"

But most of the time I hope I have got things right and, through following England as both a commentator and fan, have had the pleasure of seeing us win two World Cups. There was 1966, in my cricket pads, but also 2017 at the U17 World Cup in India when I commentated on Steve Cooper's England as they came from 2-0 down to thrash Spain 5-2 and win the tournament.

Rhian Brewster, Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden and Callum Hudson-Odoi were all part of that squad and all three have the potential to win many caps for the senior team.

Whenever England succeed, at any level, I feel like that little kid again pretending to be Stan. And I like to think the real Stan is watching down on us, too, and smiling at every England success.


Powered by BT

By John Helm Football commentator