Guy Mowbray: ‘I never pre-rehearse lines. You’ve got to react to what you’re seeing’
The 1966 World Cup final has cast a long footballing shadow over this nation but that is also true of broadcasting, being the occasion of the most memorable single piece of sporting commentary, one that has transcended sport and entered everyday parlance.
Kenneth Wolstenholme’s line, “They think it’s all over … it is now” as Geoff Hurst rifled home the decisive fourth goal for England at the end of extra time is instantly recognisable, as much a part of the folklore memory of the match as Nobby Stiles’s jig of joy or Bobby Moore lifting the trophy.
Guy Mowbray is the man with the task of providing the words for the pictures on the BBC on Sunday – at the culmination of a tournament which could well be destined to be remembered as Lionel Messi’s World Cup – but he is adamant he will not be prepping possible lines, referencing Wolstenholme’s words without prompting from his base in Qatar on Friday.
Mowbray is behind the mic at his fourth World Cup final for the nation’s broadcaster but insists: “Even now, I never pre-rehearse lines. How could Wolstenholme have got that ready? He wasn’t to know people were going to be coming on the pitch. Even if you think, ‘If there’s a goal today I might say this’, you quickly put it out of your mind because you don’t know how it’s going to happen. You’ve got to react to what you’re seeing.
“If I am ever thinking of the commentary to come I don’t even hear it in my own voice in my head; I hear it in Brian Moore’s, or Barry Davies’s or John Motson’s voice.”
Mowbray succeeded Motson, fondly remembered for his trademark sheepskin coat, as chief BBC commentator in 2010 and names those he grew up listening to when asked about who he admires most. “The voices you grew up with are always the ones that stay with you,” he says.
Broadcasting has changed in the same way football has been transformed, however, and Mowbray points out: “I think back to the first World Cup I commentated on [in 1998 for Eurosport] and I pretty much did my notes 24 hours before, all on paper and handwritten. Now I have a bank of material and I’m constantly adding to it. I don’t want to be the person who misses something.
“But my rule of thumb is that I might have six sheets of paper with all the facts and meticulous research and just little titbits to throw in, but if I’m only using a tenth of that then it’s been a terrific game. You only throw these things in when the game is a bit slow. Commentary is about adding – especially on TV when people can see what’s happening.”
He says his job is “essentially be the narrator and the guide, and just to add a little bit that might be of interest.” He adds: “It’s a funny game is the World Cup final because it should be the game you invest most energy in of all the games you cover throughout a season, but in it’s at the end of a condensed tournament in which you’ve probably commentated on both teams along the way as well and so you’ve got to think about what you’ve already used.
“A World Cup final to me is about the occasion. You’ve got to get across the sense of the occasion out there and my own personal way of commentating is that I just enjoy it. I love the big football occasions and hopefully that comes across.”
Above all, Mowbray wants his viewers to be entertained. “We do set out to enjoy it ourselves,” he says of himself and others in the commentary team, “and add to other people’s enjoyment. I certainly never, ever think about the fact of so many people watching this – it wouldn’t matter to me if there were 10 people or 10 million.”
As for the game itself he says: “I’m delighted it’s the final it is now that England are out. We have the South America v Europe clash and we have the two biggest superstars in the game – Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé who happen to be [Paris Saint-Germain] teammates – going head to head.
“I was a little down and homesick before the semi-final but Messi and Julián Álvarez ripped me out of that. Just in terms of who you want to see play football there’s nobody better on the planet for me than Messi.”
Maintaining his employer’s neutrality, Mowbray hastened to add: “That said, I’m not rooting for him.”