Become a Football Commentator Masterclass with Derek Rae: 'Letting My Voice Do The Talking'
Updated: Jan 8
Hello and welcome to PitchTALKS, the podcast is focused on delivering you fantastic insights from the people who work in sport and play an integral role in bringing you the game. And today, you've made a good choice of reading, we promise you that!
Joining PitchTALKS was a very special guest who has had an incredibly illustrious career thus far.
You may know him as the voice of football or the voice of FIFA 21....Derek Rae.
This article will teach you all about his career, and most importantly, how you can kickstart your career as a Football Commentator.
Becoming a Football Commentator, what's coming up?
How did you get into Commentary?
So just to start off...
I read recently during your youth you used to take a tape recorder with you to watch Aberdeen Football Club matches. I just wanted to ask you about that. Was that something you did off your own back? Was that something that was suggested to you? How did that come about?
It was totally my own idea. And it really goes back to the days in the 1970s when we as a family bought our first cassette recorder. And you guys will be wondering what on earth was a cassette recorder. Sounds like something from a century ago, but believe me, it was quite a revolutionary thing.
Back around 1974, we had one in our house and it enabled me as a seven-year-old at the time to begin recording my voice. And you know, what a thing this was to have. I mean, I never had imagined that you could play your voice back. I mean, it just was not done. And then I got a portable version of the same thing and I began to experiment with it when I was out and about. I realised obviously fairly early on that broadcasting was something that I loved, like the sound of or the idea of. So, I would take my little recorder with me to the park, to school, to local games.
And eventually, as you said to Pittodrie, the stadium where Aberdeen play my local team, the team I've supported since I first went to watch professional football and just began making my own commentaries. And I think the thing from there was that I would play them back and people would say, how can you listen to your voice bark for hours and hours? I would say, well, I want to listen to it, but because I want to try to improve every time, I want to try to be critical of it and also say, well, you know, that was quite good, I think. But of course, you don't really know as a young person whether it's good or bad.
So to cut a long story short, my great hero was a fellow by the name of David Francey, who won't be known to people in England, but anybody from Scotland of a certain age will know David Francey. He was the voice of Scottish football back in the 1970s on radio, had a very distinctive delivery and I decided I was going to send David Francey a tape of my work. I was 12 or so at the time and a voice hadn't broken or anything, but, you know, sent this tape off to the BBC in Glasgow, not thinking for one minute I would ever get a reply. This was before we had Internet or anything, you know, years before that. You know, lo and behold, one day this letter came back beautifully handwritten from David Francey saying he'd listen to my tape, loved what he heard. And here's some advice, some tips and actually some tricks of the trade that I still use to this day.
One of his suggestions was to get involved with the local hospital radio station. Now, I don't know if every area of the UK has a hospital radio station nowadays, but back then it was quite important for a while, first and foremost for patients and hospital to have a service that they could relate to. Because remember, this was before we had local radio to the extent that is around nowadays. But also it was a really good training ground for fledgling broadcasters. And if you go down the list of broadcasters of sort of my vintage, you know, people who are now in the in the 50s, for example, you'll find quite a lengthy list of graduates of hospital radio. And I was one.
And so I got my experience, if you like, on hospital radio, try to take a professional attitude into it. But it was all voluntary. There was no money or glory from that point of view while doing it. And it meant that I got to broadcast games for an audience and I took that eventually into my professional career. So it's maybe a long winded way of saying that you have to be a bit of a self starter. I think if you want to get into broadcasting and you have to create your own environment, you know, you can't really wait for somebody to do it for you. You have to sort of have the plan in your mind. And, you know, maybe I was it and having it in my mind at that very young age. But, you know, I always try to say to young people who want to get into broadcasting, you have the power to go and create your own broadcasts and make them as good as possible.
Listening To Your Own Voice
Yeah, that's fascinating. And you did actually touch on another question that I had lined up there about the fact that you enjoyed listening back to your own voice. Now, that's something that since we've been doing this that I have struggled with. I cannot get past the fact that I can't stand listening to my own voice is sort of do I actually sound like that? Was that just something that came naturally to you? Did you have to work at it or was it just. Yeah, that's my voice.
I think we always have to work on our voices. In fact, I would say that something that maybe is underrated by people who want to get into broadcasting, they sort of think, well, you know, I'm just going to talk as though I were, you know, in the pub with my mates. And that's going to be fine. But remember, the art of broadcasting is to make it engaging for the people who are listening to that broadcast. And, you know, to go back to that analogy that I've just drawn, if we were to record a pub conversation, just an average pub conversation wouldn't be that interesting to people. You know, it would actually sound pretty boring.
So there has to be something about a broadcaster's voice, whether it says inflexion has ups and downs or her ups and downs and the voice or words that are used or preferably a combination of both. And so I think early on, I just seemed intuitive to me that the only way I was ever going to improve as a as a fledgling broadcaster at the time was to listen back. And sometimes that could be difficult. I would listen back to 90 minutes and I would say, oh, no, that's terrible. Oh, you know, I wish I wish I could have done that better. But there were little nuggets of, you know, things. And you would sort of say, oh, OK, I liked how I did that.
Now, I also should say I did this with broadcasters who I really respected. I mentioned David Francey earlier. The late Brian Moore on ITV was probably my favourite TV commentator at the time, and I would sometimes set just with the old video device that we had and I would listen to Brian Moore word for word, and I would take little notes, you know, and I would sort of, you know, analyse his performance. And I would say I loved him. I loved that the way he used his voice on that girl, you know, my goodness, I wish I could do something like that. It's a bit like I was thinking, if you have a young golfer now, that young golfer might look at some of the great golf swings. He might look at Tiger Woods, he might look at Ballesteros. He's not going to copy Tiger Woods, but he's got to find little things that they do that are relevant to his swing, whether it's rhythm, whether it's follow through.
You know, you could name a number of different positives from golf swings like that. And it's the same, I think, with broadcasting and with commentary. You listen to the greats and then you find your own way because it's a night rather than a science. It's not an exact science. If we all just sounded like, you know, broadcasting robots, then I don't think anybody would want to listen to us. And I think that's the one thing I would say about the really good commentators who I respect out there. You can always tell when they are at the microphone. There are many broadcasters who sound like, you know, 20 other broadcasters. But, you know, think about it yourselves. If there are broadcasters you really like, you know, within two seconds, oh, that is X or that is Y. And so I think it's about finding your own voice. But within the structures of what makes a good broadcast, you're listening to it talks.
What’s it like being a Football Commentator?
Following on from what you've just said and becoming a football commentator to any sports fan, I think it's the epitome of the dream job, home grown around the world, witnessing some of the most amazing stadiums, fans and indeed moments in the sport.
So if you can summarise it, what's it like being a football commentator?
It's wonderful. I mean, it is a fantastic job. You've outlined some of the positives from the buzz that we get from it, all those things. And you feel privileged. You feel immensely privileged to have a seat at a game, often a very a colossal game that most people could only dream of. But at the same time, it's slightly surreal because you are not there enjoying yourself the way you would be if you were a fan. And I think that's the one distinction we have to draw. You know, you are there as a professional, and I always take a few seconds to try to enjoy it, to try to sort of say, you know what, if I were a fan, this would be amazing. But then you sort of flick a switch and say, no, but I'm not here as a fan. I'm here to broadcast this game to an audience that is on tenterhooks back home. If it were to, say, a Champions League final or a big game at a World Cup, and my job is to do this justice and to be as professional as possible. So I think it's very similar to what players go through, to what referees, to what officials, to what coaches go through. We are very excited to be there, but it is not a holiday. You know, we're not enjoying it the way fans do.
I often bump into fans I know at big games and you know, they're on a totally different frame of mind that probably had a few drinks and they're with their friends. And, you know, everything in the world is brilliant. And they might say, well, why did you look so tense? And I might say, well, if I look tense, it's because I have my biggest assignment of the year coming up. You know, as it were, as I said, are a Champions League final or something like that. So I think that's part of it.
But, you know, yeah, you have memories and I have memories of all these big games I've been lucky enough to commentate on. And they will stay with me forever.
But the memories, of course, remember, are all based on providing words to pictures that are unfolding in front of me. And so it's just a different experience.
When I've gone to a big game as a fan, I have noticed the difference. And sometimes it's a it's a strange difference in terms of not being able to, I'm not having to come up with words.
You're simply watching it. And you actually don't quite know how to act as a fan because you've sort of trained yourself to be professional on the big occasion.
But no, I mean, I've been very fortunate. I've travelled the world commentating on football with the various broadcasters I've worked for, and I'm very grateful to have been given the assignments that I have. I would say, particularly those Champions League years with ESPN in the 2000s, when I think the competition really began to take off in a way that maybe it hadn't before.
You know, Liverpool against Milan, 2005, probably the best major European club final that that will see in my lifetime. And I was lucky enough to be in Istanbul that night to commentate on it. So, yeah, I mean, you don't take it for granted. You appreciate every occasion, but at the same time you approach it professionally.
Preparing for matchday
More on the professional side of the job then when watching football. I'm always astonished by the amount of facts and data that you have for almost every eventuality. And that's surely one of the things that we all love about football is the unpredictability. So how much time in the planning and the research goes into a game?
That's a really good question. And it's a hard one to answer because it does depend on the match itself. But I'll take you through my routine.
If I'm given a match assignment, it might be six weeks before the game. It might be three weeks before the game in emergency situations. It might be a couple of days before the game. But let's say it's with a bit of lead up time. I will you know, when I get the assignment, I will just start scribbling. And I do everything on a very old fashioned basis using an A4 piece of paper, and I just divide it in half.
I have one team on the left and one team on the right and I collect everything. So if it were, say, I don't know, Liverpool against Manchester City, then I would do Liverpool in red and I would do City in blue. And what I do is I refer back to my previous notes. And as I said, I am old fashioned. I keep all these notes but just one page. But I have the tiniest writing known to anyone and that can be an advantage where that sort of thing. Nobody else can read my writing, but I will say, well, nobody else needs to. It's just for me as long as I can understand it.
So I just get writing and a lot of it is referring back to old notes, but it's also just staying in touch with the news and just adding to it as we go along. And the idea is that it won't really be properly finished until a few hours before the game itself.
Now, you mentioned the statistics. I'm a great believer that statistics can be useful, but we really should never overdo them. Once we start sort of, you know, shouting out statistics for the sake of statistics, then we're on a bit of a dangerous path because we don't want to drown in the beauty of the game in numbers all the time.
So the trick is to find the right statistic at the right time and to know when to use that. The problem with that is that in order to find that statistic at the right time, you have to have hundreds of them in your head and you have to know when that one might be appropriate.
Now, I would say in the UK and as I say, I spent many years working for ESPN, UK and BT Sport predominantly, but also some openings for ITV. They tend to have their own stats group who produce these wonderful stats, packs that go to every commentator. And it's extremely detailed with pieces on every player and numbers, every number that you could possibly want.
But they do a very good job of sort of highlighting the possibilities. You know, if Team X loses today, it will equal a negative club record for matches, for successive losses, you know, things like that. And again, you sort of as you're going with your preparation, you highlight these little things. And it's a bit like preparing for an exam. You know, if you guys are preparing for an exam and in real life, you memorize and you memorise and you want to be ready on the day when you're sitting that exam, you want to have it there in your head. And commentating is no different.
I will say it's a little bit like every game as an exam. And you want to be ready for the exam paper, which comes on match day.
So you sort of are pacing yourself a bit with the preparation. You're just, you know, adding more. And a lot of it is stuff from previous games. So there are things that are relevant.
You know, if I were doing a game involving two teams and I had done that same game three years ago by pulling out my sheet from three years ago, it's amazing how many historical things there are that might still be relevant.
This is the interesting thing and probably surprises people of all the things that we prepare. I would say we're lucky if we use five percent, if we use five percent of what we prepare, then that would be a high number. And if the game is really good, it's maybe one or two percent. But you still have to do the 100 percent in order to be able to whittle it down to the relevant four or five per cent that you might actually use as much prep goes into.
It's very much on your feet in response to what's happening in front of you.
That's right. Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, half time is often when I sort of consult my notes and just sort of go, OK, if I missed anything, is there anything I didn't say that I need to say.
And that, you know, that is always most welcome because during the game, you can't really do that. You can't really look at your notes.
I mean, in an emergency situation, I lay out my notes in a way that if I do need to just refresh my memory on something, I know intuitively where it is on my page. As I say, your eyes really need to be between the pitch and the monitor.
As a TV commentator, as a radio commentator, you can be much more on the pitch because you're really just describing what is happening in front of you on TV. If I get a close up of, say, Pep Guardiola, I need to know that the viewers are seeing that close up. If I'm sitting talking about Jurgen Klopp at that time, then that's not going to look and sound so good. So that's what you find on TV, is that constant sort of head bobbing, looking up at the pitch and looking down at the monitor. Up at the pitch, down at the monitor.
The Introduction of VAR
I guess your jobs have been made harder with an extra monitor in VAR.
Well, yeah, I mean, you could say that, but actually I, I go back maybe a bit longer, but it's very hard. A lot of people in the UK because in Germany, where I work a lot, it came in much earlier and I think it was explained better. And I think honestly has been deployed in a better way too. But I mean, you're right, we do now have to check ourselves because of VAR and we have to realise that that is part of the game is not going to be disappearing anytime soon.
Life Commentating on the Bundesliga
I think that brings us on quite nicely. You've said about what you're doing now in Germany, you know, your career has taken you from Brazil 2014 World Cup to the France 2019 Women's World Cup. And now you commentate on the Bundesliga, the German League for ESPN within the US, which I believe the German League was a passion of yours way back when you were seven, I think you mentioned earlier. So before we came on, I was reading the article that you've done with ESPN on your love for the German football and their culture. But what I'd like to know is, as a commentator, what sets the German league above the rest?
Well, again, it's very personal.
I think, you know, my love of German football goes back to some of the things you've mentioned. My early days studying languages and studying German, specifically listening to German radio, because we had a very clear radio signal from my home in Aberdeen, right across the North Sea to Hamburg, where there continues to be stations, the North German radio station there.
But I always think that and I say this to Americans, and I don't mean to be disparaging about British football when I say this because I'm from Scotland and I would love to be able to say, you know, to Scotland or England as the first place to go and watch a game. But I will say to Americans when they ask me, where should I go, you know, what's the first place I should go to get a real feel for the atmosphere at a European stadium. And I always say without fail and I mean this go to Germany because I don't think there is a country that is better for atmosphere than Germany, than the Bundesliga or even the second division, the Bundesliga, where you have a number of really big clubs.
But of course, you know, you look at all the factors. And I think in comparison with other football to me anyway, German football has really evolved in a less corporate direction.
You know, it is still the place for everyday people to go to football on an affordable basis.
Consider this. You can go to in normal times. Obviously, we're in a pandemic at the moment, but in normal times you can go to a German match for the equivalent of around 12 pounds you stand. And that includes your transport to and from the game several hours before and several hours after within the local area.
You know, imagine that on a sort of a UK basis. It's unimaginable because it just doesn't happen. And I think the average person has been priced out of UK football much more so, whereas in Germany there is a consensus, yes, there are more expensive seats to be had. But if you want to stand, it won't be the best position on the ground. But it's where the atmosphere will be. If you want to stand, then you can do it on a basis that is not going to cripple you and your family financially.
So there is that there's just that community aspect about it. And the interesting thing to and from the fan culture point of view, that one of the things I really like is, yes, there is banter between sets of fans, but there's also a sort of a coming together amongst hardcore fans because they believe that their interests are actually more aligned than they are separate.
Whereas in the UK and, you know, I come from Scotland where people know all about the Celtic vs Rangers rivalry and there are similar rivalries in England. It seems to be much more about hating the other team, you know, hating the other fans. We hate you. I don't really like the word hate. I'm not a hater by nature.
Whereas in Germany you'll find that if you listen to a lot of the chants from behind, the goal from the core of it, as they say in German, they're not so much about hating the other group of fans. They're more about sort of anti authority. And usually the targets are the people who run the league or sometimes even their own board members. You know, and a lot of it has to do with fans rights and, you know, the desire not to have the game taken away from the grassroots. So it's all these things together.
There's a certain magic about arriving at a game in Germany again, in normal times on a packed train or underground. And you'll see home and away fans together on that same train. And there's rarely any trouble. You know, it's just part of the dynamic of going to a game. So there's that. And we haven't even got to the football itself, which I think is vibrant and dynamic and youthful.
You only need to look at the young players, even young English players now who are chosen that path. You know, the likes of Sancho and now Jude Bellingham at Dortmund. And it's something special. So I always say to people, and I would say this to you guys and everybody listening when the time is right, obviously not at the moment, but when the time is right, hopefully in a few months or more than a year. Give Germany a try for your football because it won't disappoint.
Going back to what you said about the sort the differences between the funds and how they interact in Germany versus in the U.K., do you think that has in part a large reason of the fact that down to the foreign ownership still of the majority of the Bundesliga clubs, the fact that they have to legally own 51 percent or 51 percent of it is owned by the Bundesliga club vs. most of, if not all, of the Premier League and British clubs now being owned by a foreign billionaires.
Yeah, I think that is a big factor. And I think the 50 plus one rule or something that is much discussed in Germany and, you know, undeniably there are big clubs who would like to do away with the 50 plus one rule. But it is the thing that keeps everything kind of centered in amongst the community and amongst fans.
And, you know, I have friends who are members of various different clubs, and that means that they have voting rights. They have a say in the direction of that club. And yeah, there are different models within the 50 plus one rule.
But the difference, I would say, in comparison with England is, you know, I look at the English situation and I hear when a club is maybe in trouble, then I hear fans say things that German fans would never say. So I'll hear things like, oh, let's hope we can get a wealthy person in to come and bail us out, you know, and that was said without kind of any sort of shame by fans in England, because that is the system that in order to be picked up by the bootstraps, you need a wealthy benefactor.
In Germany, it's a little bit different, you know, and fans don't want that. Fans would often take the example of Schalke, who, as you know, are a huge club, but in real financial turmoil at the moment, compounded by the pandemic, many Schalke fans would rather see the team get relegated and go down the divisions than be compromised in any way. They'd be compromised by having this as they would see it, financial or business, albatross around their neck.
So I think that does illustrate the difference. And, you know, Leipzig, for example, have emerged in the last few years and they are an acquired taste in Germany because a lot of people think they have skirted the 50 plus one in a clever way, you might say. But there's a reason why fans of other clubs don't particularly like Leipzig, whereas when I talk to people in the UK about them, I tend to get sort of positive sentences.
People think, oh, that's really good. You know, they've come in and they're challenging. Now, that's got to be good. You say? Well, yeah, it's good because there's a challenge, but talk to German fans and get their perspective on it and they might not see it 100 percent that way.
My Greatest Commentary Moment
Looking back over your whole career, what's been your greatest match that you've experienced as a commentator?
Well, Sam's [Co-Host of PitchTALKS] going to be very happy with me again on this one because I keep having to go back to 2005 and that Liverpool Milan and I say that maybe I didn't quite do it justice earlier.
I say that because it really was every emotion you could imagine.
And I'll tell you another thing. It was probably the easiest game I've had to commentate on in my life because it all just seemed to flow in front of me. There was no ambiguity about anything.
It was a simple case of and I remember at that time, and this is maybe the thing to take into account Milan back then were the cream of Europe. I really respected that Milan team. I thought they are the club. Everybody would like to be, you know, everything about them, the way they run things from top to bottom. You know, the class of people like Paulo Maldini, Kaka played for them at the time. They were the team with the target on their back. Everybody wanted to beat Milan, Liverpool and that final I mean, this was not the Liverpool of now this was not the Liverpool of the 70s and 80s. This was a sort of a ragtag and bobtail Liverpool. But most people thought had no business being in a Champions League final.
You could say they were probably at best a fourth team in England at that time. You know, they were being overshadowed by United, by Arsenal, by Chelsea. You know, Liverpool were a sort of a distant fourth, but they got to that final and we wondered, you know, could they do it? It would be a huge surprise. But you never know. They've got history as part of the DNA.
And, of course, the thing about that final is after 40 odd minutes, it was three nil to Milan and spoke earlier about consulting my notes. At half time, I was consulting my notes to make sure that I had in my head what the biggest margin of victory was in a major European final, because I genuinely thought it could get ugly. It could end up being a six or seven nil situation at the end, but of course, only in the second half. Gerrard pulls one back and you're sort of thinking, OK, well, they've pulled one back. You know, Milan will probably find another gear and score two, but then Vladimir Schmetzer scores to make it three, two. And then you're sort of thinking, hang on, this actually could happen.
Just seconds after that, a penalty for Liverpool, a foul by Gattuso. And there was then a sort of a long delay. I remember a long delay before the penalty actually was taken. Xabi Alonso took it and actually didn't score. It was saved by Dida, but then followed up to score and it was three three. And that all happened in just a few minutes at the start of the second half. And you're not entitled as a commentator to think you're going to get that kind of drama in a major European finals.
So three three went to extra time. Both teams were really exhausted and extra time, not an awful lot happens, although Dudek did make one very good save. And of course, that was to be a portent of things to come. Dudek, who again was not thought of as anywhere close to being the best goalkeeper in England at the time, Dudek was the hero and the penalty shootout.
It's worth going back just to have a look at that again, if you're not familiar with the scenes and Liverpool did it and it just as I say, for a different project, somebody wanted me to go back and listen to my own commentary of that game from 2005. And I hadn't listened to it for years. I'd actually lost the, not lost, but I didn't quite know where they the copy of the game was. But I sat and watched the whole thing.
Some of the things I said in commentary, I didn't remember saying. But I said to you earlier, I remember at the time thinking it was the easiest game almost I'd have accommodated on. And it came across listening back to it because the drama was just all there.
And you could hardly go wrong as a commentator. But again, just very privileged to have been in the right place at the right time to commentate on a true epic.
Being approached by EA Sports FIFA
You are now stamped as the voice of FIFA, as two massive FIFA players. We'd love to explore a little bit into how this was produced from your standpoint. So firstly, it'd be great to see how initially this opportunity came about from when we first approached.
Well, I should probably explain that I left the UK in 2017 after almost a decade back in the UK market. We decided for family reasons that we were going to return to the USA.
It was also because at that stage I wanted to really embark on a few specific projects and I realised I could continue going to Germany, which, as we mentioned, as my great love and broadcasting the Bundesliga. There were a couple of other things I wanted to pursue over on this side of the Atlantic, and I've been able to do that through working World Cup for Fox in 2018. They had the rights to it. Women's World Cup 2019. You mentioned that earlier and NBC's coverage of the Premier League.
I really wanted to sort of at this phase of my career, dip in and out of things more rather than having the same thing every week. And I wanted a bit of variety. And I also wanted the power to say yes or no to things and to do things that really appealed to me.
So I was back in the USA and then it was around sort of the November part of 2017. I received an email from a third party and it was all sort of cloaked in a bit of mystery, didn't quite specify exactly what it was.
But the email said that there was interest in me and my voice and my commentary style from a well known video game company. But again, they couldn't reveal exactly what that was. So it took a few days of back and forth. And then eventually it emerged that it was the big one, it was EA Sports and it was for FIFA 19.
And the interest, I think, came from the fact that I had been the Champions League commentator for ESPN around the world for a good number of years. Again, people in the UK don't necessarily know that because the one place or one of the places where you wouldn't have received ESPN's coverage of the Champions League was the UK.
But, you know, think about the penetration of markets all around the world, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, you know, north and south, the Middle East, etc, etc. And so that was the audience we had on big Champions League nights. And of course, this is a big world video game, not just for one country. So they, unbeknown to me, had actually been monitoring my work during those years. And they had sort of been an idea that if they got rights to the Champions League because they didn't have rights to the Champions League at that stage, they might approach me. I knew none of this, but that was really where it started. And so we spoke about it.
At that point, we couldn't really get specific about it because the rights hadn't actually formally been obtained. There were still some, you know, signatures to be applied to contracts and things like that. But we began recording. And the fun thing about this, well, fun, maybe it's not the right word, but the thing was that I couldn't mention it to anybody because the official announcement wasn't to come until June of 2018. So I was recording, but I was talking to friends who were saying, well, what do you what do you what are you going into the studio to do today? I would say, oh, it's just a just a project, you know, just a small project. Yeah, well, I'll tell you about it next time I see you again.
So that was for FIFA 19 working with Lee Dixon on the Champions League on the Europa League. And so that's how it began. And it's a great honor to be part of the most iconic video game in the world.
I should say, I'm really just one team member. There are hundreds, actually thousands of people around the world to work on FIFA and bringing it to life and making it what it is. But collaboration is part of what I really enjoy. One of the projects, as I said, that I wanted to be part of, was something that involved collaboration and teamwork, and that's what this is. So, yeah, I've been lucky enough now to be invited back for FIFA 19, 20, 21, and it's great fun. And I'm thrilled you guys are players.
I do have to say, though, that if you've been playing it a lot during this pandemic period, then I wouldn't blame you for being a bit sick of my voice at this stage.
The Recording Process for FIFA 21
So then coming on, as you said, the progression from it was you and Lee Dixon on the Champions League in FIFA 19, now looking to FIFA 21.
Obviously, you now do all the league games, going on the script and the recording side of it when we're playing, you know. So many different lines that are said introduction pieces in game. How do you begin to, like, start recording yourself? Are you given part of a script and then you go into a recording studio? How do you work on something like that?
Well, I have a very good producer and a brilliant soundman, and they've been part of the game for a long time. So I'm an extremely good hands. And as I said, it is a team effort and a lot of people work on individual aspects of it.
But when it comes down to it, what we're doing as a team is we're working to try to make it as organic as possible. So, you know, obviously there are different sections of the job, if you like.
There are introductions. You'll be familiar with the introductions to games, whether it's one of the special introductions that we do, a sort of a 10 second pre-tease, if you like, or the actual introduction itself. And they can sort of follow on a rotation kind of basis because they don't sound dramatically different from each other.
I think the more challenging stuff would be during the game itself. So coming up with the right inflexion for a particular thing that's happening. And that's where we just all work as a team.
But it's not a script as such. It's more a kind of an idea that is put out there. And what the team in an ideal world wants is for it to sound like it would as if I were in an actual game as opposed to a video game.
So, you know, it might be a free kick just outside the box and it might be that it's just gone over the top. And I have to come up with, you know, 10, 11, 12 different ways to say that and have to think about that, because remember, it has to be sort of within fairly generic parameters. It can't be too specific. So that's where the challenge can come in in terms of making it interesting every time so that it also sounds different every time. But that is how we do it.
And a big part of the job, of course, would be names as well. Name after name after name of player, you know, from youth level all the way to somebody who's now in his late 30s and sometimes different inflexions with each player.
But we do a little sections every day. And, you know, the last three years I have been in the studio doing it 25 days, approximately out of the year. That's not 25 in a row. We split it up, but it is a big part of my life and it's become a huge part of my life these last three years. And I really love it. I don't take it for granted. I adore my team-mates on it. We go into it with the view, with the mindset that it's a true team effort.
The ever changing role of a commentator
Yeah, that's fascinating. As Mitch alluded to, I think I've heard your voice more than any other human beings in the last six months. I just wanted to touch on something slightly different from FIFA.
Just looking back over your time as a commentator from taking the tape recorder to Aberdeen matches to now reaching millions of fans around the world across a multitude of platforms and channels. How do you think the role of I say journalist or commentator has changed over time with developments in broadcasting and communication, for example, social media?
Well, I think social media has become part of our lives. And I always say social media can be a blessing and a curse. You know, I think the good part of it is with social media, you can actually control your own message, you know, as a broadcaster can have a platform to put your own things out that you want to put out, whether that's a written piece.
I write a column for ESPN on German football every week. And there's no doubt that social media gives that a big boost and it puts more eyes on it than otherwise would be the case.
The other side of it, I think, is that and I think we've got to be careful as broadcasters when it comes to this. The other side of it is that we read too much social media. I'll give you one example of this.
I have a very good friend who I've known in the media business for a long time who used to have a high level job at Twitter. And I remember talking to him about Twitter when I first went on there and we were chatting about this not so long ago as well. And he said the one bit of advice I would give you is do not think that what is on Twitter is anywhere near reflective of real life.
Because, you know, we do have that tendency to think that Twitter is real life. We all live in little bubbles ourselves, depending on things we are interested in. But we have to understand that that is a tiny, tiny percentage of real life itself. So I would say that to everybody, you know, don't get too carried away with social media, use it, you know, use it the way that you can and if it helps you.
I remember in my early days, we never got any feedback from anybody. We might get one letter from a listener, you know, once every four years. And we would sort of read it five times over because, you know, we got nothing. You know, there was there was nothing from anybody. So the world has certainly changed in that sense.
I think from the commentary point of view, I think things are a bit more sensationalist now than they maybe were when I started on the 80s, I think. It was a different discourse, if you go back and listen to broadcasters in the 80s, there was a different style. It sounded a bit more formal. I think it was maybe influenced by the BBC.
I'm talking about the U.K. here more than anywhere else. But I think it was influenced by the BBC and there wasn't this kind of race to get the quick headline on everything.
I think now in the media generally, there's always a quick headline based on what a manager has said or what a player has said or about a game in particular. And sometimes it's up to me it's a bit wider. The markets taking things, you know, a bit too much in an exaggerated direction, I think, on TV commentary, if you want to know about that. I think what's changed most of all is that whereas when I started, the commentator pretty much was in charge of the broadcast and about 99 per cent of the broadcast nowadays, if you have a commentator, it's much more 50/50 and you can assess the good and bad of that.
There are some good there is, in my opinion, some bad about that as well. I mean, what I started rarely would I ever have a commentator on TV if it were a live game. Yes, maybe. But the commentator would come in about once every 10 minutes, you know, and he would be sort of brought in. It would be OK. About ten minutes on the clock with me is Joe Bloggs. Joe, what do you think so far? And you might not hear from him again for another 10 or 15 minutes, you know, just to be sort of a general comment every so often now it's much more of a back and forth between commentator and commentator.
And as I say, I greatly appreciate the insight that players and managers bring to it. But the best ones are the ones who have learnt to be broadcasters, who have learnt that they are there. Yes, because of the knowledge. But they have translated that into becoming broadcasters and having their own editing sense in their own rights. And I'll be lucky enough to broadcast with a lot of people who fall in that category. So I think that's how it's changed.
I think the commentator has become in some respects, a more powerful voice. Whereas if you listen back in the 80s, and this is not just a football, this apply to other sports as well. I think the commentator of the day, you know, whether it was Brian Moore or John Watson or Barry Davis on football, whether it was Richie Bennu on cricket, I think the commentator of the day had a much stronger, more editorial voice than is the case now.
Speaking multiple languages
Yeah, that's massively insightful and pretty much covered about three or four questions. So that's fine. I'd much rather listen to you speaking and then listen to me back asking you a question so that was fantastic. Thank you very much for that.
The next thing I wanted to cover was you mentioned actually earlier about listening to the radio in German as a child. And I've looked and it's not just German that you speak, you know, you speak other languages as well. How is that helped open doors for you in your career? And is it something that you would definitely advise someone who is wanting to become a broadcaster to go down the avenue? OK.
Well, I'll answer the second part first…100 percent.
Yeah, I think it is a huge advantage to have the linguistic ability when you're dealing with a worldwide sport. I mean, let's face it, this is the ultimate worldwide sport, global sport. It first really became an advantage to me in the 80s when I would work in the radio sports room in Glasgow at the BBC. And in those days, it wasn't a given that everybody spoke English in other countries. And I would often have to call UEFA and FIFA to clarify things.
And again, we didn't have Internet back then, so we had to clarify sometimes things like, you know, whether a player is suspended or not, sometimes little things to do with, you know, a FIFA ban. You know, this was a different information age.
So I was always assigned to people would say, oh, let's let Derek call UEFA and FIFA and you can talk to them in German. So I would do that and I would find I would get information the like of which I wouldn't always get in English, because in those days, as I said, English was not necessarily the go to language when it came to international organisations.
That admittedly has changed. And I think sadly, that's made people in the Anglosphere and the UK and the USA and other countries a bit lazier with regard to languages. So I suppose it is tied into that. But I mean, the other thing is I actually took a couple of years out of broadcasting in the early 90s when I first moved to the USA, it was to work as the media officer at one of the media officers for the World Cup organising committee. And one of the reasons I got hired for that job was because of my languages ability, because they liked that very much. And since then, I actually or after that, I also was invited to work for FIFA, for the world governing body, FIFA, as a media officer at a couple of their tournaments. And again, that was down to having languages ability.
So I think, you know, there are just two examples. It's also I mean, it's a huge thing for me as a Bundesliga commentator. And I think it does give me an advantage over others in the sense that I the first thing I do, we spoke earlier about being an early riser. The first thing I do at 5:00 a.m. here in Boston every morning is I read the German papers and I have German TV, German radio on in the background.
So I'm listening to what's happening in the world of not just German football, but German politics and German life generally. And so, you know, imagine that for if somebody is particularly interested in Spanish football, then it really stands to reason that he or she should become fluent in Spanish. And you can really only understand another country, I think, through the language of that country. And so, yeah, I would say to anybody, if you if you do have that interest, then go for it with a language. Even if you don't, it will really come in handy in this world game that we all love of football.
Player Name Pronunciation
One thing I wanted to touch back on was the fact you used to have to call UEFA. Now I read somewhere as well that you being the professional that you are, if you are concerned about the pronunciation of a certain player's name, you will either phone them up or phone up their agent just to clarify that they you have the correct pronunciation of that name.
Now, I wanted to know if there's any that have been particularly quirky or that you thought you had the right pronunciation, that you've gotten horribly wrong. Are there any that stick out for you in your memory?
Well, yeah. First of all, I've been doing this for a long time with regard to pronunciation, because, you know, it means a lot to me as a languages person. And I remember I first was given the Saudi Arabian national team to cover when I was at ESPN in the 90s. And, you know, I don't speak Arabic. It's a language I don't have in my repertoire at all. And so I thought, well, what can I do here?
So I thought, you know, I'm going to call the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
So I did that and luckily was hooked up with a very nice chap in the press office. And he was obviously a football fan. And he gave me all the pronunciations. And I sort of used that as my template for countries that I didn't have a direct connection with.
Obviously, language as I speak, I don't need to do that quite so much.
I mean, I'll give you a recent example in English football, and this is one that I hear about on social media almost every day, the Manchester United player who has really sort of rocketed to stardom in England in the last few months now, I did his name on FIFA the first year I did FIFA with every name. I always if I can't check with the player himself and it is hard to check with every player himself nowadays or even his agent. But I'll check with colleagues in that country, media colleagues. The only thing you can do is and I do this myself, you can go online and you can often find the player himself saying his name or you can hear an interview from that country saying his name and you can narrow it down on that basis.
Now, while he was playing for Sporting and of course, played for Portugal for a good few years, if you go online, you will hear countless examples of Portuguese commentators calling this player Bruno Fernandes. And if you want to even use an English example, BT Sport that a thing called perfect player with the same player talking about his footballing hero, he introduces himself as Bruno Fernandes, but he arrived in England and for some reason that message didn't get across.
And so, listen, I know it's difficult and people want to try to make it as simple as possible for people out there. But I am afraid to say that Bruno's name has been horribly mispronounced since he arrived at Manchester United. And it shouldn't be that hard. I would wager both of you guys could say Fernandes quite easily. It's not that hard to say.
So I even get people now and again saying, well, why don't you change it, even though you're right, you should change it, you know, change it, because that's not what people in England say. And I will say, well, hang on, remember, this game is going around the world and my commitment as a broadcaster is to be incorrect. And I want that player and his family, if they're playing the game, I want them to go, oh, they have our name right. Lo and behold, my goodness, they're actually saying that name correctly as opposed to saying something that is incorrect. So that would be one example.
Career Advice for Aspiring Commentators
Absolutely. I think the best way to wrap this up is a question that we ask all of our guests, and it's the promise that we deliver to our listeners is the career advice. We briefly spoke about, obviously, the being encouraged to learn other languages. Well, other tips and advice would you give to people who are looking to perhaps get into broadcasting or commentating like yourself?
Well, it's a great question. I'm glad you've asked me that.
I think the first thing is you have to be a self starter. I used that term earlier. You have to really want it. You have to love it. It's not going to come to you. You have to put yourself in a position to be wanted by somebody in broadcasting. And I think the harsh advice is that you really have to go above and beyond. You have to make yourself stand out, you know, and I think that comes down to having to create a body of work that will be attractive, appealing to somebody who is in the business of hiring.
Now, some of what I'm going to say might be slightly controversial. It wasn't controversial back when I was coming through in the 80s. I realise that it's more controversial nowadays. I do think you have to be prepared at a young age to do things that are not for financial benefit. You know, I think you have to do things to improve yourself.
Now, as I said, I spent years talking into a tape recorder and then doing hospital radio. I didn't get a penny for doing any of that. I've suggested that as a young broadcaster, potential broadcasters before, and I've not always had good responses to that sort of a feeling that, you know, well, if I do something, I should get paid in an ideal world, of course. But that is not we're not in an ideal world, you know, and we're in a pandemic period now where businesses are hurting. So I think even more so.
I think if broadcasting is your passion, then you really have to go for it. And there are so many creative ways that it can be done now. I mean, the thing that I find quite interesting is people who often scowl at the idea of doing things for nothing while often spend eight hours a day on Twitter, and, you know, getting paid for being a Twitter for eight hours. So, you know, there are creative things that we can all do.
And so I would say, you know, make your own tape, create your own broadcasts, your own podcast, just like you guys are doing. You know, try to get interesting guests, try to, as you're doing these things, try to improve your technique and listen to broadcasters who you respect and ask yourself, what is it that they are doing that I can learn from?
And then eventually and I say eventually, because this should be really only at the point when you have a body of work that you are happy with that you could imagine somebody else listening to when you have that body of work, that demo reel, as we used to call it, get it into the hands of people who are in a position to hire, you know, and as I say, I was very lucky because I had in David Francey somebody who I maybe didn't finish the story properly.
He, actually, when I sent him a tape when I was 19, he actually passed that tape onto his bosses at the BBC without me even asking to do it. So I was very fortunate. I got my big break through my hero.
But, you know, don't be afraid to create that body of work, make it concise. I will say to people, the one mistake I see from younger broadcasters is they'll send me a tape and it might be 25 or 30 minutes long. You know, that's too long. It should be your best stuff, all condensed within about five minutes, because that's the length of time that somebody has to make a judgement on you. And it should be stuff that you're proud of. If there's anything there at all that is borderline, that you think that's not my best, then leave it out.
I mean, think about it this way. You have the power of editing. You have the power to make it, to dress it up, to make it look as good and sound as good as possible. So, you know, why would we put anything in there that's not 100 percent the best stuff, but that's what I would say.
If you have all those qualities, if you have the passion, then you really have a chance of making it. But of course, it is more difficult in this economic climate. So all the more reason why you have to create content that makes you stand out over everyone else, while I think is the only way I can.
To summarise, we've spoken with one of the most recognisable voices in modern sport, learning about where it all began and how Derek became the voice of football and more recently, the voice of FIFA 19, 20 and 21. Derek, as sports fans ourselves. This has been beyond belief, an absolute privilege to have you join us on PitchTALKS. Having the opportunity to hear and learn about your experiences as a football commentator is honestly such a privilege for us. So thank you so much for joining us.
The pleasure is all mine. Thank you very much for having me on. And can I just say the best of luck to both of you with regard to your own endeavours and be safe.