Guy Mowbray Interview: ‘I Would Love to Split Myself in Half One Year’

by Dom Smith

“I would love to do the impossible one year and split myself in half. Still be there doing my job, but also be back at home experiencing it like everybody else.”

Guy Mowbray is the BBC’s lead TV football commentator. It was his voice that talked 29.9 million through England’s penalty anguish against Italy at Euro 2020. He also followed the team’s run to the quarter-finals in Qatar, having covered every major tournament since France 98.

“You see those pictures from home,” he says, “everybody together, the pints flying. You think: ‘I’d love to have been there. But wait a minute, everyone would have loved watching it here where I am.’ It’s an honour. There aren’t too many people who have done it.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be a commentator. I grew up wanting to be a player and that was never going to happen. So, I’ve got the next best job.”

Reflecting on his role of entering our living rooms and pubs to call the action on emotionally charged nights, Mowbray explains to why calling England games before an English audience is unique among his other commentary commitments.

“I’m an England fan. It’s the only time when you can perhaps share the emotions of those watching on at home. You never, ever lose that. You’re still at heart a kid who grew up watching an England game at Wembley on Sportsnight on television. That’s all commentary is, in a way: mirroring the emotions of everybody else.

“You listen to John Motson with the 5–1 [win over Germany in 2001] in Munich — ‘This is getting better and better and better’ — and he knew where the audience lay. You’ve got to be mindful of who you’re commentating to.”

But while a modicum of bias is permitted, cosying up to the England manager is not.

“You never get personal. That’s the simple rule of thumb,” the York City fan insists. “We’ve got one of the most personable England managers we’ve ever had in Gareth Southgate. But if it came to the crunch, all you can do is call it as you see it.”

Mowbray has ridden the wave that the players experience at every tournament since he first started commentating on England. Although they lost 2-1 to Mario Balotelli’s Italy, he harks back to their World Cup opener in Brazil as a career highlight.

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“2014 against Italy in Manaus, in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest — the whole experience of that trip… well, ‘experience’ is the right word. Different cities in different environments and different climates. The whole thing was an adventure, and I remember being giddy with excitement before that game. You’re in the jungle. It was mightily hot and sticky. This is something that you’ve not experienced before. We were very, very early for that game.”

Yet covering the national team has also, inevitably, brought chastening England performances and, for Mowbray, emotionally draining nights. The Iceland cataclysm at Euro 2016 was England’s nadir.

“That was the most upset I’ve ever been at a tournament. I can remember the media tent in Nice being almost silent after that game. There’s this idea that the press don’t want England to do well. That is absolute nonsense. Everyone is there because they’re a football obsessive. Your life is a lot easier when things are going well. It’s a lot more joyous to write and commentate on nice things. That Iceland game was hard to cover.

“People take the mickey of me because I go into a bit of a slump and beat myself up for at least an hour or two about what I could have done better. I live and breathe football, so at the end of a game there’s a real comedown. When I get back from a major tournament, I think my family know to just let me stew in it for two or three days until I come back round.”

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Mowbray is thankful for the opportunities presented by England’s recent resurgence in pedigree, with their quarter-final exit in Qatar being England’s worst of three tournament showings during Southgate’s tenure.

“The only time I’ve ever thought deeply before an England game was the World Cup in Russia before the semi-final against Croatia. I did a piece for [BBC Radio] 5 Live, and Mark Chapman just said: “You could be only the second person on BBC television to cover England in a World Cup final.” I just hadn’t thought about it. Then myself and Sam Matterface were the first to call England in a Euros final ever.”

That final didn’t have a happy ending — with defeat to their next opponents, the Italians, in a penalty shootout — but the 1966 World Cup final famously did. The BBC’s commentator on England’s greatest day, Kenneth Wolstenholme, was able to find an evergreen phrase to befit the occasion. Some people were on the pitch; they thought it was all over. And then it was.

“That to me is the perfect example of perfect commentary,” Mowbray eulogises. “It’s why commentary is a craft that shouldn’t be easily dismissed. It does add to the moment. That moment is remembered as much for the commentary as it is for Geoff Hurst’s goal. You can’t script commentary lines. You can never ever have it ready to go, because you don’t know what is going to happen. The stars aligned. It is absolutely perfect, and it will never ever be bettered.”

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