Pitchside

Football lost a rare unifying force this week

Pitchside

Presumably you're all familiar with Red Issue. If you aren't, they're an 'edgy' Manchester United fanzine who split their time between producing undeniably excellent journalism that puts many of the national newspapers to shame, and decrying 'grief junkies', people who they believe wallow in mawkishness whenever there is a public 'tragedy'.

Their infamous cover following Fabrice Muamba's heart attack caused much wringing of hands among those who like their hands wrung, and while it's up to you whether to be offended by it or not, the central point seemed to be that it was silly, at best, to firstly get upset over this sort of thing, and then express said upset.

It's a theme they have very much warmed to, and one they repeated after the recent death of Robin Williams, but a theme that very much exists in the realm of black and white. There is, it seems sensible and relatively obvious to say, a difference between mawkishness and expressing sadness at the passing of someone who, at the most basic level, made people happy, even if you don't know them personally.

Of course in some respects they have a point. It's undoubtedly slightly strange to be genuinely affected by the death of someone you've never met, but it happens, and it happened to most of us this week. It's even stranger to be genuinely affected by the death of someone you've never met who, for a large number of football fans, imparted bad news at just after 5pm every Saturday.

But the thing about James Alexander Gordon, who died on Monday aged 73, was that for generations of fans he was a constant, a familiar presence who was part of the whole experience of football. And by the 'experience of football' we don't mean having a comfortable seat with nice food, having spent money in the club shop, but rather part of what makes the game so all-consuming.

There have of course been several tributes written about James Alexander Gordon, notably the story of a perfect gentleman presented with low-level comedy by Alan Tyers in the Daily Telegraph, and by Callum Hamilton on SB Nation, describing our hero as the one man in football nobody hated, and how his magnificent voice became inextricably linked with football and how we came to consume it, or perhaps more accurately it came to consume us.

Remember, this is a man who never played the game, who never really commented on the game, who never wrote about it or contributed in any tangible way to it, and yet he has still inspired all of these words because he was still as much a part of it as any manager or player we've ever watched. James Alexander Gordon was a shared experience, someone we could all love without the distractions of partisanship, a rare unifying force in the game.

You know why he was great, of course. The voice is the start, a low, smooth but firm Scottish burr, but obviously his real genius came in those rising and falling tones that told you what the result was before the words themselves did, something that the man himself rather beautifully explained thusly, discussing his first ever stint on the air in 1972: “Arsenal had lost, and I felt sorry for their fans, and Manchester United had won, and I felt happy for their fans. And that is where the inflection in my voice came from.”

Magnificently simple, but at the same time conveying a beautiful emotion, which of course is central to why football is so important to so many people.

Charlotte Green, who took over from the great man a couple of years ago, does an equally superb job, but one fears she will never have the same impact, largely because there are so many other ways to get football scores these days. James Alexander Gordon became part of our lives and got under our skins before smart phones and the like were around, so he is part of the game in a way that probably nobody else will ever be able to achieve.

The master of an art is one who creates something brilliant from nothing, or from the mundane, and in theory there is little more mundane than mere football scores. The job of the results announcer is to impart bare information, without any linguistic frills, without any commentary, opinion or extraneous details. It's the recitation of facts, a few words and a couple of numbers. It should be the aural equivalent of Teletext, which had its own charm but was obviously very dry.

There is of course a purity to this, particularly in an era when absolutely everybody has an opinion, and a bloody loud one at that, but there's still very little to work with for the person charged with letting us know this information - very few ways in which they can put their own personality into it or make it memorable in any way.

In 'The Usual Suspects', Benicio del Toro played Fenster, a character who he described as only having one purpose – to basically hang around for an hour or so and then to die, as a warning from Keyser Soze.

There was nothing on the page for the character, but on film Del Toro turned it into something more, a real live person who contributed hugely to the film and basically made his name as an actor. He essentially created something from nothing, and while he went about things in a very different way, that is exactly what James Alexander Gordon did.

People who, tragically, don't have football in their lives think it's just about watching 22 overpaid men kick a ball around, but of course that's only part of it. It's a comfort for us, a distraction from other more serious things, something to live and feel part of. Without things like James Alexander Gordon's rising and falling intonation, it would indeed be just a game.

- Nick Miller

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