Football commentator Simon Hill has become the voice of the ‘world game’ in Australia and so much more than what one colleague once described as just a ‘gob on a stick’. In his book, Simon relives all the action and the electric atmosphere of some of the most memorable A-League and Socceroos matches ever played, and he talks candidly about the nature of the game in Australia and his relationships with those involved. In the following extract, Simon relates some of the ‘endurance tests’ he has faced as a commentator here and around the globe.
It had already been a momentous year, with Australia winning the 2015 Asian Cup on home soil, the biggest football achievement since I’d emigrated back in 2003.
Andy Harper and I spent most of the early part of the tournament in Melbourne, covering the group matches at AAMI Park. Prior to the event, there had been lots of negative press speculation regarding the tournament, with many (mainly non- football) people predicting empty stands. Instead, Aussie football fans turned up in incredible numbers. When 12,000 show up to watch Uzbekistan and North Korea, you know the potential the game has Down Under. Michael Brown and his Local Organising Committee did a super job in selling the competition, and the final average attendance of 22,000 was a credit to him and his team. To put it into context, four years earlier in Qatar, that figure was 12,000, and the fact the Australian event made a big profit, was further reason to celebrate.
The Asian Cup was another endurance test for a commentator – as we knew would be the case, having covered the previous two editions. Fourteen games in 22 days (sometimes with travel in between) is tough work, particularly mentally, as you try to keep your mind fresh. Fox co-commentator, Robbie Slater, doing his own onerous shift in Brisbane, summed it up during one game at the tournament, when his offsider, Brenton Speed, queried one of the phrases he’d used to describe a passage of play, ‘So many games, so many words to find!’
The final in Sydney was a brilliant occasion, but, as in 2011, I didn’t have the greatest game behind the microphone. The mistake I made (I believe) was getting too hyped-up before the game, encouraged by Murray (Shaw), who had told Andy and me to be as ‘parochial as we wanted to be’ during the call.
Now, I had no problem with getting excited over a possible Australian success, if that’s the way it turned out. I’d been in the country long enough to identify with the Socceroos quite closely, so that wasn’t the issue. But really, I should have ignored the ‘parochial’ part of the advice, and just commentated in my normal way. Instead, I took it too literally, and at times was probably a little too partisan. This strikes at the heart of one of the major problems with being involved in football in Australia. Are we reporters OF the game, or promoters FOR the game? In my opinion, in a country such as Australia, you have to be both to a certain extent, but occasionally you can misread the situation, which is what I did that night in Sydney.
For every Aussie fan cheering on the team, there was another – perhaps not as committed, or interested in football – who was irritated by the rather parochial nature of the call. Afterwards, in the cold light of day, I could recognise my mistake, but at the time, I believed I was merely fulfilling my brief. The problem of course, is that you have to live with what goes out on air for years afterwards.
To be fair, I called the goal scorers correctly (so one big improvement on 2011), and because the result went Australia’s way, I probably got away with that call, just as Craig Foster had done in 2005.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been associated with the Socceroos for so many years. I’ve formed a close bond with the national team, which hasn’t always been easy when you’re still trying to maintain a professional distance. But after calling over a hundred of their games, it’s become impossible not to want them to do well, especially as they remain the greatest promoter of the sport, in a country which is still lukewarm towards ‘soccer’.
Ahead of a game in 2013, Mark Schwarzer even presented me with a signed jersey to commemorate my 100th game with the ’Roos. I still haven’t forgotten those words of Paul Williams in 2003, when he said calling the national team was a ‘privilege’ – wise words, and I think they can also be applied to every day I’ve spent working in football broadcasting.
I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world, and even at the age of almost 50, I’m still having new experiences through football – such as our 2015 trip to Kyrgyzstan, where the Socceroos played at a stadium that had one of the most beautiful backdrops I’d ever seen, the Ala-Too mountain range, and where people were so desperate to see the game, they crawled over the walls like ants. Our commentary position was on a rickety wooden platform, nailed onto ancient looking seats at the back of the main stand. Our OB director – Russian as I remember – asked us if we moved around a lot during commentary. I said ‘No. Why?’ His response was that the platform would probably give way if we did. Andy and I remained largely motionless throughout the entire 90 minutes!
Then later in the same year, we visited another of the Stans – Tajikistan – where our trip was only confirmed just before take-off, due to an Islamic insurgency that had claimed the lives of 36 policemen just days before our arrival. The game was also the first time the Tajiks had ever broadcast a game of football internationally. Todd Procter was again along for the ride, and was literally teaching his crew how to do their jobs as the game was progressing – all out of the back of an OB Truck that was, in effect, no more than a small van.
In 2017, we made it to Iran, where the politics of the AFC almost killed our broadcast of the Iraq–Australia game completely. We’d been designated to sit in the one area of cover in the outdated PAS Stadium, but were placed in the same room as the governing body’s Refereeing Assessor and the Match Commissioner. Neither of whom wanted a commentary team spoiling their peace. With 10 minutes to go before kick-off, they were still attempting to kick us out – not ideal preparation for commentary. Nor was the fact the wrong team sheet had been issued, which showed the Iraqi captain, Ala’a Abdul-Zahra, lining up at number 10. It was only when my eyes scanned across the Iraqi team during the national anthems I realised there WAS no number 10 in the line-up. Then it was a case of working out who had replaced him – and why.
These are the tests that are sometimes put before you in unfamiliar, even hostile environments – but what incredible experiences, and they are only possible through football.
You can purchase Just a Gob on a Stick: The Voice Behind The Mic (Foreward Tim Cahill) by Simon Hill (New Holland Publishers, $35), at all good book stores.
Picked up your copy of Just a Gob On a Stick, yet? Share a review in the comments below.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After more than a decade of working in radio and television in the UK, Simon Hill joined SBS Sport in Australia. In August 2006, Simon moved to the leader in sports television, Fox Sports, where he commentates the football, from the A-League to the Socceroos. Away from the studio, he enjoys writing for various publications and online, playing the drums, reading up on political history and following his beloved Manchester City.
Photography: FourFourTwo Australia (hero); Fox Sports (bio)