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In Defense Of Tommy Smyth. Sort of.
by Paul Gardner, April 16th, 2009 12:13AM

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By Paul Gardner

The extraordinary attack on ESPN TV commentator Tommy Smyth that appeared Wednesday on the web site of the English newspaper The Guardian* stirs me to make a case for the beleaguered Tommy.

Not that I am a fan of Tommy's, not by any means. What prompts me to say a word or two on his behalf is the thought of who will be replacing him. Believe me, if you thought Tommy was bad, just wait until you get an earful of the Fox Soccer Channel mob, who will be bringing us next season's Champions League games.

More of that later. As for Tommy -- yes, that Irish accent is a bit much -- but the guy is Irish, after all. And the onion bag nonsense -- well, I've no doubt that one phrase is what got him the job, and I've no doubt that the ESPN bosses (a shady, anonymous lot) encouraged him to use it as often as he could. Colorful, no?

And yes, I've heard Tommy say plenty of what I'd consider stupid things. So he's the only one who does that? I refer you again to the impending Fox crew. I've also heard Tommy make some pretty astute observations. Not many -- but not many will be heard on FSC either.

But the main point that makes me think I might miss Tommy is that, however thick the blarney, however dense the thicket of catch phrases, however corny the humor, Tommy always sounds like a human being (the inventive mispronunciation of foreign names even helps here). And he sounds like a guy with a sense of humor. The key being, I think, that he doesn't take himself too seriously. Hey, maybe he does -- I don't know -- but if he does, it doesn't come over that way.

To extrapolate: Because he doesn't take himself too seriously, he is not obsessed with the idea that he always has something important, or at least interesting, to say, that he has to be talking all the time.

Of course, he works with Derek Rae, who is the best of the play-by-play guys that we hear in this country. I've never actually heard Rae tell Tommy that some of his opinions are ridiculous, but I've heard Ray sounding as though he's thinking just that. Makes for intriguing listening. Spot the acid in Rae's terse comments.

The author of the Guardian diatribe says Tommy Smyth is a color commentator -- though he has to say "colour commentator," just like that, in quotes, as though this is such a stupid American phrase that none of the Guardian's solidly Brit readers will know what it means. OK, that's a slight irrelevance, but it allows me to make a suggestion to the Guardian -- why not take a close look at the average Brit color guy on Brit TV? Those guys are so bad, in every possible way. You want bad accents? At least you can understand what Tommy is saying.

So Smyth exits stage left, and trundling on, stage right, here comes the awful FSC assembly. A few Brits -- accents every bit as overdone as Smyth's -- plus a bunch of Yanks who pathetically want to sound like Brits by using pitch and nil and -- yes -- football -- all the time. There is a lot of forced laughter and giggling on FSC, but is there any real humor there? Yes, from Steve Cohen. The rest are too seriously trying to polish their TV images.

What FSC will give us is a bunch of people determined to impress with their extensive knowledge (most of it irrelevant), people who talk a lot and say little, people who want to be taken dead seriously.

That desire probably accounts for all the English terminology. These are guys who are ashamed of being Americans associated with the sport known as soccer -- or should I say "soccer"? Guys who are scared that their Brit colleagues and listeners will look down their noses at them for not using the same terms as the Brits do. Guys who feel uncomfortable using the American language to speak up for American soccer.

But I -- and the anti-onionbaggers -- have the answer, it's called a mute button. I use it extensively, and with masterful control. Every so often something happens on-screen that I think needs an explanation. So I hit replay and take off the mute. On come the Fox experts, and I can guarantee that they will not be talking about the incident. They never are, they'll be yakking about something else.

So goodbye Tommy, and -- something I never for one moment thought I would confess -- I really think I'll miss you.

* The Guardian's Tommy Smyth article.



0 comments

  1. commented on: April 16, 2009 at 9:26 a.m.
    "Soccer" in the US suffers from an interiority complex and the Brits suffer from a false sense of superiority. At least Tommy Smyth was colorful and knowledgeable and didn't need to do what so many American commentators do. They try to broadcast soccer like baseball, with all sorts of irrelvant dialogues about this or that player's personal life, amusing anecdotes, etc., instead of focusing on the game and the flow of play. Fox will do fine. Tommy wil find work. I'm just tired of hearing how evenything English is better, when, in fact, few of the players on the big four teams in England are even English. MLS will rise. In time, soccer will be the fourth sport in America and then who knows. American broadcasting skills and commentating talents need to improve and will. Was there ever a better game commentating than Ray Hudson on Setanta when Beckham's Real Madrid team won the Spanish league?

  1. Spence Millen
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 9:27 a.m.
    Tommy's a good guy and I find his commentary to be just fine...although the "onion bag" schtick is obviously forced, in a Chris Berman naming everybody kind of way. Like PG said, I feel certain that his producers have encouraged that catchphrase, as all sit-coms seem to have to have one. I believe that Soccer folks in the USA have a tendency to be hyper-critical about the game and its presentation and I sometimes wonder if this uber-aggressive mindset exists to deflect something that may be missing in their own authenticity as fans. I think Paul is right. What's next may not be better. We've cycled through a lot of guys over the years, mostly felled by some combination of fan criticism and their own bizarre hubris conflicting with management. It makes one appreciate the older, steadier guys like JP Dellacamera and some local guys like Dave Johnson or Glenn Davis, who are just genuine and not completely full of themselves.


  1. commented on: April 16, 2009 at 10:18 a.m.
    I'd much rather Tommy than John Harkes or any other American "colour commentator" I've yet heard, but Ray Hudson is the man.

  1. David Hardt
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 10:51 a.m.
    Give the guy a break. His voice is a little too high for my liking and sometime the Irish makes it hard to understand, as we don't hear that accent here in the midwest on a daily basis, but he and others have introduced us to "futball" terms over the years. The bigger issue is is this a good move for soccer in the states? ESPN 2 ESPN basic cable, Fox Soccer Channel digital cable. Have we just cut off a portion of the viewing public, KIDS, because you have to pay more for digital cable and some can not afford it? I love FSC but my 80 year old mother in law, turned onto soccer my my son's youth play, will no longer be able to watch Champions League in the afternoons next fall.

  1. Lori Kalin
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 11:02 a.m.
    BRING BACK ERIC WYNALDA!!!

  1. A T
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 11:48 a.m.
    As Patrick said, the real issue here is the move from ESPN to Fox. Many people cannot afford more than basic cable, and now many soccer fans - and those who might become fans - are cut off from viewing the best soccer there is to see. It's a real shame and a setback and I can't imagine the term "onionbag" being more annoying than that.

  1. Jimmy John
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 12:26 p.m.
    It was my understanding that the Champions League matches would also be broadcast on the regular fox network, not just FSC, so those with just basic cable would still be able to watch.

  1. Jimmy John
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 12:27 p.m.
    Wynalda and Ray Hudson would be the way to go.

  1. Mat Santoro
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 12:52 p.m.
    Paul Gardner got it right. Tommy Smyth may have had his annoying moments, but American soccer's bigger problem is the ever-growing population of anglophile psuedo fans who think British jargin makes them intelligent about our sport. And the guys at the FSC desk are the worst with this. "pitch" rather than "field", "nil-nil" rather than any alternative, and especially "football" instead of "soccer", do not make someone sound more knowledgeable. It's an identity crisis we have. And I hate to break it to these folks, but the top players in the world speak Spanish, Italian, and Portugese!

  1. Leonardo Perez
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 1:05 p.m.
    Mr. Gardner you are so right!!! Thank you for sticking up for "old Tommy". And, like you, I also use the MUTE button, everytime I have to see a Spanish soccer game when Phil Schoen is "commenting". Even having Ray Hudson does not make it a "good listen" but it does take away from enjoying the game. But, now that Fox has the Champions League, I guess, I'll have to start using the MUTE button much more; Tommy Smyth will be missed by me. Best of luck for the future Mr Smyth, I hope you find some "color commentating" work on another channel real soon.

  1. David Huff
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 2:12 p.m.
    I shouldn't have to use a 'mute' button to avoid someone so clearly annoying but i guess you make excuses for practically anybody don't you Paul? After that recent 'puff-piece' you wrote in support of the ever arrogant A-hole Bruce Arena who sold out the USA in WC 2006 I guess I shouldn't be surprised. By the way Paul, when are you leaving?


  1. commented on: April 16, 2009 at 2:16 p.m.
    Paul, Thank you. My sentiments are exactly in line w/ yours. Onion Bag compares very favorably to the FSC and American announcers we have been subjected to in the past. (How sick I am of the Americans trying to sound sophisticated w/ mindless blather and psuedo-technical terminology like "service" for a simple cross.) Anybody remembers Seamus? Derek Rae is terrific, as are most of the other EPL announcers we get on FSC. One day there may be good American announcers, but thus far they have not come to my attention. Until then, let's hope we don't go "from the onion bag and into the fire."

  1. Richard Nathan
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 2:16 p.m.
    Right on. Smyth is sometimes irritating; but who isn't. Mostly he's fine, particularly when paired with Rae. As Mr. Gardner says, Smyth doesn't take himself too seriously, and when he goes over the top you can count on a wry comment from Rae to make you smile. In any event, Rae and Smyth are vastly superior to the anything-but-the-game color commentary on Fox. And for irritation, the "auld onion bag" doesn't hold a candle to the blackboard screach of Max Bretos yelling "YYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSS" when a goal is scored.

  1. Richard Nathan
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 2:20 p.m.
    Good question, Kevin. What happened to Seamus? He was the best.

  1. Lewis Gill
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 3:13 p.m.
    I'll miss Tommy. brough, oinionbag and all. What iritated me most about Tommy, bring an old retired referee, was his often off the wall over-opinionating of referee's decisions. I've always felt the guy on the field is closer to the action than the guy in the announcers box, replays not included. On with the game. I only hope the new color guys don't come out of the EPL. Most of them are right out of the smoke and sound like they're trying to chew fish and chips and talk at the same time.

  1. Joe Kee
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 4:46 p.m.
    Right on.

  1. David Grundy
    commented on: April 16, 2009 at 11:55 p.m.
    I agree with those who always wished espn had picked Seamus Malin instead of Smyth in the first place.

  1. Trudy Wells
    commented on: April 17, 2009 at 7:37 a.m.
    Happy Football-life - Tommy! I for one will miss you - and continue to shake my head listening to John Harkes wondering when is Soccer in America waking up and bring some excitement during a game? It sure isn't John Harkes! Eric Wynalda have mercy on us! Come back! Soccer rules! A fan for life Trudy Wells [Swiss born]

  1. Doug Lister
    commented on: April 17, 2009 at 10:44 a.m.
    I think it sucks. As much as I'd like to have a million channels, I won't be upgrading to digital. Who the hell is Steven Wells and what has he ever done? He looks like a angry little kid whose ball got taken away. He uses that headline based on what? His own personal feelings because he can't play the beautiful game? An internet petition that has 500 signatures? Let me tell you that a survey on the web that gets that little support doesn't show much in the way of his opinion. Maybe Steven Wells could go crawl back under the rock from where he came. Tommy' a bit of a dork, but he's fun to listen to and I for one will miss him and the CL next year when it won't be on my TV. It's a giant step backwards for the game in the US.

  1. Kent James
    commented on: April 17, 2009 at 10:52 a.m.
    Paul Gardner is right about Tommy Smyth ("with a y"). Smyth has a good sense of humor and doesn't take himself too seriously (even admits when he's wrong!). The best pairing would be Seamus Malin and Derek Rea; both are judicious in how much they say and their comments are usually informative and insightful. I can tolerate Wynalda, Harkes, Bretos, et al; they're sometimes over the top (and I especially hate Wynalda's emphasis on players committing "good" (i.e. smart) fouls), but as good former players, Harkes and Wynalda do bring a different view to the game, and they're both willing to say things that stir the pot (for better or for worse). Chris Sullivan is better at this role, however; he brings the insights of a former good player but without the excessive chatter (or the controversy). Just don't give me JP Dellacamera. He says everything with an intonation that he has just revealed the most startling fact in the universe, and it is usually quite banal. I'm not sure he means to (I don't think he does), but there is something about the way he speaks; the inflection, the pace, the emphasis, that make him seem like a know it all sharing in his wisdom. But most of all, I hope the person saying that Fox plans to show the CL games on their regular channels instead of just the high priced digital is right; soccer needs exposure more than it needs a change in announcers.

  1. Zachary Sanford
    commented on: April 17, 2009 at 2:11 p.m.
    "These are guys who are ashamed of being Americans associated with the sport known as soccer — or should I say “soccer”? Guys who are scared that their Brit colleagues and listeners will look down their noses at them for not using the same terms as the Brits do. Guys who feel uncomfortable using the American language to speak up for American soccer." That's because american "soccer" is unwatchable shite. Like the PL games on FSC, the CL will have the English feed from Murdoch's bigger better more frightening footy juggernaut: Sky Sports. Commentary from others beyond Derek Rae in the states is just about awful. And the veiled insult of Andy Gray in your piece is disgusting. You have the inferiority complex. Brits, and I am not one, are just responding to the garbage that they see and hear when observing coverage stateside and that is not superiority, it's reality.

  1. Zachary Sanford
    commented on: April 17, 2009 at 2:15 p.m.
    "These are guys who are ashamed of being Americans associated with the sport known as soccer — or should I say “soccer”? Guys who are scared that their Brit colleagues and listeners will look down their noses at them for not using the same terms as the Brits do. Guys who feel uncomfortable using the American language to speak up for American soccer." That's because american "soccer" is often rubbish. Like the PL games on FSC, the CL will have the English feed from Murdoch's bigger better more frightening footy juggernaut: Sky Sports. Commentary from others beyond Derek Rae in the states is just about awful. The veiled insult of Andy Gray in your piece is disgusting. You have the inferiority complex. Brits, and I am not one, are just responding to the garbage that they see and hear when observing coverage stateside and that is not superiority, it's reality.

  1. Daniel Eftimiu
    commented on: April 17, 2009 at 3:45 p.m.
    I hate ESPN with their supper extensive coverage of any other kind of sport but soccer. I hate them to the bone. I’m sick of seeing a soccer game commented in the same way a baseball game is, I’m sick of ESPN listing the away team first, I’m sick of ESPN interrupting my soccer game to give me “important” updates on lacrosse, golf or bicycling. I think FSC needs to grow and this is a good opportunity for them. PG is right; they are a little bit ashamed about our soccer, American soccer, and for example, they always start their Report show with EPL or even 2nd English league highlights instead of showing local soccer news first, about our national team or MLS. This bothers me a little, but I hope they understand FSC can only grow hands in hands with our soccer and it ultimately depends on the US and Canadian supporters.

  1. Phillip Suitts
    commented on: April 18, 2009 at 9:19 p.m.
    To everybody worrying about the CL being on digital cable: Fox Sports Net will broadcast something like 16-18 games while FX will have the final. And to Zachary Stanford-of course, American soccer isn't up the standard of England or other world powers. The MLS has only been around for about 14 years, but that doesn't mean that Americans have to use Britain terms like "futbol, pitch, and nil-nil." Just accept it already: soccer in the US will never be called futbol or football.


  1. commented on: April 19, 2009 at 9:15 a.m.
    agreed ... i find the fsc crew to be embarrassing soccer nerds .. with their insecure, annoying use of british terms and limited practical soccer knowledge. i was no fan of equally annoying tommy either, but at least he was born over there. still i wont miss tommy at all. i hope fsc brings in someone to revamp their presentation for these games.

  1. James Madison
    commented on: April 20, 2009 at 11:32 p.m.
    Tommy Smyth is the John Madden of soccer---lots of heart even though not always on the mark. He and others from "across the pond" make the Americans on Fox, ESPN and ESPN2 sound like ignorant amateurs. Eric Wynalda is the only near exception, and even he knows little about the Laws of the Game. Jim Madison, Menlo Park, CA


  1. commented on: April 27, 2009 at 3:36 p.m.
    Lest I be misunderstood, my comment "Anybody remembers Seamus?" is not a fond remembrance. I liked him the least of all the announcers we have mentioned here. And I'll take Onion Bag any day over, the Yanks. (And I'm a Yank!) One thing the Yanks need to learn is not to tell us what we are obviously seeing, like it's a play-by-play on the radio. Too much blather really does detract from the game. Derek Rae adds lots of insight and background to his commentary. And he's enjoyably understated in his commentary. No "GOALLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!" or "YESSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!" upon the scoring of a goal. I certainly am not in favor bringing back Shameless, or hearing more from Wynalda, Harkes, Bretos. I for one really enjoy the English, Irish, and Scottish announcers, including Onion Bag.


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