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.