FOX Soccer’s adventures in providing its own commentary for the most high profile European soccer matches of 2013 took another embarrassing turn Sunday afternoon. This time it was for the FA Cup quarter-final between Manchester United and Chelsea, commentated by Gus Johnson and Ian Wright.
Surprisingly, it was Wright who made several glaring and controversial mistakes that had viewers shaking their heads wondering when this experiment will end.
In his role as a co-commentator, Wright chastised Chelsea supporters on numerous occasions in the game, repeatedly calling their actions embarrassing and seemingly painting all Chelsea fans with the same brush. The former Arsenal footballer was way out of line in his criticism of Chelsea supporters and immediately destroyed his impartiality when he began his tirade in the second half.
After Eden Hazard scored Chelsea’s first goal, here’s what Wright said:
“Chelsea fans ain’t singing about Rafa now. I almost want Chelsea to win the game so they can embarrass [the fans] again. [They are] such an embarrassment.”
Then after Ramires scored the equalizer for the Blues, Wright again attacked Chelsea supporters:
“I’ve got to say Chelsea fans, look at them now. So embarrassing!”
“He’s made two substitutions that they didn’t like. They gave him stick and now they’re back in the game. What are [the Chelsea fans] going to do? Embarrassing.”
It’s one thing for Wright to say those things as an analyst on radio or in newspapers, but it’s a different thing entirely when you’re supposed to be an impartial color commentator who needs to be providing insights to enhance our viewing experience. Wright was completely out of order by saying those things in a game where he instantly demonized half the audience.
To be fair to both Johnson and Wright, I thought they formed a very strong commentary partnership in the first half. The more conversational Wright seemed to fit better with Johnson’s commentary style. The calls by Johnson for each of the two Manchester United goals in the first half were excellent, perfectly capturing the energy and excitement of the goals as well as succinctly describing what happened before Wright cut in to add his insight.
On the first goal, Wright focused in on the importance of Michael Carrick’s inch-perfect cross to Javier Hernandez, describing it as something that critics would have been fawning over if someone like Andrea Pirlo had struck it.
The second goal was also spectacularly called by Wright who gave valuable insight before the Wayne Rooney free kick was taken, instructing the viewer where the ball should be hit. And Rooney did exactly that, crossing the ball near the far post as it sailed untouched into the back of the net.
But other than those two key moments for Wright and his conversational tone with Johnson, the remainder of Wright’s co-commentary was sub-par. I lost count the number of times he said Gus. He spoke over the top of Johnson far too frequently. And his analysis became very repetitive particularly in describing how Chelsea’s Demba Ba needed to do a better job at holding up the ball to provide service to Lampard and Oscar.
In the second half after Juan Mata twisted his ankle when turning in the Manchester United penalty area, the play continued until referee Howard Webb called a free kick. With the brief stoppage in play, the broadcast showed a replay of Chelsea’s equalizing goal but Ian Wright said that Ashley Cole scored it when everyone knew and could see that it was Ramires.
Johnson, meanwhile, had his best first half of all his commentaries thus far. The American seemed more conscious about his commentating today. Throughout the game, he gave a slight pause before commentating on it, which made a big difference in what he was describing (instead of commentating everything precisely as it happened where he would often make mistakes or describe something with a lot of enthusiasm even as the ball sailed into the top row of the stadium).
However, just as Wright stumbled with his criticism of Chelsea supporters in the second half, Johnson came undone at times too, although not nearly as badly as Wright.
Johnson’s most embarrassing moment was when he asked Wright in the second half “Is [Michael Carrick] their new Roy Keane?” To ask that about a 31-year-old midfielder who’s been at Manchester United for eight years showed a complete lack of understanding of the player, as well as an incredibly poor reading of Carrick’s style of play compared to Keane.
Thankfully, Johnson saved some grace with two more excellent calls — this time for Chelsea’s first and second goals in the second half.
There are still aspects of Johnson’s commentary that are grating to the listener, particularly his turns of of phrase such as “curls it in the six,” “Man U,” “Cleverley trying to dump it in,” and “Wayne Rooney clips it up high.” None of these translate well to the game of soccer, and what is a clip anyway? Is he confusing it with chipping the ball?
Also, I’m not sure what target audience Johnson was trying to speak to when he had this to say after Shinji Kagawa was substituted and on came Danny Welbeck:
“Keep your eye on Welbeck. He’s very good in the air. Scored a brilliant header against Real Madrid in Spain. An away goal as those teams drew 1-1”
I don’t think there was anyone watching this game who was unfamiliar with Welbeck or what the striker provides.
Overall, this was a much improved commentary by Johnson, but he was undermined today by Ian Wright letting his Arsenal allegiances get the better of him. Even still, Johnson’s commentary is still nowhere near the level of competence that a typical commentary for a FA Cup, Premier League or Champions League game provides.
If this experiment is to continue, FOX needs to find a more competent co-commentator. Wright is a liability with the things he says. Warren Barton has improved. Lee Dixon was better than I expected, while Ray Clemence was good at analyzing the game from a goalkeeper’s perspective, but I still feel they haven’t found someone who is a perfect match yet. Wright has been the closest so far, until he opened his mouth and said things that you’d expect a pundit such as Piers Morgan to say. Personally I’d like to see Stewart Robson paired up with Johnson to see if that improves the broadcast.
There were things to be positive about today, but overall it’s still a shame that FOX Sports has decided to change its winning formula of providing the world commentary feed, which has been more than adequate for 16 years.