To most fans of US soccer, Ian Darke wasn’t a familiar name when he was hired in 2010 to commentate for ESPN at the World Cup in South Africa. After a debacle in 2006 with ESPN’s embarrassing commentator Dave O’Brien, ESPN was stockpiling Brits for the record-breaking coverage from South Africa.
Martin Tyler was the star. Tyler is the dean of football commentary, so refined and experienced and dignified that he could have been inducted into a commentary hall of fame 25 years before.
And ESPN was so giddy about landing Tyler that they did a commercial that ran in the months leading up to the tournament, not so much advertising the World Cup as it advertised Tyler.
Tyler was being treated as a savior. Then Landon Donovan happened.
At the time, the ESPN commentator for US matches was JP Dellacamera, but Dellacamera didn’t make the cut to call games on TV, instead being assigned to ESPN Radio.
John Harkes, Dellacamera’s partner for USA telecasts, was assigned to all the American’s games, meaning that there was no American commentator announcing the games — only a co-commentator. But the play-by-play spot was open for US games.
And Tyler wasn’t the man to fill it. With the US and England drawn in the same group, the two teams played matches on the same day. For that first game, the marquee game, Tyler would be on the mic. But from then on, Tyler would follow England in Group C, and another commentator would follow the Americans.
Ian Darke was picked for that USMNT role. He was given the USA-Slovenia and USA-Algeria games before the tournament even kicked-off, an interesting decision by ESPN that altered soccer broadcasting in the United States forever.
After all, most mainstream American World Cup viewers had never heard Darke call a match for Sky Sports in England – where he also was behind Tyler in the pecking order. Derek Rae was a much more familiar voice from his ESPN Champions League calls, as was Adrian Healey, from MLS and other events on the network.
But someone in Bristol went with Darke.
It was a masterstroke. Darke’s style immediately resonated – fast, passionate, comfortable and talkative. His call of USA-Slovenia, a 2-2 draw that saw the Americans fight back from two goals down in the second half and have a historic winner ludicrously ruled out by an incompetent referee, was fabulous.
But it was when Landon Donovan scored his stoppage time winner against Algeria in the final group game that Darke’s legend stateside was born.
Darke’s call (“Go, Go, USA!”) seemed like it descended from the heavens. It was almost impossible to believe that Darke wasn’t, in fact, American.
With the moment being shared and spread across a stunned nation, the legend only grew. By the time the tournament was over, Darke had eclipsed Tyler. ESPN needed a voice for their Premier League coverage, and Darke, available and ready to jump, was an obvious choice.
It wasn’t that Tyler performed badly, but he rarely hit his peak, and sucked the emotion out of games at times almost appearing withdrawn and bored. ESPN agreed to bring Tyler back for the 2014 tournament, but it was always a risky proposition.
Darke’s style is simply a better match for the average American viewer – myself included – than Tyler, and on Saturday mornings on ESPN, and traveling around the country covering the national team, a bond emerged between the veteran Brit from Portsmouth and the American soccer public.
Tyler’s contract stipulated that he call the 2014 World Cup Final, but when ESPN made the inevitable choice to tell Tyler they no longer wanted him to be the lead announcer, Tyler stepped aside.
He’s no number two commentator, and Tyler may still call the World Cup Final – just with another network. Tyler worked World Cups on Aussie TV for years, perhaps he will go back down that route.
But that’s the thing – to most across the pond, it seems inconceivable that Ian Darke would replace Martin Tyler. For America, it wouldn’t be right not to have Darke on the call.
Tyler’s departure leaves a void in ESPN’s coverage. Tyler called 18 of 64 matches at the last World Cup, and he, along with Darke, were the two men that called all of the matches from the quarterfinals on.
Darke moves up to the number one spot, and will call all USMNT matches, the final, and the opening match, among others, but who steps up to the number two role? Perhaps ESPN will nab another English announcing star.
The network has already said that they will need five announcing teams in Brazil because of the size of the country, and distance covered among the venues. Right now, they only appear to have two announcers returning for sure from the 2010 coverage.
But ESPN has resolved their stickiest media situation of the upcoming finals, and the people’s choice came out on top.
If Landon Donovan hadn’t scored against Algeria, it’s entirely possibly that Darke literally isn’t here today. But that’s football for you. Sometimes, destiny takes over.