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The art of being a co-commentator: why everyone loves Ally McCoist

Ally McCoist
(Image credit: PA Images)

Officially, football is the national sport. Unofficially, it seems as if criticising its pundits is. With one notable exception. Ally McCoist, scorer of a mere nine goals for Sunderland almost four decades ago, feels English football’s strange new national treasure. 

There is something magnificently illogical about the way Amazon Prime (opens in new tab), the newest broadcaster in the Premier League environment, representing the most valuable brand on the planet, whose streaming model could irrevocably alter the sports rights world, have discovered the route to rave reviews involves a 58-year-old former Question of Sport captain. Perhaps it would be like Pep Guardiola embracing 4-4-2 or Marcus Rashford consulting Bryan Robson about refuelling habits.

But there is something endearing and something meritocratic about it. McCoist is a brilliant co-commentator, the best in the Premier League (ignore the rush to denounce everyone else: there are several other fine exponents of the art), despite never playing or coaching in it and rarely working on it.  

He combines an expert’s understanding and attention to detail with a raconteur’s comic timing and memory for an anecdote; like the former England cricket coach David Lloyd, another beloved broadcaster who shares a similar wit, he knows when to be serious and when not to be. With very different accents, both have the sort of rich, reassuring voices that lend themselves to the airwaves. 

McCoist boasts an idiosyncratic turn of phrase – “holy smokes, that is unbelievable,” he exclaimed when Riyad Mahrez scored at Everton – and a vocabulary that various other current and former players should envy.

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He marries an infectious love of football with a hinterland. “Kazan has come a long way since it fell to Ivan the Terrible in 1552,” may be the single greatest line of World Cup commentary since Kenneth Wolstenholme thought it was all over; the camera need not be on McCoist to detect the twinkle in his eye. The mean-spirited may say his enthusiasm is more understandable when he has spent much of his time watching the Scottish game or in a studio with Sue Barker, but McCoist shows it is possible to be both positive and analytical. A forward who used to team up profitably with Mark Hateley has formed three terrific double acts, with Jon Champion, Peter Drury and Clive Tyldesley; it may be no coincidence that they are three of the most erudite commentators. Wordsmiths share a fondness for knowledge and football.

Together, the old masters are preferable to the breed of commentators who prioritise quantity over quality, talking for every available second without saying anything memorable. Maybe they appeal to the nostalgic but, judging from the paeans of praise, a newer audience are similarly appreciative of their timeless skills.

And McCoist’s popularity flies in the face of some received wisdom. He may always remain Rangers’ record goalscorer but, as Scottish football is downgraded south of the border and his playing days grow more distant, those exploits may not render him a big name to an English audience. He does not know what it’s like to share a dressing room with Paul Pogba or to coach Raheem Sterling and, while those who do can offer insight, he brings other qualities.

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The distance he has from the English game feels beneficial. There is a toxic element to the invented agendas of those claiming everyone is biased against their team for reasons that often defy rational explanation; McCoist, his brief and unsuccessful spell at Sunderland apart, is not associated with any Premier or Football League club. He is unaffected by football’s tribal warfare. There is a theory – pushed, pathetically, by one or two clubs – that they need their ex-players represented in the television studios, when the best pundits should simply be hired (which Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville are, regardless of their high-profile affiliations to Liverpool and Manchester United), regardless of who they represented. That includes McCoist.

Most importantly of all, he is a reminder that football ought to be enjoyable. A pundit who savours every game is the necessary antidote to ignoring the game in favour of mind-numbing moans about referees and VAR. If the way his commentary, and by extension Amazon’s output, is received ought to prompt BT Sport into an inquest into their often dire Premier League coverage (though not their fine Champions League shows), McCoist may be achieving the impossible by unifying the football-loving public: he has become the man we all want to watch football with.

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Richard Jolly
Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.