Interview – Bundesliga commentator Phil Bonney

In the beautiful game that football is, there are many under-credited people without whom the game would not have been as beautiful as it is. These are people who immortalise moments of the game that last for over a lifetime.

We may hardly realize it, but people like football commentators are those that enrich the game further with their unique description of things that unfold on the pitch. It’s a unique ability in it’s own right and few have what it takes to perfect it and make football fans yearn for their presence in the commentators box during matches.

Martin Tyler’s unforgettable shriek of ‘Agueroooooo’ has probably gone down in history as one of the most iconic commentary pieces ever, while Clive Tyldesley’s immaculate description of Manchester United European Cup title win of 1999 is embedded in the history books.

Their voices have made us associate those moments to themselves, which goes to prove how unique a job commentators do. And Bundesliga commentator Phil Bonney is another one of those people in the game who describe what defies description.

I think it’s important that the commentator adds to the game in terms of being aware of what’s happening and being informative rather than being the main attraction themselves. One of my UK colleagues Clive Tyldesley put it well when he said ‘Football commentary should strive to – inform, explain and build drama naturally.’

Phil, who is a regular when it comes to commentating German first division games, has become a familiar voice in many households that follow the games in the English language. Born and brought up in the South coast city of Southampton in England, Phil feels that him being a commentator right now was a result of a mere coincidence.

It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. I had been working as a voice-over artist for the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, for several years and one of the people I worked with was Toby Charles who was, and still is, a very well known commentator back then. We always chatted a lot about football and one day he asked me if I’d ever considered commentary, as the Bundesliga was looking for someone at that time. I did a test for them and started almost the next weekend.

Football, it seems is something Phil was born to venture into. He was probably never meant to go away from a game that runs in his veins. His upbringing has played a vital part in making him a part of the game. And he admits that he is a Southampton fan.

My upbringing was crucial. My grandfather was a season ticket holder at Southampton FC and he took me to my first game when I was a young boy and I have supported the Saints for nearly 50 years now man and boy. Kicking a football around with my dad and grandfather in our garden is one of my earliest memories. And of course playing cricket in the summer. I would say nothing has changed. I will be a Southampton fan till I die.

Playing football was Phil’s cup of tea at a point of time in his life, but his love for the game and tinker around with it carried him on to where he is now. But, despite being 52 years of age, Phil doesn’t back away from a game.

Football has been one of my passions all my life. I was never good enough to be a pro but I played for amateur sides in local leagues. I’m 52 now, but still play once a week in a small friendly non league game, with a wide range of ages/abilities taking part, a couple of them are even older than me! I sometimes play twice if I can get away on a Friday night when I’m not commentating and then it’s a 5-a-side indoor game.

Phil feels that sometimes, football commentary can be a matter of luck more than anything else. Somethings things just happen and they have to be at the right place at the right time to make sure that a footballing moment gets captured in an ‘immortal’ rather than unforgettable manner.

Like players, commentators have good days and bad days . For me there is nothing worse than looking away from the action to check a fact for a couple of seconds and looking back up to see the ball in the back of the net after a 35 yard screamer.  Like own goals, you have to accept that it happens. But then there are also occasions where you are really ‘on the ball’ and everything just falls into place on its own, creating those ‘immortal moments’.

He continues:

I feel that commentators walk along a very narrow path, if we talk too much or are too opinionated it is intrusive, but if we say nothing then that leaves the game feeling a bit flat and hollow. If we are lucky the game will speak for itself!

While, there is no specific side that Phil supports in the Bundesliga, he seems to follow all the sides in the first-division. But Phil isn’t a big fan of the direction in which German football is now heading, with sides like Red Bull Leipzig now making strides.

The ownership of clubs like Leipzig by conglomerates and companies has already drawn a fair share of critics and Phil hopes that this is not the beginning of a trend.

Money is always the deciding factor of course. I would hate to see the teams being renamed things like ‘Starbucks Frankfurt’ or ‘Telekom München’.

Though despite his dislike of the more teams becoming ‘fronts’ for billion-euro companies, Phil is a realist:

My point is, for clubs like Darmstadt, Ingolstadt and so on, I think they can only dream of achieving what all those large clubs have in terms of financial backing. Football has moved on since the days when Bayern laid the financial foundation of their club, in today’s football I believe it just isn’t possible to build like that anymore. It is in the interest of the richer clubs to keep the status quo.

Fans of sides like Darmstadt, Ingolstadt, Augsburg and so on, would be forgiven for thinking they are there just to make up the numbers, but what chance do they have? At best a good run in the Bundesliga and a qualification for the Europa League, like Freiburg a few seasons back, it is a blessing and a curse though. Sure, you get some more TV money but it draws attention to your best players who have their heads turned by the big clubs promising CL football and big wages. The sides get asset stripped and relegation often follows.

With Bayern Munich currently at the top of the league, the Bundesliga does seem to have retained its reputation for being a one-horse race, but it is below the Bavarians that the competition actually lingers.

Borussia Dortmund, who have acted as a second best side in the division for quite sometime now are not enjoying the best of seasons and the likes of Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Monchengladbach and Schalke are still some way off the top four.

Phil though, disagrees that competition in the Bundesliga has increased.

No I don’t think so. And again this is, I stress, my own opinion. I don’t think the league is any more or any less different in terms of competitiveness than the other major leagues. What it has done and continues to do well, is that it has proved effective without paying the astronomical prices that certain other Leagues are willing to pay for players. It is certainly one of the most entertaining leagues and has been for years.

With ten games left for the Bundesliga to draw to a close, it would certainly be interesting to see how it pans out.

Phil does feel that Carlo Ancelotti’s men will claim the title once again this season, but is of the opinion that high-flying sides like Hoffenheim, Leipzig, Koln and Eintracht Frankfurt will soon falter due to a lack of team depth, if it isn’t happening already.

As Phil carries on doing his job, enriching football games with his much-renowned voice, it’s time we begin valuing people who work in the background to improve our footballing experience.

After all, it’s never easy to satisfy the human urge for perfection, is it?

The Author

Kaustubh Pandey

20, Football Writer, CalcioMercato, ThePeoplesPerson, EPLIndex, VAVEL, InsideFutbol. Aspiring Football Journalist. The game's not about life and death, it's something much more than that.

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