Twitter recently reverberated with the news that Andy Townsend has found a new home on BT Sport, working alongside Michael Owen to create what is surely punditry’s least enticing line-up.

Townsend is roundly criticised for his say-what-you-see, cliché bingo approach to co-commentary. This is well-deserved, but it is worth considering the role of the co-commentator from a linguistic perspective, the better to see where Townsend falls short. For this, we need to look first at the idea of phatic speech.

Chewing the phatic

Phatic speech is speech used for social purposes, rather than for communicating information. This can refer to small talk, or more widely to any other way of establishing an atmosphere of sociability and personal communication.

In Townsend’s case, this takes the form of ‘very much so, Clive‘, ‘better‘ and ‘he’ll want to do better than that‘. It’s filler, it’s fluff and, with 90 minutes to fill, it’s an inevitable part of the co-commentator’s vocabulary.

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Phatic speech and the co-commentator

Phatic speech in football commentary is about creating a bond with the audience via a shared enthusiasm for the match. We can all see, for example, that a shot was particularly well-struck, but we have it confirmed by it being verbalised by someone else. It validates and, when done well, enhances the experience of football watching.

However, the co-commentator’s job is to strike a balance between creating phatic communion with the audience, and providing genuine insight. Townsend’s problems start with the fact that he relies too heavily on phatic speech, which inhabits the space which should be filled by useful information.

Why do co-commentators often struggle to provide insight?

Consider the ex-pro turned pundit, and how much the new role goes against the teachings of the old. As a player, media training teaches that the ideal post-match interview is one which is immediately forgotten. Given that the press distort their every word, this is common sense.

Here, phatic speech comes into its own, filling time while saying absolutely zilch. However, as a pundit they are asked to perform the opposite task: provide insight and illumination. Given their backgrounds, this can be tricky for the ex-pro.

From phatic speech to cliché bingo

So, hamstrung by the battle between hard-wired inarticulacy and a need to fill the silence with engaging speech, Townsend (unconsciously or otherwise) tries to embellish his clichés and phatic speech, putting a ribbon and a bow on the nothingness.

This has led to the many Townsendisms we have come to know and love: ‘your Messis, your Ronaldos’; ‘for me, Clive‘; and, a personal favourite, the ever-expanding use of ‘in and around‘, which Kevin Kilbane picked up and took to suitably ludicrous lengths.

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Saluting the good

Of course, it’s easy to be critical of people paid to talk about football, and it is clearly not the easiest job: you’re talking up material that, while occasionally spectacular, is also by turns repetitive and mundane. Then there is the sheer amount of time to fill in each match. However, the ‘less is more’ approach, favoured by the likes of Barry Davies, provides a welcome alternative to endless phatic noise. Letting the sport do most of the talking also heightens the commentator’s emotional punch at the really important moments.

We salute you, Barry.