With the passing of broadcasting legend, John Gwynne, this morning, one of our Senior Executives offers his thoughts on what he meant to Leisure Leagues and ISF. David writes….
When we launched our first 6aside World Cup in Lisbon in 2018 I knew we needed figures in the commentary box who were experienced and had some gravitas.
We’d already picked up one senior BBC commentator, and when John Gwynne was recommended to me, it was box ticked.
We were flying from Manchester, which was pretty convenient for John, and when our party got to the airport he was waiting there, briefcase in hand, unassuming, quiet and unimposing.
He joined our large party like a wallflower. On the edges. Happy to tag along. Almost nobody noticed him – this famous darts commentator and long serving football reporter on Sky Sports, with the magical turn of phrase.
We had dinner at the airport before our flight and I sat with John to try and get him involved. I thought he looked a bit out of it. Not quite with us. But I soon realised he didn’t need much to get going.
Within moments he was regaling all of us with stories of how he had a funny encounter with Richie Benaud, or some other famous sporting luminary, and he was never shy to call his fabulously rich “one hundred and eighty!” whenever anybody asked him to.
The following year we built a stadium on the beach in Crete and I invited John to come again. He never really hooked up with any of the other party, and was just happy to to do his own thing, at his own pace. But he was absolutely professional.
We didn’t need to give him the itinerary or the structure of how things were going to work. He just knew what to do, and where to be, exactly at the right moment. After all, he had been a professional commentator for Sky Sports for decades, and he didn’t need us relative amateurs in the media world giving him instructions.
Not that he ever said that, of course. He was deferential, always willing to listen to a suggestion, and never gave the impression of saying “Look who I am” – in fact, quite the opposite. He just kept in the background, doing his thing, quietly, professionally and superbly.
At the semi-final stage of the tournament I began to wonder why John wasn’t being used as the lead commentator on some of the important matches so far. I had left the three experienced BBC and Sky Sports men to work out who would do which matches, but it seemed to me that there was something of an imbalance.
John hadn’t said anything, and seemed his bright and breezy usual self. But I asked him why he seemed to be getting all the lesser matches – no matches with England, or the host, and he wasn’t down for the hosts semi-final match, or the final itself. Was there something wrong, I asked?
He was a bit embarrassed, typical of the man, and told me everything was okay and I didn’t need to worry. But I pressed him. Why wasn’t he getting the showpiece matches?
“Well, David, I don’t really want to make a fuss about anything but I suppose it would have been nice to perhaps have done one of the showpiece matches in the tournament, and I’ve never worked on commentary with Ron before (we’d taken along former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson as one of our summarisers) and it would have been nice to do that, I suppose. But I’m not one for making a fuss about it, everything is fine and I’m really happy here”.
Typical John. And he really didn’t want to make a fuss either. He wasn’t about upsetting any anybody. He just wanted to fit in, be part of the team and get along.
But I wasn’t happy. Not just because John was our most distinctive commentator, but more so because he was a man who felt things weren’t being fair, but in that very English way of ours, was prepared just to get on with it and put a smile on his face.
I started making enquiries as to who was scheduling the commentators for the matches and found out that it was a senior BBC man we had bought along who decided that he would get the majority of the good games. I sat in our hotel reception and summoned him from his room to tell him that I wasn’t bothered about what the schedule said, John was now going to do the final, and not him. He wasn’t very happy.
“But I spoken to John and he is happy with me doing all the matches”, he told me.
“Maybe so. But I’m not happy about it. John will be doing the final with Ron”.
I spoke with John afterwards and told him that he was doing the final. Straightaway he said “No, I don’t want anybody upset. Let him have the final if he wants to, I’m quite happy with what I’m doing. There really isn’t a problem at all. Just leave it as it is, David”.
“No, you’re doing the final”, I insisted. I could see John was pleased that he was going to have the opportunity, but he remonstrated with me that he really still didn’t want to upset anybody at all.
John did the final with Ron and afterwards he thanked me graciously, although he didn’t have to, and it is a further measure of him that the BBC man felt no ill will towards John whatsoever. I don’t know what John had said to him after I told John he was doing the final, but howsoever John had gone about it, it had been with the courtesy, manners, humour and good spirits which meant that you couldn’t help but just really like John Gwynne.
I asked John if he would be coming to Mexico for our World Cup the following year and he was very enthusiastic. But of course, Covid hit and we didn’t stage the event.
When I heard John was ill last year, and I saw his message saying that he was going to be in a “right scrap now”. I could just hear John’s voice in my head. Optimistic, upbeat, we’ll get over this. Nothing to worry about. I’m okay, don’t worry about me. Things will be all right. Let’s not make a fuss.
That was John for me. The best caller of the “180” in the business. A Mancunian through and through. An optimist. A funny man. An English gentleman. But more than all of that – just a really nice bloke.
And all of us will miss him.
John, back centre, is pictured, shaking hands with Gary Newbon (right) and Howard Bentham (left) at one of our events (PIC Copyright to Leisure Leagues)