Four things modern sports presenters can learn from Bob Wilson

Jim Rosenthal (left to right), Bob Wilson and Brian Moore - Four things modern sports presenters can learn from Bob Wilson
Bob Wilson (centre), pictured alongside fellow presenters Jim Rosenthal (left) and Brian Moore during the 1998 World Cup - John Stillwell/PA

Jeremy Wilson’s superb Telegraph Sport interview with Bob Wilson served as a reminder of how good a television presenter he was.

Wilson came to prominence at a time of raging broadcasting egos, of David Coleman and Frank Bough. And for much of his career he lived in the twinkling shadow cast by his sometime colleague, the legendary Des Lynam. But the truth was, he was brilliant at his job. So good in fact, here are four lessons his successors could well learn from this master of the front man’s craft.


Renowned as a bonkers goalkeeper, more than happy to dive into the kind of fray most of us would require a crash helmet even to watch at a distance, on screen Wilson exuded a calm rationality. He was no loose cannon, at any moment liable to do the broadcasting equivalent of throwing the ball into his own net.

Bob Wilson and Phil Boersma - Four things modern sports presenters can learn from Bob Wilson
Wilson shields the ball as Liverpool forward Phil Boersma lunges towards him - Getty Images

Intelligent enough not only to write his own scripts, he was also confident enough to ad-lib with ease and aplomb. Not fixed to the auto-cue, he was always in charge, in control, rising above the storm. Nowhere was that better revealed than when he was fronting Grandstand on April 15 1989, and was obliged to deliver the awful unfolding news from Hillsborough. There was no panic in his voice as he quickly and decisively absorbed the information coming at him in horrifying detail. He simply did what he always did: he told the story straight.


Too often during coverage of matches these days, we will be provided with footage of the reaction in the studio to a significant goal. Pundits and presenters alike will be gambolling round the place, celebrating with gusto. And while we all understand that, like us, they are fans at heart, the problem is a good proportion of the viewing audience may well be supporters of the other team involved, crushed by the very incident the panel are celebrating. They find the reckless abandonment of neutrality rather galling. Wilson totally understood that.

Gary Lineker celebrated Leicester City's league title win in 2016 by presenting Match of the Day in his underpants
Gary Lineker celebrated Leicester City's league title win in 2016 by presenting Match of the Day in his underpants - BBC

An Arsenal man to his core and a proud Scot, he nonetheless saw an absolute requirement in his job to remain impartial. The very idea of sporting nothing but a pair of underpants on air to celebrate his team winning the title was not the Wilson way of doing things. His trousers would remain firmly at full mast throughout.

Lack of ego

Whenever Bob Wilson presented a television show there was one overriding rule in his approach: it was never about Bob Wilson. And how few seem to adhere to a similar rule. His role as he saw it was simply to facilitate others.

Wilson may have had 20 years of top-flight experience of the game, he may well have played every match of Arsenal’s Double-winning season, he might have been a coach at the club, but he let others do the talking. It was his guest pundits, he believed, who were there to analyse. He was there to bring the best out of them. He took a similar approach to his off-screen work. He was shrewd enough to recognise his celebrity was an important part of the astonishing fundraising work he has accomplished over the years. But he did not use his own name to promote the work.

When, a quarter of a century ago, he and his wife Megs set up a charity to honour the memory of their daughter Anna, they did not call it the Bob Wilson Foundation. It was the Willow Foundation. And how, as it has offered hundreds of terminal ill children memories of a lifetime, it has prospered.

Keeping his opinions to himself

If he is not as celebrated as much as some of those who came before or followed him, Wilson will not mind. What distinguished him as he fronted all those hundreds of broadcasts – and what too few of his successors seem to recognise as a virtue – was that he was the presentational equivalent of the comedic straight man. There were never any comedic sign-offs from him, no punning wordplays or craftily scripted jokes. As part of the job he invariably had the last word on a broadcast, but his summations were always clean, calm, considered, not designed to steal the moment.

The brilliant satirical band Half Man Half Biscuit might have wondered at his purpose in their song Bob Wilson: Anchorman. But that in a sense was his point. When you watched him on Football Focus, he was clearly enjoying Alan Hansen’s always pertinent insights as much as the audience were. He felt no need to try and top them, or impose his opinion. He was not the funny man. He let his guest pundits tell the jokes, be controversial or challenging. He was simply the chair of the debate, the detached, fair-minded, non-partisan speaker of the house of sport. Above all, his opinions remained firmly his own.

This was a sports broadcast, not a soap box. And so much the better for it.

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