Conor McNamara is one of the most recognisable voices in UK sport, commentating for the BBC on a range of top-level sports, including football, rugby and golf. He took time out of his busy Six Nations schedule to talk to the Mancunion Sport about his career and offer his tips for the next generation of broadcasters.
For McNamara, commentary was an aspiration from an early age. ‘I have memories of my Panini sticker books and doing a commentary in my head,’ he tells me. ‘Everyone wants to be a footballer, but you reach an age when you start to think realistically about how else you can I be involved.’ McNamara was under no illusions, though, that commentary would be an easy route to get into. ‘When I was 16, I wasn’t thinking I definitely want to be a commentator – far from it,’ he says. ‘I loved the idea but it wasn’t the be all and end all. Through university I always expected to do something else.’
It is clear that McNamara’s success stems not only from his love of sport, but also his passion for broadcasting. ‘I always had an interest in radio and as a teenager I was working weekends as a DJ on a local radio station. In between the songs I would always mention the sport! I didn’t think that stage that my path would follow through to become a commentator.’
Looking back, McNamara feels that it was a mixture of effort and fortune that helped him progress in the broadcasting industry. ‘It was a case of the right place at the right time,’ he says. ‘I heard that a new station was starting in Ireland. I made enquiries to find out who was in charge and did a lot of cold calling. They called me and asked me to do a match – just a report at first – and through that I ended up doing commentary.’ For McNamara, this experience was vital in his progression as a commentator. ‘Just through that job I began to meet people and learn things. Lots of people get that initial chance but you have to take it and prove that you’re worth them wanting to bring you back again.’
McNamara’s biggest tip to prospective commentators, or journalists of any kind, is to follow his example of being persisting sending examples of work to broadcasting companies. He remembers how hearing nothing back from RTE (the biggest television broadcaster in the Republic of Ireland) did nothing to dampen his spirit. ‘The number one thing, what it all rests on, whether you’re submitting an article, or doing a recording, what you send out has to be brilliant,’ he says. ‘People assume that they’ve got a talent but you have to work at it and improve. If I listen to tapes that I did at the start, they were terrible compared to what I’d expect! My best advice is to do it again and again.’
McNamara is keen to stress that jobs like his don’t come easy. ‘I get the impression that people are waiting for a big break-then they’ll just spring into action,’ he says. ‘If you’re a marathon runner you have to train and be ready for the big day – it’s the same principle. Start up a blog, be strict and give yourself deadlines. You have to say to yourself it doesn’t matter about dates or trips to the cinema, you’re being serious about the job and teaching yourself the discipline.’
McNamara thinks that it has never been easier to practice independently. ‘From a radio point of view, go to any game regardless of level, it could be non-league or a university match,’ he explains. ‘No-one will hear you, so you can record yourself, listen to it back and think, ‘if I’d just turned on 5live, is this what I’d expect to hear? If not, find out why and keep practicing. It’s so easy with technology that anyone can go out and do it.’
I ask McNamara if, as an experienced commentator, he still feels nerves going into a match. ‘Of course,’ he replies. ‘Anything can happen and that becomes one of the thrills of the job. The day that you’re not nervous at all is the day that you’ll make mistakes.’ He cites his next game as an example. ‘Tomorrow I’m doing Ireland v France in the rugby, I’ve already seen them in the Six Nations but I still feel I need to prepare. Yes, you do get nervous but that’s a good thing – just make sure it is in enough time that you can also get prepared.’
For a commentator who has worked at the Ryder Cup, the Rugby World Cup final and the Champions League final, choosing a single career highlight is always going to be difficult. ‘There’s a difference between what you enjoy personally and your career highlight – it could be a glamorous location that you would love to report from – but it might not be the biggest game.’ There is one fixture, though, that sticks out for McNamara. ‘The 2006 World Cup quarter final between France and Brazil. This was a massive occasion; it could have been Zinedine Zidane’s final game. But then, Zizou just turns it on in one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. He was rolling back the years and pulling out all sorts of party tricks. I thought to myself, this is a historic moment, I’m commentating on something amazing.’
Despite these McNamara still feels the best is yet to come. ‘Clare Balding normally does the Ryder Cup, but this year she pulled out meaning that I got a late call up.’ For me, that shows that no matter where you are in the structure of things you are still waiting for your moment.’
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