Football fans in the United States and many other parts of the world for that matter have been lucky enough to enjoy ESPN commentator Derek Rae’s polished delivery and expert play-by-play for years now. Whether it has been listening to Rae commentating on a Champions’ League match, World Cup classic, or European Championship fixture, the Scottish broadcaster’s superb style has complemented and enhanced many a football match in the last two decades.
The 1987 British Sports Broadcaster of the Year, Rae has been a fixture for American fans of the beautiful game since the mid-1990’s. He comes across as intelligent and respectful of the player, coaches, and officials that are involved in football and one always gets the sense while listening to him that this is a man doing something that he truly loves.
Though Rae’s talents have seen ESPN assign him to lead commentator for Scottish Premier League matches this season, the good news for us in the States is that Rae will lend his voice to ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
One Game, One World is proud to present to you our recent interview with this fantastic commentator. Read on for Rae’s take on being a sports broadcaster, Scottish football, having the smallest writing in the world, and his views of the upcoming World Cup. As always let us know what you think with your comments and enjoy the football insight of Derek Rae.
One Game, One World: Did you always want to be a commentator?
Derek Rae: From a very early age I had an interest in football commentary. I remember being very affected in a positive way by the 1974 World Cup as a 7-year-old. In fact I still have a cassette tape of my youthful attempt at commentating off pictures from our black and white television in Aberdeen on that World Cup.
By the time I was 12, I had plucked up the courage to take a tape recorder to Aberdeen’s reserve team games and would record my commentary. Needless to say, I got a lot of strange looks!
What was your first job in the business?
In the UK, we have a wonderful thing called hospital radio. The idea is that a group of volunteers will provide a radio service specifically for patients in local hospitals. I started working for the hospital radio service in Aberdeen in the autumn of 1982 at the age of 15.
We covered all the home games of Aberdeen FC and that season now goes down as the greatest in club history, ending with victory over Real Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup final. The Aberdeen manager at the time of course was a certain gentleman with the surname of Ferguson.
What would you consider your breakthrough moment so to speak?
In 1986, while studying German and international relations at Aberdeen University, I sent a tape of my hospital radio work to BBC Scotland. Much to my surprise, I got a quick reply asking me to come down to Glasgow for a chat.
Within weeks I was lucky enough to be asked to do my first professional radio commentary -Kilmarnock against Dumbarton. David Francey, one of my broadcasting heroes growing up, had been struggling with a knee injury.
What I didn’t know was that I was being assessed with a view to being put on the England v Scotland game just 4 days later. David’s injury hadn’t cleared up and I was invited to go to Wembley to cover the game. An amazing experience for someone who had just turned 19. I spent 5 happy years commentating and presenting for BBC Scotland.
Talk a little about your football experiences growing up, who did you support, what matches did you watch, how often did you play?
Well, Aberdeen as you know is quite isolated by UK standards so in that part of Scotland, it was unusual not to follow the local team. My father started taking me to Pittodrie in the early 70s and if he couldn’t do so for work reasons, his mate Alec Falconer would take me.
I played as much as any other young lad at Airyhall primary school in Aberdeen but probably knew back than that I was more suited to talking about football than playing it at any sort of decent level.
Which clubs do you support?
When you’re commentating you really don’t think about team preferences. You have far too many other things to worry about in the course of a live broadcast. Aberdeen were the team I watched in my formative years and it would be churlish to deny that.
While studying and working in Germany in the mid-80s, I used to attend the home games of KSV Hessen Kassel, a strong second division team at the time. I still follow their fortunes although they have sadly dropped down the divisions.
Also I hope no one will be too critical if I say the Scottish national team will always mean a lot to me, in good times and bad.
You have seen football rise to some prominence in the US over the past two decades. What is football’s potential here?
On the face of it, the potential is limitless. The facilities are the envy of the world and there are so many youngsters playing in the USA now.
MLS has improved immeasurably and has done an excellent job in giving promising players their first taste of the professional game.
Do you foresee the sport in the States someday rising to the status of the big 4 sports?
I’m not sure about that. The strength of the game in the US is also its weakness. That is, there are so many facets, so many branches of football. Those who watch MLS don’t necessarily follow the European game and vice-versa.
Certainly rapid strides have been made since my early days in the USA when I was working for the World Cup organizing committee ahead of the 94 finals.
What is the world’s top league at the moment?
Impossible to say. I feel it changes almost every month, let alone every year. I would say there’s not much between the Premier League in England and the Primera Liga in Spain at the moment.
Give us your analysis on the current state of the game in your native Scotland. How do you think things are going domestically? What are your views on the appointment of Craig Levein as national team boss?
This is a transitional period in Scottish football. We went off course in the mid to late 90s when SPL clubs overspent on overrated Bosman signings. Scant regard was paid to bringing young Scottish players through. Now, the standard might not be what it was 10 or 15 years ago, but at every club, the young players are being given their opportunities.
As you know, I’m now back home commentating weekly on the SPL for ESPN’s UK channel and I’m hopeful that the Scottish game as a whole will reap the benefits of this enforced youth policy in a few years.
On Craig Levein, I felt he was the best man for the job and still do. He got off to a great start with the recent win against the Czech Republic and the immediate goal has to be one of making Scotland hard to beat again. Levein is thoughtful, but there’s a quiet determination about him and he’s not someone a player wants to cross.
The danger of course is that if he does too well, English clubs will come calling and I know Craig feels he has unfinished business down south after his Leicester City experience.
What is your view of the plan discussed in years’ past for Rangers and Celtic making a move to the English Premier League?
It keeps coming up and will no doubt continue to do so. My own personal view is that it’s a non-starter. The majority of Premier League clubs voted against the idea last year. Rangers and Celtic are Scottish clubs and have always played in the Scottish League.
As a Scot, I want them to stay in the SPL. I believe they will.
Give us your top 5 players and managers in the world at present.
For players, let’s go with: Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Kaka and Ronaldo. For managers, I’ll give you Ferguson, Hiddink, Mourinho, Ancelotti, Guardiola and Capello for everything he has done over the years.
What have been the most memorable matches that you have commentated on?
All the Champions League finals for ESPN stand out, but top of the list has to be the 2005 UEFA final in Istanbul – Liverpool’s astonishing fight back against Milan. I have said before, I don’t think it will be topped. It was truly a privilege to be there.
Special mentions also have to go to my first European final, Dundee United v IFK Gothenburg in the 1987 UEFA Cup, and the Ronaldinho show for Barcelona against Real Madrid in 2005, when the Madrid supporters rose to their feet to laud the great Brazilian.
Any games you called that you wished you didn’t?
Can’t think of any to be honest.
Stepping aside from your usual modesty, tell us about your greatest display or proudest moment on the job.
Not sure about greatest display but I was very proud of last season’s Champions League final commentary from Rome for ESPN. It was one of those nights when everything seemed to flow.
I don’t expect Manchester United supporters to have such fond memories of their defeat at Barcelona’s hands, but from the broadcasting point of view, everything went brilliantly.
Any embarassing gaffes you have made?
The one that keeps following me is something I said in my first season with BBC Scotland. As I watched the tall Dundee United defender rise into the heavens I remarked that the ball was ‘headed away by John Clark – using his head!’ I still see that one from time to time and it’s 24 years old!
Could you give us some insight into the amount of preparation that goes into calling a match? Does this change depending on how high profile the game is?
One thing virtually all commentators have in common is an obsession with preparation. I have the same routine for every game and it’s spread out over days or in some cases, weeks. I like to keep all the information I’ve collected on one piece of white paper and I colour code everything.
For instance from last season’s Champions league final, Barcelona information is written in blue and Manchester United notes in red. I find from my language studies years ago that writing things down helps you commit them to memory. I have the tiniest handwriting known to man. A woman on a train from Dundee to Glasgow recently saw what I was doing and proclaimed that it was ‘the work of the insane.‘
The day before a game, I make sure all the key points are memorized as you really don’t have time to look at notes in the helter-skelter of a live match.
Can you give us your commentating idols growing up? Who do you admire now?
I mentioned David Francey earlier and he was my radio hero as a boy. David was an immensely powerful Scottish communicator with a very warm and distinctive style. He was also very helpful in getting me started with the BBC.
The television commentator I most admired in the 70s was the late Brian Moore of ITV. He was a true gentleman, too, as I discovered when I met him on a couple of Scotland national team trips. Of the current crop, I enjoy listening to all the top commentators working at the highest level in the UK.
I’m delighted Jon Champion is now an ESPN teammate of mine. Jon and I worked together at the 1990 World Cup in our BBC days.
Who have you enjoyed working with most “in the booth”?
I’ve been lucky to work with so many perceptive co-commentators. I started off with the former Rangers and Scotland captain John Greig alongside me and I will always be grateful to John. He helped me get acquainted with the inner workings of the Scottish game and I learned so much about football just being around him. I like to think we forged a good on-air partnership as well.
I must say I have thoroughly enjoyed covering the Clydesdale Bank SPL on ESPN this season with Craig Burley. Although he made his name as a footballer, Craig is now a very able and professional broadcaster. He’s a joy to work with.
Since you have began your career, what changes have you seen in the game?
It’s a lot faster for a start. The players make a lot more money, too! The most dramatic change really was the elimination of the backpass. In my early commentating years, that hadn’t been brought in.
What are your expectations for the upcoming 2010 World Cup? Who do you see as the team(s) to beat? The darkhorses? How will African teams fare?
I feel it will be a wonderful celebration of football and I’m looking forward to experiencing the African flavour first hand, as one of ESPN‘s commentators. Brazil for me have to start as favourites and of the European countries, I believe Spain and England are in with a shout.
Serbia might surprise one or two people. Ivory Coast are the strongest of the African teams but for the second successive World Cup, they have a very difficult draw. Similar story for Ghana.
So I’m not sure you can talk about African teams going far with any real confidence, much as I would like to see such a scenario unfold.
What goals do you have for the rest of your career? How much longer do you plan on commentating?
My main goal is to continue what I’ve been doing. It truly is a labour of love. I’m only 42, so don’t plan to hang up the lip microphone for quite a while.
What makes football the world’s most popular sport?
It’s the most democratic. You don’t have to be the tallest, the strongest, or the richest to succeed.
What does football mean to you?
It means passion. Football means so much to so many people. There is no other sport like it.
Special Thanks to Derek Rae for his time and superb responses and to Paul Melvin from ESPN for the images in this post.