Weekend Interview: Meeting the man at the Helm for a 10th World Cup

HIS voice is familiar to millions around the globe, as has become clear even when standing in line at passport control.

Commentator John Helm (Pictures: Tony Johnson)

He has had famous lines of commentary involving legendary figures such as Michael Laudrup and Andres Iniesta recited back to him, verbatim, umpteen times by supporters.

He once also had the distinction of a goalkeeper in one of the most memorable World Cup matches of all-time running the length of the pitch to wave in celebration at just him.

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John Helm, that most venerable of commentators, is about to work on what will be his 10th and – most likely – final World Cup.

Russia and a possible quarter-final date for England would be a fitting way to bow out for someone who has been at every tournament bar one since 1978.

Along the way, Helm has fulfilled all the dreams of the schoolboy left so transfixed, first, by the voice of Raymond Glendenning on the radio and then the Pathe news images of the 1954 final between West Germany and Hungary.

“I remember thinking: ‘What a job Raymond Glendenning has’,” he recalls. “Same with Eamonn Andrews on the boxing. I was fascinated by radio, TV wasn’t really something I thought about. It just, sort of, happened.”

Regardless of how Helm arrived on our screens, the switch from BBC Radio in the early 80s was to prove an inspired one.

Commentator John Helm with Jack Charlton in USA 94 World Cup.

He had already carved out a fine reputation on the airwaves, so much so he covered the Argentina tournament as the Beeb’s network football producer.

But television really suited Helm, as can be seen from a career that includes turning his hand to all manner of sports. The World Cup, though, has a special place in his affections.

“I get the same excitement and sense of anticipation before a World Cup as I always have,” the 75-year-old told The Yorkshire Post. “There is something special about a World Cup and its ability to throw up a story.”

Helm has been at the heart of those tales; from breaking the Willie Johnston failed drug test that led to the Scotland winger being sent home in disgrace from the 1978 finals through to enjoying unique access to the Cameroon team that stunned the world by reaching the quarter-finals 12 years later.

It's mine: Commentator John Helm with the World Cup.

“That 1990 World Cup was made for me by Roger Miller,” recalls the Yorkshireman, who since 2002 has commentated for FIFA at the finals. “I did every match because Cameroon were the story and I had fantastic access, more by accident than design I should say.

“I went to Verezzi, just outside Milan, for Cameroon’s press day. Typical ITV, though, as they had got the wrong day. There was only me there so I didn’t think I would be let in.

“But they did and I got an exclusive with Cyrille Makanaky. Roger Miller was another. He didn’t speak English but he spoke in French, while we walked in the grounds. Joseph Antoine-Bell, the goalkeeper, was another.

“This was before the opening game (against Argentina) and Bell was playing hell about the Russian coach (Valeri Nepomniachi). Bell said to me: ‘If we score, I will run the full length of the pitch and wave to you’. And he did!

“That is how things have changed. Can you imagine that happening nowadays?”

Helm may look back fondly on that Cameroon side from Italia ’90 but there is one team that stands out above all others as his favourite to watch. “Brazil in 1982 were fantastic,” he says. “I did all their games for ITV, including the ones against Argentina and Italy.

“It is why that is my favourite World Cup. Zico, Socrates, what a team. I was fortunate to be allocated Brazil but it was the only time I maybe wasn’t as professional as I should have been.

“I really wanted Brazil to win the World Cup. They were the best team I have ever seen. So, when (Paolo) Rossi got his hat-trick, I could have cried. I do believe that comes across in my commentary.”

Helm may reproach himself over displaying disappointment at Brazil’s exit in Espana ’82 but his commentary continues to resonate all over the globe.

“The boy’s a genius” is a line that Danish fans still recite to this day, 32 years after Helm captured a wonderful goal by Michael Laudrup with those very words. For a time, the slogan also featured on a range of t-shirts.

Another that quickly took on a life of its own came after Iniesta’s late, late winner in the 2010 final. “Surely now, he has just won the World Cup for Spain,” said Helm, who has always believed the fewer the words, the better the impact.

With Helm’s words set to be broadcast once again to the 170 countries who do not have their own commentary team during this World Cup, chances are another famous line or two will emerge. Either way, his distinctive voice will most likely continue to bring recognition.

“It can happen in the strangest of places,” he laughs. “I was once at passport control in Perth, Australia. The man checking passports heard my voice and said: ‘Gee, what you doing out here, mate?’ I get that quite a lot, particularly in India.”

Helm’s career has taken him all over the world and led to countless lasting friendships. And laughter. “I was at USA ’94 with Jack Charlton and we decided to visit a place called Fort Worth,” he says about a town that can double as the set for a western. “‘Big Jack’ took one look around and said: ‘It is like being on the set of the ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Canal’.”

Less amusing for Helm was missing out on France ’98, as Peter Drury got the nod from ITV instead.

“Part of Peter’s deal when joining from BBC Radio was to cover the 1998 World Cup,” he says. “I was disappointed but you couldn’t wish to miss out to a nicer man than Peter.

“I bore no ill to him. The irony is I did the golf in Paris that summer, instead. And that gave me one of the very few episodes in my life when I have been really, really disappointed.

“Brazil were playing and I rang ITV, explained I was there and asked if there was any chance of getting me a ticket. They never got back to me. It was such a disappointment, as I had been with ITV for 17 years and was still working for them at the time.”

That sour episode apart, Helm has only positive memories of the World Cup. “I have had some fantastic times and am hoping for more this summer,” says Helm. “I have known my schedule since the draw was made last December. My first four games involve four past winners and then, if England do well, I get them in the quarter-finals.

“Which will probably be my last ever match in a World Cup, as I will be 80 by the time Qatar comes round. They won’t be employing too many 80-year-old commentators!”