The Man behind the Voice!

John Helm : Bringing football to life.

The Hero Indian Super League (ISL) has captured the imagination of football lovers across the country. Millions tune in everyday and tens of thousands make their presence felt at the stadium to support their favourite teams. For those of us tuning in to watch the ISL on television, the game is often brought to life by a voice that colours in the details, vividly captures the nuances and portrays all the highs and lows of every encounter.

The voice belongs to veteran British commentator John Helm, who is capable of adding much more to a game of football by his acute powers of observation and remarkable wit. I have been a long-time fan of the Yorkshireman and given his involvement in the ISL, it was only a matter of time before I caught up with him during the Mumbai City FC vs Delhi Dynamos FC game in Mumbai.

Jovial and courteous beyond measure, Helm invited me up to his perch in the commentary box and provided some insights into the voice that lights up the action. Having commentated in the English Premier League, the UEFA European championship and most recently the FIFA World Cup, Helm showcased the amount of meticulous preparation that goes into every match. After displaying a neat file filled with hand-written notes on each and every player of the two squads, he remarked, “Preparation is essential. I collect as much information on every player as possible and spend some time with the coaches (winks). I also try and get the pronunciation of their names right.”

When asked him if he prepared in advance the witty lines that come across as natural during a game, Helm replied that originality is the name of the game. “You have to be spontaneous during the game. Sometimes the best lines are those that come from the heart,” he declared. “I have always felt that you should try and be yourself while commentating. Imitating someone is never a good choice. You should seek to emulate rather than to copy.”

The ex-BBC commentator was also pleased with the way the ISL is shaping up, “I am so pleased with the makeover that Indian football is getting. I have commentated in the I-League before, so I am no stranger to Indian football. But to see these young Indian players playing alongside such quality international talent is a big step forward for Indian football.”

I told him that I remembered countless lines from some of the best games he had commentated on, notably the one during the 2008 Euro wherein Helm had described how the ball refused to trickle over the goal-line despite the frantic attempts of the attacking team: “It seems as if there exists a magnetic force in front of the goal-line and it’s using all its might to not let the ball pass!” Helm had said. The recollection moves Helm to remark, “I am always very humbled when people come up to me and tell me that they recognise the man behind the voice. The other day, I had Steven Dias (Delhi Dynamos FC midfielder) approaching me and telling me that he was very pleased to hear me commentating in the ISL.”  

I was very curious to learn how the Englishman manages to identify the players correctly from his vantage point that was pretty high in my opinion. His response had me smiling, “I hope there are a few bald players every game. They are the easiest to identify. Otherwise, I try and memorise the running styles of different players as it is a unique trait. I also sometimes try and identify players by their boots. If everything fails, it is better to keep quiet and hope that your co-commentator has picked it up or try and catch a replay on the television screen next to you.”

Before concluding our conversation, I asked him a fundamental question: Why is a commentator’s role so important? Helm’s answer is fascinating: “I shall answer your question with an example. Imagine that you are sitting in an airport lounge. The TV there is probably muted. Consider that an ISL game is being broadcast. Won’t you find something missing?” 

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