On This Day in 2002...

England says farewell to a symbol of ‘66

Kenneth Wolstenholme with the BBC commentary team for England 1966
© Getty Images

Football is a platform for immortalisation. Players achieve it through skill, coaches through wit and, once in a blue moon, a commentator through his words, or lack thereof!

Herbert Zimmermann famously went silent for an astounding eight seconds during the most famous piece of commentary in West German history. With masses listening to him on the radio, Helmut Rahn scored a late winner against the imperial Hungarians in the 1954 FIFA World Cup Switzerland™ Final and, having erupted as the vital goal was struck, he was dumbstruck. However, he composed himself to sum up his emotions by continuing "You might think I'm crazy. You might think I'm completely mad..."

Bjorge Lillelien certainly wasn’t lost for words when Norway, who were bottom of Group 4 in European qualifying for Spain 1982, beat section leaders England 2-1. He excitedly exclaimed on Norwegian television: “Lord Nelson! Lord Beaverbrook! Sir Winston Churchill! Sir Anthony Eden! Clement Attlee! Henry Cooper! Lady Diana! Maggie Thatcher - can you hear me, Maggie Thatcher!? Your boys took one hell of a beating! Your boys took one hell of a beating!”

Lillelien’s words were the subject of countless parodies, but their impact paled in comparison to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s in the closing embers of the England 1966 Final. The hosts were 3-2 up in the last minute of extra time. A long ball into the stride of Geoff Hurst was Wolstenholme’s cue to begin the most famous 14 words in world sporting history.

“Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over,” he said as Hurst carried the ball just inside the West Germans’ penalty area and swung back his left boot, before adding, as the No10 thumped the ball into the roof of Hans Tilkowski’s net to complete his hat-trick and a 4-2 victory: “It is now!”

‘They Think It’s All Over’ became the name of a popular comedy quiz show starring Gary Lineker, while Wolstenholme’s words provided lyrics in a track by The Beatles, the title for an album by The Dentists, advertising campaigns for dog food and the world’s first chain-store company, and the last lines in a Sir Terry Pratchett novel and a horror movie.

For me, sitting next to him was like sitting next to God.

Wolstenholme, an unassuming character, intended none of that. Born in the small town of Worsley, just west of Manchester, in 1920, he began going to Burnden Park to watch Bolton Wanderers when he was just four years old.

Wolstenholme received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar honour for his endeavours as a bomber pilot in the Second World War, before joining The BBC in 1948. At the time, he had never watched a television programme, yet alone commentated on a football match, but he went on to be the voice of 23 successive FA Cup finals and five FIFA World Cups.

Also presenting television programmes, he became a pioneer of football broadcasting, while EA SPORTS™ employed his unmistakable tones for classic matches on their FIFA video game.

“He had a marvellous voice which everybody remembers, and of course, those very famous words,” recalled Sir Bobby Charlton. “He created the picture. 1966 was not just about the players, it was about Kenneth Wolstenholme as well.”

Jimmy Hill, who worked alongside Wolstenholme in commentary boxes and on punditry panels, said: “For me, sitting next to him was like sitting next to God.”

Ten years ago to this day, the great Kenneth Wolstenholme passed away aged 81. His, and world sporting commentary’s most famous all-time words, will nevertheless live on eternally.

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