Phil Bonney: In-Depth Interview with the Bundesliga Fanatic

If you watch the Bundesliga abroad on an English-language feed, chances are you know Phil Bonney’s iconic voice well, commentating Bundesliga matches, whether on GolTV, ESPN, or elsewhere.

Before his summer vacation traveling begins, Phil found time to join the Bundesliga Fanatic‘s Travis Timmons over Skype for a delightful in-depth interview.

Enjoy!

Bundesliga Fanatic: Guten Tag, Herr Bonney! It’s delightful to have you with us today. While a doing some background research for this interview, I stumbled upon a discussion forum with a thread titled “Annoying Commentators.” Your name was in it …

Phil: *chuckles*

Bundesliga Fanatic: But here’s the kicker: in a terse single sentence you were described as a “great announcer.” And that was all that was said. One sentence. High praise. So why do you think someone would call you a great? How do you view yourself as a commentator?

Phil: That’s a very good question. I try to commentate with the same enthusiasm that I have for the game. I was never brilliant at the sport. I suffered some injuries early on, but I don’t think I would have wanted to be a professional anyway. I still play now, even though I’m fifty. We just have a pickup game on a Sunday. People from the local area. Different ages, denominations, and abilities. And we have a kickabout for ninety minutes.

But I was always somebody, who—I’ll give you an example, if Billy was ill or hadn’t done his homework then I’d get a chance to come off the bench in the school team, you know. I wasn’t one of those star players in the squad, and I very very rarely got to show myself. I try to commentate with the same sort of enjoyment that I have for the game and I just kind of let it flow out, if you like.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Well, maybe I should back up a step, and point out that you’re from England, but live in Cologne, Germany. Growing up in England, was football your favorite sport? Or was it another, like Cricket or Rugby?

Phil: Well as with most kids in England who were into sports, it sort of revolved around the seasons. And the “playability” of the pitches, because in England, as everybody knows, it can be a little wet here in winter.

Here’s a story. We would all get on one of those red English buses – one of the old ones with the open back where you could jump on – the entire year of my school would be put on to the bus and driven up to the sports ground where the nets were; and if we were lucky, we were allowed to play football. If was a little too wet and was going to chew up the pitch, then we had to move on to a different pitch and play rugby, which was boring because I was one of the smallest and got flattened.

During summer, we would play cricket of course in the very beginning. Later, more options opened up and I played a lot of field hockey as well. I was one of those kids who played for my school – football, field hockey, badminton tennis, basically everything. I was never brilliant at anything, but I was kind of always alright.

Bundesliga Fanatic: You sound like the archetype of an English schoolboy.

Phil: Our last four years in school we dabbled in softball. Although I got quite good hand-eye coordination for the tennis and the softball or the badminton and football and everything, but until you actually played with an American you have no idea, because I thought I could hit the ball quite well in softball – I can give it a good thud. Well, when I played with an American and they just knocked it out of sight. You think “how on earth can you hit the ball that hard?”

Bundesliga Fanatic: So had quite a sporting childhood. What were some other interests you had? Any early roots for your now-career as a voice man?

Phil: Well, I started from a very young age wanting to be an actor. And as in the States, England, and Germany, people start telling you right from the moment you open your mouth and say “I want to do that,” they’ll say you’ll never manage. It will be impossible. You’ll never get into that job of course, you’ll never go to drama school, and so on.

Basically, I did. I got very lucky back in 1983. I auditioned for one of the best drama schools in England, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and was accepted. I took a three year professional acting course, which is preparation for working in theater, film, and television here in England. And that has stood me in fantastic state ever since I graduated in ’87 and worked in theater, film, and television in England for awhile. As always with acting it’s an incredibly competitive and cutthroat profession.

So twenty years ago, I got the chance to come to Germany with my then-wife (nearly!). We moved to Germany and I started work here. Originally, I came just to be a “house man” as they call them over here. But after a couple of weeks, I got a job teaching stage, basically teaching actors to fence, because that was one of the subject that I took when at a drama school with my sporting background. It came very easy to me. So fencing, sword play, and punching people’s lights out.

Bundesliga Fanatic: As one of the coaches you’d come in to help direct those types of scenes?

Phil: Yeah, I came in to teach the actors how to the fence and block the scene so that it looked exciting and dangerous and at the same time nobody got hurt. I still teach once a week at the local drama school here in Cologne.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Wow, so you’ve got a two-track career going here …

Phil: Well, it’s a three track career, because I also work mainly here in Germany as a voiceover artist. I do lots of advertising and information films and documentaries and you name it, because  of course the Bundesliga is just on a weekend generally so that leaves me the rest of the week to pursue other things.

Bundesliga Fanatic: I have to go back and ask about the “house man” business. What does a house man in Germany do? How did you spend your days during this short phase?

Phil: Well, it was only two weeks. So I mostly emptied the cardboard boxes from our move. Just generally doing the shopping, washing. Yeah anything that a housewife does really. Basically right from the very get go, my wife said to me that “if you’re playing football and getting muddy every weekend you can bloody wash this yourself.”

Bundesliga Fanatic: Good for her!

Phil: She taught me how to use the washing machine. Obviously, once you use for one thing, you can use for all the other things as well.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Phil Bonny a jack of all trades. When you moved to Germany, did you know any German?

Phil: It’s complicated inasmuch that I met my wife in 1987 just after I graduated from drama school, We lived together in London for awhile – about eight years.  I would visit her parents here in Germany. So by the time I moved, I was familiar – certainly with Cologne –  and I had enough German to order a beer, and ask where the toilets were, and how much stuff cost, but I didn’t have any formal training in German. I took French when I was in school.

Bundesliga Fanatic: How’s your German now after being in Germany for about twenty years at this point?

Phil: I wouldn’t say that I’m perfect, because I still make mistakes, but there’s not a lot that gets past me in German. I’m pretty fluent.

Bundesliga Fanatic: So I imagine that during matches you’re able to pick up all the singing, chanting, obscenities, and profanities, right?

Phil: Sometimes I do actually mention something like the crowd questioning the parentage of the referee.

And I have a British sense of humor. The sport can be funny. I mean, funny things happen: people running into each other or when you get the ball in the face at pointblank range, that is sometimes funny. It hurts, we all know it hurts, but they’re professionals. They’re paid for it.

Bundesliga Fanatic: What was your path into commentating? I imagine there’s an interesting story there.

Phil: There’s a brilliant story. I worked with a gentleman at the Deutsche Welle [DW] for several years. We always used to talk about football, because I’m a passionate fan of Southampton Football Club …

Bundesliga Fanatic: I picked up on that online.

Phil: I was born and bred in Southampton. A bit like Bochum, you know, you’ve got to come from here to support the club, since they’re not the most fashionable team ever!

And I’d worked with this guy [at DW] doing documentaries and voiceovers for years. One day he turned around and he said to me, he said: “Phil, have you ever considered football commentary?” I said “no.” He said, “Well, the people I work for are looking for someone, and if you’re interested you can do an audition.

That gentleman is quite well known in America. Toby Charles.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Ah, yes.

Phil: He’s been a friend of my wife’s family, well, since the late 60s, early 70s – it’s a very small world here in Cologne. People know each other. They work together. [Toby Charles] and  my father-in-law worked together at the DW. I had been working there 4-5 years when I was told they were looking for someone. [Toby] said I would be perfect, since, “you know, I can never get a word in edgeways when I talk to you and you know you’re a great football fan – give it a go.”

So I did and the rest, as they say, is history. They heard the test tape that I did and said something along the lines of “Great. You start Saturday.”

Bundesliga Fanatic: We need to talk about Toby Charles for a minute. He has a bit of a cult hero status in the States. I’m a bit young for this, but many in the generation right above me grew up with the PBS TV series, Soccer Made in Germany. Charles introduced many Americans to football. I’d love to hear more about the man, your relationship with him, and what you picked from him?

Phil: Toby took me under his wing straight away. We’d been friends anyway, because we had a common football interest. When we’d work, we get the work out the way, so that we could talk about what’s been going on in the Bundesliga week or what’s going in the Premier League, well in those days it wasn’t even the Premier League yet. Anyway, he took me under his wing and showed me what to do. It was done a lot different back then – eleven or so years ago now – from the product that you see today. It was much simpler. It was just one person doing all the commentary for all the highlights for all games, as well as a live commentary on Saturday and Sunday as well.

He really helped with the most difficult part of my job, which was not the live games, because you get some – I’m assuming here, because I do the same for other commentators – some allowance to make mistakes, since things happen really quickly and you can’t quite say you got the last touch on the ball. If you say “Oh, the number 11 stuck it away, oh it wasn’t eleven, it was it was number 14,” people are alright with that, but when you’re doing the highlights afterwards (the cut-down five minute highlights that we do), then you have to get everything right first time and that sometimes not easy. And Toby was very good at saying: “You know, you just talk about what you can see; and if you have stuff to explain, the explain it during the slow-mos, because people watch the pictures and they can then concentrate more on your voice because they know the ball’s gone in the back of the net.” It’s stuff like that – the sort of technical how-to-handle the material.

It’s all changing, of course, next season – it’ll be a different style, but more on that later, I’m sure.

Bundesliga Fanatic: It’s interesting to hear how different things were just ten years ago. Currently, you’re one of the main English voices for the Bundesliga. How many different countries around the world is your feed heard? Basically, who’s your audience?

Phil: It’s hard to tell, because they don’t actually tell us who take our commentary. As I understand it, and don’t quote me 100% on this, but as I understand it, I work for a company that belongs to the DFL called Digital Sport Enterprises (DSL) – basically it’s an arm of the DFL. They then sell our feed world-wide to whoever wants it. They have the rights to up until the beginning of next year when Fox takes over the rights to just over about eighty countries.

I’m not sure in which countries they use our English. Pretty much our commentary is in countries where English is a second language. Now it goes to India, it goes to Southeast Asia, or goes to the Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, places like Saudi Arabia, obviously to Australia and New Zealand, as well as England, but the English also do their own commentary. They have two guys: a color commentator and a guy like me. So they have their expert in studio, which would be nice if we started doing that – we‘ve been done it a couple of times.

But I’m not sure what Fox will do with the Bundesliga next … this is sort of like “you heard it here first folks” … I’m not sure whether Fox will want their own control over when they can put in advert breaks, advertising, and stuff. They might ditch the original commentary from us and have their own guys brought in to do it, but I’m not sure – I couldn’t tell you.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Okay. So it sounds like the immediate future is a bit uncertain. Let’s talk about your work set up. You sent us some pictures. Here’s one of you in a recording studio. Describe it. Tell us about your set up there.

Phil: This is the funny thing, you see, because I’ve sent you that photograph and that photograph in itself is now condemned to the history books, because as of next season we will be going live with every single game. Again I’m not one hundred percent sure, but I think it’s part of the us meeting folks requirements. We will have every single game live, so we’ve recruited a couple more commentators as well.

Phil Bonney, commentating in his DSL studio.
Phil Bonney, commentating in his DSL studio.

But what you see in the picture is the standard “as-it-was studio.” Next season, these studios will be knocked down and we will have new ones, because it has to be bigger and with more facilities. What you see in that picture (where the marching band is), that what I generally commentate from.

Bundesliga Fanatic: On the left, I see that you’ve got your laptop to keep track game data.

Phil: Right. That’s got my live data on it. On the right is the television monitor. Interestingly enough, that’s the Sky signal that’s broadcasting live in Germany and has the live games on. Our picture is three seconds ahead of what Sky’s broadcasting. So if there is a goalmouth scramble and I’m not one hundred percent sure, I can have a quick look and, 2-3 seconds later, it all happens again for me – rather neatly, just off to the right.

Bundesliga Fanatic: I see that you have your Southampton shirt on as well.

Phil: Yes, yes. Well, if Saints are playing, then I have the shirt on.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Let’s talk about your match notes. I love this picture. This is sort of a calling card when other commentators are interviewed. Looks like we have a combination of typing, some handwriting, some color, some club logos – all kinds of fascinating stuff on those cards. Tell us what we’re looking at.

Phil: Yeah, I suppose every commentator does what works for them. I like to be able to see stuff at a glance.

Phil Bonney's match "cheat sheet."
Phil Bonney’s match “cheat sheet.”

Let’s take Robert Lewandowski [in the picture], for instance, you can see there his full name, the “R” after his name mean’s he’s right-footed, the “F” stands for he came on a free transfer, “POL” of course means he’s Polish, and a capital “N” means he’s a regular in the national side. Then there’s his date of birth. Then also printed is his number (#9) of course, and the contract length – signed in in 2014, runs through 2019 from Dortmund, and he arrived from Lech Poznan in Poland to Dortmund in 2010. Next, you’ve got the little blue “23/3/11” stands for number of games played, number of assists, and number of goals scored. Obviously he added two on that day – the two blue lines are goals.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Ah, it was a good day for Bayern. I see that Müller netted one … oh, and Alaba got one as well.

Phil: Yes, that was a good day for Bayern – they’ve had quite a few! Back to the board, yellows – with the time indicated on them – you will see Boateng got a yellow in the 67th minute. I just make a note of that just in case they get a second one, so that I know what I’m talking about. I can, “Oh, he’s got that yellow at 67’ and now he’s added to it and is in trouble.”

And in the top right corner of each box you can see how much each player cost – for Boateng when Bayern bought him from Man City, and the little flag is where he started his career – he started his career at Hertha. Again same with Mario Götze, who started his career at Dortmund. These are all very easy ones, obviously. Clements Fritz, for instance, the #8 there in the bottom left corner, Leverkusen and Karlsruhe, two of his previous stations. Do you see the 3 above? That’s how many yellow cards he’s had this season. See the 1 with the circle around it? If it’s red, then he’s had one red card this season; if it’s yellow, that means he’s had one double-yellow card.

Then to finish off, I have what I call the “gossipy” sort of stuff that is generally written in green underneath.  So, like, Jannick Vestergaard is their best tackler with 61.8% of his tackles won and out of out of all the tacklers in the league where is he. So you have a sort of close up on someone after they’ve done something or missed something. You can always say “oh well, you know, he’s normally good with his tackles 61.8% won so far one this season.” And then there’s stuff about the referee and his assistants as well.

Just general information that you can almost be guaranteed if you got a game like Bayern against Dortmund, you’re thinking this is going to be a great game. I will need hardly any preparation on this. And then it’s one of the worst games you’ve seen and it’s just a midfield headed tennis game! Then if you’d spent hours preparing for it, It doesn’t matter if it’s a brilliant game, but if you haven’t prepared for it and it isn’t brilliant game then you are deep in the brown stuff!

Bundesliga Fanatic: Speaking of preparation, you mentioned earlier that being a Bundesliga commentator is a weekend job with the exception of an occasional Pokal match or Englische Woche, so what kind of preparation do you do for your average game? Walk us through your process.

Phil: Well, for an average weekend when I normally have – if I’m lucky – two games, on the Monday morning I will acquire a copy of Kicker, which is basically the magazine for football in Germany. It’s all the reviews, all the notes – I’ve never seen anything like it; it’s absolutely fabulous. It’s a masterpiece for  football fans everywhere. That comes out on Monday. I read it cover-to-cover.

On Wednesdays, there’s the Sport Bild, which is a slightly more coffee table sort of publication, that also comes out once a week with colored pictures and glossy pages.

Then the Thursday edition of Kicker comes out with a preview of everything that’s going to be happening at the weekend. So I read that as well. During the week, I keep my eye on the various clubs’ web pages, because obviously I know in advance which clubs I’m going to have, so I’ll keep a closer eye on them.

Then Fridays are basically my “holy” preparation days.  Sometimes I have a Friday evening game, but I’m normally finished by then anyway. So Fridays I shut myself in a dark room and prepare the board.

Obviously, I try to save myself time as much as possible; for example, with those sticker on the board, that’s from a sort of database that I keep of the stuff that doesn’t change – the fact that is player is left-footed, etc. When I first started the job, I wrote absolutely everything by hand, but that just takes too much time in the end. You take short cuts when you can.

Bundesliga Fanatic: You’ve really worked your methods out as a commentator.

Phil: Well, you don’t want to redo work you’ve already done. Besides, I’m not very good at writing as you can tell from my horrible hand writing on that cheat sheet!

Bundesliga Fanatic: Tell us about the atmospherics of the matchday. In Bundesliga broadcasts, the crowd experience is so important. How do you like to interact with the sounds of the match and crowd? What role does that play in your broadcasts?

Phil: If I’m commentating in the stadium, the feeling is different obviously than when you’re commentating in the studio. In the studio, I basically turn up the sound really loud so it feels like I’m there. I love that. There’s nothing better.

Anybody that’s ever been to a football match anywhere in big league just knows that buzz – and if you’re standing on the terrace, probably next to people you don’t particularly like, but you’re joined together by this love of the team that you’re watching. And when everybody start shouting, you start shouting as well. It’s not mass hysteria, but it’s … it’s tribal. It’s totally tribal. You can stand next to people you would normally never spend the time of day with, but when they’re screaming for your team, and you’re screaming, and if you look at each other when that ball hits the back of the net … you know I’m getting goose-bumps just thinking about.

Bundesliga Fanatic: How is the live in-stadium experience different? What’s the dynamic between you and the noise then?

Phil Bonney, commentating live in-stadium.
Phil Bonney, commentating live in-stadium.

Phil: You obviously quite a lot to think about. I have to have headphones on so that I can hear myself, because you can’t battle against the crowd so easily with just your raw voice. But because you’ve got that 360 degree, or at least 180 degree view, you can see the interaction between the two sets of fans – one will sing something and then the other will sing back at them.

Just recently I commentated on the DFB Pokal final in Berlin with Dortmund, who launched a massive yellow smoke bomb and then Wolfsburg answered with their own little green smoke bomb. Those kinds of tension things – because you can’t swing the camera quickly back and forth between the two – you couldn’t see the repulsing forces, like when you put two magnets together. You can feel this force in the stadium. It’s hard to describe, but it’s quite exciting.

Bundesliga Fanatic: How does your activing and performing background impact the way you commentate? What sort of performative element is there to your job?

Phil: I think my background helps inasmuch as I like to see the big picture. I sometimes like, just for my own amusement, to keep a theme running through the game. Sometimes, it’s just stupid stuff like a nautical theme, you know, “They’re all at sea … they’re being swamped by a huge wave of the attack.”

What I think my background gave me – more than anything else – was that I’ve always liked the sound of own voice, as you probably noticed! You know, some people are good with numbers, but I’m just really good at talking. I like to talk. I like to describe. When I do the commentary, I always like to think of myself, not as a massive expert, but as somebody who knows possibly just a bit more. Like when you’re talking with people in the pub and ask a lawyer question to one of your friends, who is a lawyer. It’s not like you’ll get a long, complicated answer. Instead, he’ll give you an idea of what it’s all about in layman’s term. And I kind of like to think we do that a bit [as commentators], because, you have to remember, when we’re doing our commentary, it’s not for German. Sometimes Germans will be critical and they’ll say, “Well, we know about the Revierderby.”  Then you have to remind them that people in England don’t even know what a Revier is!

And then other countries use our commentary where English isn’t the first language, so you have to kind of simplify things and make sure you don’t use English-specific language for it. For example, when I was growing up there was a programme on every Saturday lunchtime before kickoff called Saint and Greavsie. It was Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves in a talk show between the two of them just talking about the upcoming fixtures and one Greaves’ catchphrases was “It’s a funny old game innit, Saint?” And I used that once. One of my colleagues said, “You know, people in Southeast Asia really aren’t going to understand what you’re referencing there.” I think I’ve deviated a bit from your question …

Back to my acting background, I like to think that I can weave a bit of a narrative into the game. And, okay, a lot of the terminology is pretty much standard, but every now and then I like to think I have my moments when I come up with something different.

Bundesliga Fanatic: How do Germans view you’re your commentary? What kind of conversations have you had with them?

Phil: Well, when I’m at a party here in Germany and talking to people I don’t know, they’ll ask me “What do you do?” You know, expecting me to say “Oh, I work for Ford” or something like that, so when I say, “Oh, I’m a commentator for the Bundesliga.” They, “Oh, really? Who would be interested in the Bundesliga abroad?” That’s normally the first question they ask. Then they say, “I do like the way the English commentate!”

And because people look at me like I’m little mad when I tell them I’m a professional football commentator, I carry around a little clip around of me on my iPhone. Very vain of me to do so, but it’s of a particularly good little highlight clip about a minute long. So I play that for them. And very often they’ll say, “Oh I’m so much prefer the way English commentators commentate the game.” German commentators tend to have a bit of a more relaxed attitude. Not all of them of course. Some of them are more interested in talking about how the guys just bought a new Volkswagen, Audi, or Mercedes, then about the actual game; whereas I get a lot more excited about the game.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Are you actually a fan of the Bundesliga?

Phil: Yes! For me, the Bundesliga is more excitement than the Premier League.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Good for you!

Phil: I think it’s way more exciting. Obviously, my heart beats for Southampton, but as a football fan the Bundesliga is way more exciting. I just wish that Bayern weren’t so good ….

Bundesliga Fanatic: Some of us do, too!

Phil: Yeah I’ll probably get hundreds of hate emails from Bayern fans, but it’s not that I’m actually anti-Bayern, it’s just that I wish some of the other teams could neck-and-neck with them. I always say this to my Bayern fans, “I don’t mind if they win the Bundesliga every year, but – please – on the last day.” That would be so much better.

Bundesliga Fanatic: I totally empathize with that perspective as a Dortmund supporter myself. The Bayern tyranny has been a long winter.

Phil: I feel so sorry for Dortmund, because I embody a bit of the “curse of the commentator.” For example, a few years ago, I really started getting into Bremen. I thought they were really exciting, really cool, a well-run club, and were doing all the right things. And as soon as I started following them a little bit, they imploded. And it seems that Dortmund have done the same. Maybe I should start, just for the hell of it, following Bayern a bit more!

Bundesliga Fanatic: Yeah, take on Bayern or Schalke. Either will do for the curse. Well, Phil, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. I thank for you for giving us your time – so generously before your holidays.

Phil: Well, I’m on holiday now already. I’m just about to leave. I’ve sown up all I have to do. I’m on hiatus, as I think you’d say in the states. Bye!

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!