With Arlo White trading the NBC Sports booth for the petro-dollars of the LIV Golf tour, American soccer fans tuning into the new Premier League season may have noticed a new voice narrating the events: the golden and erudite pipes of Peter Drury. A broadcaster who’s achieved cult status among linguistics nerds, Drury offers a perspective that has already been stylistically and tonally different from his predecessor’s. In a season that’s also welcomed generational talents like Erling Haaland and Darwin Núñez, it is the 54-year-old Drury who might be the most transformative figure in Americans’ relationship with the Premier League for the years to come.
Drury is a distinctly old-school voice in a game desperate to keep up with the commercial opportunities of the 21st century. And by old school, I mean he often sounds more like a 19th Century Romantic poet than your typical sports commentator. Lacking the avuncular familiarity of broadcasters like John Madden, he’s a professorial personality with a penchant for dropping SAT words like “febrile” and “capacious” on broadcasts. Despite the very fine line between sounding like Dickens and sounding like a dickhead, Drury succeeds by amplifying the game’s romantic and mythic undertones with his lofty language. With his off-the-cuff allusions to Hellenistic imagery and grandiose, alliterative metaphors, a mid-table scrap in Wolverhampton is transmuted into soccer lore.
At a basic level, the job of the commentator is to describe sequences of events. But at their best, commentators can be catalysts for profound reinvention in how we process sports and everything involved therein. Drury’s interpretation of the role is unlike play-by-play contemporaries Arlo White or Martin Tyler, who both take a more studied and laissez-faire approach, judiciously selecting their interventions within the flow of the game as if they don’t want to spill any of it on their carefully pressed Savile Row shirt. Nor does Drury bear much resemblance to the exuberant maximalism of Ian Darke and his ilk, those who measure their success by the number of different registers in which they can intonate a phrase like “Can you believe it?!” Drury neither stands athwart the game’s currents like White and Tyler nor is he carried along like Darke—all of whom are very good at their jobs, it’s worth saying. Rather, Drury’s unique brand of literary commentary serves as a true compliment to the action on the pitch, distinct but also enmeshed, and thus lifting the whole somewhere new.
One of Drury’s strengths as a communicator is how he interweaves the narratives of a soccer match in real-time. Take for instance his commentary to the first kick of the season between Crystal Palace and Arsenal: “And we are away in a World Cup year, the Premier League still breathlessly anticipated. Palace to smash their glass ceiling, Arsenal to reach for the stars among which, once upon a time, they naturally lived.” Compared to the start of the 2020–21 season (“Let the games begin!”), Drury’s first week on the job was like the invention of Technicolor, adding another dimension to how we experience the league. Or consider his introduction of Ronaldo’s return to Manchester last season: “Madeira, Manchester, Madrid, Turin, and Manchester again. Wreathed in red. Restored to this great gallery of the game.” Even for a CR7 skeptic watching the most over-analyzed and tedious transfer story of recent memory, it’s hard not to be stirred by Drury’s evocation of homecoming and history.
But what distinguishes Drury from his contemporaries is his ability to distill the ineffable and ephemeral feelings of soccer into something clear and eternal. For a sport that’s played without the interruption of commercial breaks or huddles, goals are actually quite rare and unpredictable in the course of a match. So if and when that goal does come, our initial instinct is one of momentary alexithymia. While fans can release pent-up energy by going batshit, commentators have the near-impossible job of instantaneously putting words to a guttural emotional rush. It’s probably no coincidence that so many iconic goals are soundtracked to a commentator merely howling the goalscorer’s name, like Martin Tyler on Sergio Aguero’s stoppage-time league title-winner or Darren Fletcher on Lucas Moura’s semifinal miracle in Amsterdam. In the case of Gary Neville’s invariably hilarious goalgasm to Fernando Torres’s winner against Barcelona, even a coherent name is sometimes too much to conjure.
It is in these moments of suspended reality that Drury shines. When Kosta Manolas sealed Roma’s unthinkable 2018 Champions League second-leg comeback against Barcelona, Drury produced the legendary line, “Roma has risen from the ruins—Manolas the Greek God in Rome!” If Barcelona’s hubris unfolded like a plot out of a Euripidean tragedy, it was Drury who immortalized the events of that night as the omniscient Chorus. He serves as the emotional compass for the story playing out in front of us, articulating feelings that most people might realize only with the luxury of hindsight or the amplification of nostalgia. In his own inimitable style, a fleeting moment of sporting brilliance becomes mythology.
In the day and age of Super Leagues and mega-clubs financed by nation-states, it’s hard not to be somewhat cynical about this mythology of soccer. From FIFA’s shameless disregard for human rights to the collapse of dozens of lower-league clubs, the insatiable greed and structural inequality of soccer have sullied the game’s oft-rhapsodized purity. Reflecting on the cultural toll of capital, Marx wrote, “[Capitalism] has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” Marcelo Bielsa, Professor Emeritus of modern soccer, echoed similar sentiments last year when he said, “I have serious doubts over the future of professional football because it is constantly commercialized and the product is worse. . . . It brings me great sadness to see how football is deteriorating.”
But despite the mire of moral and political excrement in which soccer’s institutions have made their bed, Peter Drury captures the essence of what remains good and pure about the game—why we, the devout, continue to wake up at 5 a.m. Pacific on Sundays to watch our team get pummeled by Pep and clapped by Klopp. As Nick Hornby wrote in his memoir Fever Pitch, “Be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, fuller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.” In a year that will bring equal parts mundanity and mayhem, we’re lucky to have Drury’s larger-than-life imagination guiding us along all the best moments we have yet to live.