Green Guide 20 Mar 2008: Footy starts tonight. The radio goes on, the TV is tuned and from now until that last Saturday in September millions of words will gush from the speakers.

A few will be fresh and original, cleverly descriptive and evocative, subtly creating the mood appropriate to the moment of the game. But most will be the same phrases we have been hearing for years, chanted by commentators with such ritual frequency that the words and phrases are now liturgical. Players will "line them up" and "put them through". When a team is streaming forward and getting the footy into a contest at full forward, the single name yelled loudly into the microphone ("Neitzzz") tells us that David Neitz has taken a beauty, whether we're watching it on TV or just listening to the radio. When Tim Lane says: "Long to full forward, but it's all Geelong. Harley mops up and clears for the Cats," we know what he means. Years of watching and listening have given currency to the verb "to mop up".

Throughout the season we will hear commentators who value words, who are reasonably erudite and in control of the language. We will also hear some who have a loose connection with it. Undoubtedly (sic) the language will be butchered but that all goes well (sic) for the future of footy. That is part of the beauty of it, and the great variety in footy commentary helps make these people characters in our kitchens and lounge rooms and cars.

You only need to look at the public response to the passing of Clinton Grybas to understand that we feel as if we truly know these commentators. Clinton was a fine young commentator: accurate, measured, not moved to explosive editorial, able to fill whichever role the coach asked him to play, whether it was straight man to Rex Hunt's flamboyancy on 3AW or leading the show on Foxtel games. His shoes will take some filling.

On Saturday afternoons on 3AW those shoes will be filled by Dennis Cometti, now much-loved. He has won fans with his sharp wit. "Barlow to Bateman … the Hawks are attacking alphabetically," is typical of his one-off quips. He's happy to admit that some of these come to him in the moment but many he thinks up away from the microphone (maybe on those weekly flights across the Nullarbor) and waits for the appropriate situation in which to use them. "Brett Johnson has become a leather magnet. And before you say there's no such thing, spare a thought for my wife and my wallet," he once called. When a rare shot for goal from Darren Gaspar hit the post he lamented: "Ahh, Gaspar, the unfriendly post."

Which is exactly why Dennis and Bruce McAvaney have a bit of trouble calling together for Channel Seven. Bruce understands popular culture references the way Liam Pickering understands conflict of interest. Bruce has been so busy committing to memory the Globe Derby trotting form since 1974, the times of all 100-metre heat winners at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, and the entire AFL Media Guide, that he has missed out on so much. He doesn't know The Simpsons, The Waltons or The Brady Bunch. And how can you possibly understand Dennis Cometti if you don't know who corporals Agarn, Jones or Klinger are?

Other elements of their natures make it difficult for them to click. Dennis is intuitive. His understated strength is his conceptual knowledge of the game. Whereas Bruce is bookish. He has learnt (very well) what is important in the game. Dennis can be a loose cannon. Bruce is straighter than a pair of Y-fronts. Dennis is playful and irreverent and has an underlying sense of the absurdity of human endeavour (we are, after all, talking about civilised human beings with a capacity to grunt, chasing around a leather ball, often in bitterly cold conditions on a muddy footy field). Bruce is earnest. Next time you are at a ground, watch Bruce shooting the introduction. He starts in front of one of the cheer squad banners and in a crouch walks with hurried, long strides in an arc, stopping in front of the camera, where his gesticulations suggest the grave importance of what is about to transpire. Out of context it looks hilarious. In context, on the screen, it looks hilarious. Bruce can start a game in epic tone and not climb down from the epic for a second.

Then there is Dennis' voice. He's like the kid who turns up in year 11 whose dad has served in a UN peacekeeping force or the diplomatic corps. He's lived everywhere and picked up an accent that you just can't recognise. Dennis has had that deep-throated voice forever. It comes from somewhere between the Adam's apple and the 13th rib. The voice first came to prominence as he was learning the caper calling cricket with George Grljusich and other West Australian luminaries. It remains as distinctive today and is part of the fabric of footy.

But things have changed and now the question is: will Dennis find his niche with Rex Hunt? Because Rex isn't really a footy commentator, he's a performer. And not just any performer: he's a performer with a social conscience. Rex's career guidance counsellor (probably the teacher he keeps telling us about from Mordialloc High who told him he wouldn't amount to anything) could have saved him a lot of trouble. He should have pointed Rex in the direction of opera, and the angst generated when that career failed would have served him well. He'd have wound up in a feather boa and evening gown sucking on a long-stemmed cigarette holder working through the repertoire of Marlene Dietrich in a smoky den in East St Kilda. Rex wants to be The Fat Lady. "Hire a barn," I can hear Dennis saying to him, "and put on a show."

Rex's sense of social purpose means his commentary is not just about football. He has been called to chart the course of the Australian community, and he has been given his own personal moral compass for the job. On the issues of drugs, capital and corporal punishment, immigration, stints in the army, and decent haircuts. Whether Dennis chooses to argue the toss remains to be seen.

Generally there is not a lot of dissent in the 3AW commentary box. Rex runs the joint like an episode of the 1950s radio show Yes, What? and can play the roles of Greenbottle, Bottomly and Dr Pym simultaneously. This is ideal for the 3AW audience, which is still sitting next to the radiogram and remembers Yes, What? as if it were yesterday. Rex doesn't miss a beat. He gets out the nicknames and the ongoing gags. At least Dennis will know why Mr Ed says "Wilbur" when a shot hits the post. But will we hear the Cometti voice when Rex calls them to arms with a "Lord Nelson"?

At least the boys have fun. And there must be enough footy in the call for a particular type of footy-lover to stay tuned.

It's a different type of fun they have over at the ABC. Gerard Whateley has emerged to lead the way, as long as he can keep his eye off Sky Channel and the first leg of the Flemington quaddie. There's a bit of Bruce in G Whateley, and also a bit of Tim Lane, with whom he calls on Friday night. He is as prepared as Bruce, has some of Bruce's inflections, and is mastering the Richie Benaud pause. He has lost the starry eyes of the footy fan who can't believe he's sitting in a commentary box at the MCG calling the game he loves doing his dream job. You can't sit alongside a journalist with the critical faculties of Tim Lane without some of it rubbing off.

I'm not sure Drew Morphett ever had the starry eyes. Or at least no one can remember when he did. Sometimes you forget how experienced Drew is. And then you come home half-tanked late at night and turn on ABC2 just to make yourself nostalgic enough to take out the Jamieson's and pour one while you lament your lost youth — and Drew's, with that great hair. He'll be calling the '82-'83 Ashes series, or Bodyline, or something, with the enthusiasm of Steve Waugh chasing a ball to the boundary. But that's Drew's great asset: his experience. He's like that old ram in the Gary Larson cartoon. Standing on the bluff overlooking a paddock of ewes, one ram says to the other ram, "Any new faces this year, Sid?"

Then the ABC has Dan Lonergan, who each year looks more and more like he sat for Edvard Munch when the artist painted The Scream. He brings plenty of enthusiasm to his calls. But Tim Lane remains the master of radio commentary. His calls are sufficiently layered to work on a number of levels. He can describe something authoritatively while still having a crack at something or someone in the game.

Dwayne Russell, who calls for 3AW and Fox, has a similar ability at times, part of which comes from a thorough knowledge of sports outside of footy and outside of Australia. He is willing to defy the judgement of the herd and is one of the better commentators going around.

Tim's colleague at Channel Ten, Anthony Hudson, who also calls for SEN, can find those moments of humour and gentle irreverence, but he remains a practitioner; a caller who principally supplies information, very accurately. Michael Christian will always be there barracking for Collingwood, and it will be interesting to see if Andrew Maher's management team has again negotiated a "paid by the word" clause in his new Channel Ten contract.

Stephen Quartermain has been around for quite a while now. He is the chicken parma of footy commentary. He's not gourmet but he's always on the menu and is reliable enough. He's advantaged if served with a Coonawarra red. And, in Malcolm Blight , he is. Blight is a big, bold double-pressed shiraz. Robert Walls' special comments are Yarra Valley pinot. But Malcolm is the guru. He can talk about anything from left-handed footballs to match-ups previously unheard of. What is so attractive about Malcolm's comments is that they are speculative, and that statistics have no place in forming them. For Malcolm, it is often what he feels at the time.

There are other commentators. James Brayshaw is everywhere these days. Apart from calling footy for Triple M, he co-hosts Wide World of Sports, the new vehicle chosen by Channel Nine to highlight the talents of Ken Sutcliffe (Australia's luckiest man). It goes head to head against Seven's new sports show anchored by Hamish McLachlan and involving a scholarly Tim Watson, who also does special comments at Seven.

The Footy Show and Footy Classified have also returned, the dynamics of the Monday night show having been transformed by the change: Archer in, Carey out. Both shows will give currency to Craig Hutchison's style of investigative journalism, the apparent success of which has forced a recalibration of the Walkley Awards.

When not mounting the argument that footballers know much better than anyone else, Garry Lyon will maintain his comfortable position on the fence.

At SEN, Kevin Bartlett will continue his career, joined by a newcomer, Eddie McGuire, for Friday night games.

So, the choice is yours.

In a perfect world, though, I'd have Smoky Dawson back. He still calls a few games for Perth's 6PR. But no one says "Richmond" with the rolled R of Smoke. And when someone shapes to kick a barrel from outside 50, you'd know it: "He's going the torp, Smoothe. He's going the Torp." Like the excitement has never wavered.

John Harms is a Melbourne writer and, together with Gerard Whateley, is a regular on Offsiders on Sundays at 10.30am on ABC1. This entire item is sourced from the Green Guide and the link is provided at the start of article.