BBC Solent summariser and former manager to hang up the mic
On Tuesday night, shortly after the fans have filtered out of St Mary’s and the stadium has gone largely quiet, Dave Merrington will sit back in the press box, take off his headphones and place his microphone down on the table in front of him.
It is a routine he will have gone through countless times in almost two decades as summariser on BBC Solent for the club’s matches, but this time will be different. Because this time will be the last time.
Merrington, now 77, took the decision ahead of this season for it to be his final one in the co-commentary role. An iconic presence on the mic, he has provided a vivid illustration of Southampton’s games, both home and away, to scores of fans, with his blend of warmth, passion, insight and honesty making him the undisputed voice of matchday to many people.
dave merringtoni think it will be quite emotional.
on his final commentaries
His final broadcast will come on Sunday, when the Premier League season finishes at Leicester, but this evening will be his last at St Mary’s.
“I think it will be quite emotional,” he said. “But, and I don’t want to be flippant about this, because of my age now and I've been in the game such a long time, I feel it needs change. It's time for someone younger to come in and build a rapport with the fans.”
For anyone familiar with Merrington, the fact that the supporters are first and foremost in his thoughts will come as no surprise, because he has always been conscious that he has been doing it for them.
“I came down here in 1984 and in the period of time I've been down here I've got to know the people fairly well,” he said. “They're knowledgeable, they love their football, they're passionate, and over that time I just like to feel I've built a rapport with them.
“I recognise that when we're travelling and we stop, and the away supporters are just fantastic. I love spending the time with them and getting a chance to talk to them.
“What I've tried to do with the fans is build a picture for them at home, from a tactical point of view and a coaching point of view. I've tried to give them that information and I think they've appreciated that, and I think they've appreciated my honesty.”
Indeed, even when you ask Merrington for his favourite memories as a broadcaster, it is not a specific match that he mentions first off.
“I think about the fans,” he said. “I remember when we got into Europe and we went to Milan. I remember we went down into the square and there must have been five, six, seven thousand fans there, and when you get in among them and you experience it from the fans' point of view that was such an experience for me. It’s something I'll never forget.”
While people will be used to hearing Merrington during the 90 minutes of each game, what many won’t realise is the extent of his commitment to the role, and not only because of the amount of travelling and research he will do to prepare.
When he started in it, Merrington did not simply want to turn up on a matchday and commentate, so he took the time to visit the studios, speak to the people working behind the scenes and understand how broadcasts were put together, learning skills such as how to edit clips together.
“I've been blessed,” he said. “When I first came into the BBC, I worked with Grant Coleman and I asked him to show me the ropes. He taught me very professionally behind the scenes, so I knew everything that was going on back at the studio, and that was a great learning curve.”
Merrington’s long-time commentary partner would soon become Adam Blackmore, the BBC Solent sports editor, who he has worked alongside for many years, with the pair becoming a much-loved duo among listeners.
“I love working with Adam,” he said. “He's funny, he's humorous, he knows the game. We get a buzz off each other. We don't always agree, sometimes we disagree on air, and I think the fans love that and when we have a bit of banter with each other.”
Of course, Merrington’s association with Saints extends far beyond his time with the BBC, back to the 1980s, when as youth team coach he oversaw the development of some of the best players in the club’s history, such as Matt Le Tissier, Alan Shearer and the Wallace brothers, to name only a few, before going on to manage the first-team in the 1995/96 season and keep them in the Premier League.
“The time I worked with the youth players was terrific,” he said. “We had some cracking players, we had strong discipline, good guidelines and we put a good foundation in, and we tried to make sure their behaviour was right on the field and off the field.
“During that period of time we produced quite a number of players. You're talking about Le Tissier, Shearer, the Wallace brothers, Jeff Kenna, Doddsy, Franny, there were so many players that came through the ranks.
“One of the things I've always believed in is you've got to have a good framework and foundation, and if you gave me a boy to coach from 15 to 20, I would try to put a foundation in that would last him for the rest of his life. His disciplines, his understanding of the game, his understanding of himself.
“You also need to understand they're developing at different times. Some develop into men very quickly, like Shearer, both mentally and physically. Others take longer to develop, simply because of their physiology, and you have to understand that and be patient.
“We had a great programme here, an education programme, everyone was in on time, no one left until all their jobs were done, and they all had their responsibilities. I've seen so many players in the game at 27, 28 doing things on the field that should have been stamped out when they were 15, 16 and 17, and you can't change a leopard's spots, not at that age, so the development has to be done at the right age.
“This club has been built on developing players, and that's why I get so excited when I see young players who have come through the ranks now, like Ward-Prowse has.”
Merrington has played a big part in that reputation, and it is testament to the impact he had on the players he helped bring through that, to this day, when they see him their faces will light up.
His role in the youth set-up is a source of particular pride for Merringron, who tells a great story about a visit to a prestigious tournament in Laupheim, Germany, as a late replacement after Manchester United had pulled out.
"I go on my own, I have nobody with me,” he said. “So I go with the boys and we're met by a delegation, and they're asking who's the chairman, who's the doctor and so on, then they're asking who's my assistant, and I'm explaining I don't have one, and they're asking who's the physio, and I say "me". Is your secretary with you? "No."
“And you should have seen the look on their faces. They looked at each other, then looked at the floor, and I could tell they were thinking 'What sort of team have we brought here?' Anyway, we get to the tournament and we go crash, bang, wallop and we won the whole thing, and stopped Bayer Leverkusen winning it for a third year in a row.
“They had a director there and he came to me after and said 'I want to buy two of your players' and I said 'Oh, you do? Who would that be?' He said 'The boy in midfield, Maddison, and the boy up front, Shearer,' and I said 'You've got no chance!'”
It is one of many fine tales from a lifetime in football, and although it is time for a well-earned rest, that does not mean Merrington’s passion for the game has dulled.
“I used to get excited as a coach, when you go into the dressing room and you've got your players sitting around and you're giving a team talk, and I get as excited now coming up and just sitting in this seat now, working with Adam and doing the commentaries,” he said. “I'm still as passionate now as I've ever been as a manager, coach or a player.”
Now, though, when Merrington returns to St Mary’s, it will be as a fan himself. And, as he prepares for his final games as a broadcaster, he has a departing message for the supporters who have listened to him over the years.
“It's been a privilege,” he said. “I would just say to the fans it's a thank you from me to them, as it's been a privilege for me to deliver summaries, analysis and broadcasts to them at home.”
As it has been a privilege for those of us who have listened.