“I don’t sit here – and right now I’m overlooking a beautiful bay and bright sunshine – and wish I was at Stoke on a wet Monday night,” says Andy Gray with a chuckle from his apartment in Doha, Qatar.
“I enjoy waking up with the sunshine, knowing that I can plan a barbecue when I want.”
Gray has been soaking up the sun in the richest country in the world per capita for four-and-a-half years alongside his close friend and former Sky Sports colleague, Richard Keys. The pair anchor beIN Sports’s global football coverage and Gray says they are enjoying life so much that they plan to stay to cover the hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
Keys and Gray had been, lest one forget, the faces of Sky Sports for 20 years. But in January 2011, off-air footage emerged of the pair disparaging the female lineswoman, Sian Massey, and making lewd comments to colleagues. This led to Gray being sacked and Keys resigning in protest before alluding to “dark forces” conspiring against them.
A devastated and defiant Gray said at the time: “In 20 years in studios up and down the country, I’ve heard people saying things off camera that would make your hair curl. I do not see myself as sexist. Not in a million years. I have four daughters and I was brought up by a wonderful mother on her own.”
Keys and Gray would rise from this nadir to first work on radio for talkSPORT, before decamping to Qatar in 2013. Four years on, and things are going well again for the 61-year-old Gray. He has no desire whatsoever to revisit that tumultuous episode and risk reopening old wounds with his former employers.
“It’s gone – I’ve moved on,” is all he will say on the matter.
Of his gilded lifestyle, the Glaswegian adds: “I’m in a great place now, working with lots of good people at a fantastic company who do look after us and have looked after me. We cover more football here than I’ve ever done regarding the amount of games we do.”
Gray has not buried the past totally, however, and speaks with pride about being in the vanguard of the launch of the Premier League 25 years ago.
“It was a hell of a journey. It was very much a privilege in many ways to be one of the first people through the door of a new age of televised football.”
A multitude of marvellous memories – he cites Liverpool’s pulsating 4-3 win over Newcastle United in 1995 and Scotland’s 1-0 win over England at the old Wembley in 1999 among his favourites – far outweigh any lingering bitterness about his Sky exit.
Fast forward to 2017, and how does he assess the present state of football punditry?
“I think we’ve gone too far from just analysing the game to analysing everything about the game,” says the former striker, who turned out for Everton, Aston Villa and Rangers, among others, during his playing career.
“When we started [at Sky], we analysed goals and incidents and I do notice now a lot of the guys back in the UK start analysing tackles and challenges and refereeing decisions.
“I would turn it back a bit and concentrate on analysing football. We’re now analysing everything to the Nth degree. Everything has a fault. I think they don’t accentuate the positives often enough and I think we’ve lost track of doing that, which is what we tried to do at the start.
“Whether someone should have been sent off, whether it was a bad challenge; we left that kind of stuff to other people and concentrated on what actually happened in the game: how the teams went about it, what was that goal like, how did it come about? Was it great play? Was it a mistake?
“It’s become over-analytical. They talk about 4-2-3-1, 5-2-3-1, 5-4-6-1. I’ve no idea what formations we’ve got now. People just make numbers up now and add them up to make 11.”
Gray is similarly perplexed by 21st century footballing parlance.
“The terminology in general has changed so much. It’s ‘breaking the lines’, ‘a low-defensive block’, ‘the gegenpress’ – I’ve heard that mentioned so many times. We don’t have positions any more. We have numbers. ‘He plays number nine’, ‘he plays number 10’, ‘he plays number eight, number six’. Nobody plays centre half, centre forward.
“I just think young managers are often trying to reinvent the wheel. I find myself scratching my head many times when they talk about ‘percussive football’. I read it in The Times. One of the writers was talking about ‘percussive football’. I honestly have no idea what that means. And he tells me a lot of the great European teams are playing ‘percussive football’.
“When I was young, people used to play in ‘in the hole’. Now they play ‘between the lines’ or they play ‘in the pocket’. It’s little things like that. If I came back to commentate again, I would have to learn a whole new terminology of how to do it.”
Gray is in full flow now in his disquisition on modern television trends. He questions the wisdom of making stellar former footballers so omnipotent.
“It’s become very much a celebrity-driven industry now; ex-footballers are interviewing footballers all the time now. There are very few reporters, very few journalists, who are employed to do what they’re good at, which is ask questions.
“I hardly went and interviewed anybody and just concentrated on what I was there for. But now anyone is a pundit and you find them interviewing anybody.
“I feel for people like [reporter] Geoff Shreeves at Sky, who must feel like he’s been squeezed out of work almost with the amount of ex-players at Sky who go and interview players instead of Geoff going and doing it.”
So which current pundits does he like and dislike?
“Everyone has their own way of doing it,” he replies. “I do think a lot of them are encouraged to talk too much. Most of them have lost the art of silence.
“You’re working in a pictures industry, so you don’t have to paint every picture with your voice. People are watching the TV, so they can actually see what’s happening. They should take a pause and sometimes don’t say anything.
“I enjoy listening to Andy Townsend. I think he’s still very, very good on ITV. I like Davie Provan, who works for Sky Sports. Both these boys know the value of silence and not being over-analytical.
“I hate commentators who, after five minutes, are telling you how the game needs to be won and this, that and the other. They all have their own way of doing it, they’re all modern guys, they’ve all stopped playing. I did it my way and they do it their way. I’m not saying I was better and their way of doing it was wrong, but a lot of it is not my cup of tea.”
Gray is, however, generous in his assessment of his successor as Sky’s lead co-commentator, Gary Neville.
“He’s done a very good job,” he says. “He’s settled into it very nicely. He’s got a fantastic knowledge of the game, having played for Manchester United and Sir Alex [Ferguson] for as many years as he did. He had the tools he needed to to do the job.”
When Gray started as a pundit – and pioneered a new and in-depth dissection of tactics in Sky’s ‘Boot Room’ – he was very much in the minority.
“There used to be Jimmy Hill and that was it,” he laughs. “He was the benchmark at one time and we [Sky] started introducing a few pundits and now you have a whole industry. I bet you couldn’t name all the pundits that work in British football – it would just be ridiculous as there are so many of them.”
Gray does not envisage ever returning to British television, apart from perhaps in a freelance commentary capacity.
He admits, though, that he misses the intoxicating pressure of lending his expressive voice to some of football’s most dramatic moments.
“When I think of the 4-3 game at Anfield and the drama that was there; I was involved in it, every minute of it. And, like a player, from the first minute to the last minute, you have to concentrate and be involved.”
While he may be yesterday’s man in the UK, Gray remains a ubiquitous figure for beIN Sports, with his passion for the game undimmed.