Clive Tyldesley has been ITV’s lead football commentator since 1998, and has covered some of the most iconic moments in the game since then. He spoke to Nick Miller about the opportunities in broadcasting, not being a Manchester United fan anymore and referencing ‘that night in Barcelona…’ too many times…
How did you get started in the commentary game?
Well, football commentary is all I ever really wanted to do. It’s both a rather sad, anorak tale, but also hopefully quite a heartening and maybe inspiring story, insomuch that it is possible to end up doing the job you’ve always wanted to do. I was a very ordinary sportsman/boy at school, I was never going to play football or any sport at any level, but I had a fascination with the reporting and commentating on football – it’s no secret that I was brought up in Manchester and was a United fan, but the great sports broadcasters of the day were as much heroes of mine as Best, Law and Charlton.
I had several breaks, but the first one is always the most important. When I went to university in 1972 I think there were three media courses in the country. I couldn’t get on any of them, so I studied industrial economics in Nottingham, but my great break was, literally as I was graduating Radio Trent were prepared to invest in two teaboys and a teagirl, and I got one of the jobs. I walked out of my final examination and into a job. The boss of the radio station actually phoned me before I graduated and offered me a job because I’d been knocking on his door for six months, and I asked ‘What degree do I need?’, to which he said ‘You don’t need a degree to make tea.’
Do you think it’s easier now to get into the industry than when you were breaking in?
Well I think – I know – there are far more graduates than there are jobs, and I think that’s something that needs to be looked at, by the educationalists and the would-be employers….on the one hand we have this sector that is creating lots of media graduates for relatively few media jobs, but on the other hand we have a media now where you or I could go and start our own website this afternoon. So the opportunities to get yourself heard, to get yourself broadcast, to get yourself published are there as never before.
You’ve got to be proactive, and I say if you feel you’ve got a passion for communication, that is a proactive thing, it’s not a passive thing, you’ve got to get out there and volunteer. And there are all kinds of injustices in terms in internships and free labour and so on, and they’re all huge political issues of the day, but in our business you’ve got to be prepared to get your hands dirty, volunteer, and show to people that you can do it. There are opportunities, sitting in your own living room or on your laptop, that I never had. So the contradiction at the moment is yes, there’s more competition for the jobs that are advertised than ever before, but there are more opportunities to further your education and your understanding and therefore your CV, and therefore get yourself noticed. I think it’s an exciting time to be a broadcast journalism student.
In terms of your own career, was there a moment when you thought ‘I’ve made it’?
As soon as you asked for this interview. No, I suppose throughout my radio career I wanted to be a television commentator…so I suppose that when I managed to nail down a job as a television commentator is what I regard as my biggest breakthrough in my career – I’m not suggesting I’ve ever ‘made it’, but that’s the biggest breakthrough.
That said, now that I am a television commentator I wonder whether radio commentary wasn’t more fun. Whenever people ask what the difference between being a radio and a television commentator is, they always expect me to say ‘You say less’, but the biggest difference is you’re far more important as a radio commentator. Television is a visual medium, and you can turn a commentator down and still enjoy the experience – you can’t turn a radio commentator down and do the same.
A good television commentator is only accompanying the pictures, so you are almost adding punctuation to what someone is already experiencing, and as a television commentator you’re usually listening to the director of the pictures, who is usually in your ear…If you’re a good commentator, you should be across that conversation, and you should be trying to illustrate it.
It’s almost – and I hate to use the word cerebral because I’m not that clever – but it’s almost a cerebral exercise if you’re doing it well. If you’re a radio commentator it’s more of an emotional exercise – you plug in, somebody says go, and you go. You’ve got to describe what you see with more colour and more emotion, and actually more commitment than you can really, usefully have as a television commentator. So I think radio is commentary in its pure form, but I did always want to be on television. There’s probably a lot of vanity in that, but that’s what I always really wanted to do, because my heroes were always television commentators.
Do you ever have any pre-prepared ‘lines’? So say if this player or that player scores, you’ll know what you’re going to say?
No, I don’t. The only stuff that I’ll write is something for the start. Because I’ve got a fair idea – unless a naked woman runs onto the pitch midway through a national anthem – of what’s going to happen between the players coming out of the tunnel and when the referee blows the whistle. So just as a kind of comforter, like a sort of comfort blanket, I will largely try to script that bit with the director beforehand…
You prepare as much as you can. I do – and this is pinched from John Motson – multi-coloured charts, very neatly written out, but if I ever use more than 10 or 15 per cent of the information I’ve spent gathering, I’m probably not doing my job very well. I do think that there are some of my brethren – who shall remain nameless – where there should almost be a crawler going across the bottom of the screen during the match which says ‘I’ve fucking well done this research so you’re fucking well going to hear it.’
You’re doing some work on pronunciations at the moment (Clive spoke to the Set Pieces shortly before the England v Lithuania game). There was a ‘thing’ during the World Cup with the whole Hamez/James Rodriguez thing, when you explained your pronunciation of his name
Well, this was a guy who was always James Rodriguez, and then in the World Cup something happened, he became Hamez, I think one of the BBC commentators went with Hamez, which is correct – it’s what he calls himself – but at 21 or whatever he was that’s fair enough, let’s get it right from here at least, and I was happy enough to change course at that point.
Although, I happened across Albert Ferrer during the World Cup, I asked him about it and he said ‘Well, if you read the story, his father says he was named after James Bond…and we don’t have Hamez Bond movies in Spain…’ If he wants to be called Hamez then fine…It doesn’t matter that much – we all know who we’re talking about.
Pronunciation is such a strange area really…We all try hard to get things right, but we are speaking the English language. Other commentators do it different ways, but I draw the line at trying to make sounds that we don’t make in the English language…because I just think that further down that line we go the more likely we are to make mistakes, simply because I’m not a linguist….
We had Ruud Gullit on our team a few years ago, and he said to whoever was presenting “You really should call me G-ullit (with a hard-G),” and the presenter said “Well, you’re kind of Ruud H-ullit now.” So he said “I don’t mind, but neither G-ullit nor H-ullit are right, because the correct pronunciation of my name is a sound that you don’t make, so you might as well pronounce me phonetically and get it wrong, as make up this version of my name which is every bit as wrong as G-ullit.”
The one moment with which you’re most closely identified is obviously the 1999 Champions League final…
No, that was my dad – that wasn’t me…God, that was a long time ago…
Does it bother you that you’re so closely identified with one particular moment, or is it a source of pride?
Well, I am aware of this thing where I’ve mentioned ‘that night in Barcelona’ a lot, but I haven’t mentioned that in a commentary for probably 10-12 years. United played Bayern again, I think it was two years later, and my boss at the time was Brian Barwick, and he actually gave me a bit of a…well, it wasn’t a telling off, but he said to me the next day ‘I felt like I’d watched the 1999 cup final all over again…I don’t know how many times you’d mentioned it, but it was too many.’
I think that a lot of the problem – or a lot of the perception – firstly arose from that…and secondly I’d never made any secret of the fact that I was brought up as a Manchester United fan. My dad took me when I was five, I lived in the Manchester area, I went home and away and missed about four games in the Second Division in 1974/75. During my teenage years, I was an absolute dyed-in-the-wool, home-and-away Manchester United fan. I could not begin to explain to that 16 or 17-year-old boy why I’m no longer a Manchester United fan, because he wouldn’t understand. What happened to me is that I got the job I’d most wanted all of my life, that through that I met and become friendly with a lot of football people as a result. I support them now.
In 1999, I guess you must have still got caught up in the emotion of it, but you were able to divorce that from your commentary.
Yeah, I wasn’t really a United fan then. It was a very big year in my career, 1999. The late, great Reg Gutteridge was my mentor, the man who helped me more than everything but Brian Moore – great as a man as well as a commentator – did help me too. I took over from him after the World Cup final in the summer of 1998, and I was on a bit of a hiding to nothing, because I wasn’t particularly well known. I think ITV took a bit of a punt with me…if I hadn’t done particularly well they’d have gone and signed somebody else.
In those circumstances what you need is material, and in my first season as lead commentator Manchester United’s route to the final and to the treble was full of twists and turns, and improbable moments and memorable games. The two group games against Barcelona were sensational too. So it was a big year for me, that match had a 20 million audience and I had to get it right. There were three goals in the match and I got the first one wrong – I thought it was a deflection, and I’ve always blamed Peter Schmeichel because he never moved! So if it had finished 1-0, which it probably should’ve done, I would’ve got the goal wrong in the big game at the end of my first season. Fortunately, there were a few more goals to come, and I got those right. It was a big deal for me to handle those five minutes reasonably well, because if I hadn’t then I think they would’ve replaced me.
It’s a really strange thing to watch those last few minutes with someone else’s commentary on them…
Yeah – Hugh Johns commentated on the 1966 World Cup final, but nobody knows what he said. It’s funny – one thing I did do is shut up for a couple of seconds after each goal and left myself some thinking time. I actually had to throw my arm across Ron (Atkinson, alongside Tyldesley in the Nou Camp gantry) when the first of them went in, because he was ready to come in. And if you do listen back to it, and I haven’t done for ages, but I’m pretty certain there is a bit of thinking time before I shout the goalscorer. And if the words that followed fitted the action it’s because I managed to give myself some thinking time.
What about co-commentators? Do you have any particular favourites? Do you think it’s important to have a personal relationship with them?
Well all of them really have become friends of mine. Andy (Townsend) is a really close friend. Listen, we’ve got the best job in the world and I’ll never complain about it, but when you’re away from home for the best part of six weeks, long journeys and early starts and not always the greatest hotels in the world, you need to be able to get on with the guy who’s next to you – you’re living with these guys.
And Ron was always good for that, he’d always come down for breakfast with a smile on his face, and he’d always have a story to tell or a song to sing or a joke to try out. Those guys are good to be around, and most of the co-commentators I’ve worked with have been very kind people to me, and become close friends, and I hope that relationship is evident on-air. But not too much – we are at work after all, and I don’t like too much “Yeah Andy…I know Clive.” You don’t hear me ask too many rhetorical questions – it should be a two-way conversation, there should be a familiarity with each other and the audience should feel familiar and comfortable with what you’re doing. I’ve been very, very fortunate.
You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79). He is not available for after-dinner speaking, but I’m sure we could sort something out for a reasonable fee.