Martin Tyler has been a football commentator for 41 years, for ITV and then Sky. He’s been around for the lifetime of the Premier League, and it wouldn’t feel the same without him…
Martin, you started in television rather than doing radio first – was that unusual?
Yes, I think it is unusual. I did try out in radio but I didn’t get anywhere. I was very fortunate to start in journalism in an odd way really. It was a magazine – well technically it was called a ‘part-work’, a football related weekly publication that you collected and put into binders and built up a sort of encyclopedic tome…[and through that] I got to know some people at LWT. After that, one of the jobs I had was ghosting a column for a Sunday newspaper for the great Jimmy Hill – the now sadly late Jimmy Hill – and so he would phone me up on the Tuesday and say ‘I want to do something on Brian Clough’ for example. It was my job then to get hold of Brian Clough, which was a lot easier in those days, and to get a few quotes, knock it into some sort of shape and Jimmy would do the rest.
Anyway about this time – it was August 1973 – I’d been offered this job in television and turned it down. I told him this story and he looked at me horrified. He sat me down and said I must take this job – “You never know where it will lead you,” were his exact words. He was a very charismatic man and he got into my head. I phoned up and said ‘Look is the job still available?’ I got taken on, on a trial basis, I did a couple of test tapes for them and I got lucky that Southern Television – which is now Meridian – needed somebody as a one off. I did three tests for them and the fourth one I ever did, which was the first one I ever did for real, was for real. That was December 28th 1974, Southampton v Sheffield Wednesday. And at the end of the game the producer, who was quite a plummy chap, said ‘Well, old boy. Well done and we’ve got another game in a couple of weeks, would you like to do that?’ And the other trite thing I say is that people have been saying ‘We’ve got another game, would you like to do that?’ ever since, really.
You used to play to a reasonable standard, didn’t you?
I played for a famous club but not a very good club – Corinthian Casuals, in what is now the Ryman Premier League, but I don’t want to talk it up too much. There was no Conference in those days, so the league was the best in the south-east of England in non-league football. It was a very good standard, but I was in the worst or the second-worst team. There was no promotion or relegation so we just got on with it, but there were some great people. Micky Stewart was the manager for a little while, he didn’t really fancy me, but he became England’s cricket manager and Alec Stewart went on to become one of England’s greatest cricketers – Alec used to come and watch us play when he was about four or five years old. We played teams like Wycombe Wanderers, Maidstone United who went into the Football League, Hendon, Enfield, Woking, St Albans. I was a forward in a bad team, so you can imagine how tough that was. I’d play four or five games in the first team, not score because we never made any chances and get dropped, then score plenty of goals in the reserves, come back in again and the same thing happened. But it was lovely and I treasure those times.
Skipping forward quite a few years – when did you start working for Sky?
Well, there was a transitional period and I did 17 years for ITV which was a wonderful training ground. I had fantastic help from people so I’ve still got huge respect for ITV Sport, they taught me my trade really. I was lucky enough to do the World Cup Final for ITV in 1982. I was not exactly thrown in at the deep end, but I wasn’t scheduled to do it – Brian Moore was the number one commentator but he was also the number one presenter, so he didn’t come to the final and almost by default, I did it. Then there was a company called British Satellite Broadcasting which was famous for the ‘squarial’. I went to BSB from ITV in March 1990 and then in November 1990 Sky took over BSB so we – we being Andy Gray, Richard Keys, Andy Melvin who became head of football at Sky. Vic Wakling ran the channel at Sky Sports and did a fantastic job – we were all sort of part of the deal that they bought really. We didn’t know if they were going to get rid of us or keep us. So that was November 1990, we worked through in a sort of halfway house position in the 90/91 season, then the 91/92 season and then the summer of 1992 Sky got the Premier League. I guess you could say it was a case of being in the right place at the right time.
It must have been quite a gamble to go to BSB/Sky from ITV…
Yeah, it was. But Brian Moore had stopped presenting so [games] were very few and far between. It was a gamble, but I got a good piece of advice from a guy called John Hockey who was around the commentators at the time. I’d said I don’t think I should go, I can stay at ITV, if I go to BSB nobody will be watching and he said ‘Well, maybe nobody will be watching, but I tell you who will be watching – everybody in football.’ And that triggered something in me and I thought well, I’ve got to convince everybody that I can do this job and the football people are the most important people really, so he was right. I see him from time to time, and never do I see him without thanking him, because but for him I wouldn’t have gone. I would definitely have taken the safer option because my two children were born in 1987 and 1989 so I had a lot of responsibility around that time.
One of the things that Clive Tyldsley told us was that he always has a very good personal relationship with all of his co commentators – have you found that? And do you think that is important from a professional perspective?
Yeah, I like to think so. I mean, Andy Gray and I were together for 17, 18 years, we could almost finish each others sentences, which I’m sure must have happened sometimes and was probably quite aggravating. I’ve always said, football is a game full of togetherness and television is the same. No two co-commentators that are the same but I think it’s my job to bring the best out of them. That’s what I certainly set out to do.
I think I read a story that you told about someone in Brazil recognising your voice when you were checking into a hotel from FIFA (Tyler does the commentary for the FIFA series of computer games). Does that happen a lot?
It’s happened a few times, and obviously, it’s very flattering. The one in Brazil was the lad from Ecuador who played FIFA in English. He said to me ‘FIFA?’ and I said, ‘No no I’m from television’ – I obviously thought that he thought that I was checking in as a member of the organizing committee or something like that.
Your enthusiasm for the game definitely comes across in your commentary. You sound like someone who is obviously experienced, but you also sound like someone who is doing this for the first time, in that you’re still massively enthusiastic about the game…
That’s how I like to see it but if you look at it like this – the next game is always the most important, people always ask you about what’s the best game or this that and the other, but once one game is over, all you think about is the next game. It’s a fascinating procedure to prepare for it because you just don’t know which aspect of your research you will need. At the moment I’m preparing for Liverpool against Manchester United (ED’S NOTE: This interview took place in early January). Now, who could have prepared for Steven Gerrard coming on in this fixture last season and getting sent off straight away? You can’t prepare for that, you have to react to that.
I don’t know how many games I do a season but I’m probably pleased with about two or three of them. Because there’s so many things that you know you could have said, or should have said, or would have said. Presenters on TV have got a thirty second link to deliver to the screen, and they can do that perfectly. Ninety minutes of talking about a game that has got no script to it – you are challenged with every sentence really. But it’s lovely and the challenge is to try and get as close to being pleased with it as you can. When you start you think a lot about making mistakes and how to avoid them, but there comes a point where you accept that you are going to make mistakes, you try to minimise them, so you worry a little bit less about it and you try and concentrate on the things that you are there for. Which I think is to inform, to identify the players – that’s the most important thing – to add some information that is relevant and to play a part in interpreting the game really.
I feel like I represent the viewers, I represent the supporters. What would they like to know? What can I tell them that they’ll think is useful knowledge? You’re not going to tell them that it’s somebody’s 283rd game, are you? But if it’s their birthday or if it’s their 50th goal, I will. I had Harry Kane at Everton the other day hitting the inside of the post, it went along the line and came out the other side, and it would have been his 50th goal for Spurs, which he’s now subsequently got, but those are things that are in your mind where you think ‘If I don’t mention that maybe I’ve missed a trick.’ But it’s all about the players, it’s all about the excitement of the game and the spectacle, and I have an expression about trying to get ‘the smell’ of the fixture, really. That’s what I try to do beforehand and hopefully I can carry that sense through to the final whistle. So, that’s what I try to do and I hope I can do it for a little while longer.
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