We spent an hour talking to Clive Tyldesley about TV football commentary, where it’s headed and its place in the modern game. It was brilliant. Here’s what he had to say – once we had taken out all the swears and all the names.
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On football’s unique challenges
Cricket and golf coverage is very different from football and rugby coverage. There is no need for a name-caller in cricket or golf. Every commentator in cricket or golf is really a co-commentator; there is almost a requirement to have played the sport to a reasonably high level. Because all you are adding is insight.
Football and rugby are less structured. If I was pressed to name my favourite commentator it would be the late Pat Summerall, who was John Madden’s straight man on NFL. I like him for lots of reasons, but I would say NFL is a little easier because it has that bit of structure somewhere between the two.
I think in football or rugby there is the need for the Guy Mowbray or the Nick Mullins who hasn’t played the sport to an exceptionally high level, but who can identify the players, build the drama, give it some journalistic and editorial context and then leave it to the Gary Neville or the Lawrence Dallaglio to add some expertise that we will never gather because we will never go across that white line.
The job of the co-commentator is to go across that white line and come back and tell us what it’s like, how football matches are won and lost. In cricket and golf I think all commentators need to be able to do that, because we can see what we’re watching so all the commentary is reflective.
I’m not saying it’s easier, but it’s different. Sky’s cricket, with a bit of technological assistance, is excellent. But it will never have that uncertainty that comes the moment the referee blows the first whistle in a game of football.
On saying it as you see it
Somebody once said to me about the late, great Peter Jones that he could make a bad game sound good. And I in my rather stubborn and perverse way said ‘That’s not a quality, that’s a weakness’. But also Peter Jones would not be guilty of that. You’ve got it wrong. I don’t think it’s a crime for any commentator to call a bad game a bad game. I do think it’s a crime to make it sound like it’s wasting your time and you’d rather not be there, because there are thousands and probably millions of people who would change places with you in a heartbeat.
But I think you do need you need to editorialise. The most important people in this entire relationship are your audience.
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On the challenges of pitching a commentary to different audiences
You’ve got to identify your audience and talk to them. And that audience is different for a World Cup semi-final on ITV or BBC when it’s touching 30 million than it is for a Europa Conference game with a 5.30pm kick-off on TNT between two mainland European clubs.
There is an argument for explaining the offside law at some point during that semi-final, because your Uncle Joe and Aunty Edith who don’t watch football are watching this game. It’s one of the two or three games they’re going to watch.
Reg Gutteridge had this thing about not talking over people’s heads. I think sports like, say, F1 are very difficult for a commentator. I’ve got a passing interest in F1, and I don’t really know what the DRS zone is. I’ve got a rough idea, but I don’t really know. Yet if Martin Brundle explained it every time he referred to it, then the petrolheads would all switch off. So when your audience is a big one it truly is diverse – not just in terms of race, or gender or sexual orientation – but in terms of football fans and those who’ve just heard something big is happening. And you’ve got to be able to talk to all of them.
The truly great sports broadcasters – and not just sports broadcasters – have that. It really is quite a skill to talk down a microphone or into that little hole in a camera in an aircraft hanger of a studio and make it seem like you’re talking to that one person sat alone on their sofa or in bed with their tablet.
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Warmth is the most important quality in any great communicator. Why is Ally McCoist as popular as he is? Because you feel as if you know him and you feel as if you’d like him – and by the way you’d be right. And yet he is a true legend of the game.
When I work with him I keep reminding him who he is. Probably only just behind Dalglish and Law in terms of legends in Scottish football. So in terms of lived experience, he’s up there with most of them. I actually try to cut down on the conversational, chummy banter part of commentary with him. There’s always going to be an element of that, because people love that, but I think his views are strong and I think they resonate with people because he’s able to cut through with his warmth and charm and his humour. And that is such a quality.
I do think that finding that ability to communicate, and a lot of it is instinctive, is the true skill of broadcasting. You can start to rattle off names from football or cricket or golf or tennis that we just feel as if we’d like, and that is a fantastic talent to bring to communication.
I think that is a really important quality in football commentary. You can lose that if you try to get too clever or too flowery or too poetic. Try to use the words that people use. If I hear a word recurring in my commentary when I watch it back, or a word that I think is inappropriate or a word that is becoming a bit cliché or passe I’ll start thinking of what other words I might say in their place. But I won’t go to a thesaurus for those. I’ll try to think of an everyday phrase that is appropriate and usable to illustrate a moment of a football match.
On thinking before you speak
I hear lots of commentators who think and speak at the same time. It’s stream of consciousness. They’re just saying what’s on their mind. Now there are times in a commentary when you’ve got to do that. But there are times when you don’t.
Reg Gutteridge used to say the silences are not resting times, they’re thinking times. What are you going to say next? And how are you going to say it? How are you going to say it in the most concise and precise way that will illustrate something or give viewers something else to think about it.
Now how many commentators do you really hear now who are really considering what they’re going to say before they say it. It’s terribly arrogant of me to say it, but let me say I don’t hear enough of it.
It’s a test of concentration. It’s a staring competition, you’ve got to watch the game. The best piece of advice and the most simple. In cricket, what’s the best piece of advice for a batsman? Watch the ball. Commentary is the same. Watch the game. Okay, you’ve got to look down at your notes from time to time, you’ve got some prepared thoughts or maybe some information you want to introduce. But watch the game. Think about the game and then add something to the game. That’s all the job is.
On the same old cliches in the same old style
I believe too many contemporary commentators suffer from an inability to find the vocabulary and the editorial thinking to build a game.
It’s really depressing to hear a 30-year-old commentator talk about ‘turning on a sixpence’. They went out of circulation in 1971! You’re just regurgitating the same cliches that we were warned against a hundred years ago.
Actually, football commentary hasn’t changed a great deal. You’re using the same style, and tone and phrases that were ridiculed in Private Eye 40 years ago.
I don’t want to name specific names, but I am more than happy to say that too many contemporary commentators – whatever their age or background – are just parroting the commentators they grew up with and I don’t think this – it’s not an art form – but this method of communication is actually moving anywhere.
I don’t hear them improving, and I’m not sure they have the time or inclination to listen back to their content which I think is the only way to learn. I don’t think they’re getting much in the way of feedback, editorially, because there’s always another programme on the slates.
On schedules and workloads
Some of the commentators, perhaps simply because of the economics of their life, cover three or four or five games in a week. I don’t think it can be special enough for that viewer or listener for whom this is the most important game of the month if you’ve done commentaries the three previous nights.
I don’t think that’s enough time for you to gear yourself up, for you to think about the words you’re going to use, to think about the editorial background to the game, to listen to your previous commentary and to think about how you can improve on it.
And I don’t hear improvement in enough of the commentators that I’m listening to on a regular basis, and that troubles me an awful lot more than it does their editors – or possibly even the public.
And they’re not listening to other commentators, because you’re always working. You’re not being the person you need to be for the consumer and this applies in any industry; if you’re making liquorice sticks from time to time you need to go and taste your rivals’ liquorice sticks so you can appreciate what they’re doing and what you’re not doing. And I just don’t think there’s now time for enough of that.
I did two games in two nights twice during December for Amazon Prime because that’s the work they offered me. I’d have been much happier because the games were spread over three nights to do one on the first night and one on the third.
What I did have before those was a week or 10 days free beforehand, so I could at least do a lot of the research. So that on the day of the second game all I was doing was adding a bit to that and thinking about the context of that game, the jeopardy of that game, what victory would mean for either side. Actually turning my attention to the kind of things that are likely to come up in the commentary rather than that comfort blanket of having notes on every player that I will probably only ever use 10 per cent of. But I wouldn’t have wanted to do it again the following week, because I don’t think you can give enough attention to that game.
Editors and heads of sport need to look at how they use their commentators. Because I think you need a full day ahead of matchday to make that game as imporant to you as to your audience.
On techniques and technicals
I think commentary is a technique. It’s a technique that you need to learn and improve and hone. It’s often said that commentators talk too much. Okay, that’s a sweeping generalisation, but where I hear football commentators over-talking is where they describe action and events that don’t require description and get behind the play. So instead of shouting “Haaland!” as he hits it, they’re still saying “It’ll come to his right foot!” or “He’s found himself in space!”.
It’s a technicality and maybe it matters to nobody other than me that they’re not saying that player’s name as he sends the ball goalwards but that is a technique that I think is important. And I think it’s a feature of good commentary. But unless you’re watching your work back and seeing it in your own work… I think they could improve in half and hour of sitting and watching that. But I don’t think that half-hour exists in the treadmill that they’re on.
I don’t think enough editors can identify that as being a technical issue which could be easily corrected. But I think in terms of improving as a commentator, which we should all be striving to do, that is one thing quite apart from vocabulary, or editorialising, or your ability to set a scene and give something a sense of occasion – simply on those technicalities I think they could improve if they had time to sit down and review their material.
It is a profession. And like any profession you need apprenticeship, you need tuition, you need mentoring, you need to review it with experts and you need to try to improve.
And I’m not sure there’s enough time and perhaps even the will – and I know this sounds arrogant but I don’t hear too many of you improving. I think it’s partly down to circumstances, but I think the onus is on you to listen to your own work and identify and correct those technical issues.
I would say to everyone, maybe watch the next few games you watch thinking about these kind of technical points I’m making and decide whether, subliminally, actually it does matter to you.
On commentary’s importance
On at least half-a-dozen occasions I’ve had abuse on social media for a game I’m not at. I’m sat at home with a glass of wine. It’s not me! I’ve never even worked for that channel! And of course the abuse grows and the monstrous nature of X or Twitter is that once you’re identified as being that tw*t who’s just said this, everybody starts to comment on it and there’s one lone voice going “I don’t think that’s Clive, actually.”
But that’s how important we are – we’re not, really. It’s obviously the pictures that are important. But I think commentary is still important to people. We’re the soundtrack. Nobody ever goes to the cinema to listen to the soundtrack. If the soundtrack is sh*t, though, you’re aware of it. But as long as the soundtrack augments the pictures and captures the spirit of the movie, then it’s a great soundtrack. And that’s what we provide, the soundtrack.
The analogy with referees I think is very nearly spot on. You don’t notice a referee until they’ve got a big call to make. You judge the referee when there’s that big call to make, and I think you judge the commentator when there’s a big moment, and whether that person can find the words that will become a part of that moment for time immemorial.
On his most famous line
When people say “Oh, 1999…” I go “I didn’t score the goals you know, I didn’t make the substitutions.” And actually “And Solskjaer has won it” commits the biggest crime any commentator can commit, because I called United the winners before they’d actually crossed the line. If Bayern had gone up the other end and equalised and then won on penalties – and the Germans always won shootouts then – there would have been effigies of me hanging from the Arndale Centre that night.
On the peril and privilege of a huge audience
I would never do a commentator top 10, but when thinking about commentators I will always factor in – especially in the modern era – those who’ve shared the privilege and the peril of commentating to more than 20 million people. A big Sky audience is three or four million. A big BBC or ITV audience in a big tournament is 20 or 25 million.
I just think when you’ve been up to the top diving board then you can talk about it. That’s where the peril is, that’s where the jeopardy is. When you’re exposed to that kind of audience, which with the greatest respect the leads on Sky or TNT never would be.