Statistically speaking, most football fans do not get their fix of live games wedged into bucket seats within spitting distance of the players. While plenty make trips to Premier and Football League grounds around the country, millions more take a pew at home or in the pub to shout at the TV. Worldwide audiences for Premier League games regularly top 30 million and for marquee games such as Manchester United against Arsenal can exceed 250 million.
Although pictures tell most of the story, our guides through the action in these far-flung televised games are commentators. Comment and analysis is widespread pre and post games, but during the 90 minutes, as tomorrow’s back pages are being shaped and heroes and villains are being made, there’s one authoritative voice, telling us who, what, where and when. Sky television’s position as the dominant force in Premier League coverage means that more often than not, the voice that is helping you through belongs to Martin Tyler.
Sky’s lead commentator for the last 20 years since the start of the Premier League era, Martin, now 65, got there through ghost-writing for Jimmy Hill and a 17-year stint for ITV. When Sky set out their bold new vision for the future of football coverage in 1992, he was in the media equivalent of the Goldilocks-zone – just young enough to be fresh and durable, but experienced enough to be able to handle the pressure.
He took some time out from preparation for Sunday’s Community Shield and his role as coach at Kingstonian FC to speak to Footy Matters about his career, how the game he loves has developed and his move into the world of computer games.
Footy Matters: How did you get started in football journalism?
Martin Tyler: I didn’t really have any great plans to do it. I went to university and then got a job – mainly due to my parents wish for me to get gainful employment.
I just wanted to play football and was playing non-league, so I quit my market research job and was heading for the dole to be honest.
Fortunately my girlfriend at the time knew somebody who worked in publishing and heard from this friend that there was a football magazine starting, published by Marshall Cavendish [Book of Football], and I blagged my way into an interview and got writing.
That was heaven for about 18 months and then it ran its course and I got offered work on other magazines – a DIY one, a sewing one, neither of which are my specialist subject so I bailed out and went freelance as much as I could.
FM: And then tv?
MT: I had met a lot of people in TV through going into LWT and watching highlights. I met a few people there and it led to a job offer but I didn’t take it because I wanted to play and it was a Saturday job. I was working for Jimmy Hill writing his News of the World column at the time and I told him I’d been offered a job. He asked me why I hadn’t taken it and I told him that I was a player. He said ‘how good a player are you?’ I said ‘well not that good!’ and to cut a long story short he persuaded me to take it. I did some test commentaries and got into it from there.
FM: Has the job changed since you first took it up?
MT: Things haven’t changed at all. More of the games are live but you still sit in the stand, you have a monitor in front of you and we still use the lip-mics we used in my first game. My first game had four cameras covering it and now we might have 24 but what I do is still the same – you identify the players, try and give relative information and sort the game out for the viewers.
It’s strange because the first game I ever looked at in a TV studio was the 1973 charity shield – as it was then – between Manchester City and Burnley. Here we are and in a few days time I’ll be commentating on the next Manchester City charity shield game.
FM: What about the game itself – has that changed?
MT: Football’s changed but life changes. There’s more money, the players’ preparations are much more sophisticated, the taboo of live TV is well and truly broken and it’s glamorised the whole thing. The attention now is huge – football’s gone from back page to front page news.
FM: What has Sky’s part been in that change?
MT: Sky have brought it to the people. What I worked on at ITV was a show on a Saturday afternoon for an hour, very limited and the fear was that edited highlights would be so intense that the real thing, live, wouldn’t work. But in the real thing you don’t know what the result is, that’s what keeps you going.
Obviously I believe in what we’ve done at Sky, the expertise is very high, the cameramen know as much about the game as the commentators, everybody is crazy about the game and we try and get that passion over and if we weren’t working on it we’d be watching it. We do it very well, but we should do it very well because we get the maximum opportunity to do it and it would be very remiss for us not to be up to scratch.
FM: Most of the focus on Sky’s output is their Premier League coverage. Do you think they get enough credit for their coverage of other leagues lower down the ladder?
MT: I hope it does, I coach at Kingstonian (currently in the Isthmian Premier) and we sold a player to AFC Wimbledon last season and on Saturday he’ll be playing live on Sky in their opening game in the Football League. It ties it all together really to have that coverage and when I get asked to cover any games outside the Premier League, I’m always very happy to do them. I was a non-league player and any level of full-time football is what it’s all about.
You can see pretty much what you want now and it’s a great compliment to the nature of football. We should praise the game, it’s got a compelling nature to it and anyone can play, whatever your size or shape if you’ve got the right attitude, a bit of ability and get yourself fit. If you put in the preparation you get a lot out which is a sort of microcosm of life.
Without getting too heavy-handed with it, going round a world which has got so many difficulties in it, with football you’ve got something which works in nearly every country and the World Cup in South Africa was a massive success in that respect. There aren’t enough things like football to be honest; I wish the political climate could be as smooth as the football climate. Fundamentally it’s a thrilling game and no two games are the same and as a commentator you never think ‘here we go again’, you can’t wait, particularly at the start of the season.
FM: Do you ever get caught up in the emotion of it all?
MT: I’m an emotional person and I try to give it the emotion it warrants. For me it doesn’t matter who’s playing on the field. I did the game when San Marino scored against England after eight seconds and that was an amazing moment for them and you have to recognise that.
I support Woking and have commentated on them three times and kept myself professional through it. As Kingstonian coach I’d want to beat Woking even though they are my team and you just learn to put it into perspective. You have to turn up and do your best and that’s what I’m doing this weekend for the Community Shield.
FM: You’ve been working on the new FIFA game set to be released soon, what’s it like to be involved with something like that?
MT: It’s great, it’s a wonderfully visual medium with the fantastic graphics and the skills of those who put it together. It’s quite hard work but good fun – you sit in a room with a guide of what the situation is – not a script – and you use your experience to make it seem like you are actually doing it as a real game.
It’s amazing – I have people the night it comes out at the stores and they’re texting me saying ‘I’m in the queue to get the game’ and it’s a very humbling experience. My whole career has been humbling though really, I regard myself as a very lucky fella because I’ve been paid to watch football for a long time now and I’d still pay to watch it as I’m so in love with the game.
FM: You’ve hit retirement age now – any plans to step down?
MT: It will be for other people to retire me and that’s one of the reasons I’m out on the training ground all the time to keep myself fit. I’ve got another 2 and a half years on the contract and even when I do call it a day, I’ll be back at the grounds paying to go and watch anyway.
Tags: Community Shield, FIFA 2012, Kingstonian, Martin Tyler, Premier League, SKy Sports