Commentators’ Tales…

So how do you get a job like mine? If only there were a straight answer I could give you…

To offer you a clue or two, myself and a few colleagues are revealing how we first got our hands on a microphone, and providing some tips on how to keep hold of it.

Clive Tyldesley
ITV Commentator

Job Centre:
1975 – 77 – Radio Trent, Nottingham
1977 – 89 – Radio City, Liverpool
1989 – 92 – Granada Television Sport, Manchester
1992 – 96 – BBC Television Sport, London
1996 – ?? – ITV Sport, London

When did you know?
8ish – I think I always wanted to be a commentator. I was that slightly odd boy that wrote up all the match reports for the school magazine. I could listen to Radio 2’s Sports Report from beginning to end, and even had my own favourite correspondents (ask your dad about Bill Bothwell). And when I ran around the garden with a ball at my feet I was (of course) commentating out loud. Still do, actually.

Education Education?
Kirkham Grammar School, Lancashire (9 ‘O’ levels, 3 ‘A’ levels (ABB)).
University of Nottingham (2/2 – BA Industrial Economics).
There were only a handful of media-related further education courses around back in the 19th century when I was educated. I made copious contributions to the school mag and the varsity newspaper. And I twice wrote and performed in the university comedy review at the Edinburgh Festival. It was through that production I made my first contacts with local radio. BBC Radio Nottingham gave me my first rejection!

Rejections (Yah Boo Sucks!)
Radio Nottingham/Piccadilly Radio
(Back at the very beginning as a smelly, long-haired, know-it-all 20 year old economics undergraduate. Can’t think why they couldn’t see the potential!)

BBC Radio Sport
(Four separate stuffy interview boards over a six-year period of my spell at Radio City. They broke my heart every single time. I soooo wanted to work for BBC Radio 2)

Central Television
(Lost out to Peter Brackley in a ‘commentate-off’ for Huw Johns’ job around 1982. I wasn’t nearly ready! Great experience, though – heck, I met Gary Newbon for the first time!)

Biggest breaks?
First job – Broadcast Assistant at Radio Trent
(The first break is always the biggest. Nottingham’s commercial station came on air the very day I graduated. They had already offered me a ‘tea boy’s job’ three weeks before I took my finals, thus sparing me the motivation to cram towards a 2/1)

Arriving on Merseyside in 1977
(Joined Radio City a month before Liverpool won their first European Cup, and six months before Elton Welsby left for ITV – both momentous events in clearing the way for me to cover a decade of extraordinary football on Merseyside)

Returning to ITV in 1996
(Working at the Beeb was a boyhood ambition realised, but my prodigal son’s return to ITV came just as the late great Brian Moore began to seriously consider retirement. Two years on, and I was sitting alongside Big Ron at the pick of the network’s Champions League and international games. ‘Name on the trophy’).

Best advice?
Don’t be late.
(After several bottles of wine at Brian Moore’s retirement do, the old maestro put his arm around my shoulder and said “you’ve only got to remember two things…. be on time and be warm enough…. then it’s up to you.”  Ergo – take away all excuses. Fail to prepare and prepare to fail.)

Stop trying to be Motty.
(My biggest influence as a boss was Paul Doherty, one-time head of Granada Sport. He gave me around 500 rollickings, but the most memorable was “Stop trying to be Motty. He’s a lot better at being Motty than you are.” Ergo – be yourself.)

Commentate to your grandma.
(The best specific advice I’ve received on commentary all came from the late Reg Gutteridge. After one England game he asked me, “Why were you commentating to the England manager? He was at the game. Don’t try to impress, try to inform. Commentate to your grandma. She counts as one viewer just like everybody else.”)

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Martin Tyler
Sky Sports Commentator

Job Centre:
Staff writer Marshall Cavendish Publishers on “The Book of Football”
LWT editorial assistant on the The Big Match and On The Ball
Commentator Southern Television
Commentator Yorkshire Television
Commentator Granada Television
ITV network commentator/ reporter
Commentator British Satellite Broadcasting
Commentator B Sky B
+ various freelance tournament work with SBS Australia and ESPN USA

When did you know?
Not until I realised I would not be a full time player. After five years in non-league football.

Education Education?
State educated under the old grammar school system at RGS Guildford
BA Hons Social Studies University of East Anglia
MA Sociology University of East Anglia

Rejections (Yah Boo Sucks!)
BBC Radio
(But Jim Rosenthal got the job so I have never felt bad about it!)

Biggest breaks?
Staff writer
(My girlfriend Dianne Owen knew the art editor on what was a secret project at Marshall Cavendish. So I was able to apply to  “The Book of Football” ahead of the field. My only journalism to that point was writing match reports for the university newspaper of the UEA games I was playing in.

LWT Editorial Assistant
(Working under Brian James, at Marshall Cavendish. Brian who is still writing now was a top of the range football reporter for the Daily Mail in the sixties. He opened his contacts’ book to help me. A brilliant man.

Southern Television
(Brian fixed me up with a job ghost-writing for Jimmy Hill. I had turned down he chance to join LWT because I wanted to keep playing, but Jimmy told me I was mad. “You never know where it will lead you” was his great piece of advice. I went home from his house, rang LWT again, said I was interested and the rest, you know!)

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Peter Drury
ITV Commentator

Job Centre:
Part-time work with The East Kent Gazette and Kent Cricketcall
1988 – 90 – Hayters (The sports reporting agency on Fleet Street at the time.)
1990 – 93 – BBC Radio Leeds
1993 – 98 – BBC Network Radio Sport
1998 – ?? – ITV Sport

When did you know?
Since I can remember! I used to commentate on my Mum ironing…my Dad walking out of the house to buy the paper…anything and everything…and, of course, Subbuteo. I would close (and lock!) my bedroom door every Saturday afternoon in order that Sport on 2 and the incomparable Peter Jones and Bryon Butler (not to mention Peter Lorenzo, Bill Bothwell etc) went uninterrupted. I don’t recall a time when I didn’t want to be a commentator (at least until I became one and realised that there are bad days at the office!)

Education, Education?
St. Johns School, Leatherhead – 12 O Levels, 3 A Levels
Hull University – 2/2 in politics…and many happy Saturday afternoons at Boothferry Park, cheering for “Brian Horton’s Black-and-Amber army”!
Certainly “in my day”, the subject of one’s degree rarely had much to do with one’s intended career path. Perhaps that has changed… but I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that a “Media” degree qualifies anyone to be a football commentator!

Biggest Breaks?
(Being employed as a wet-behind-the-ears graduate by Fleet Street legend Reg Hayter who was responsible for starting many careers in sports journalism. He engaged me because of my handshake, my manners and my attitude. The rest, he believed, would look after itself. He was my foot in the door.)

Radio Leeds
My first full-time broadcasting job was with an ambitious, sports-oriented local station which was – at the time – a “peach” of an editorial patch. Leeds United were champions on my watch…Yorkshire cricket (Boycott etc) were always in the news, plus bags of Rugby League and much else. It meant that (a) I had a terrific grounding in all sorts of presentation/reporting/commentating and (b) my work was regularly “networked” and noticed by the big cheeses in London.

BBC Network Radio Sport
(Being considered the young, promising kid on the radio block at the time when the great Brian Moore decided to hang up his mic. Network TV posts come up about once every 300 years (or so it feels when you’re young and ambitious), so although there was plenty of competition around, I was lucky to be considered the natural, next cab off the rank when ITV needed another voice.)

All 3 of the above: right time, right place. “Luck” is the single most important factor.

Best advice?
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
(Of course, the aim should always be to do the job the best you can (preparation must be a “given”), but you’d have to scour the job pages pretty thoroughly to find a job less important than “shouting footballers’ names”! This job is not going to save the planet!)

Relish it.
(Thousands and thousands of people would love to do what you’re doing. You can come off the gantry having articulated a dreadful game, feel “rubbish” about it, and then realise that for many people that game was a very expensive treat. You were at least paid to be there!)

Be humble.
(No one (except, perhaps, your Mum) has turned the TV on because of you. The attraction is the match – don’t spoil it!)

Be lucky!

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Steve Wilson
BBC Commentator

Job Centre:
1990 – 91 – Associate Publishing, London
1991 – 97 – Capital Radio, London
1997 – 98 – Freelance at Sky TV, TWI, BBC Radio, IRN, Talksport
1998 – 02 – BBC Radio FiveLive
2002 – ?? – BBC TV

When did you know?
My Mum says she knew when I rubbed the hair off the side of my head playing Big League (a 1970’s subutteo rip off) on my bedroom floor. I would make crowd noises and commentate as I moved around with the side of my head rubbing along the carpet for that authentic “dug-out” view. I would then write match reports on the games I played. I was about eight and probably a bit weird.

Later inspiration came from listening to Peter Jones on Radio Two. I first realised you might make money out of watching football when, during a night in the pub along with two friends, a plan was hatched to travel Europe for a year watching football and sending a football/travelogue article each week to the Liverpool Echo. The trip never happened but all three of us now have jobs related to football.

Education Education?
Birkenhead School – I forget how many average ‘O’ levels (about 8) and 4 ‘A’ Levels The headmaster was a former Welsh rugby union international and playing football was strictly banned.
Surrey University – a year of Hotel and Catering Management – I left with my tail firmly between my legs.
Liverpool University – 2/1 in English Language and Literature. I did my first radio stuff (as a DJ!) on Surrey’s University Radio station and later wrote determinedly about Tranmere Rovers for the Liverpool University students’ newspaper.

Rejections (Yah Boo Sucks!)
(Rejected by the BBC on many occasions. First as an applicant to their post-graduate news journalism trainee scheme; though making the final interview looked good enough on my CV to get a foot in the door at Capital Radio a year or so later.)
They also turned me down three times for jobs on FiveLive when I was trying to move on from Capital Radio. They took me at the fifth time of asking.

Biggest breaks
Being made redundant
(Firstly, being made redundant by Associate Publishing. It made me contact Capital Radio in the hope of some work.)

At Anfield
(As a very green reporter when QPR were 3 – 1 up against Liverpool. Capital Radio’s Senior Sports producer, Pete Simmons, asked if I was up for doing some commentary on the last ten minutes of the game – it was my first attempt at commentating to anyone other than myself.)

On Radio Five
(Being a new, youngish voice on Radio Five at a time that Match of the Day were looking for new, youngish voices.)

Best advice?
Don’t leave your application for another job on your boss’ desk by mistake. Luckily, he took it well.

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Jon Champion
ESPN Commentator

Job Centre:
BBC Radio York (freelance contributor)
BBC Radio Leeds
1990 – 96 – BBC Network Radio Sport

1996 – 01 – BBC Television Sport

2001 – 09 – ITV Sport (inc 2007-09 Setanta Sports)

2009 – ?? – ESPN

When did you know?
I’m not one of those commentators who will tell you they knew they wanted to do the job from the moment they left the womb! I happened upon sports broadcasting through luck as opposed to planning, but having first got a taste at the age of 19, I realised it was a huge opportunity. If you’d asked me a year earlier what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t have had a clue! However, sport had always played a big part in my life, and I had considered written journalism as an option.

Education Education?
Archbishop Holgate’s Grammar School, York
Trinity & All Saints College, Leeds (BA in Communication & Cultural Studies with Public Media (Not the hardest course in the academic world, but the one with the longest title!)
The course I did was validated by Leeds University. It was a forerunner of modern Media degrees. The beauty of it was that it offered work placements and also the freedom to develop a broadcasting career on local radio at weekends. I went because after a few freelance contributions to my local radio station in York, the powers that be called me in and said they thought I had what it took to forge a career with the BBC. However, I was barely 19 and they wanted me to go away and do a degree (it could have been anything!) before entering the industry full-time.

Rejections (Yah Boo Sucks!)
I have been remarkably lucky on the rejections front, largely because I didn’t know in time that I wanted to be a commentator so didn’t go through the ‘spotty teenager knocking on doors’ routine. Therefore, no one had the opportunity to say no to me.

Biggest breaks?
Playing cricket

(The biggest break of all was playing in a cricket match in York in 1984, scoring a few runs, and then being called to the payphone in the cricket club bar to do an interview with the local radio station about my knock. Fortified by a couple of pints of Tetley’s bitter, I waxed lyrical for a couple of minutes and thought no more about it. Two weeks later, the phone rang at home. It was the Sports Editor of Radio York asking if I would like to do some football and rugby reporting for them that winter – he had liked the sound of my voice! As a 19 year old taking a year out before university and with no firm career plans, there was only one answer. Within a few weeks, the BBC said they recognised potential in me – I combined a degree and local radio for 3 years to learn the job and make contacts. Six weeks before my Finals, a job came up at the BBC in Leeds. I was encouraged to apply – and one successful interview later, I was on my way.

Eric Cantona
The other break in my career was provided by Eric Cantona. I was the BBC Radio commentator at Selhurst Park the night that Eric decided to jump into the crowd. For a commentator, it was a gift – a moment so unusual and dramatic that the words just came. Listening in his bath to the commentary that night was BBC Television’s long-serving Head of Sport, Jonathan Martin. Unbeknown to me, he was looking for a young commentator to fill his rota whilst John Motson took a sabbatical. A few days later, a call came from a senior executive at the BBC – Brian Barwick by name – asking me to pop in for a chat. That was the start of my transition from radio to TV… and all thanks to Eric!

Best advice?
Be yourself.
(If you try to model yourself on a Motson or a Tyldesley, you’ll never be as good as the real thing.)

Less is more.
(All of us – without exception – talk too much. Have the strength and belief to recognise that a good picture will always tell a story more effectively than a hundred words.)
Enjoy yourself.
(It’s glib to say a commentator’s job is better than working, but it’s true. There’s no excuse for sounding miserable or disinterested.)

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Rob Hawthorne
Sky Sports

Job Centre:
1983 – 89 – BBC Local Radio – WM, Humberside, York.
1989 – 95 – BBC Network Radio
1995 – ?? – Sky

When did you know?
By the age of ten or eleven I had realised that, being among the last picks in the playground, I was never going to be the new John Richards or ‘Bomber’ Brown. I tried out my commentary technique, and distinctly remember doing my own version of Southampton’s win in the 1976 FA Cup Final. Barry Davies and John Motson were immensely helpful with feedback.

Education, Education?
I went to the same school as Lenny Henry, though a few years later. There were some excellent teachers at Blue Coat School, Dudley, especially the English teacher Pat Montgomery, with whom I am still in touch. Judging by his rave reviews for ‘Othello’, Lenny was similarly inspired!

Rejections (Yah Boo Sucks!)
Too many to list – they must have known something! I have never actually got a job directly from an application. Fortunately, broadcasting is such a small village that, once you are established and people like your work, they come to you.

Biggest breaks?
Winning a commentator competition for a local radio station in Birmingham at the age of fourteen. After that, I helped out around the studio, did some part-time reporting while I was studying ‘A’ Levels, and then they offered a full-time role.

Best advice?
1) Enjoy it.
It’s better than being stuck down a Chilean mine.
2) Don’t worry about the level at which you start.
Volunteering to make teas and answer phones is a good foot in the door.
3) Criticism?
Get over it! We are in the business of commenting on others so should expect others to comment on us.

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Guy Mowbray
BBC Commentator

Job Centre:
Part-time / freelance
Clubcall, TeamTalk, BBC Radio York – plus various other BBC & independent local radio stations (all whilst working, amongst other places, at John Smiths Brewery!)
Minster FM, Sun FM (then the embarrassingly and inappropriately named Sun City 103.4 FM), Metro Radio
1997 – 99 – Eurosport
1999 – 04 – ITV
2004 – ?? – BBC

When did you know?
I think everything comes back to ‘base instinct’. I’m told that my brother as a child was obsessed with his toy Casdon Cash Register – he’s now a highly successful accountant. I remember ‘commentating’ on local Saturday afternoon games from the ‘gantry’ of my bedroom window. Our house backed on to the local playing field and I had a wonderful view straight down the pitch from behind the goal. That said, I never thought of it as a career option until I was 21 and going nowhere fast in life.
Any far-fetched hope of earning money from playing football had died (although it never does really – come on, be honest!!), and my dad got sick of me hanging around the house doing precious little. The simple sentence “All you know is football, why don’t you think about reporting on it as you can’t play it?” spurred me into action. I should point out that ‘can’t play it’ I still consider harsh – and it’s not all I know!

Education Education?
9 GCSE’s – 6 A’s in there!
2 A’s, a B & a C at A Level
Bradford University – left after 1 year of a Business Degree just to take a bit of time off from studying. Technically then I’m still on my ‘year out’. So far I’ve enjoyed it hugely! Apart from the odd refresher in media law & a few training courses all the rest has been lessons learned ‘on the job’. The best education has been and always will be watching football and storing up the knowledge, plus listening to the voices of experience from those steeped in the game – from the media or football side.

Rejections (Yah Boo Sucks!)
From hundreds of letters written that didn’t get a reply.

By BBC Radio Cleveland when starting out. The only job interview I’ve ever failed.

By ITV after 5 years there that I loved. Not quite a rejection – most of their football rights had been lost – but it hurt then and still does a bit now to be honest.

Biggest breaks?
From too many people to mention in great detail – so much of this is about timely good fortune, be it self-manufactured or just plain old-fashioned luck.
The one that got me started was getting a phone call from John Temple – Clubcall co-ordinator for Yorkshire and the North East in the early 90’s. His was a rare reply to one of my many speculative letters. “Come and shadow me on Saturday” he said. I did – and it all started. York City 0-2 Brentford 23 October 1993.

Best advice?
Be available and reliable.
When starting out make sure you say yes to as much work as you can – even the unpaid stuff. You might well be paid back by the experience you gain long term.  In this industry the paranoia of losing a ‘gig’ to someone else stays with you forever – in some ways not a bad thing!

Be natural.
Don’t copy anyone – you will find your own style without realising it.

Be in it because you love football and you have knowledge of football.
If you’re starting out just wanting to be famous and on the telly then do us all a favour and stick to acting or light entertainment. You might get so far, but you will be found out.

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To be continued…