So many of the best sporting moments aren’t made by the sportsperson, they’re made by the commentator. For nearly 20 years now, Clive Tyldesley has been the face of England commentary on terrestrial television. Many of England’s best moments in that time-frame have been articulated quite memorably by him. He kindly accepted the chance to tell me what he feels it means to cover the Three Lions’ travels around the globe. Here’s what the Lancastrian reporter had to say…
“My career as an England commentator began properly with the second leg of the [Euro 2000 qualification] play-off against Scotland at Wembley in late 1999. I had covered a handful of England matches prior to that – I was the BBC’s commentator on the pre-Euro ’96 tour to the Far East, I went to Le Tournoi the following year, I was ITV’s man at the Colombia match at the ’98 World Cup but they were all ‘highlights’ matches. My first live England game was sitting alongside Ron Atkinson for the return with Scotland and it taught me my first big lesson about covering your own national team.
England held a 2-goal aggregate lead at kick-off and so the hard part seemed to be done. Scotland were the better team at Wembley from the off, though. The other unexpected thing that happened from the kick-off is that Ron referred continually to England as ‘we’. I had an editor bending my ear about neutrality and was soon passing notes to Ron asking him to stop the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentions. He ignored them all. When we got to half-time, he threw his headphones off and pointed a finger in my chest. We were and are good friends but he was livid. ‘Listen,’ he said. ‘Am I saying we are crap and they deserve to be in front?’. ‘Yes,’ I replied ‘but you can’t say we and they.’ Ron jabbed me again. ‘Yes I can. Everyone out there from Lands End to John’o’Groats knows that I’m English and that I want us to win. But it’s not affecting my judgement and that’s what I’m here for.’
Ron was right. He was being biased but he was still being objective. The two are very different. England games are not only watched by the biggest viewing audiences in television, they are watched by some of the most committed. Tournament games are national events. Even in our diverse country, the vast majority of the viewers dearly want England to win. So do I. It is not unprofessional to occasionally allow my own commitment to spill over into the commentary as long as I remain objective, as long as I’m still prepared to say – in Ron’s words – we are crap! I don’t say ‘we’ very often and I never say ‘crap’ but I do call big England matches with a slight leaning. The most important thing in good broadcasting is to commentate to your audience. An England audience is different from a club audience, so the broadcast needs to be tailored accordingly.
Because ITV has been the main England channel for several years, I’ve grown personally closer to men like Roy Hodgson, Gareth Southgate, Gary Neville and Steve Holland. All have been extremely helpful to me professionally. I like them all a lot. The relationship remains businesslike but the attachments and affections are much stronger than with club managers.
If England are preparing to play against a lesser-known nation, I am watching videos of that team as avidly as the England management to learn all I can about them. Through my research and contacts, I may even get insight into their injuries and tactics that the England camp wouldn’t naturally get. So, I am having pre-match conversations with the likes of Roy and Gareth that are different in content and depth to any other journalist. I also make a point of watching every England game back the following day so my recall and even analysis of the performances is on a different level too. We have got more to talk about together!
With that closer association comes not only a better understanding of each other but a greater trust and involvement. The down side of that is that if England are losing a match as critical as the Iceland game in 2016, I find myself telling millions of strangers that the position of (my great friend) Roy Hodgson is untenable. That is when the closeness is particularly difficult.
That Iceland match baffles me to this day. I know as a matter of fact how well the players were briefed and prepped on their opponents and yet they allowed them to score from their first long throw. Senior players failed to carry out the jobs designated to them at that moment. It was the first indication that night as to how heavy the weight of expectation can come to rest on the shoulders of England shirts at major tournaments. It was a well-drilled team, full of good players with a collective spirit and will and yet they seemed unable to pass the ball 5 metres once that match started to get away from them.
Gareth looked at that experience and has concentrated his efforts on trying to address that mentality issue since taking the job. So far, so good. He is everything he appears to be from the outside – an intelligent, thoughtful, inquiring individual with a calm authority and a human touch. Don’t let anyone try to tell you that it was an unhappy or divided camp under Roy. Gareth would be the first to admit that he inherited a good group of young players and a club attitude from his immediate predecessors.
There is a chance that Gareth’s captain may lift a trophy in June. While I will be delighted as a friend and as an Englishman, I would be a little disappointed if the Nations League was won in front of a Sky audience. I’m a great admirer of their football coverage but I believe the national team’s matches should be available free-to-air on terrestrial channels. I will be in Portugal commentating for ITV but we have only highlights rights for that competition.
Thankfully, all of the Euro 2020 qualifiers are live on ITV and the finals will be shared between ourselves and BBC. Commentating on a major Wembley final involving England would be very special indeed. Over 26.5 million viewers tuned in for the Croatia semi-final. The average Premier League match on a Sky Sunday afternoon attracts about 1.5 million. That is the scale of the interest in the England team. It makes commentating international games a genuine privilege.”
It really is fascinating to hear how Tyldesley juggles impartiality with his personal bias towards his own nation. Also intriguing is the way he talks about the Iceland game. Few people were as involved in it all that night as the man that covered it for ITV, speaking to Roy before the match and, presumably, afterwards as well. England have moved on from that Iceland defeat; Tyldesley is still around though, so not everything needs to change. Thanks go to Clive Tyldesley for providing a first-hand insight into narrating England games to audiences that can often near 30 million people.