Clive Tyldesley on the art of football commentary and John Motson's legacy
"You don't need to dramatise it, you just need to try to find the headline words which will become that part of people's memories of it."
Where were you during the biggest sporting occasions of your lifetime? Wonderfully, we all have answers to that question.
The London 2012 Opening Ceremony? I had just scrambled back from an esteemed Keswick chip shop in time to catch it. Extra time during the Euro 2020 final? I was patrolling an East London canal after leaving my jacket and wallet on a Boris bike, watching digits evaporate from my bank account.
The Lionesses' Euro 2022 final stretched my patience with train WiFi to the limits, only for the train guard to announce victorious news over the PA system to rapturous cross-carriage applause, while almost every FA Cup final in my second decade was enjoyed, as a neutral, in a floor space-only corner of a friend's living room, ceremoniously unwinding a neatly swirled liquorice wheel.
Live sport wields a power like few other forms of media. We absorb it innocuously, those big games, those magic moments unwittingly accumulate in our memory banks. Warm nostalgia is subconsciously sealed away with voice-activated passcodes, a snippet of commentary able to send those memories crashing back into the front of our minds.
John Motson held all the verbal keys.
The late, beloved 'Motty' passed away in February, aged 77, to an outpouring of grief and equally weighted flood of unlocked memories. The sound of that voice, that unmistakable, charming voice, resonated with numerous generations and, over the past week, has brought countless moments racing back to nationwide memories.
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Another man clutching the 'keys' is Clive Tyldesley, his voice able to conjure a thousand recollections of England in the formative, dramatic yet not-so-golden generation for many and all those free-to-air Champions League nights on ITV.
Tyldesley caught up with RadioTimes.com for an exclusive chat about the power of live sport to remain with us and its significance and position in the national psyche.
He also explained the decline of the importance of commentators, why Motson can never be replicated as "the voice of football" and shared a challenge for his contemporaries – to uphold standards of the commentary art.
"I've had social media abuse for commentaries on games that I'm not actually at," Clive explains, an unbothered smile creeping across his face. "And I'm supposed to have one of the more recognisable voices in football commentary!"
"I've had abuse for commentaries on platforms I've never worked for and it just gives you a reality check that the commentator is less important in the consumption of the media today than he or she was 30 or 40 years ago, when John [Motson] was in his heyday, along with these other guys. This voice of football, this voice of rugby, this voice of tennis, these national treasures, we will never have again.
"Peter O'Sullivan was a national treasure. Dan Maskell, Bill McLaren, Murray Walker, Ted Lowe, Sid Waddell and Henry Longhurst, they were each the voice of their sport in an era when live sport was special, only certain events appeared on that one screen that we all had in our household. The coverage of The Open Championship, when the when the leaders reached the 16th, Peter Alliss would put his goblet down and the others would hand to him. It couldn't be the completion of the event without that voice.
"Now we've got multiple screens and blanket coverage of every sporting event. The commentator is less important because he or she commands less of our attention than they used to. Our words are not shared by several generations watching communally."
However, despite the continual fragmentation of sports TV broadcasting rights and a deluge of fresh voices across the airwaves, Tyldesley remains well aware of the impact the most critical sporting occasions can have on this island.
He said: "Major live sporting events are one of the few things that can still fulfil that traditional role of a mass communication broadcast. There's a phrase in television about 'appointment to view' events. We've had a couple in the last few years unlike any that we've known before, with the passing of a monarch, who very few of us can remember any time before her.
"There have been one or two state occasions and major sporting events such as England playing in a major men's football tournament final, England playing and winning a major women's tournament final, not too long ago the Olympic Games in our country.
"These huge events which bring us together are among the very few television products that can really hold the entire nation's attention – and live sport in particular because we are now we live in a 'spoiler alert!' world where you still can't discuss The Sopranos because: 'Wait, I'm still watching The Sopranos!' 'Oh, I'm sorry'.
"Catch-up is great, it has enhanced our viewing experience, but it has taken some of the immediacy of television away. With live sport, you can't take that risk. Live sport can still command that sort of national attention which very few other television events can now."
Despite the wide reach of major sporting occasions, Tyldesley believes the outbox of social media scrutiny is a dilution of personality within broadcasting.
The 68-year-old wonders whether colourful characters of yesteryear would have the same freedom to air their unfiltered, authentic selves and believes this lack of freedom may hold back the next raft of commentators in their rise to the top.
However, he remains steadfast in his belief that older-generation stalwarts of broadcasting still deserve a key role in a 21st-century world so radically different from the one he, and Motson, cut their teeth in.
"One post-Motson development is something called Twitter, you may be aware of! That carries a certain amount of jeopardy when the audience is more than a couple of million.
"I don't mind the haters, they hate away, we're all a matter of opinion, I get that. But the vultures, the people who seem to be circling above anybody who is having their two minutes or 90 minutes of fame, who are actively seeking out reasons to bring that person down. I think that probably dilutes the personality of the broadcast sometimes.
"Times change. I'm not saying Peter Alliss, one or two of those guys, a John Arnott, maybe they wouldn't be suitable or as relevant today as they were in their time but live sport, live music, live broadcasting belongs in its moment. The whole idea of commentary is to try to encapsulate that moment for the audience of that moment. It doesn't really stand up to review 10, 15, 20 years on because that's not what it was. It was a live performance at that time.
"Those of us who've been lucky enough, like John and I, to broadcast through a period of time, that's been part of our responsibility to adapt and develop to changing times, changing platforms, changing audience demand requirements.
"Our kids consume their media in a very different way to the way that we did when we were their age. I am very strongly of the opinion, that this modern trend of believing you need a 30-year-old to broadcast to 30-year-olds is misguided.
"As long as the 60-year-old, or 'the David Attenborough' is open-minded and alert enough to realise that broadcasting has changed and has adapted to the audience of the time, then somebody with the experience of many years of broadcasting, like John Motson can still be relevant to an audience half or a third of their age. That really is the brilliance of Attenborough, the endurance of John Motson."
Tyldesley gushes with enthusiasm for his trade. He relishes the artistry, the craftsmanship of commentary, and wrapped up our half-an-hour-long-than-planned chat with an impassioned message to his younger peers, his contemporaries, those who will carry the baton into the next generation, and the next, and the next.
He said: "It's a piece of journalism, really, a broadcast commentary. I think it's important to ask yourself before the game what this result will mean at the end and what that result will mean at the end, what the significance of the victory or defeat is for the team, for the manager, for the players involved.
"In the last 10 minutes, a good commentator is steeling himself or herself for the final whistle and the words that they'll use to try to sum up the occasion.
"I had a wonderful mentor, a boxing commentator, the late Reg Gutteridge, who took me under his wing. I didn't ask him to, he decided he could help me with my career, it was tough love at times – there were more words of criticism than words of praise! – but it was love. He taught me a lot of things. One of the things he tried to ingrain in me was the value of the English language and the proper use of the English language.
"Commentators are richly scorned for crucifying the English language but actually, from time to time, we are working with the same vocabulary as the great writers, the great lyricists, so we should be able to find better words, this was Reg's message.
"You should be able to find better words than incredible, wonderful, amazing, when something incredible, wonderful or amazing happens. You should be able to find some words which are specific to the context of that moment. That's the challenge for me.
"If I were to say something critical of a lot of modern commentators, it's that I don't think they give enough attention to trying to find the right words, for the right moment. And I think that's the biggest challenge of what we do.
"That doesn't mean you have to be a poet. That doesn't mean you have to adorn the occasion with flowery rhyming language, it doesn't mean that you have to over-blow the occasion, the sport itself is dramatic.
"You don't need to dramatise it, you just need to try to find the headline words which will become that part of people's memories of it. My challenge to the contemporary commentators is to try harder to do that.
"The job of the sports commentator is... to connect with people on their level. Reg always used to chide me for commentating to the dressing room. He said: "You were commentating to the England manager last night, he wasn't listening, he was in the stadium. Your grandma was listening?" "Yes, Reg" "well commentate to her too because she counts as one viewer too."
"It's that inclusive commentary. John and I have had 20-million audiences to work with and that is a rarity in modern broadcasting. When you've got a 20-million audience, you've got your grandma, you've got the England manager, you've got the Prime Minister, you've got somebody who's watching their 100th football match of the year, and you've got somebody who is watching their first.
"Somehow, you've got to come up with a level of commentary which is embracing and welcoming and inclusive for all of them. We talk a lot about inclusivity and diversity, there is the diverse audience when you've got the whole bloody country watching!
"With the greatest will in the world, we're not talking so much about race or gender, or even economic circumstances, we're talking about their level of involvement and interest in your chosen subject: football. How much do they know? How much knowledge can you assume? And how much do you have to help them to enjoy the occasion? And that is the proper challenge of mass communications. And John did that.
"Everybody thinks that can be commentator, that's cool. And actually, there are so many commentators now that, yeah, they're probably right. But the real challenge is to commentate to the nation, to commentate to 20 million people, because one really big bad mistake may just bring your career down.
"That's the high board. Come up to the top board and look down at the pool from where John stood. That's the real challenge that he met, and not only passed but passed with so much love and admiration of the way that he did, and the enthusiasm with which he did it.
"That connection with so many millions of people that he never met who feel as if they would have liked John Motson, if they had met him, all I can say to those people is: that was John, that wasn't a front.
"If you think you would have liked that guy with all these sort of strange and lovable eccentricities, all I can tell you is: that was John. To connect with so many people and for most of those people to still like you, oh boy, in the 21st century, you're up there with Attenborough if you can do that."
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