Alongside a special edition of the Essential Football Podcast, three of Sky Sports’ most recognisable voices answered your questions about life as a football commentator.
Martin Tyler, Rob Hawthorne and Bill Leslie – who will be commentating on Sky Sports’ trio of Premier League games on the final day of the season this Sunday – put aside their preparation to give an insight into life behind the microphone.
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Jack asks: What’s the best goal you’ve ever seen scored while commentating?
Martin Tyler (MT): When Maradona scored his second goal against England in 1986. I was commentating that game for ITV – the first goal was worth none, the second was worth two, so that would be right up there, as he was such a famous player and memorable day for England for the wrong reasons, but people still talk about it now – I could wear the t-shirt to say I was there. It was an astonishing goal from an astonishing player.
Rob Hawthorne (RH): I would struggle to name another one over the first goal I ever did in my first live game for Sky, which was Tony Yeboah’s winner in the Monday Night Football match against Liverpool. It was a gift from the gods really, for my first game, for that to be the only and deciding goal.
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Bill Leslie (BL): I’ve been lucky enough to see so many, but the one that springs to mind was Troy Deeney’s goal for Watford against Leicester in 2013 in the play-offs, I get talked to about it more than any other I’ve commentated on in my whole career. It was such a wonderful, extraordinary moment, and it was just pure joy – those moments fall into your lap to be able to commentate on once in a career.
Macca asks: Which player’s name has been the most difficult to pronounce in your career?
RH: Mine would probably have been Kagisho Dikgacoi – I’m trying to even remember how you spelt it!
BL: Not only did he have a very difficult name to pronounce, he changed the pronunciation about five times in his career. He was from South Africa, if you were doing it as it would be pronounced as it was in his homeland, there was a [clicking noise] as well.
RH: The first time I saw him play was for South Africa in Ireland, and I just thought that the click sound isn’t in the English language, we have to formulate a way around it.
MT: We’ve got one Rob and I talked about on Monday evening – Salah-Eddine Oulad M’hand as an Arsenal substitute.
None of us were sure which of the four names he was going to be called by, Rob had heard he wanted to be called Salah-Eddine, but Oulad M’hand is the name he’ll have on his shirt! So we have a problem ahead on that one.
Gordon asks: Would it be advantageous to broadcast referees’ conversations with players?
MT: It was tried, David Elleray, Millwall against Arsenal about 30 years ago, and of course the language was non-broadcastable. There’s a culture of industrial language on the pitch – Bill had to apologise for the language in the Aston Villa vs Burnley game last night – I think that rules it out.
We can’t change the culture of industrial language, I don’t think the fans would want to hear all of it and the players wouldn’t want them to either. Cricket has had some issues with the sound from the stump microphone – we would like to hear it, because it would help our jobs, but for a general broadcast we would be off the air in less than five minutes.
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RH: We do already hear the VAR in our ears during the game but that’s only one side of the conversation, what’s being said from Stockley Park. You end up as a kind of moderator, but I’ve seen it from both sides.
As a television event, VAR isn’t bad, but as a supporter in the stadium, there was a potential handball at Villa Park last night where I was at the opposite end of the stadium, and we wouldn’t have had a clue what they were talking about. VAR works more for television than for fans in the stadium.
BL: The fan experience of VAR is nothing short of terrible – it’s not without its faults, and as a supporter in the stadium you sit there in the stadium completely in the dark about what’s going on. I went to a match at Twickenham last autumn, and it’s not perfect there but it’s part of the experience – we know football’s not rugby, but it has to be better.
Daniel asks: What does an average week look for you during the season?
MT: I live alone, and I work from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed because I love football and my family outings are structured into the week. My time between commentaries can be short; I’ve just done a run of five games in six days, and you do your preparation in the time between the matches. This sounds like a great sacrifice, but it’s not – it’s the opposite, it’s just a joy. My dear departed mum used to tell me I would have to get a proper job one day, I’ve never had to do that. It’s been a love affair with football. It’s the weeks without football I find hard!
RH: I don’t think there’s a single day from the start of August to the end of May where you’re not doing something related to football, whether that’s keeping your own stats up to date, because that source material always comes in useful, and then there’s preparation for the matches themselves – watching the last time the teams played, the last time they played each other, historical match reports that might be relevant. There’s always something, but it’s not a set routine.
Gpmurphy asks: Do you listen to commentators from other sports and learn from them?
RH: It’s difficult. There’s lots of commentators in other sports I admire, but taking what you’d learn from them across to football is tough. John Motson said to me once people used to go onto him about his vocabulary, he would say it’s all very well to listen to a cricket commentator using elegant prose, but they have the room and space to be able to do that.
By the time you’ve done that in a football match, you might have missed a dodgy backpass that has led to a goal. The commentators I always admire are the ones in horseracing, and athletics too – if you’ve got 10 seconds to get through a 100m race identifying who has crossed in first, second and third, I can’t get my head around how they do it.
BL: I was lucky enough to go to Cheltenham and go up to the commentary box during one of the races, and it’s a frightening experience because whereas we have a period of time where you can assess the situation and who’s who, you just don’t have that in racing – and you’ve got people with their mortgages on whoever’s going to win so there’s an added layer of responsibility too.
Gerard Wilkinson asks: If you could commentate on one other sport, what would it be?
MT: For me, it’s cricket because of my background with my friends going onto big things – I played in a couple of charity games described as Bob Willis’ driver, which is one of the nicer things I’ve been called! I did it for ITV in the 1970s and 1980s, but with this summer off I’m in regular contact with the Cricket Editor at Sky Sports about the politics of cricket and if I was handed a microphone for 15 minutes, I wouldn’t put it down.
BL: One that I haven’t tried which I would like to try is golf. I love watching it, and if we go back to the voices of sport, Peter Allis made that his own. I wouldn’t mind doing that at all, but I’m not sure a trip to the Masters is quite forthcoming.
RH: One of the things about local radio is that because you were pretty much a one-man band, you ended up doing lots of strange sports – in my youth I did things like basketball, speedway, ice hockey, and I did an athletics meeting at Birmingham once, but having shied away from the 100m if I was to do one event it would probably be something like a 1500-m race at the Olympics.
Adam Smith asks: What are you most looking forward to next season?
MT: It is a tricky one but VAR. We’ve crossed a bit of a line this season, imagine if we didn’t have it now, I think people would be saying ‘oh well VAR would have sorted that out’. It still needs work in the stadium with communication, but it’s going to be a unique season all-round with the World Cup in November. It’s going to be a busy start to the season, but how a mid-season break will impact generally, in the league and at the World Cup, will be interesting.
RH: The interesting thing about it will be what kind of effect that World Cup will have – will it affect the teams we would generally regard to win the Premier League more? More of their players will be involved, so will that open up the possibility of another outsider doing something because of the extra commitments? I don’t know – we’re leaping into a bit of an unknown.
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