Aidan Smith’s Saturday Interview: Clive Tyldesley - ‘The passion of Scottish football has made me a better broadcaster’

Forty-odd years ago the man who would become the voice of English football stood up in Edinburgh and said the unsayable. “It would have been career-ending today,” admits Clive Tyldesley.

Clive Tyldesley commentating on Rangers v St Mirren with Kevin Thomson. Picture: Willie Vass/Getty Images

The football commentator was a student - of none-more-sexy Industrial Economics - and among a busload from Nottingham University who’d hit the Festival Fringe intent on fun, frolics and, if it happened by, fame.

Cast and crew stayed together in a rambling, rented house where frisky undergraduates did what frisky undergraduates do - “All kinds of unusual relationships, typically 24-hour wonders, and when they wilted new ones would begin.

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“The drama soc performed their Chekhov and then came the midnight revue. Sometimes our audiences would number only four but I was having words I’d written, usually a few hours earlier, performed on stage - what a thrill.

Clive Tyldesley with his Edinburgh-born wife Susan.

The Scotsman reviewed us - that was the big ambition - but you guys didn’t like the show. The crit took exception to a sketch about how, when there wasn’t much happening in the world, news had to be created. The offending passage was something like: ‘Aberfan - that was one of mine.’

“To call it tasteless was an understatement. In my defence all I can say is that I was 20 years old in 1974 and Monty Python was in its pomp. I must have thought I was being terribly pithy. Awful, just awful ... ”

Fame would come to Tyldesley with some better-chosen words which immediately glued themselves to the goals they described. “Remember the name. Wayne Rooney.” (The arrival of Everton’s wonderkid). “Can Manchester United score? They always score.” (Just before the two-in-102 seconds which won the Champions League). Then, same tournament, “Hello. Hello … ” anticipated Liverpool’s comeback in Istanbul.

And what about this: “Lightning strikes twice in no time at all! Leigh Griffiths has written himself into Scottish football folklore!” Tyldesley, 66, was on duty the last time Scotland played England and he thought he would be again at the Euros. But at the time the finals were being put back a year he was demoted as ITV’s No 1 commentator meaning he would no longer be acclaiming acts of escapology by Harry Houdini - sorry, Kane.

Commentating on Scottish football has been a revelation for Tyldesley

Gagged as the Three Lions rabble-rouser, he took to Twitter in his Berkshire summerhouse to express shock and horror, although viewing his blurt I’m afraid I couldn’t get Smashie & Nicey out of my head. In particular, the moment the deranged DJs ran along a corridor to announce they were quitting Radio 1 just before the station controller, sprinting in the other direction, could confirm they’d been sacked.

But chatting to Tyldesley today it’s impossible not to be endeared to the man. He’s so passionate about football - and, no mistake, Scottish football. Sometimes in that passion he can get carried away, but who doesn’t? Sometimes he can resemble that other Frankenstein of the age of filter-free babble and blether - Alan Partridge - though really, is that such a terrible thing?

Let me tell you I’ve read plenty of football-related memoirs and would rather that many more of them were as splurgeful, honest and unabashed as this:

“Denis Law was my boyhood hero. Not every choice I’ve made in my life has been a good one but that was a great one … That was me he was saluting each and every time he scored a goal in front of the adoring Stretford End. Just me … I had the same kind of thing going with Diana Rigg … ”

A quieter night for Tyldesley after being on the receiving end of the Fergie hairdryer

Or, continuing on his youthful development, this: “ … Smoking, drinking, swearing, heavy petting, the Doors, The Graduate, The Prisoner, Cream, three-card brag, Barbarella, Men Only, rugby songs - all bloody great discoveries at the time.”

Or - gulp, avert your eyes, John Motson - this: “My virginity disappeared in messy, fumbled, bungled stages but it took its final leave of me at the age of 16 on a canvas groundsheet under a bivouac I constructed from a bent sapling as part of an army cadet exercise to survive a night under the stars. The earth moved only because it was a bit muddy … I am ashamed to say I cannot remember her name … It was suggested to me that she was virtually part of the school curriculum.”

Let’s get back to football. His book is titled Not for Me, Clive, which he thinks was a phrase first coined by Ally McCoist, one of his favourite right-hand men on the gantry with whom he’ll be reuniting for ITV’s Euros coverage.

Gantry in the metaphorical, spiritual sense. “Because of Covid I we’re going to be covering our matches from a studio in Maidstone.” For convenience, Coisty may shack up with Tyldesley and his wife Susan at their home. “I’m not sure how that will affect our working relationship. Well, actually I do: my commentaries will be research-light and my speech may become slightly slurred but my golf will be exceptional!”

Off-air jocularity at Euro 2000 with Ally McCoist and Gabby Yorath

Praise for the Rangers legend in the book comes after the Jurgen Klopp quote about football being “the most important of the least important things”: “Ally can read a football match as well as any expert but he can read the room too. He can be irreverent and fond because football is there as an antidote to sombre, sober reality. His love for the game is expressed with a smile and a wink and an ‘I’ll tell you what … ’ of enjoyment and marvel.”

He’s not being effusive about Super Ally in the hope of a better review from The Scotsman. As well as “Denis”, there are chapters headed “Shanks”, “Kenny”, “Fergie” and “Souey”. Even with “Motty”, “Glenn” and “Big Ron” in there I think Scotland emerge victorious. Maybe my favourite chapter is the one juxtaposing his old rock idol, Frank Zappa, with Jimmy Sirrel, Notts County manager and yet another Scot, who was fond of dismissing bland questions with quips that could have been Mothers of Invention album tracks, eg: “Why does a worm squirm?”

Old pro that he is, Tyldesley knows how to “put a kilt” on a story. “Susan is Edinburgh-born. Her mum lives in Barnton and she has a sister in Cramond so we visit when we’re allowed.” Does Susan know about his adolescence of “delicious vices”? The student years when “all the tuition was free, all the major bands did varsity tours, all the girls were on the pill”? The rock radio years of trying to make himself sound irresistible on the graveyard shift? The party-house years about which he writes: “I was no Hugh Hefner but … ”

“I think so. We’re both second-time arounders, having met on the school rugby touchline watching our youngest sons. When you’ve been married before you want to get it right. Best to tell everything!”

Back to football and the Scottish connection: his very first words narrating play were with a little plastic ball at his feet and directed at no one but himself (“And Law finds Tyldesley … ”) but they would encourage his mother to enter him in a BBC competition to find a new commentator for the 1970 World Cup, even though he was only 15 at the time.

Born in Bury, Lancs he should really have followed the town team, now sadly no more, but the Lawman lured him to Old Trafford and Tommy Docherty’s swashbuckling side kept him there. “I had a tartan scarf tied round my wrist in classic 1970s style,” he says. A bovver-boy, then? No, he always scarpered at the first hint of trouble. “I was a middle-class grammar schoolboy on course for ten good O-levels who, as Jarvis Cocker sang, wanted to live like common people for a few hours every Saturday so I took on the guise of a shelf-stacker from Salford and shouted abuse at Billy Bremner and Bobby Moore like I really hated them.”

Describing the Ibrox action with Kevin Thomson

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Last summer, when Tyldesley spontaneously combusted on Twitter, it seemed like his career had done the same. “I was stunned. I didn’t see [losing the England gig] coming. Maybe I should have done … ” Maybe he should; after all TV has been skittling old(-ish) white men for some time on its relentless diversity drive. Sam Matterface, who takes over from Tyldesley, is 23 years his junior but our man says: “It’s short-sighted to be put out with the recycling bins just because you’ve reached a certain age. If we’ve become crusty, fine, but it saddens me when I hear people of my generation say they’ve drawn a line under, say, 1979 and decided that nothing which has come after - music, movies or football, principles or cultures - is any good. I don’t think I’m like that. Four of my best friends are my children, aged 25-30, and I’ve got to relate to them. And it’s actually quite damning to suggest their generation isn’t interested in drawing on the back-story and experiences which an older one can provide. Look at [Sir David] Attenborough, for goodness sake. Is there a more popular Brit?”

Tyldesley isn’t daft. But he’s not languishing with the empty egg boxes and juice cartons and doesn’t plan to be for a good while yet. He approaches the Euros and the “tasty” opening games he’ll bring us like France vs Germany having had his passion for football further boosted, if that’s possible, by our own domestic champs.

Tyldesley commentated for Rangers TV during the season just ended. How the mighty had fallen? Did he feel like he was slumming it after his words had gone out to Morecambe & Wise Christmas special-sized audiences during England’s march to the semi-finals of the last World Cup? Not a bit.

“I hadn’t done anything like it before but right away away I was impressed by the professional nature of how Rangers covered their own games and it became very obvious to me that the club, and Celtic too, are far more reliant and therefore respectful of the fans who come through the turnstiles compared with England because of the great gulf in TV revenue between the countries.

“I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy it. Partly that was of how well Rangers played during the season and I came to appreciate the importance of football to a city like Glasgow and Scotland as a whole. Gordon Sherry [ex-Amateur Championship winner] was my golfing partner when I got the chance to play Loch Lomond for the first time. He’s a Killie fan and referred to Rangers and Celtic as the twisted sisters right through the round! There were similar encounters like that during the season and I learned more about Scottish football and the big part it still plays in the psyche and culture of the nation.

“I had to learn about the opposition teams pretty much from scratch. There were some where I didn’t know a single player and they could have been from Azerbaijan as far as I was concerned. But when I researched them, as I always do, their media departments seemed touched that I’d bothered. And I found out that some opposition fans subscribed to the Rangers service for the afternoon and enjoyed my take on the games. I honestly believe this gig has made me a better broadcaster.”

See, the old(-ish) dog is still learning new tricks. But, really, you have no excuse to turn complacent having been upbraided by Brian Clough (the “young man” wasn’t wearing a tie). For having endured the hairdryer treatment from Sir Alex Ferguson who called Tyldesley a “f*****’ chancer”, leaving him feeling like a “crash-test dummy” and banning him from Old Trafford. And, when remarking to the titan of terseness “Kenny, you must be delighted with that”, for having Dalglish come back at him with: “Must I? You asking me or telling me?”

Tyldesley it was who, while Fergie was in mid-rant post-match about lousy refereeing, fed Dalglish the ammo for one of the most comical moments in the pair’s great rivalry, with the Liverpool boss as he passed with his baby daughter leaning into the camera and smirking: “You’ll get more sense out of her.”

And Tyldesley it was who, commentating on England for the first time in the Euros play-off at Wembley in 1999, was charged with sorting out a potential diplomatic incident. Sidekick Ron Atkinson had been calling the English “us” and Scotland “them” right through the first half and with the transmission going UK-wide the editor was shouting in Tydlesley’s earpiece to get him to stop. Atkinson’s response was: “I’m biased and everyone knows it. But I’m being objective, they’re better than us and I’m saying that.”

Tyldesley could see his point. “It made me think that the very occasional ‘we’ wouldn’t be out of place. Just as long as I wasn’t conducting Last Night of the Proms.” Does he ever do this? His last Scotland-England clash was the Griffiths game four years ago. His commentary only went out down south but I found it on YouTube. Kane’s late equaliser causes his voice to drop several octaves into a near-teary growl but, come on, we still revere Arthur Montford for roaring at a dawdling Gordon McQueen: “Watch your back!”

He’d love to be the man at the mic on 18 June; of course he would. Can Scotland win? “Of course. Anything can happen.” He admires our patriotism. “I’ve never met a Scotsman who isn’t proud to be Scottish whereas there are lots of Englishmen who are not particularly bothered. For Scotland, being in a minority is empowering. In sport I think Scots care a little bit more about the badge on their shirts than we do.”

What a flatterer. Still, I say, it’s a pity we won’t have the Lawman up front. “Do you know,” he smiles, “when Denis scored against England I still cheered him.”

Not for Me, Clive is published by Headline, price £20.

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