Voices of Football: Martin Tyler – The Pre-Premier League Years

by | Feb 15, 2021

For anybody under the age of forty, Martin Tyler is the voice of the Premier League. Bombastic in style, though we suspect somewhat aware of the ridiculousness of it all, Tyler’s position, as the main commentator on Sky Sports, has made him the soundtrack to the football lives of millions of people for almost three decades. He’ll be 75 this year, and he’s still going strong. Small wonder, considering he played amateur football for Isthmian League side Corinthian-Casuals and has worked as a coach for a number of non-league teams, including Walton & Hersham, Kingstonian, Hampton & Richmond Borough and the team he’s supported for many years, Woking.

But Tyler didn’t appear fully-formed in football’s Whole New Ball Game in the summer of 1992. By the time the Premier League started, he’d been commentating for almost twenty years, and those years offer us a fascinating insight into the recognition of talent, and the benefits that can come from taking a gamble. Martin Tyler has got to the top of his profession and stayed there on merit, of that there is no question, but sometimes – as he has surely said himself once or twice over the 46 years of his commentary career – you make your own luck.

Martin Tyler was born in Guildford a month after victory in the Pacific was declared, grammar school educated, and a graduate of the University of East Anglia. He started his journalism career in a somewhat unusual manner, joining Marshall Cavendish in 1971 to work on their Book of Football, a weekly publication that built up into a six-binder collection. From here, Tyler got to know people working at London Weekend Television, who produced the majority of the ITV network’s sporting coverage at the time, and he ended up ghost-writing a Sunday newspaper column for Jimmy Hill, before going to work behind the scenes on The Big Match in 1973.

Tyler’s break on television came at the end of 1974. Southern TV’s regular commentator Gerry Williams was not available for a match over the Christmas period, and after completing several tests, Tyler was given his first commentary on the 28th December 1974 for a match between Southampton & Sheffield Wednesday, to be shown the following day on their highlights show, Southern Soccer. Williams faded from view – he would later make his name on the BBC’s tennis coverage, from the 1980s on – and Tyler became Southern’s main commentator.

There was, however, one small problem. Southern were not a huge player in the ITV network, which limited Tyler’s opportunities in one respect, while he wasn’t even covering a match every week for his new employers. Southern Soccer was only shown a total of eight times throughout the 1974/75 season. For smaller companies with limited Outside Broadcast equipment, undertaking to cover a match every single week wasn’t always possible. When of the region’s clubs, Southampton, won the FA Cup in 1976, Southern only showed networked highlights of their semi-final win against Crystal Palace, with commentary by Brian Moore. Southampton had been drawn at home in three of their four previous matches in the tournament, but Southern – whose home city Southampton was – failed to pick any of them up.

That summer, Tyler was working on editing highlights in the production suite at ITV during the 1976 European Championship semi-final between Czechoslovakia and West Germany when the audio feed from Zagreb dropped. Tyler was quickly moved into a voiceover booth to cover extra-time, but in October 1976 he was on his way. Yorkshire had been a newly created ITV region in 1968, but it had proved itself to be one of the biggest players in the network in the eight years since. Throughout Leeds United’s glory years during the first half of the decade, Keith Macklin had been the commentator, and his work on Indoor League had made him a familiar voice across the country.

Tyler, however, would come to cover a region in something of a footballing nomansland. The big three clubs – Leeds United Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday – were all in decline. By 1979, both Sheffield clubs would be in the Third Division. The higher profile of being with Yorkshire TV did, however, offer him a place on ITV’s commentary team for the 1978 World Cup, where he made his debut with the group match between Tunisia and Mexico.

In the summer of 1981, an even better opportunity came up when Gerald Sinstadt, who’d been Granada Television’s commentator since 1969, decided move back to the south of England to work for TVS while indulging his love of opera through producing progamming for them. The north-west of England, with the four giants of Manchester and Liverpool, was one of the three truly big ITV football regions, alongside London and the Midlands. At the end of the 1980/81 season, Liverpool had won the League Cup and the European Cup. The following year, they won the League Cup and the First Division championship.

The high point of Martin Tyler’s career to that point came the following summer. ITV’s main commentator for big matches during this period was usually Brian Moore, but this wasn’t always the case. Moore was also ITV’s main anchor, and when he was needed in the studio, they needed another man on the gantry. Throughout the 1970s this had been ATV’s Hugh Johns, who commentated on the 1970, 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals while Moore remained in the studio in London. Johns, however, was starting to take more of a back seat, and Tyler ended up commentating on all five England matches and the final between Italy and West Germany.

Regional football highlights on ITV came to an end in the summer of 1983. Live league football on the television was coming for the first time since a brief failed experiment in 1960. The Big Match, LWT’s regional highlights show – and the only one with any real brand recognition across anything like the whole of the country – became the national highlights show, and Martin Tyler became the number two commentator behind Brian Moore. Not that being ITV’s nuber two commentator seemed to amount to much. ITV showed nine live matches throughout the 1983/84 season, and Moore commentated on every single one of them. Exactly the same thing happened the following season. Nine live matches, none of which were given to Tyler. He’d finally make his live Football League commentary debut for ITV on the 16th March 1986, for a match between Everton and Chelsea.

That summer, however, ITV flew Brian Moore out to Mexico City to commentate on the World Cup final, and things didn’t improve that much afterwards, either. Over the next two seasons, Tyler would get just one live league match for ITV, between Liverpool and Chelsea in December 1987. In 1988, ITV signed an exclusive four year deal with the Football League worth £44m, and the number of live matches they were covering shot up. Tyler covered three during 1988/89, and the same again the following season. In March 1990, though, he left ITV for the gamble that changed his life.

On the 11th December 1986, British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) won the 15-year franchise to operate a direct satellite broadcasting service to the UK but, with a hugely expensive infrastructure to set up, a spanner was thrown in their works two years later when Rupert Murdoch announced that Sky would be launching a rival service through the Astra satellite. BSB, who’d promised a mixture of highbrow programming and popular entertainment, from arts and opera to blockbuster movies and music videos, had expected to be the sole provider of a satellite service, now found themselves facing an aggressive rival.

The effect was near-instantaneous. BSB and Sky went into battle in the hugely expensive arena of film rights.  BSB and the BBC prepared a bid for a four-year deal for the rights to broadcast First Division football, outbidding ITV’s £44m offer, but the Football League preferred to stick with ITV. They’d had also committed about £400 million to tying up the film libraries of Paramount, Universal, Columbia, and MGM/United Artists, with total up-front payments of about £85 million. Sky, which already had 20th Century Fox on their side, joined this battle, which only ended up dramatically forcing up costs for both.

Investors, spooked by BSB’s dramatically increasing costs, started to withdraw. Sky launched in February 1989 with a mixture of movies and very, very light entertainment, while BSB was due to start broadcasting in September 1989. BSB’s launch, however, was delayed by problems with the supply of receiving equipment and because BSB wanted to avoid Sky’s experience of launching when most shops had no equipment to sell. With their “Squarial” dishes on sale at a heavily-subsidised £250, they eventually followed Sky on air in March 1990 with six channels. Within months, Sky were outselling them by two to one.

Martin Tyler was invited to join BSB in 1990. The company was already in deep financial trouble and had few rights to broadcast anything, but Head of Sport Andy Melvin had been charged with putting a team together and started with the recruitment of anchor Richard Keys and summariser Andy Gray. Tyler was Gray’s recommendation. They’d worked together a couple of years earlier on the Sherpa Van Trophy final for ITV, and Gray had been impressed, both by Tyler’s knowledge and his style. Melvin wanted the co-commentator to take a more active role in a “conversation” with the commentator, and Tyler’s style seemed to fit that requirement.

For Tyler, however, this was a huge gamble. In 1990, ITV held exclusive rights to live coverage of the Football League and, although it was known that satellite and pay TV broadcasters would be a challenge to this, they were the favourites to retain their place at the top should the much talked about Premier League come to fruition. Neither Sky nor BSB had many TV rights of note, and the received wisdom of the time was that movies would be the driving force behind the financial viability of these new channels rather than sport. Between 1988 and 1990, both companies had spent hundreds of millions of pounds on acquiring licensing deals with the big Hollywood studios and next to nothing on sport.

Tyler was persuaded, however, by the agent and consultant John Hockey, who told him that, “maybe nobody will be watching, but I tell you who will be watching – everybody in football.” He’d been the number two commentator at ITV for the best part of a decade, and with Brian Moore having been moved from anchoring back into the commentary box, there wasn’t much chance of becoming their number one any time soon. And in addition to this, there was still no guarantee that he wouldn’t be passed over should Moore leave or retire. Hugh Johns’ replacement in the Midlands, Peter Brackley, had proved himself to be more than able, and the network had also recruited Alan Parry from the BBC in 1985 and Clive Tyldesley in 1989. Tyler took the gamble and joined the new broadcaster.

The extent to which this was a risk became apparent over the next few months. Both BSB and Sky were struggling financially with the astronomical costs of starting up, but BSB were hurting more than Sky. Their receivers were more expensive than Sky’s and were incompatible with them. Many potential customers compared the competition between the two to the format war between VHS and Betamax video recorders, and chose to wait and see which company would win outright, in order to avoid buying potentially obsolete equipment. In November 1990, a merger between the two companies (really a takeover, such was the stricken state of BSB by this point) was agreed under the name of British Sky Broadcasting. Tyler, Keys and Gray were retained by their new bosses.

Sky had good reason to retain their services. They’d secured rights to some Scottish, FA Cup and international football, but had their sights set on a far bigger prize. The First Division’s biggest clubs had been agitating towards a breakaway league for several years, and with the involvement of ITV’s Greg Dyke, who’d been behind the exclusive contract they’d signed in 1988, it was now going to happen. The warm breeze of the 1990 World Cup meant a revitalised interest in the game, and crowds were rising significantly even though there were more live matches on than ever before.

This didn’t mean, however, that ITV were necessarily going to get an automatic renewal of their contract with the formation of the new Premier League in 1992. BSkyB were offering to show twice as many matches as ITV, and there was disquiet amongst many top flight clubs at the lopsided nature of ITV’s First Division coverage. As a free-to-air broadcaster ITV had to chase mass audiences, and they did so by focusing almost exclusively on the “Big Five” of Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. During the 1991/92 season, only one of their live matches all season didn’t feature one of these clubs or that season’s eventual champions, Leeds United.

When negotiations started with the new league, there were three main players: BSkyB, ITV and the BBC. Each had their advantages and drawbacks. Sky were offering more matches, but advertising and sponsorship revenues for clubs might fall with smaller audiences. ITV offered more of the same, but weren’t really prepared to work with anyone else and wanted to retain their focus on the Big Five clubs. The BBC were only interested in – and likely could only afford – highlights. There were other interested parties, but none of them had any infrastructure in place and soon fell by the wayside.

When the final bids came in, BSkyB won the vote by 14 to 6, with two abstentions. ITV knew they had the support of Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton from the Big Five plus Leeds United and Aston Villa, but fourteen in favour was by chance the minimum needed to pass the proposition under the required two thirds majority and Spurs, whose chairman Alan Sugar was making the satellite equipment for Sky, jumped ship with Sugar’s infamous overheard phone call with BSkyB’s Sam Chisholm in which he told the media company to “blow them out of the water” with their bid. It would take until the Covid-19 pandemic, almost thirty years later, before a live Premier League match would be shown on free-to-air television. On the 16th August 1992, Martin Tyler was in the commentary box for Sky Sports alongside Andy Gray for the first edition of this “whole new ball game”, as Nottingham Forest played Liverpool on the first weekend of the Premier League. 

The benefit of hindsight offers us a perspective on how far-sighted Tyler’s decision to leave ITV for BSB was. Had he stayed with ITV, his options would have become increasingly limited. Brian Moore retired in 1998, but by then ITV’s football coverage was waning. Tyler may well have ended up ITV’s main commentator, but over the years they lost Football League and Champions League rights, and in 2021 it’s difficult to consider them a major player in the UK televised football market. Tyler may never commentate on a World Cup final for Sky, but the game has moved since the early 1990s, and this move has been away from international football, towards growing dominance of the club game, and in particular the Premier League.

We are now approaching the point at which a 1992-style schism may play itself out over the entire continent of Europe, but Tyler is now 74 years old and it’s likely that he will retire in the near future. And he has proved himself to be extremely durable as Sky’s main voice of football. Martin Tyler’s career arc shows the benefits of being in the right place at the right time, but also that sometimes taking a gamble can pay off. The game has changed in many different ways, but Martin Tyler has changed with it and, in comparison with other commentators who stayed at the microphone until they were into their autumn years, he still sounds contemporary and fresh, as much the voice of the Premier League as he was 28 and a half years ago. Not bad, for someone who once defined their job as, “Shouting ‘goal!’ for a living.”