Red Devil Talk: Exclusive with Clive Tyldesley on his media career and Barcelona ’99

Clive Tyldesley has been the main man on the mike at ITV since 1998 when he took over from the retiring Brian Moore following the World Cup. Beginning his broadcasting career with Radio Trent in Nottingham in 1975, he went on to become their regular Nottingham Forest reporter. In addition, in 1977, he joined Radio City in Liverpool and remained there for the next 12 years. 

A passionate Red as a boy, his famous lines from Barcelona in ‘99 still resonate with United fans all over the world to this day: ‘Solskjaer has won it!’. Clive had the best seat in the house. Recently, I managed to get in touch with him and we discussed his commentary career, that night in the Nou Camp, and Sir Alex Ferguson; amongst other things.

Morning Clive. Tell me, how did you begin your career in commentary? 

Morning Jimmy. My parents tell me that becoming a television football commentator was the only professional ambition I ever had. When my dad first took me to Old Trafford in the 60’s, we had a parking spot just across the canal swing bridge and usually got back to the car in time to catch the start of Sports Report on Radio 2. By the time Bill Bothwell delivered his 60-second voice report on the game, I had already mentally written my own.

There were only a handful of media courses available to university entrants in the 70’s, so I studied Industrial Economics and Politics at Nottingham. Nothing I learned ever dampened my enthusiasm for a job in broadcasting. Your first break is always your most important and I graduated at the time that a commercial radio station, Radio Trent, was coming on air in Nottingham. I blagged a job as a tea boy and weedled my way into the sports department from there. Within a few months, I was covering Forest home and away for the station.

I was working with the likes of Brian Clough and Martin O’Neill from the start and Forest was just about to blossom from mid-table Second Division side to European champions. I was in there at the start of that journey in 1976, then moved the following year to a Merseyside radio station where Bill Shankly had his own talk show and was soon commentating on European Cup finals and the like.

I got lucky with my timing!

Of course, you were a Red growing up. How did that start, and did you go to many games in the 70s? 

I was born in Radcliffe and grew up in Bury. We actually lived within walking distance of Gigg Lane and the Bury manager, Dave Russell, was our next-door neighbour. But my dad was a United fan and took me from the age of 6. So – talk about timing! – my formative football years were spent watching Best, Law and Charlton from the Main Stand Paddock. I remember my dad taking me onto the pitch after the title was clinched in ’67. I guess I was about 15 before I started saying goodbye to him on the Scoreboard End forecourt and going on the Stretford End on my own (although sometimes I’d treat myself to one of the seats behind the Stretford End if I got there early enough and the queues weren’t too long). Later on, I relocated to the terrace in the corner where the away fans go now.

My 6th form and university years (’70-5) were the ones when I went most regularly (not such good timing!). In the Second Division season, I only missed a handful of games home and away. Orient, York, Bristol twice, I was there. I’d be on the specials out of Victoria on a Saturday morning. I’d sing ‘we’re going to wreck your town’ on arrival but never lifted a hand or a half-brick to a soul (I was all talk even back then!) I went to Anfield and Stoke when the first home games had to be played away from OT in ’71, and I saw a lot of the run that took United to the top under Frank O’Farrell. Also, I was in the Kippax for Sammy Mac’s debut (although I got locked out successive weekends – Liverpool away and Sheffield United at home!). I had a tartan scarf and an ‘I hate Leeds’ badge!

Who was your Utd hero growing up and why? 

Denis was and is the king. My dad was inevitably a Bobby man, so I needed someone else. I guess George was the natural antithesis of Bobby and a ready-made hero for young fans, but Denis had that connection with the fans. 

By the time the fans in front of me on the Stretford End had cascaded forwarded in the wake of a goal, I’d get a vivid glimpse of the Law Man standing there milking the worship, finger pointing to the heavens from whence he’d come. Everything he did was done with a dramatic flourish. He was a born showman. He caged a fag off me in the Goodison press room years later – a career highlight!

Later on, there were a series of ‘alternative’ heroes like Willie Morgan, Tommy O’Neil, John Fitzpatrick and Big Jim Holton and I always had a soft spot for Kiddo but whenever I’m asked the inevitable question, my official sporting heroes are Denis Law, Tony Jacklin and Farokh Engineer. You can’t change those.

You were at that infamous night game at Millwall in the 2nd Division. Tell me about that. It must have been scary? 

I don’t know that it was particularly infamous. As I recall it, there was no away allocation so there was a stony silence when Gerry Daly’s penalty rolled in and I didn’t move a muscle to break it. I think it was a Monday night and I had uni friends in London I could stay with. I went to the game on my own and incognito. I may even have worn like an office jacket and smart trousers. I was treated like a returning war hero at the next home game; more of a returning spy because I didn’t say a word to anyone all night and just kept myself to myself. But I was there!

Was it hard to tone down your passion and maintain objectivity when covering Utd games in the beginning? 

No matter how many times I try to explain this next bit, no self-respecting fan would ever understand or even believe it!

I went into my dream job a lifelong United fan, committed to the end. Within a few months, that commitment had melted away. Perhaps because working in radio and tv was as emotional a commitment as that to my team, it is not too surprising that United were overtaken by Forest in my affections. I was spending most of my life with the Forest players. They were my age and became my mates. I travelled on the official coach or train with them to away games. Also, I spent hours hanging around the City Ground waiting for interviews and, when the work was done, I socialised with them. In local radio, you commentate about ‘us’ and ‘them’. I wanted them to win for any number of professional and personal reasons. It was natural.

I still went to Wembley in ’76 to support United (maybe that put the finishing touches to the divorce!) but by then I had become a fan of the players I still support with my heart to this day. No, not Forest – just the guys in the game I know and have been good to me. Gareth Southgate was at my wedding. Of course, I want his England to do well. It’s personal.

So, no, I’ve never really had an issue with my ‘feelings’ for United because those feelings changed when I started work. What they achieved in ’99 was hugely important to my own selfish career. It was my first season as ITV’s senior commentator following the retirement of the late great Brian Moore and so I had a huge investment in wanting them to do well in the FA Cup and Champions League because ITV had the rights to those games. But – if I’m honest – the same was true of Liverpool in ’05 and Chelsea in ’12 and I don’t expect any true United fan to understand that. They probably can’t even forgive it.

You are still remembered for the commentary in the 1999 final. How does it feel knowing that moment still excites people today?

The ’99 Final was a very significant game in my own career because it marked the climax of my first season as senior commentator at ITV and the first time I’d worked before a 20 million audience. To put it another way, if I’d f***ed up, they’d have probably put in an immediate bid to sign Motty from the Beeb!

It’s very flattering and ego-massaging when people remember any of the stuff I came out with that night but I didn’t score a goal or come up for a corner. For those millions watching on from afar, it’s remembered as a television event and Big Ron and I were the soundtrack to that event. As with most soundtracks, you like them if you liked the movie. It was the players’ achievement that was special. They created the great material for us to work with. Well, they did eventually! It wasn’t much of a game, to be honest. I had totally misread the first goal because I thought Basler’s free-kick was deflected at first so I was actually thinking to myself, ‘crap game with one goal and I got it wrong’.

However, after Bayern missed those two big chances, there were just stirrings in the United performance, just a rise in the threat level going forward. Ron actually says something to the effect of ‘if they can equalise, they could go on to win this’ so we were kind of bracing ourselves for a big finish, maybe hoping against hope. But when the goals arrived, they were ‘football, bloody hell’ moments because Bayern should really have been out of sight.

I remember walking back to our hotel and wondering whether I’d gone over the top with some of my words. Turn the clock back ten years and I think there was still a flavour of ‘we’re all behind an English team in Europe’. You could commentate a European Cup game like an international. But by 1999, we had moved into an age where every City fan, every Liverpool fan, every West Ham fan wanted Bayern to win! I was thinking ‘I bet I’ve pissed a lot of people off tonight’.

When I turned on Sky News in the hotel room, there was almost an air of an England triumph about the reporting and I began to think I’d pitched it right after all. It had been so long since an English European Cup win, so long since we’d seen a German team and supporters so devastated and United had done it in such a way – with Giggsy’s goal at Villa Park and Keano’s header in Turin and so on – that I actually think for one night only even the most die-hard ABU’s were quietly thinking to themselves, ‘well done, you deserve it’, and ‘at least you beat Matthaus and that lot’.

How quickly did those famous words form in your mind, do you have any pre-scripted lines before games or is it off the cuff? 

Well, you can’t prepare any words for a scenario like ’99 because you’d have to be deranged to dream up that ending. When you’re doing your prep work for a match of such significance, it’s part of the job to put a possible treble into some perspective, and that means thinking about what it would mean, how it would be remembered, and where it would stand in the history of the club and the English game. 

You can’t pre-script any of that, but you can turn your mind to it without tempting fate, and when you turn a commentator’s strange mind to anything specific, it tends to trigger a string of statistics. I think big moments deserve more than that: words not numbers. Stats alone can be boring and hard to digest. It’s part of our job to help with that digestion process and I guess that’s where phrases like ‘Promised Land’ come from. They’re not written down ready for recital, but they’re stored in a musty corner of the mind ready to make an appearance if the occasion calls for it.

The ‘they always score’ line was lifted from a radio interview I heard Mark Lawrenson do on the eve of the FA Cup final. He’d been asked for a score prediction and replied, ‘well, it won’t be United nil, they always score’. It wasn’t factually correct, but it captured the feeling everyone had about that United side, particularly after the Arsenal semi. The best seconds of commentary I did in Barcelona that night were the silences after the two goals. That was the thinking time for what followed. ‘Name on the trophy’ was a bit of a weird one but it was probably a reflection of what the ABU’s were thinking: ‘lucky bastards!!’

In terms of co-commentators, who do you enjoy working with the most? 

I have met a million people through this ‘GOAT’ of a job, so many who have achieved things in football. All of their experiences as players and coaches are beyond mine because I couldn’t kick a ball. Everything I ‘know’ about football has come from listening to them. And that’s the role of the co-commentator: to take those of us who will never be lucky enough or good enough to cross the white line down to the field of battle and tell us what it’s like. It’s that simple.

I’m happy to report that all of the co-comms I’ve worked regularly with are friends to this day. (note ‘regularly’ – there was one guy I did two games with for the Beeb at the ’94 World Cup who I thought was an arsehole – that will certainly start some speculation!!!). I’ve been really really lucky to work with so many great people, not least because you’re travelling with them, eating with them, drinking with them so you need a relationship that will carry through to your working time. It should sound convivial and warm on air; not too pally or gushing, but it’s a partnership.

Ron Atkinson was alongside me during my formative years in telly. He was just great company, always glass half full, always a quiz question or a song or a story. He was in good form when he made the mistake that ended his career too. He had a style that resonated with the average fan and that’s a gift. I’m not choosing him above the others because Andy Townsend, Jim Beglin, Glenn Hoddle etc are all close friends and great to be around. I did some games with Sir Gareth too! However, Big Ron was the first. You always remember your first, don’t you?!

Do you enjoy media work at Old Trafford, is it a good ground to commentate on in terms of atmosphere? 

Yes, really good commentary position (that’s what we tend to judge football grounds by!). It’s at a good height with plenty of space around you. Atmosphere is honestly second to working conditions. In terms of atmosphere, Celtic Park takes some beating but the commentary gantry is tiny and antiquated. Modern media relations are rather controlled compared to the days when Gary Newbon and I would have a cup of tea with Fergie in the Grill Room at 4’o’clock on a European match night and he’d tell us everything. The element of trust between football and its media has steadily eroded during my career. The essential job of the media is to provide a line of communication from the doers to the watchers. It’s a line that is pretty much broken.

If there’s one match as a fan and as a commentator you could revisit for Utd what would they be? 

No idea! I wasn’t at OT the day of Denis’s back-heel. I can’t remember why. I was at The Dell for the big game with Southampton the weekend before. They won 3-0 at Goodison on the day of the derby. That’s what put United down. In a funny sort of way, I guess if I could change one day (beyond Munich obviously), it would be that April afternoon in 1974. Not because it was City particularly, more for the image of Denis scoring so instinctively and then not knowing what to do. And the headline that Law relegates United; he didn’t.

As a commentator – and this will not go down well in one room at Carrington! – I was on the mike when Costinha scored at OT in ’04. It was a cruel Champions League exit – the disallowed goal and all – and while it wasn’t the best United side I ever saw, I think it was good enough to win the Champions League that year. Fergie always felt his reign came up 1 or 2 Champions League triumphs light of what it should have done. It would have been great to commentate on a United final at Hampden and they should have got to that one too, but Porto at Old Trafford in ’04 left a particularly nasty taste in the mouth. Can’t think why!!

What was your reaction to Ron Atkinson’s Desailly comments in 2004, both when it actually happened and then afterwards?

That was a difficult night (and following day) so I would only ever discuss it in context. I’m heavily involved with Kick It Out and so any kind of unfair abuse in football is a serious business for me and I couldn’t cover all my feelings and beliefs in a few sentences. All I can tell you is that Ron was and is a fair, warm, considerate man. Our language lets us all down from time to time. In this Twitter age where the knee-jerk reaction to anything and everything is to demand a resignation, we have forgotten how to forgive. That’s very sad.

Finally, and thank you for taking the time out to speak to me today, what was Alex Ferguson like to deal with? 

I’ve had the two biggest verbal rollickings of my life from Sir Alex but he was very, very good to me in my early career and I will never forget that. Both of the hair driers (one over the phone thankfully!) were as a result of misunderstandings and passed (fairly) quickly but he took me into his confidence many, many times and I really respect that trust he placed in me. My commentary charts for the finals of ’99 and ’08 were framed in his office at Carrington and that meant a lot to me.

As a manager, he was old school and demanded certain standards of everyone around him (me included) and so it was educative to work closely with him, but he was at his best when he relaxed and started telling tales of yore. That was when his genuine love of the game shone through. It was a privilege to be in his private company when he was recalling the people and moments that shaped his football philosophy. He moved with the times and adapted to changes in the game and his relationship with players, and always had an eye on the future of the club. But facing him, toe-to-toe with a mike in hand after a heavy defeat, remains a terrifying experience that will never leave me. I can hear him now clearing his throat nervously and can see his eyes peering at me and his head tilting as I asked an awkward question. 

A bubble began to appear above his head containing the words ‘are you seriously f***in asking me this question’ and I would start to extend and qualify the line of interrogation until I’d been talking for what seemed like hours. Then came the one-word answer and another stare! He would have eaten Jeremy Paxman alive.

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