Do I really need to give him an introduction?
He’s the lead football commentator for Sky Sports in the UK, and he’s called UEFA Champions League games and the World Cup for Fox and ESPN. He’s been called “the voice of English football”, and not just in England. And in addition to all that, he’s been a coach at Kingstonian FC in the Isthmian League for eight seasons (non-league).
Martin and I had a conversation on the current state of football in England, the increasing use of data in the Premier League, and his experiences as a match commentator. I cannot thank Martin enough for his generosity in conducting the interview, as well as his publicist Alex Henderson at Sky for granting me permission.
Here’s the interview, with my questions in bold.
[Interview conducted between 3 – 6 August 2013.]
(Howard Hamilton) Martin, how do you use team and player statistics in your job?
(Martin Tyler) I try to use data which is relevant to the fixture – current team positions in their league, head to head record between the two clubs in the game, players who might be reaching a landmark like 100th game or a birthday. It is when to apply the stats which is the skill.
I tend to avoid matters of conjecture like many transfer fees. I am wary of in-game stats which are subjective and only as good as the individual recording them, such as possession. Distance covered is another misleading item because by sheer position some players have to cover more ground than others.
How much preparation goes into a 90-minute match commentary?
As much time as I have available. If I have two weeks I take two weeks. In World Cups when you are working everyday you cannot turn up every gem of information so you just concentrate on the basics.
There’s a lot of flux in the Premier League with new players coming from lower divisions or foreign leagues. How much data do you have typically on those players?
There is plenty of information available. The internet has been a wonderful help though everything has to be cross-checked. In truth, the best information comes from talking to the players and coaches and I try to do that wherever possible.
Is it a challenge to find data on some players in today’s globalized world? Is it still possible for a player to be an ‘unknown’ in today’s football?
Every scout looks for the one which no one else has discovered but the breadth of coverage makes it very hard. It sometimes happens when a natural talent has not played football very much, like Chris Smalling, but word very soon gets around and so does the information.
Can you describe your typical work environment for Premier League matches? I imagine it’s more standardized now than it was in 1992!
The work environment is exactly the same at grounds like Anfield as when I started almost 40 years ago. The commentator wants to be alongside the main camera with an unobstructed view from the halfway line. Not too low and not too far back. Definitely no running track and whatever the weather is not behind glass.
I’d imagine that one difference is that there are more electronic gadgets in the commentary boxes, correct?
I have no gadgets at all. I use the same type of “lip mic” that I used when I started in 1974. The only extra is a second monitor.
How much data is in front of you during a match and how do you keep from getting overloaded?
I write my notes in longhand – the old school method. It just doesn’t stick in my mind if I type it, sadly! But such is the speed of the game now that I rarely look at them during the game. I need the information in my head like taking an exam.
Overloading can be an issue but you learn to use what is important – most research is never used.
The most important thing is to watch and describe the match.
You have a lot of exposure to North American audiences through your football broadcasts — what do you think of the statistical analysis culture in North American sport and its spread to British sport?
I have huge respect for American sports but it is different because there are so many stoppages and stats fill those gaps. Football is a free flowing game and often the best use of stats is at half time or full time.
What’s driving the growth of analytics in English football? Is it Financial Fair Play, American influence, competitive advantage, or something else?
The analysis which is really growing is in the field of sports science where football has been lagging behind. There is also more pre and post game time on television – and of course there are many, many more live games now – for facts and figures to prove useful. As a commentator during the match it is good to have a stat when something has happened but only if it is relevant.
Do you have a favorite football statistic, for use in broadcast or in fantasy football?
Name the player who played his first three Premier League games for three different clubs!
Clubs such as Bolton during Sam Allardyce’s tenure and Manchester City has been visible proponents of analytics but there are the usual detractors that you can’t learn much about football from statistics. How much of a role should analytics play in football?
There is nothing wrong in analysing games to the modern day depth. Sam Allardyce was a forerunner in this and such an approach has made him an outstanding manager. But he will be the first to tell you that players win you matches. I do though believe in the adage of “prepare to fail if you fail to prepare.”
What’s the one item of information that would improve the public’s understanding of what’s going on in a football match?
In the stadium, better numbers on shirts. On television, maybe the heart rate of players in the heat of the action.
Do you play fantasy football?
No, because I am lucky enough to play real football! I have been a coach in the Ryman League since 2005 [Kingstonian FC -ed.].
What type of player would you select first if you were building a team?
Anyone who could win my club a game in the Ryman League where it is very competitive.
Are goalkeepers underrated or undervalued in football?
Goalkeepers never have been and never will be underrated. A great team of outfield players will never win anything if they have a weak goalkeeper.
How do you fit in coaching among your commentary commitments?
I mostly commentate on Sundays and Kingstonian play mostly on Saturdays. We train on Mondays , and I do miss some sessions, and on Thursday when I am usually there. All the players and coaches have other jobs and I am no different.
You observe football up close from the Premier League down to non-League. What is the health of England’s national game?
I am very proud of the pyramid system in England but it is more difficult at the very top now for English talent. The globalisation of the Premier League is part of its great appeal.
But I do believe that the whole of the football industry in this country, including the very top clubs, would benefit from a successful England team. If England won the World Cup the celebrations would dwarf those of the Olympic medals, winning the Ashes [England vs Australia cricket rivalry -ed.] or Andy Murray’s Wimbledon triumph. I don’t think the foreign owners and coaches understand this.
Is the lack of playing time of English players in the Premier League real? Is there a skill gap from their peers abroad?
English players are competing with footballers from all over the world. It is obvious that there will be fewer opportunities. But the biggest problem is that it is cheaper for clubs to shop overseas for ready made talent than to acquire a home–grown prospect. It is a money gap not a skill gap.
I’ve read the common argument that English players are suffering from lack of opportunities in the Premier League but I’ve also read the authors of Soccernomics (Why England Lose in the UK) claim that English players aren’t playing abroad often enough. How does the football hierarchy best address this issue?
Many young English players are paid too much too soon. It is not their fault. The blame lies with the clubs.
The 2011-12 Premier League season was hard to top — as you said, we’d never see anything like that ever again! But why did Manchester United appear to win the league so comfortably last season?
A combination of more goals scored with Van Persie a key signing, and a poor defence of their title by Manchester City, with their players the first to admit that.
What was the biggest surprise in your opinion from the 2012-13 season?
Without a doubt the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Will we miss Reading, QPR, or Wigan in this season’s Premier League?
The early signs are that Reading, QPR and Wigan will sparkle in the Championship. They all have the benefit of the parachute payments from the Premier League. Cardiff City, Hull City and Crystal Palace have earned the chance to show their worth at the elite level.
We’re at the start of a new era in the Premier League – the post-Alex Ferguson era. How do Manchester United, and the Premier League in general, transition from the departure of such a major figure in their respective histories?
I have no crystal ball but it will be fascinating to watch how it plays out. Definitely a question to revisit this time next year!
In your opinion, what will be the major storylines of the upcoming season?
United post Fergie will be one but I think the upcoming World Cup will provide a backdrop to it all, particularly with England still not sure of qualifying. Should England fail the whole football industry in the country will be under microscopic analysis.