'Us And Them': Clive Tyldesley On His Invincible Year With Gerrard & Rangers

Tyldesley was working for Rangers TV as Gerrard's men went unbeaten behind closed doors
11:00, 17 Jun 2022

Clive Tyldesley has commentated on some of the most iconic moments in football history. From World Cups to Champions League finals, he is the voice of the sport for a generation of football fanatics. Now, in a five-part series, he has talked The Sportsman through some of the most important matches across his career, from his unique perspective. All five games feature in Clive's series of Commentary Charts, which are now available as part of his latest business venture.

In this final part, he talks about how he was let in, when the world was shut out. He commentated for Rangers TV as Steven Gerrard’s men went unbeaten and denied Celtic their 10th title in a row. It was an experience that would teach him a thing or two about Scottish football, but we’ll let Clive explain how the situation unfolded. 

At the start of 2020, I had just been given the news by ITV that in the summer of that year they no longer required me to be their England senior commentator. They had found somebody younger, okay, a matter of opinion, I didn't like it but you have got to accept it. What it meant is that I was freelance and looking for work. Rangers TV asked me if I would go and commentate for them. I was sceptical really. I didn't like the idea of commentating for a club. We've talked about your affiliations and being neutral and being editorially strong, and I didn't really like the idea of being in the pay of a football club to call their games. 

But they convinced me that because their season ticket holders are so much more important to the business model of Rangers and Celtic than down south, where the TV money is considerable, that they wanted to keep their season ticket holders but provide them with free coverage of the games and they wanted it to be top level during the period of the lockdowns. So the likes of Ally McCoist, Graeme Souness and the late Walter Smith appeared in the studio. I had Kevin Thompson with me, who is a network broadcaster, we had Neil McCann, who I think is one of the finest studio pundits in football, regularly in the studio, we had Emma Dodds who you will see on an awful lot of Scottish network coverage presenting. So, they convinced me to go and I took the gig, I needed work and it sounded like a good deal. 

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I did not know when I called the first Rangers game in an empty stadium they weren't going to lose that season. They'd only been promoted back into the Premiership in Scotland for three seasons. The previous season they had put themselves into a really good position at halfway and blew it. And Celtic had won the title for the ninth year in a row. Now, stupid me didn't really get the idea of nine in a row. 'What's this nine in a row everybody is talking about?' Celtic were bidding to go 10. In the 1960s and 1970s, Jock Stein's great Celtic team won nine Scottish titles in a row. Rangers stopped them in the 10th season. In the 1980s and 1990s Graham Souness and Walter Smith's great Rangers teams won nine Scottish titles in a row. Celtic stopped them making it 10. And here was Steven Gerrard trying to stop Celtic from winning 10 in a row. 

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The first game I commentated on, this '10 in a row' thing was just echoing in my head throughout the match. At the end of the game, which Rangers won, I said off the top of my head “I don't think stopping 10 in a row is good motivation. I think motivation for anything in life should be a positive force. Not a negative force trying to stop somebody else from doing something. I think Rangers' motivation this season should be 55.” They had won 54 league titles, which was at the time the equal world record with Linfield of Northern Ireland for the number of national titles won by any club anywhere in world football. 

So I said famously "55 should be the motivation, forget 10 in a row. You weren't even in the league for four of Celtic's nine, you were down the divisions." Well, the Daily Record got this. Tyldesley says 'four of those nine don't count'. No, I didn't say that at all! Big banner headline, abuse, quite rightly, from Celtic fans who hadn't heard what I had said and the context I had said it in. So suddenly, I was in the middle of a bit of a Glaswegian maelstrom and that taught me a lot. It taught me that you are an outsider. You don't belong here. You are being employed to do a job, stay out of our fight. 

It is a bit like coming between two guys in a pub who have got it in for each other and who regularly fight and you are trying to break it up. Just, leave out of it. We will sort this out. So I just became far more diplomatic with everything that I said from that point onwards. There was a lovely moment in that first game, it is like a commentator's device, in order to try not to say the same thing over and over again, I called Celtic, Celtic two or three times in commentary, then I called them the Hoops. The Hoops come here next month, whatever. I got a very big social media following saying 'Welcome to the Rangers family, but, it was very kindly, just like an uncle talking to you. Do not call them the Hoops. Do not make them sound nice. They are either Celtic or they are them.'

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So I had to absorb a lot of advice from my first few games in Glasgow, but I understand Glasgow football far better now than I did when I went in there. Generally I was very well received, I enjoyed doing the games. I'm not sure I would be welcomed at Celtic Park like I have been in the past, because you are either us or you are them. I suppose I am now 'us'. It was a wonderful experience. 

But, with the empty stands, it was an almost unique situation we were in. I think we realised it even more when the fans came back. I think we became a little attuned to the - I used to call it the Marie Celeste football - that we were watching. You always felt like you would see tumbleweed going across the pitch at some stage. It was very strange. We could park right outside the stadium. To get from Old Trafford back to the motorway took eight minutes rather than 88 minutes. There were some benefits, there were no motorway jams at 1am in the morning! 

But no, it was terrible. It was a challenge for us as commentators. One of the reasons that I think Ally McCoist is such a gem in UK football broadcasting is that I think he is in touch with the average viewer. With the average fan. I think he is the kind of guy who you could walk into your local, see him at the bar and feel as if you can sit down next to and have half an hour in his company - and you could. And it would be the best 30 minutes of your life because he is the most wonderful company. But he is amenable, he is accessible.

I think that some of the commentary during lockdown became a little too earnest for my liking. All the praise for the Premier League for getting this on - yeah, okay, organisational problems and all the testing that had to go on, yeah, there were logistical issues - but why was it there? Because TV contracts had to be satisfied and football needed the money and television needed the action and it was there because the government wanted to distract the rest of us from going doolally locked up in our own houses. 

It was there for strategic reasons. Some practical business reasons, and I think most of the public got that so I think when commentators started to drool over the wonder of football being played in the middle of this - wait a minute - it is being played for some very economic reasons. You never heard Ally talking like that. You never heard Ally rise to some celestial cloud where football is a grand and noble thing, it is not. 

It is wonderful. It is wonderful because it is rough and raw and it surprises us and frustrates us and it angers us and sometimes it has us jumping around the room like nothing else in our lives. That is football. So much of that was missing inside an empty stadium and I think you had to try and reflect that in your commentary. I certainly, as time went on during those lockdowns, tried to bring that subject matter into the commentary. Even the fake crowd noise. I always watched it without it, if I was watching at home. Who are we trying to kid? Why do we have fake crowd noise? But when people were given a choice they opted for the fake crowd noise.

That's how programmed we are. It's almost like playing FIFA with crowd noise. FIFA is not real, and this football was barely real. So don't try to make it feel real by putting in canned laughter basically. It is like a sh*t comedy programme that has to have canned laughter because there is no f*cker laughing. It was the same thing. Forgive my French. It got me angry and I felt privileged to be in the stadium, yeah, still to be working when most of the country was on furlough or out of work but not so grand about it that actually - ‘it was the greatest thing to have ever happened to me’, it was far from the greatest thing that ever happened to me. All the greatest things that have happened to me inside of football grounds, have happened in the company of tens of thousands of people. 

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I’ve known Steven Gerrard since he was 15. I commentated on that famous night in Istanbul, but as a manager... he is two men. Probably the key to my job is understanding that. As with Sir Alex Ferguson, you would only cross him once. So don't cross him. There's no three strikes and you're out. If you let him down, if you lie to him or betray him in some way, that will be it. 

We had two relationships. We had a relationship where we would chat and message, during the week, which some team information or some insight into what was coming may have happened. Then we had a relationship on a match day. One of the wonderful things about being behind closed doors at Rangers was that behind closed doors at other stadiums you didn't get to see anybody. You didn't get in physical contact or conversation contact with any of your contacts in the game. At Rangers, I was obviously tested up and eventually jabbed up, we would both wear a mask but we would go into a room and social distance, but have a meeting about that game. At half past one, he would tell me his team and he would tell me what he thought about the opposition to give me some insight. So I retained that personal contact.

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But that conversation was not "Hi, how is Alex, how is Susan, how are the kids?" That didn't happen on matchday, he was a different person on matchday and I loved that. You know where you stand with somebody. His players and staff would love that. I used to say "You've got your gameface on today haven't you?" and he would go "Yep" - okay, that's it. He wouldn't laugh, he would be out of it and then, maybe the next day, we would have a bit of a giggle about it. If there are Rangers fans who are disappointed that he left when he did, I get that and he gets that. It was on the eve of a big cup tie at Hampden Park, a semi-final with a big European game to come. He didn't choose the timing. He didn't know about Aston Villa until about a week before it happened. So, this was a decision that he was faced with.

All his life has been around English football and the Premier League but, more importantly, he lived essentially on Merseyside in the Southport area. The number of times that I would talk to him on a Saturday morning, to get some team news, and he would be on the M74. He would have gone home after training, on Friday in Glasgow, back to Merseyside just to see Alex and the kids, and Saturday morning driving himself, not a driver - he drove himself back to be there at lunchtime when the players met for a game. These guys are very, very lucky, I'm very, very lucky, but their family lives are naturally disrupted by football. The ones who still value their family life like Steven Gerrard, if they get an opportunity to move closer to home, to be able to get home every night, pretty much from training, then that is going to be a big sway in their decision. The only insight that I can offer you into Steven's decision are the number of phone calls I had with him on the M74. The M74 is no place for any of us to be. 

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