Martin Tyler: A Life In Non-League

Football is pretty straightforward, really. You get the ball, you pass the ball, you score a goal. It’s easy to understand, yet absorbing, inspiring, often mesmerising, and somehow both important and unimportant at exactly the same time. For so many, football can become a manic obsession. Millions of people spend every waking moment consumed by it; pondering dream teams in the shower, reminiscing about favourite goals in the car, feverishly devouring every minute, every detail and every statistic available.

There are some who are lucky enough to have their lives taken over by football. Martin Tyler has been involved in the game since the early 1960’s, first as a player and then as a broadcaster. His indomitable love of football is transparent – it’s not just a pastime, it’s a lifetime.

“Football is a simple game. It’s for everybody, that’s the joy of it. You can be 6 foot 6 or 5 foot, and you can play.”

Everyone knows who Martin Tyler the commentator is. The most recognisable voice in football, the raconteur of the global game, the soundtrack to some of the greatest moments in English football’s history: Wiltord winning the league for Arsenal at Old Trafford, that Gerrard thunderbastard in the FA Cup final, or that cup semi-final when Vieira misplaced his pass to Giggs, Giggs’ run, Giggs’ goal, and Giggs’ hairy-chested celebration. Oh, and that little Argentinian lad’s goal for City against QPR, too. Almost any momentous occasion in football over the last forty years, Martin will have been there, describing, narrating and prophesying; the football poet and his avuncular wisdom: “My career has pretty much been the same, I hold a microphone and shout ‘GOAL!’”

But not everyone knows who Martin Tyler the coach is, though. From a playing career in the amateur leagues at Corinthian Casuals in the 1960s, Martin has spent over a decade alongside Alan Dowson coaching at non-league level, first at Walton & Hersham, then at Kingstonian, and now at Hampton & Richmond Borough.

We met in a leafy corner of South West London, in Hampton’s empty clubhouse, slyly eyeing up the disappointing shutters on the bar. It’s a Tuesday evening, just before training in that post-Christmas period where postponements and the subsequent fixture congestion can start to take its toll on promotion campaigns.

“I’ve got 8 players up with me on the Top Field, which is a terrible place to train but it’s all we’ve got, we don’t want to pay to hire out a pitch when there’s only 8 players. Another 8 are in the treatment room. We can only go from game to game, that’s why we’ve done well. We’ve never got ahead of ourselves.”

Dowson and Tyler have been together for twelve years, and now, a few promotions and county cup wins later, they’re eyeing up a debut season in the top tier of non-league football. They’re pushing this small club as far as its facilities will allow it - at the heart of non-league but looking up at the stars.

Martin’s life has non-league football at the very heart of it. “Listen, you’re speaking to a non-league man here. As an accident of birth I was taken to Woking by a kid who lived next door to me. It’s just where you go. If I’d been taken to Chelsea, maybe I’d be a Chelsea fan, but I was taken to Woking. Most people say ‘who’s your Premier League club? Because everybody has one.’ Well everybody doesn’t, why should I have a Premier League club?"

“When I started, non-league football was really successful - there was 3000 people at my first Woking game. There was hardly anything on the television but people wanted to watch football, and because the transport wasn’t so good everyone would just go to their local club.”

“I’m lucky that I have a job that’s my hobby, but it is still a job. Doing this coaching is back to where I started. I wanted to be a player, I played for bit, and I had a non-league involvement as a fan before I went into television.”

“I was a thoughtful player not an instinctive one, I thought about the game a bit more than those who’ve got real talent”, says Martin. “The story I always tell about my playing career is I played for Corinthian Casuals against Kingstonian, against a guy called John Lacy. I never got a kick, we were well beaten. Lacy signed for Fulham and then Spurs. Fast forward to the early 80s and I’m commentating at Everton vs Spurs, and there’s Lacy playing for Spurs against the great Everton team of the early 80’s with Graeme Sharpe up top. Sharpe made Lacy look an absolute amateur, and whenever I see Graeme now I always say, ‘you put me in my place!’”

Martin’s route into coaching was purely coincidental; “Dowse used to coach my son at his school. He’d just been made player-manager, and he asked me to help in pre-season. I’d played at that level but I’d never coached adults. Everyone thought, ‘what’s he coming for?’”

“First session, first day of pre-season, it’s a Tuesday night, it’s hot. I’d seen his team play and I knew a few of them, so socially there was no problem. There was three of us; Dowse, his assistant, and me. The players were split into three groups, and we had one drill each, they’d move round and do twenty minutes on each one. The third group I had were full of the older, senior players, who at this point were probably finding it a bit hard. The captain, Danny Lavender, came over to me and said, ‘look I think we’ve probably done enough for the first session’, and there I am, I’m agreeing aren’t I? So, I go talk to Dowse, and say, ‘sorry mate, Danny thinks we’ve done enough for today’, and Dowse turns to me and says: ‘well you can tell Danny to fuck off’”.

“I realised then that I was with a manager who would not accept any half measures, and that’s still the truth today. I helped for the first 3 weeks then went to China on a prearranged family holiday, and he’s texting me the whole time about pre-season friendlies and I’m asking about line-ups and team selections and everything. So, when I came back, I just drifted into it. That was 2005 and here we are.”

“Alan’s the star of the show, there’s no doubt about that. While I know why you want to talk to me and not him, I will stress it’s all about him, not me. He’s got wonderful values – he cares, he really cares. He’s got no PR skills himself, he doesn’t play easy on the eye, he just gets on with winning football matches.”

Martin speaks incredibly highly of Dowse, heaping praise on a coach he clearly considers the sole manufacturer of their successes. “We’ve been together 12 years, but the fact is it’s his drive, and he’s the one who’s taken us to a couple of titles and cups. He’s given me a dimension in my life that I never thought was there. We manage with little money, Dowse is a miracle worker. If they come here, it’s because they want to play”.

After a few fixture postponements, we finally managed to watch Hampton in action, beating Bognor Regis Town 1-0 in late February. The game was a stereotype of non-league football; Hampton are a small suburban team and Bognor are the provincial town with a regional football team and 50 or so drunks on tow. It’s a gritty, fitful first-half; tough, relentless and lacking in genuine quality. Dowse is there on the side, bellowing instructions in his deep Geordie tones, while Martin is a touch quieter, studying the action intently with a few words in Dowse’s ear here and there.

I often get ‘you should’ve stayed on the telly’ from away fans

The second half is a touch livelier. Hampton are clearly superior to their mid-table opponents and hit the woodwork a few times, before Shaun Jeffers finally makes the breakthrough in the last ten minutes. In injury time a Bognor Regis centre-half is sent off and the Hampton fans make him suffer the classic “Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio” followed by “Wanker! Wanker!”. One of the Bognor subs warming up in front of us laughs and says to us, “yeah, he is a wanker”, and runs off with him down the tunnel.

The final whistle goes and the players trudge off, clapping and saluting their faithful as they go. As he skips off, Martin’s celebrations are of a man half his age, spritely and feverishly joyous. Regardless of all those famous moments that his job has granted him, Martin’s real passion clearly lies down here, at non-league, where the pitch is bobbly and the sides are tight, and men lean over railings with pints of bitter and complain about their job. At this level, he believes nothing has really changed since his playing days: “Non-league, in my opinion, hasn’t changed at all. The only difference is now they’re allowed to be paid, back then they weren’t because they were amateur”.

“Are there any songs fans sing at you?”, we ask, tentatively. “I often get ‘you should’ve stayed on the telly’ from away fans”, he laughs, “but our fans have got a song for me to do with an incident at our local rivals, Staines Town, where I ended up behind the goal with them and we beat them in the last minute. I had to walk past the Hampton fans to get round, and as I did, we scored and they all jumped on top of me, so that was quite fun. It was a big win in our local derby. Football can’t be sanitised, if you want people to be passionate you have to run the risk of them being a bit over-passionate. You have to want your team to win.”

It feels like an over-extended cliché, but there is a genuine, tangible difference at this level. There is a romance about following your town’s team with a few dozen others, being able to have a drink with the players and coaches after the game, discuss next week’s fixtures with the left-back, see what the assistant thought of the sending off, and have a few overexcited words with the manager after a few too many drinks that you’ll probably regret in the morning.

He has lived a life through non-league football; following, watching, playing, coaching, cheering, shouting and screaming. “When we won the league here, it was the best atmosphere I can remember, or my favourite at least. I still have a bit of it on my phone that I watch every now and again. We only needed a point to win the league and we drew 0-0. It was amazing. To be involved in it and not describing it was very special.”

A real pleasure, Martin.