Man Behind the Mic: Football Commentator Gary Taphouse
Commentating at the highest level of sport does not come easy. You need to have a vast knowledge of the sport you’re involved in, a natural talent to broadcast a match to a mass audience, but most importantly, a steely determination to succeed in a market where many wish to thrive.
Gary Taphouse has done just that. Taphouse is a football commentator who has worked across both television and radio, providing expert analysis for the likes of Sky Sports and talkSPORT. He has commentated on many games including those in the English Premier League, The F.A Cup, The EFL Cup, La Liga, The Champions League, and he was part of the talkSPORT team that commentated at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
As the audience, our job is to sit back, relax, and watch the sport. It is completely the opposite for Taphouse, who discovered early on that football commentry was the route for him. 'The Sports Gazette' spoke with Taphouse to discuss his route into the industry, his remedy for success, and what he thinks makes a truly inspirational and creditable football commentator.
(SG): So, why football commentary?
(GT): It was all I wanted to do as a teenager. The World Cup in 1990 was the first time I was totally absorbed by a major tournament. I watched every game and became just as interested in the various commentators’ styles as I was by the football. I couldn’t believe something so fantastic was actually a job! I think from that moment on, every decision I took with regards to education and work was with commentating in mind. I was convinced it was for me.
SG: Where was your first job & how did you go about securing it?
GT: The first commentating I ever did was at university. I was studying multi-media journalism at Bournemouth and by a stroke of good fortune; I managed to start commentating on home games for the club’s own video. Basically, someone I knew also knew the cameraman and mentioned he was looking for an unpaid commentator.
As well as the luck you also need to be confident enough to take these opportunities when they come along. They decided to try me out at a home game with Bristol Rovers in September 1996. I sat there on the rickety old gantry at Dean Court and couldn’t believe I was actually commentating on a football match. It went ok and I ended up covering every home game and then presenting the end of season video as well.
That experience was probably as valuable as my degree. My first paid job was at my local newspaper in South London. On another work placement I’d ended up with an enormous book of cuttings. That book got me the job – in fact I started before I even got my degree result and never even went to my own graduation because it clashed with work. Essentially if you’re at university, it will be the work you do outside the degree that will help you stand out from the rest.
SG: What was your first professional published work?
GT: In my first or second week at the local paper I ended up writing the front page lead about a big new town centre development. I’d spotted something about it in a council planning meeting agenda and ended up with a decent story. Written journalism was something I really enjoyed but I knew broadcasting was my future. The newspaper job allowed me to still work in radio at weekends so I was still getting the experience.
SG: Football is a very popular sport and professional work in the industry is tough to come by. How did/do you separate yourself from the crowd?
GT: It’s all about luck, timing and experience. I was able to get plenty of weekend reporting work in local radio because of the commentating I’d done at Bournemouth. Once you’re in and working regularly, you’re half way there. It all comes back to having done plenty of work outside my degree when I had the time as a student.
SG: In the Sports Journalism Industry, how much would you say luck influences your career and how much is down to sheer hard work?
GT: Of course luck plays a huge part. I think everyone in sports journalism would say the same. If you happen to be in the right place at the right time or know the right person, it’s a big advantage. But you still have to take the chance that comes your way. And if you blow it, there are plenty of other people waiting to take advantage so that’s where the hard work comes into it. If you let your standards slip, you can be out.
SG: What do you find is the main difference between television commentary and radio? Which do you prefer and why?
GT: The obvious difference is that you talk a lot more on radio! You can’t just stop talking, you have to constantly describe and explain. But beyond this, you have a lot more freedom to go “off piste” on radio. There’s a lot more scope for humour and discussion. On TV, the trick is actually learning when NOT to talk. Ironically you are paid more on TV and so it’s tempting to think “I’m being well paid to hold this microphone, I must say something!”. In fact I now say far less on TV during matches than I used to. Whenever you ask people: “what really annoys you about football commentators?” no one ever replies: “They don’t talk enough”.
SG: Has the evolving nature of mobile communication affected how you work? If so, how?
GT: Technology hasn’t made a great deal of difference to commentating. We still use the same lip mics that the BBC were using 70 years ago! Social media has made getting team news etc much quicker and easier. Twitter is now one of my main tools for work whereas three years ago I wasn’t even on it.It’s all about luck, timing and experience...Once you’re in and working regularly, you’re half way there.”
SG: What makes a great commentator?
GT: Everyone will have their own view on that. Generally speaking it’s about having natural warmth and authority coupled with terrific knowledge. But it’s also about not being an irritant to the viewer, so supplementing the pictures with worthwhile commentary and not just talking for the sake of it.
SG: Which was the best match you commentated on?
GT: There are so many, it’s difficult to list them all. One of the most memorable was Portsmouth 7-4 Reading, which is still the highest scoring Premier League match of all time. It was in my early days with Sky so my actual commentary is pretty awful, I certainly couldn’t watch it now. I also covered Tottenham’s 9-1 win over Wigan in 2009. For radio it was wonderful to be in Moscow for the 2008 Champions League final between Chelsea and Man Utd.
SG: In the last 10 years, what have you seen to be the biggest change in football commentary?
GT: I don’t think a lot has changed in 10 years except there are now more commentators than ever and more games being commentated on. There are world feeds everywhere, every league in every country seems to have English commentary on. Plus there are more and more online commentaries of matches which are a great place for any budding commentator to start.
SG: How much research do you do before a game that you commentate?
GT: Generally a full day of research per match, sometimes more if it’s an obscure fixture. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing less.
SG: What do you love about your job?
GT: What’s not to love if you’re a football fan? It’s a very sociable job. You get to catch up with a lot of broadcasting friends before and after matches and you get to be at some wonderful sporting occasions. It can be hard work and stressful at times like all jobs but it’s also
SG: What do you dislike most about your job?
GT: Ironically you don’t get to watch the team you support very much because you’re always working on matchdays Also as you work every Saturday you end up missing family time, such as your son playing football, or friends’ weddings.
SG: Favourite ground for commentating?
GT: Years ago I used to work at Chelsea, commentating on their matches for the club’s own radio station and then for local London radio so I still have plenty of friends there. I love going back and catching up with everyone, plus the view from the gantry is excellent and food in the media suite is second to none! Also I love working at Wembley. I’ve been lucky enough to cover six FA Cup semi-finals for TV and it’s always a brilliant experience.
SG: And finally, what final advice would you give aspiring sports journalists/broadcasters?
GT: It’s all about experience as well as qualifications. Get out there and badger people to let you shadow them or help out for free. Nothing will come to you; you’ve got to chase it. The more contacts and experience you have, the better. It’s the only way to stand out in a very, very crowded workplace.
Follow Gary Taphouse on Twitter here: twitter.com/garytaphouse