Tom Tyrrell: ‘He was woven into fabric of Manchester United’

“Keane’s run through, Roy Keane going through, Keane shoots, Roy Keane, oh Roy Keane gets his 50th goal for Manchester United! He’s had a long wait for it, but he hit it running into the penalty area, a bullet into the bottom corner. That’s just what this game needed.”

I was 11 days into my job as Sports Editor of Today FM in February 2005 and I knew at that moment if I didn’t make a complete dog’s breakfast of it, I was going to be ok. I was going to be fine because our match commentator on Premiership Live, Tom Tyrrell, had just brilliantly captured Roy Keane’s 50th goal for Manchester United.

Roy Keane is our greatest football icon, so if we had the exclusive right to convey one of his landmark goals to listeners across Ireland, it needed to be done with high quality.

A great radio football goal commentary has to paint mental pictures, possess the listener, it has to jolt them out of their comfort zone, it has to soar without being a scream, it has to make the fan want to emote and shout “YES” in the car or in the kitchen or beside their App.

Tom Tyrrell had that gift and for a decade between 1998 and 2008 he was a key voice in making Today FM’s Premier League coverage the soundtrack to Saturdays on national radio, something which continues to this day.

Without Tom and the many other brilliant people that have worked for us on the programme, we would not have been a ratings and award winner for so long. It is forgotten sometimes, but the key attribute a radio presenter or commentator must have is a good voice. It is blind medium, so the voice must connect intimately. Tom’s voice was warm, crisp and clear.

Radio football commentary is a highly skilled discipline, requiring the right words at the right moment, an ability to go through the gears and fuse with the nerves of a supporter. Sports fans are very critical of accuracy and will detect a charlatan a mile off, so it is vital for a commentator to know their material in order to project authority, but then to get out of the way and make the experience enjoyable.

Tom had the necessary urgency to do that. I always judge a commentator on how they describe a goal. It is the key test as it is the moment when the listener pays most attention.

Tom had the great talent to wrap a goal in an energetic, informative bow.

Every Friday I would ring Tom to take down audio on an ISDN line. There would be this familiar ‘Hello’ and we would get down to work. Football has changed unrecognisably as a game and in the way it has been covered by the media since Tom’s career began to flourish in the 1970s at Piccadilly Radio in Manchester, where he was the Sports Editor.

He was woven into the fabric of Manchester United, as stadium announcer and DJ at Old Trafford on match days for 15 years between 1974 and 1989, twinned with his role as commentator on all of their games in the independent radio sector.

Manchester United are a behemoth, the richest football club in the world now by revenues, but these were the barren years for the Red Devils, living in Liverpool’s shadow. Tom became the voice of the club, regularly playing ‘Tarzan Boy’ by Baltimora as the terraces filled up, reading special family announcements, setting the scene for a Saturday afternoon’s football.

Tom told me a funny story about the day Alex Ferguson arrived at the club in November 1986. Then chairman, Martin Edwards, actually introduced Fergie to Tom, not the other way around. When Fergie retired in 2013, Tom shared with me the audio of his first interview on that first morning at the club, which had a surreal quality. Tom asked Fergie: “So what do you know about Manchester United?”

It was the right question, but it shows us that we never know what lies a generation ahead of us. When Tom stepped down as the stadium announcer, he continued his work with Piccadilly, and United then started winning trophies.

Football’s relationship with the media has become so guarded, so commercial and alternatively hyperbolic and anodyne, but back then Tom would travel with the United team, meet Fergie in his office for a cup of tea and be on first name terms with everyone.

If only that trust existed nowadays, we would gain a much better insight into what makes a footballer tick, rather than the latest inflated controversy.

“It comes out to Giggs again on the left-hand side, Giggs turns it in low. They’re queuing up to get to it and everyone’s up but Schmeichel and Denis Irwin. Pallister has it on the right-hand side, he turns it back in, it’s coming across to Bruce, and Steve Bruce scores! Steve Bruce with a header, makes it 2-1! in the 51st minute of the second-half! and United go top of the Premier League!”

That was the famous Sheffield Wednesday game of 1993, a pivotal moment in Manchester United’s history, arguably one of the foundation stones of their success. Listening to Tom building to a crescendo in that commentary is spine-tingling. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have been a Manchester United fan glued to the wireless that day.

When you commentate for over 30 years, which Tom did, there will always be challenging moments! Such as when there was a mix-up with his accreditation at Chelsea and he was thrown out of the press box, resulting in his reports being filed down a mobile phone from a car park. Or another time on Today FM when a second set of headphones and microphones failed and Tom and Kevin Sheedy did a full game on one mic and managed to pull it off.

However, most of the standout moments happened in front of him, such as: “Cantona’s attacked a fan,” when Tom was ringside for Eric Cantona’s Kung Fu kick in 1995, or “Viva La France,” his description of Cantona’s FA Cup final winning goal against Liverpool a year later.

When I worked with Tom on Today FM it was always straightforward, as he knew what he was doing and he gave our station instant credibility. Irish listeners had got a taste of his talent when Century Radio relayed his commentaries in 1989-90. He was old school, but a meticulous professional, a writer as well as a broadcaster, and he collaborated with David Meek on books about his beloved Manchester United.

A football commentary is a thing of beauty; we know the teams; we know the fixtures, but we don’t know what is going to unfold. If unpredictability is sport’s trump card for the masses, then live football is an essential ingredient of what sport is.

A good friend of mine who has also sadly passed away said to me about radio personalities that even if the person isn’t physically here, the voice lives on. And when I listen back to Tom Tyrrell’s inspiring commentaries from a decade of colour and goals on Today FM, they are as alive as the moment we first heard them through our speakers.

May he rest in peace.


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