Andy Gray ushers me into his Warwickshire home with a caution: "Mind the rottweilers." The pair of animals which come springing forward, Lucky and Chica, tip the scales in ounces of fluff rather than pounds of muscle and are pathetically eager to be stroked. The only rottweiler in residence, if you take the word of football referees, is Andrew Mullen Gray, 52-year-old Sky Sports commentator.
As a centre-forward of some repute (Scotland, Aston Villa, Everton) Andy Gray used to strike terror as well as goals. Now, his regular savaging of the game's officials provokes squawks of indignation from the men in black, but Andy is unrepentant. At ease in a vast, velvet chair and nursing a tea mug bearing the handwritten inscription "Big Fella", Gray acknowledges: "Referees hate me, but I don't lose any sleep over that."
In his 17th year as a television pundit for Sky, he has already exceeded the length of his own footballing career by 12 months and wants to stress that "where players are concerned" he has always tried to be constructive. "I hate these people who condemn everything and never give you a reason why, but with referees I have never been that bothered, to be quite honest."
Warming to his theme, Gray sets aside Big Fella and plunges on: "I know referees use the rules to suit themselves. I have seen numerous situations when, for want of a better word, they have bottled their job. If I upset a referee on a weekend, too bad.
"My job depends on my performance and a referee's job should depend on his. If he doesn't want the glory of going to all these fantastic stadiums and the pressure which comes with that, having to get big decisions right, then he should not be a referee. I know the job isn't easy, but these guys choose that profession, no one choosesit for them, and if they don'tlike criticism about the sort of major decisions we have had already this season, they really shouldn't do it.
"Until a few years ago, they were not accountable to anybody. It was staggering that that should be the case in a business that is now worth so much money that one of their decisions can make the difference between 50 million or nothing for a club, survival or not. That is pressure, and I do understand that. All I am saying is they won't get everything right but they need to try and get more big ones right.
"I have watched a referee [Rob Styles] give a penalty when a player attempted to hurdle a tackle and fell over, and he explained later that there didn't have to be contact, it was the intent. Three weeks ago, the same referee booked a player [Cristiano Ronaldo, for simulation] when the same thing happened. How can you have two different decisions for the same situation? This is what annoys players, managers, coaches and people like me. You can have different refer-ees' interpretations for the same situation, we all accept that, but if the same referee is so inconsistent, I think he has to be told."
Another decision which came in for a Gray tongue-lashing was this month's dismissal of Robbie Keane by Phil Dowd after the referee appeared to take advice from the fourth official, Uriah Rennie. "We were debating whether it was now refereeing by co-operative. We got hugely criticised by someone called Graham Poll, who used to referee and [who] courted more publicity than anyone I know. I was brought up to believe that a great game was one where you didn't actually notice the referee,but here we are, sitting talking about them and giving them far too much time."
Gray waves away the argument that television offers commentators repeated views of any incident. "I call it the first time I see it, I will make a decision, the same as the referee has done. If I am wrong I will hold up my hand and say so."
Gray has been calling it the way he sees it ever since Sky got into football. Towards the end of his playing career he was offered commentating work in Scotland after impressing on an ITV show called Sporting Triangles, but his choice of a final season with Rangers put paid to that. "Playing for Rangers alienates half of Scotland. You can't be carbon neutral, as they say."
Instead, in the summer of 1989, he was offered work with BSB, who were putting a commentating team together. "There was no question of modelling myselfon anybody, there wasn't anybody really, only Jimmy Hill. I probably had the best grounding of any ex-pro because of the fact we started with no viewers. It was a unique situation. We went on air not sure whether two people were watching us or if it was 200 or 2,000. For a year, 18 months, that was the case until the merger with Sky happened. In that time I don't think I dropped too many 'Colemanballs', never fluffed too much. I just enjoyed television, it seemed the natural place to be."
So enjoyable, in fact, that someone who had won the double of the PFA's Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year in 1977 was awarded the Royal Television Society's title of Sports Presenter of the Year in 1996, and in 2002 was loaned out to the BBC to commentate on the World Cup. His enthusiasm remains undimmed.
"I have the job that everyex-pro wants. I see all the games from the best seat in the house and I am the master of my own destiny. It's my performance that will either hire me or fire me. It's like my playing days; do well and you stay on the team, mess up and you're out. At the moment, thankfully, I've still got the jersey, and hopefully that will be the case for a couple more years. Maybe at some time Sky will turn round and say, 'We need to get rid of this oldgit, he has been here too long'. When that happens I shall say, 'Thank you very much for an amazing journey that I never thought I would have had'."
Gray claims the job is "much more stressful" than his playing days because of the huge amount of travelling involved, but in comparing today's game to his era he insists: "I am not one of those old pros who says it was better in my day. Obviously you can't get tackled any more the way you used to, so physically it's much easier than it was. I probably would not have suffered the injuries I had to suffer as a centre-forward these days.
"I am just envious of the stadiums and the pitches. Can you imagine [the current] Arsenal trying to play at the Baseball Ground on a wet day, ploughing through the mud?
"I don't think the game is harder, though it is certainly faster. The nutrition and preparation and conditioning are all better. So is the money and the lifestyle, though I think press intrusion is something I would have found difficult to cope with. I feel sorry for [players] in that respect but the rewards are such, they have to understand that comes with the territory now."
What also concerns Gray is the Premier League's domination by four clubs. "It's not a good thing, not in the long run, though maybe I shouldn't be saying that because I work in Sky and you go with the big teams. As a playerI wasn't at fashionable clubs, I was at Villa, Everton, Wolves, but I always believed when the season began that I was going to try and win the League. I don't think now Villa and Everton think for a minute they can win the League. So yeah, that's a little sad.
"I would have liked to have played at a time when the game is so buoyant and the grounds are so fantastic, but somehow I think I was born to play in my era. I loved the camaraderie, loved the fact that after training 10 or 12 of us would go to the pub for a bit of lunch, a pint or two, a glass of wine. That would never happen now. You get teams with foreign players who just disappear, you never see them from one training session to the next. I am envious sometimes when I see what the guys have now, but I don't think I would have swapped my time for theirs.
"And if, when I went to Dundee United as a 17-year-old, someone had said, 'Andy, when you are finished you will have represented your country, scored for your country, won the Scottish Championship, the English Championship, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the European Cup-Winners' Cup', I would have acknowledged I made the most of what I had. I have achieved far more than I believed was possible, far more."
And there's more to come, via the television screen, from the Big Fella, the referees' rottweiler.
The essential Andy Gray
Andrew Mullen Gray was born in Glasgow on 30 November 1955. The striker started his professional career with Dundee United before heading south in October 1975 to Aston Villa, where he won the golden boot in 1976-77 with 25 League goals. His 29 strikes the following season earned him the PFA Young Player of the Year and PFA Players' Player of the Year awards (pictured right), a historic double not repeated until Cristiano Ronaldo won both awards in 2006-07. He moved to Wolverhampton Wanderers in September 1979 for a then British record 1.5m. After scoring the winning goal for Wolves in the 1980 League Cup final, he remained with the club through their relegation and immediate return to the top flight before moving to Everton in November 1983 for 250,000. In his two years on Merseyside he won the FA Cup in 1984 (scoring a disputed goal in the final against Watford), the League Championship and European Cup-Winners' Cup, scoring in the final against Rapid Vienna. He returned for a second spell at Aston Villa, and spent a season at West Bromwich Albion before joining Rangers. He won the championship at Ibrox before dropping into non-League football with Cheltenham Town and then retiring. Gray also won 20 caps for Scotland, scoring seven goals, but was not selected for any of their World Cup squads. After hanging up his boots, he entered coaching as an assistant at Aston Villa before focusing full-time on his television work.
Andy Gray commentates on Blackburn v Chelsea today (Sky Sports 1, 4.10pm), Portsmouth v Arsenal on Boxing Day and Manchester City v Blackburn on 27 December.Reuse content