Television a buzz word to turn on the Gray natter

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The last three months were always going to be difficult for the team behind Sky Sports' football coverage. Having revelled in the most gripping Premiership season so far, they had to step down from their commentary positions and watch enviously as the BBC and ITV raked in viewing figures for Euro 96 that Sky can still only dream about.

As Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen and Ruud Gullit became a part of national life, Sky's nearest equivalent - Andy Gray - had to content himself with going along to watch Scotland's matches as a mere punter. Didn't he crave to be behind the microphone?

"I did and I didn't," he said one morning last week at his local golf club - The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield. "On the one hand it was a huge event, the biggest in this country for 30 years, and of course I would have loved to be involved. On the other, I'd just come to the end of a long and exhausting season and I needed a break. And I think the viewers needed a break as well. You can become too familiar."

It is still possible, however, that you may be unacquainted the television personality side of the former Dundee United, Everton, Wolves and Aston Villa striker. After all, more than half of British homes remain without dish or cable. But to the millions of football fans for whom, like it or not, Sky has become indispensable, Gray is the best thing about it.

It is easy to forget that, not many years ago, footballers were widely caricatured as people who could barely string two sentences together - and they usually had to contain the words "sick" and "parrot" or "over" and "moon". If that stereotype is now on the wane, the reason may well be to do with the impact of the likes of Lineker, Hansen and Gray. Indeed, as an all-round performer who embraces punditry, commentary, presentation, interviewing and, perhaps most famously of all, video-operating, the ebullient but rigorous Gray is, in many people's eyes, in a class of his own.

"The new breed of footballer is more articulate and has more brains than they were credited with 10 years ago," Gray said. "And when you see how big a part football plays in television nowadays, you'll find more players wanting to do my job. A lot of ex-pros would love to be doing what I'm doing."

As was the case when he was a player, however, Gray is well ahead of the game. Now 40, he is embarking upon his seventh season in the television business, having started out with the fledgling satellite station BSB in 1990, the year after he retired as a pro.

It was a producer friend with whom he still works, Andy Melvin, who had a hunch that Gray could do television, and he threw him in at the deep end.

"I had no training. I was just told: 'There's a camera, there's an earpiece, now get on with it'. But we had almost no viewers in those days, so I was able to make mistakes that weren't really going to be noticed."

For a while, Gray was not sure that he wanted to break all ties with the active side of the game. In the 1991-92 season he managed to combine two virtually full-time jobs - in television and as an assistant coach under Ron Atkinson at Villa. But at the end of the season Villa told him it had to be one or the other.

Gray chose television because it provided the nearest thing to the excitement of playing. "If you're an ex-player, it's difficult to find that same adrenalin surge. For 20 years you've had this buzz, scoring goals and so on, and it's as if it's taken away from you almost overnight. Mentally that can be hard to cope with.

"In fact I'm surprised there aren't more suicides in football. I was lucky because live TV does give you a buzz. Nothing will ever replace playing and scoring a goal, but TV comes very close."

Generating excitement - not to say hype - is certainly the name of the game on Sky, but in Gray they have someone whose enthusiasm does not get in the way of his perceptions, which are remarkably quick and incisive.

"There are people who say I could make a throw-in sound dramatic," Gray said. "I would never do that. But even in the poorest matches something will happen - a great save, a pass, a wonderful piece of skill - and I will enthuse about that. I would never insult supporters by watching a terrible game and saying this is wonderful."

Respect for supporters' intelligence was, he said, the key to the success of Gray's ground-breaking tactics programme, The Boot Room, which ran for three seasons to the end of 1994-95.

It was the show which did most to establish Gray's reputation as an analyst of tremendous verve and warmth. "He's just a natural talent," says Martin Tyler, Gray's co-commentator. "He's got a wonderfully alert mind. It's not just the bluster and aggression that we associated with him as a player. He's a much more rounded and intelligent person, and that's what helps make him the broadcaster he is."

It's a shame, therefore, that not all viewers have acess to Gray. Doesn't he ever hanker after a job in terrestrial television? "The BBC and ITV know they've got nothing that would entice me over. I've got a more demanding job than either of them could offer because I do so many matches. I like being tested, I like being on edge."

Gray is also a passionate believer in the Sky way of doing things in spite of the criticisms levelled at it - the rescheduling of kick-off times, for example. "That's not new," he said. "ITV and BBC had been doing that before we came along. I think everyone accepts that now." What about the cost of seeing live Premiership football? "For what people get, I don't really think they can complain." Gray is surely value for money by almost anyone's standards.