The long-distance anchor man

Andrew Baker meets a TV football presenter primed to join the 500 club to join the 500 club
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They are fond of statistics down at Sky Television. As you walk in through the main entrance of the headquarters building, which squats like a space-ship in the grubby hinterlands of Osterley in west London, the first thing that you see is an illuminated display that records how many callers have troubled the switchboard on the latest phone-in, and also adds, by way of an afterthought, the company's share price. Even the human faces of the company come with numbers attached: on Monday, Richard Keys, Sky's football anchorman, fronts his 500th live game.

"What amazes me about that," Keys said, sipping a cup of tea in the spanking- new canteen in Osterley, "is that someone here took the time to work it all out. I don't know if I was surprised that it was so many or disappointed that it was so few. But it is a nice milestone, and I do feel some pride that I've reached that number."

It is a pretty meaningless statistic, but indicative not only of the volume of football that Sky presents but also of a shift in television away from recorded programmes and towards live action, a change that has gathered pace over the last 10 years.

This makes new demands of presenters. A journalist preparing a television documentary needs analytical and editorial skills which are comparable to those used in print media. A live television presenter must retain the ability to analyse and structure, but add to it serenity under pressure, the ability to say one thing with conviction and poise while simultaneously listening to another thing and watching a third. Few are up to it.

Keys was well prepared when he joined Sky Sports at its launch in April 1991. He started out on the Wolverhampton Express and Star, then worked in Fleet Street and on radio. He moved into television with TV-am, and there acquired vital experience of long, live broadcasts. "In eight years at TV-am I probably experienced every sort of broadcasting scenario that there was to be had."

The early years of live football meant long hours. "When we first started we were on the air for five hours," Keys recalled. "I don't think there's anybody who has done as many live hours. Des [Lynam] would do at his peak a few hours on Grandstand and then a Sportsnight during the week, but I was banging out five hours on a Sunday, four on a Monday, three on a Wednesday..." he winced.

It was, on occasion, pretty thin stuff. "That's true," Keys admitted. "We were aware of that. But in those days we didn't have anything else. We'd paid an awful lot of money for one product and it was inevitable that we were going to squeeze every last drop out of it."

Keys pointed out that coverage nowadays is more compact. But what about over-hyping poor games? "I don't promise what can't be delivered. If a game is poor we don't underline that, but what Andy [Gray] and I try to do is find something in a game that might turn it, to look for the spark. That's a responsibility, we're a commercial operation. We don't want to get to half- time and tell people, 'Well, that was shit, there's no point in watching the rest.'"

One of the first things that Keys had to do at Sky was win the trust of Andy Gray, his co-presenter. Once Gray was convinced that Keys really was a football fan, all was well. "The first thing that struck me," the former Everton and Scotland striker said, "was that he has a massive love of football, and that's a big test for me."

Some of Gray's prowess on screen can be put down to his watching Keys at work. But on occasion it has been important for him not to watch Keys, like the time at the Ladies' Cup final when Keys got the giggles and Gray had to carry on while he recovered. "But to be fair he's stepped in and helped me out many times, like the pro he is."

Richard Keys is a happy man, as anyone should be who is doing the job of his childhood dreams. There have been other offers - ITV were in touch about grand prix coverage - but he is likely to be the face of Premier League football for a good while yet. "I remember when I first started I was leaving a studio with a bubbly Ron Atkinson one night and thinking, well, if he's been involved in football so long and still gets excited about it, there's no reason why I can't. I get the best seat in the best house every week. Ten years ago you might have thought 'Yeah, I'd like to present Grandstand'. But that has changed now. I think I've got the best job going." So do we, Richard. So do we.