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'Klopp is steely, Mourinho charismatic and angry': Life as a Premier League commentator

Meet Irishmen Conor McNamara and Nathan Murphy who have the best job in the world.

Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Updated Jun 19th 2020, 4:00 PM

IT IS 3.30PM in the White Hart Lane press box and Nathan Murphy is channeling his inner Winston Wolfe, the fixer played by Harvey Keital in Pulp Fiction. A fuse has blown on his transmitter which wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t his first day in a new job; if it wasn’t half an hour before he was due to speak live to the nation; if he’d brought a packet of batteries.

He hadn’t.

There was only one thing to do and it involved running down Tottenham High Road like Renton in the opening scenes of Trainspotting, Arsenal and Spurs fans eyeing him suspiciously as he darts out of the stadium, weaving in and out of the way of supporters heading towards the ground. Finding a Sainsbury’s on a Sunday is a relief. When he finds a pack of batteries, he unleashes an exulted cheer – similar to the raucous roar that left his throat when Andy Moran scored for Mayo in the 2013 All-Ireland.

Batteries paid for, he’s off and running again, sidestepping his way around supporters on his way back to White Hart Lane. By the time he takes his seat, loads the batteries and gets his transmitter working, the respective captains are finishing off their pre-match handshakes, just as Joe Molloy in Newstalk’s Off The Ball studio is delivering the following words. “And now we’re off to White Hart Lane and our big match commentator, Nathan Murphy.” A minute later Tomas Rosicky scores for Arsenal. It’s March 2014. Welcome to the world of the Premier League commentator.

***

Conor McNamara entered that world 17 years earlier. A Limerick man who honed his trade in local radio, his big break came in 1997, when Today FM acquired the rights to that year’s FA Cup final. One problem. They needed a commentator and freelance soccer commentators were as active in 1997 Ireland as hairdressers and bar staff have been since the lockdown began. 

Still, the chaps in Today FM knew McNamara was good enough but also knew he was still only 20 and still in college. Could he be trusted to do the job? Within 45 seconds they had their answer as Roberto Di Matteo moved through the Middlesbrough midfield, past the half-way line. “Di Matteo.” McNamara said – his voice rising with every step the Italian made. “SCORESSSSSSSSSSSS.”

It wasn’t just Chelsea who were on their way.

***

“My big fear was that I’d called it wrong,” Murphy says of Anfield 2014, Liverpool and Chelsea. He’d flown across from Dublin that morning, sitting on the same plane as scores of Liverpool fans who’d saved their pennies, investing their dreams as well as their cash into a day like this. “You talk about the hype around the club this year,” Murphy says. “But it didn’t compare to 2014. Like, when they lost that day, it felt like the defining moment of their century. They’d beaten City, gone top of the league; Anfield was buzzing.”

And then Steven Gerrard has the ball in midfield and Off The Ball’s Nathan Murphy has the mic in his hand. “GERRARD, WHAT HAS HE DONE?” Murphy reported. “Has that slip cost Liverpool the title?”

soccer-barclays-premier-league-liverpool-v-chelsea-anfield Gerrard (right) is dejected after his mistake gifted Chelsea a goal. Source: PA

It had. Yet as he listened back to his commentary on his earphones in the press room afterwards, Murphy’s concern wasn’t the result, the title disappearing or Gerrard’s legacy, it was whether he’d called it accurately. Finally it got to that critical moment. “You are just relieved,” he says, “relieved you didn’t make an eejit of yourself.”

As Murphy wiped the sweat off his brow, Mourinho entered the room and point blank refused to wipe the smile off his face. “That’s as smug as he ever has been,” Murphy says. “Like, the man is the most charismatic manager of the lot. From a radio and journalistic point of view, he provides you with absolute gold time after time after time.

“He gives you a glimpse of what makes him so good at his job. The post-match circus – where managers do two separate press conferences and about 12 different TV interviews – are normally a box ticking exercise for most managers. If they’re angry  during the initial interview, then by the time they get to us (the radio reporters), their annoyance with a refereeing decision, or whatever, has usually disappeared.

“But Mourinho is the exception. His anger levels remain as high as ever. There’s so much intelligence there; he is a slave to his agenda. He sets the agenda. He cares about controlling his message more than most, but – and you also have to say this – he’s generous with his time. Say you were to ask him a question about Troy Parrott, he’d answer you respectfully.”

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nathan-murphy Newstalk's Nathan Murphy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Respect is hard won in their business. Make a mistake live on air and the world of social media is an unforgiving place. Ask the wrong question and a manager won’t shy away from confronting you. McNamara has had to stand up to Mourinho, Graeme Souness and David Moyes. “The post-match interview can’t be about you; it’s about the person you’re talking to,” McNamara says. “So you’re trying to get the right balance between asking a question that’ll get a good response, get them talking, make them relax enough to open up but at the same time, you don’t want to be a lick arse, either,” he says. “You’re there to do a job.”

Until last year, his job has been exclusively with BBC, after they headhunted him from TV3 in 2002. He still works regularly for them now – although after moving his family home to Ireland, he has also been free to commentate for Virgin and Amazon Prime.

Tonight he’ll be in Carrow Road for Norwich versus Southampton, one of just 300 people – including players and officials – who’ll be allowed inside the ground. It’ll be a privilege to be there, he knows that much, although there are other aspects of the job, the 2am stopovers at a McDonalds off a motorway on the way home from West Brom, that don’t smack of glamour.

But he’s not complaining. Nor is Murphy, who commentated on Manchester City’s 3-0 win over Arsenal on Wednesday. The pair of them think about where they started – Radio Kerry, Galway Bay FM – and still shake their heads when they think about what they’ve been sent to in the recent careers; Champions League finals, FA Cup finals, the Liverpool-City epics of the last few years; the European Championships and World Cups.

It was Euro 2004 when McNamara really earned his stripes at the BBC. Denmark were playing Sweden on the same night Italy met Bulgaria. The Italians, managed by a certain Giovanni Trapattoni, needed a win to reach the quarters but a day’s study, as well as three phone calls to those in the know, led to McNamara realising that a 2-2 draw between the Danes and Swedes would send the Italians home.

Sure enough, there was late drama. Antonio Cassano scored in the fourth minute of stoppage time to give the Italians the three points. But it didn’t matter because moments earlier, Mattias Jonson had nabbed a Swedish equaliser in their game against the Danes. No one had bothered to inform Cassano, though, and as he celebrated wildly, hugging and dancing with his team mates, a British audience heard this Irish voice tell them that Cassano’s celebrations were all in vain. “He doesn’t know it yet but he is out and Italy are out,” McNamara said. Within 20 seconds, the Italians discovered as much, McNamara’s description of their moodswing from fear to elation to dejection winning him the respect of his peers.

It’s hard won. The business is brutally tough but the craic is mighty. He loves the major tournaments; the big games and the full houses, the new sights and the sense of privilege as they watch from the best seats in the house.

And then there are the times you get up close and personal with the biggest names in the game. “Mourinho is a force of nature,” McNamara says, “and everyone sits up straight when he comes into the room.”

Ferguson was similar. “The alpha-male in the room, something he worked hard at.” He heard the voices of grown men squeak whenever they were the recipients of the Ferguson stare.

soccer-manchester-united-press-conference-robin-van-persie-unveiling-old-trafford Men would squeak when Ferguson stared at them. Source: PA

Arsene Wenger was more relaxed. “He’d answer anything you’d ask, and answer it with a politeness and intelligence.” David Moyes was initially frosty and saw every question as a battle that he had to win. Now, the pair are friends, having worked closely together as commentator and co-commentator.

Then there was Rafa Benitez: “A pure gentleman, handshakes before we began, handshakes when we finished, eye contact maintained throughout the question and answer session. He treated you as a human being.”

But what about Jurgen Klopp? “A very intense man,” says Murphy. “He’s more of a no nonsense individual than people expect. You see the TV image of him being jovial and easy going but even though the impression he gives off is that it’s all fun and games with him, there is a steeliness there. He’s very matter of fact.”

So is Murphy about the job he has. “Look, when you’re on a flight over, when you see dads with their kids, the excitement on their faces, knowing how big a deal this is for them to be going to a Premier League game, it soon reminds you how lucky you are. People would give their right hand to do this. So the least you can do is enjoy it and acknowledge how lucky you are to be doing it.”

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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