Three drinkers, one table, perhaps 12 empty bottles, and a conversation that forged the future of football broadcasting.
The scene was a hotel in the shadow of the Kingston Bridge in Glasgow in the late 1980s. One of the drinkers had been approached by STV to be ‘the next Arthur Montford’.
Andrew Mullen Gray, however, was instead unwittingly auditioning for the lead role in the most dramatic story in sports broadcasting by pushing bottles around to explain tactical formations.
Andy Gray got his Sky Sports gig by demonstrating tactics with beer bottles in a pub
Gray impressed then deputy head of sport at Sky, Andy Melvin, enough to get a punditry gig
Gray, better known by the first name of Andy in his roles as a Scotland international player and then broadcaster, was an employee of BSB in the time before the marriage with Sky.
‘We would retire to the bar after the game or broadcast to have a couple of beers, myself, Andy Melvin (future deputy head of sport at Sky) and David Livingstone (future presenter of Sky’s golf coverage).
‘Andy always liked the passion I had when I talked about football. He tried to get me for STV when Arthur Montford retired. Anyway, on this night Andy asked: “What is the difference between playing a back four or a back three?” I started moving bottles about.
‘Andy logged that in the back of his mind. As soon as Sky Sports won the contract for Premier League coverage the next year, he came to me and said: “Remember that night in Glasgow? I want you to do that on TV”.’
The Boot Room, Gray’s analysis of tactics was born, and so was a new style of football coverage. It gave the former Dundee United, Aston Villa and Everton favourite a second life in 1992 after his first as a footballer. Twenty years on, it ended when he was sacked for sexist comments.
‘I don’t want to open old wounds but, after what I did for them (Sky) for over 20 years, I was really disappointed at the lack of support from the company. But it was their decision to make and I had to accept it,’ he says.
Gray’s tactical analysis made him one of the best known football pundits on television
‘I had a fantastic job and I loved every minute of it, so it was extremely sad the way it ended.’
If all great dramas have three acts, Gray’s life can be broken into playing, Sky broadcasting and now working in the Gulf for beIN Sports.
It is the first act that gave him both the glory and his biggest disappointment in life.
After signing for Aston Villa from Dundee United in 1975, his 29 goals in his second season there earned him the PFA Young Player of the Year and the PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 1977-78.
This historic double was not repeated until Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale did the same a generation later.
Astonishingly, it was not enough to ensure selection to Ally MacLeod’s Scotland squad for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.
‘That is the only regret I have. Honestly. I don’t know how I didn’t get into the squad. It is difficult to comprehend when you have been voted the best player in England by your peers, by guys such as Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness, yet Ally MacLeod did not think I was good enough. I was gutted.
‘It was the worst footballing day of my life, without a doubt. I was at my best. Kenny and I only played a few games together for Scotland but we complemented each other so well.
‘He was what he was — the best player I ever played with. It was a good combination and I believe I could have given the team goals.’
Gray says his time at Ranger was like taking a boy off the terraces and saying “You’re playing”
Gray lost out to Joe Jordan, Derek Johnstone, Joe Harper and Lou Macari in the squad for the berth alongside Dalglish.
His career, though, was garlanded with medals. He won a League Cup with Villa (1977), another with Wolves (1980), the English title (1985), FA Cup (1984) and European Cup Winners’ Cup (1985) with Everton before joining Rangers and winning the league in 1989.
‘My time there was a joy,’ he says of Rangers. ‘It was like taking a supporter from the terraces, giving them a strip and saying: “You’re playing”.
‘I was close to retirement and Souness gave me a chance to play for the team I supported all my life and loved.’
Gray is bruised by what has happened to the club he loves but adds: ‘But that is the past, that is done.’
So what does the future hold for Rangers?
‘We are a long way away, no doubt about that. I know Ally McCoist got mixed reviews but I think he should be remembered as a legendary centre- forward and somebody who took the manager’s job at the most difficult time in the club’s history and steered them through the lower reaches.
‘We now have to up the ante. We are a million miles behind Celtic. Brendan Rodgers has done a brilliant job and you can only applaud and try to emulate it.
‘We were just not competitive last season, so Pedro Caixinha has a tough job. He is bringing in bits of quality and that will help but there is a chasm to close to where Celtic are.’
Gray and sidekick Richard Keys were forced out of Sky for making sexist comments
Gray believes Rangers fans may have to be patient. ‘I don’t think we can catch Celtic in one year. It will take time because they will strengthen. They might lose one or two, but they will obviously replace them.’
Gray, who has lived in Qatar while working for beIN Sports, says of Caixinha, who coached in the country: ‘I have made a few enquiries and all I hear is that he is regarded as an excellent coach. But being an excellent coach does not necessarily mean you are going to be a great Rangers manager.
‘We will have to wait and see on that. I think and I hope most Rangers fans will give him a chance to put us on the road again. It is a big year for the club and the owners. I hope we can at least ask Celtic a few more questions than we did last year.’
Gray, 61, coached at Aston Villa before focusing on broadcasting and was linked to various managerial positions while working at Sky. Has he any regrets about not returning to the training field?
‘Lots of pals of mine believe I would have been a good coach,’ he says. ‘I don’ t know. I might have been. I might not have been.
‘When I am a few years older, I might think I wish I had a go at what a lot of my fellow countrymen did, what Alex (McLeish) did, what Kenny did, what Graeme did, what Walter (Smith) did. They are all friends of mine.
‘Being a player is one thing. There is glory, winning things. But being a coach — being the man who plans everything, picks the team, plans the tactics, tries to manage 20-plus complex personalities — would have been a huge challenge.
‘I may sometime wonder if I could have done that — but up to five years ago, I had no regrets.’
He appears to have none now as he enjoys covering English football with a show on Friday nights and on match days. His philosophy on football is simple, more Bayern Munich than Barcelona.
‘Barcelona are an amazing team, brilliant, but I am not a fan of the way they play.’ he adds. ‘People will say I am not a purist. I don’t claim to be a purist but I love watching teams like Bayern Munich. In German football, there is passion, pace and power.’
He is similarly robust about traits of the modern analyst. ‘There are so many of them now. They all try to overeducate people. They all talk a little bit too much,’ he says.
‘Within five minutes, they are telling you where the game will be won and lost. It’s nonsense. There are a lot of good, educated people still working in broadcasting but it is a much more competitive market and everyone is trying to outdo each other. It is more celebrity driven, too.
‘I never wanted to preach. I wanted them to understand football better and enjoy it more.’
That is today’s lesson from the gospel of Andy Gray. Without the clink of empty beer bottles.