Sam Matterface: Commentary’s Crown Prince
Rishi Shah speaks to ITV football’s lead commentator, Sam Matterface, reflecting on the challenges involved in his meteoric rise to perhaps the most scrutinised position in sports broadcasting.
So, let’s go back to where it all started for you. Do you have an earliest memory of not necessarily commentary, but maybe public speaking or something similar at school – what made you first realise ‘I’m quite good at this!’
Well, I did a little bit of ‘joke’ commentary when I was watching the Community Shield in the living room with my grandad and my friend, and he turned to me and went ‘that was quite good!’ Everyone at some point thinks they could be a football commentator, and about three or four years later my mum had heard enough of me talking about it. She said ‘you’ve got to do something about it!’ and she made me go to a hospital radio station. I was 14 at the time, and I’ve been doing some sort of broadcasting ever since.
Which brings me on to ask, at our LSR Sports show, it’s all very relaxed and light-hearted. How difficult or easy was the transition to make between a youthful, light-hearted style to the seriousness of commentary in the industry?
When I was growing up, people didn’t actually tend to have too much fun around football. It was only towards the end of the 1990s that it started to be like that with Fantasy Football, Soccer AM and all the little spin-off shows that started to creep in, even TalkSport only started in the early 2000s. During our Sunday afternoon show on TalkSport we still try to integrate having fun with talking about football. As long as you understand that when it’s serious, it really is, and when it isn’t, that is when you can have a bit of fun. Sometimes there’s crossover, other times there isn’t, and of course everyone makes mistakes at some point.
I was lucky that I spent so much time at hospital radio, that I got a lot of my mistakes out early, and the people around me drove me to the highest of standards. Then hopefully, over time, you will find yourself with an opportunity – and you’ve got to take it, because they don’t come around very often. If you really do love what you’re doing, you’ll spend all your time doing it. For example – last night, while everyone else was going to bed, there was me sitting down for 2 or 3 hours to prepare for tomorrow’s match so that I could be ahead of the game. I like to be on top of everything, understand everything and see everything.
Something that must also be challenging is when you support a football team, especially at a national level, getting caught up in the excitement of it all whilst also remaining a neutral, informative commentator. Have you ever found yourself commentating on Chelsea or England and needing to take a step back?
When you’re a professional broadcaster in anything, what you have to remember is all those feelings, those moments of emotion when watching your team – I can do all of that when I’m not working. When I’m working, my emotions have to be switched off. I’m holding myself in a certain place in order to make sure I’m covering everything.
Now some people might say, at the European Championships, I got too excited about England getting to the final. That’s because in that moment, we allowed ourselves to be more England-centric, it was a once in a lifetime moment. You have to convey what everyone else is feeling, there is no point pretending I don’t care that England have reached a final – of course I do! You wouldn’t believe me if I described it with no emotion and feeling, you have to capture that. There were a lot of people in Scotland who didn’t like that!
Between TV and radio, commentating for both TalkSport and ITV, does your style or preparation change?
Definitely. I’m not sure I’ve nailed that transition yet between the two, and I’m not sure if I ever will – I’m trying! You prepare in the same way, yet with less material for radio because your TV material is more in case of certain permutations that may happen during the match. On TV, you don’t have to say the score, who’s kicking the ball – it’s more about judging the play, and you have to get comfortable with that.
Do you get recognised in the street much? Everyone knows your voice, yet have you had any fan interactions that are particularly unique?
I’m lucky in that not many people really know my face! I know after the Euros this increased a little, but it’s quite nice to catch up with people! Hearing what they think, what they like, what they don’t like – you will find a lot of people on Twitter who will definitely tell you how they can’t stand you! It’s quite nice when someone tells you they really enjoy what you do, and it takes a little bit more effort than the former option. When people ask what I’m doing today – off to London to watch England, well there are worse things I could be doing! I used to work in McDonalds, so trust me, this is better!
If you weren’t a commentator, what was the backup plan?
I didn’t have one in the slightest, so I’d probably still be working at McDonalds. I’d be trying to work in the Head Office and be the vice president of McDonald’s UK, there we go, trying to work my way up and get to the next level! I learned so much there – discipline, processes, organisation, how you manage people.
To finish off, the world of sports broadcasting is at a very high level and it’s very closed off. What would be your number one piece of advice to those trying to break through?
It’s always been at a high level, and the radio stuff perhaps at a higher level in the 1990s. You have to work your way through the steps. The pool is smaller, and there is less local radio in general. You’ve got to get air miles under your belt before you break through, you don’t want to be doing Man Utd vs Man City at 19 years old because you’ll say something wrong, it’ll catch you out and you’ll lose a lot of confidence very quickly!
I got a job on a sports show around 1996, and I got fired after about a week. I wasn’t ready for it – I needed more experience; I wasn’t politically astute enough at the time. I was immature. It took me four or five years to get my next job in commercial radio! You have to learn from it, and you don’t want it to be too early and be a flash in the pan.
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