Interview by Dominic Bliss.
In the full version of our podcast interview with legendary commentator and former Corinthian-Casuals centre forward Martin Tyler, we find out about the player he used to be and how his non league playing days helped him become a top broadcaster…
How did you come to play for Corinthian-Casuals and what sort of playing aspirations did you have at the time?
I’d just left university. I was at the University of East Anglia from 1964-68, and I played for the university, so I had some sort of knowledge that Corinthian-Casuals were the sort of club that took people from university football. I knew a lot about the level because I grew up a Woking fan, and I watched Corinthian-Casuals play Woking many times as a primary and grammar school kid. So I knew more than most about the level, and the people around it.
When I left university, I wanted to play – to give it a go – at the level I’d been watching. I phoned up Lesley Couchman, who was club secretary at the time, and he asked, “Where do you play?” I told him I was a centre-forward, and he said, “Oh yeah, we’re not scoring many goals, so we’re looking for centre-forwards.”
How did you settle in to life at the club?
Training was difficult. We trained at Christopher Wren School, just by the QPR ground, in a gym, and then at the West London Stadium, which is still there I think, behind Wormwood Scrubs. You’d hear the prisoners yelling out in the night, which was a bit eerie in the middle of winter!
I remember doing some good training sessions there. I remember a lad who played full-back for Tottenham’s first team, called Ray Evans, came in and trained with us a few times. We had a very good manager when I first started playing for them, called Pat Welton, who went on to become Bill Nicholson’s assistant manager at Tottenham. He was a former professional goalkeeper, who had worked in youth football, and he was brilliant. He did a lot for me, including giving me my debut, and I liked him a lot, but he wasn’t there very long before he went on to higher things.
What about on the pitch?
The first game I played was an A-team (third XI) game. I scored with my first touch from a cross by David Harrison, who is still around at the club, and we still joke about it. David crossed to the far post and I scored with a header. It was somewhere around Raynes Park and I go past the ground all the time when I get the train up to London, so when my kids are travelling with me I always bore them by saying, “It was at that end!”. I scored two on my debut, and that was me off and running. I think I played a couple more A-team games and then I got a call to play for the first team in the regular friendly against either Oxford or Cambridge University. On this occasion it was against Oxford, at Tooting’s ground in Sandy Lane.
I came on as sub for the second half, we won 2-0, and I don’t remember doing anything in the game at all, but there was a report in the Daily Telegraph with my name printed, very small, in brackets. It was quite a big thing for me. I made my competitive debut on Boxing Day, 1968, at Carshalton, in the Surrey Senior Cup, on a very frosty pitch – it would never have been played today. I was supposed to be sub again, but one of our players didn’t turn up, so I started, and I think the manager was a bit displeased! I don’t think I was the best option.
What sort of player were you?
I was tall and gangly, and decent in the air, but that’s about all I had really. I played wide on the right in that game because that was the gap that needed filling, and in those days you didn’t really shuffle the shape too much. So I played sporadically from then on, but we weren’t a very good side at any point really, so as a striker it was difficult. You’d get a run in the team, then someone else would get a go and I’d go back in the reserves, where I’d score lots of goals because that was probably my level really.
We shared with Tooting & Mitcham and I liked playing there – it was a proper ground. When I started, you used to get told by post if you were in the team. I think they had a selection meeting on the Monday, and then there was a late post in London and you would get it through the door on a Tuesday morning, saying you were representing the first eleven, second eleven, or third eleven. That’s how it went and you just turned up.
What was the standard like?
We had some good players, but the ones that did well immediately got hooked by other teams because it was the era of ‘shamateurism’, where you could earn money by going to clubs when they weren’t supposed to pay you. Actually, I had one chance to do that. It was the opening weekend of one season in the early seventies and I played for our reserves at Wealdstone’s ground. I scored two and we won, and on the Sunday morning – I was still living at home, my dad had a shop in West Byfleet – the phone rang. My mum picked it up and handed it over to me, and it was the secretary of Wealdstone – not the manager, which bothered me – saying, “You did very well yesterday, would you like to come and play for us?”.
So I went and trained with them, and it worked out fine. We trained Monday and Wednesday, and they trained Tuesday and Thursday, so I could train for both teams and I’d never been as fit. I did that for a month without ever committing myself, while still playing for Corinthian-Casuals at the weekend, and in the end they made me a ‘shamateur’ offer – I think it was something like £10 a game, but only if I was in the first team. I probably didn’t believe in myself enough, having shuttled up and down from the first team to the reserves at Corinthian-Casuals – where you did get expenses in the reserves – so I said no.
I have met the manager who offered me those terms – a guy called Alan Humphries – a few times in the last 10-15 years, and I always say to him, “If I’d accepted your offer, I don’t think I would have had my broadcasting career,” because I would have played a better level of football. Maybe I would have done okay, maybe I wouldn’t, but we’ll never know. I said no, and stayed and did my bit again, and continued until pre-season of the 1973/74 season.
Were you even considering a football broadcasting career at this time?
By that time, I was working as a journalist for a publisher, but it was great for playing because I could get all the time off I needed. I’d never miss training and I could even get afternoons off if we had a game. I was a staff writer for a part-work that you collected and put together to make an encyclopaedia – it was called Book of Football. It was a great job to get into this business, and through it I met some people at ITV, who offered me a job in the summer of ’73.
That job would have meant working Saturdays, so I did pre-season with Micky Stewart, who was manager by then. He was obviously a very famous man in the sporting world, as a cricketer, and even then I seem to remember his son, Alec, at about four years old, coming to stand behind the goal with his brother Neil. I don’t think Micky Stewart fancied me very much as a player, and in 1973 I had to go up to him after training at the Oval and tell him about this job offer in television, which I realised I had to accept. I was 27 or 28, and if he’d said no I don’t know what I’d have done, but he didn’t. He said, “Good luck, son!” and shook my hand.
You mentioned ‘shamateurism’ – whereby some amateur clubs discreetly paid players – which Corinthian-Casuals made a stance against. How well know was that within the game?
The way this ‘shamateurism’ worked really was that the money wasn’t always consistently at the same clubs, and people moved clubs – the top England amateur internationals moved clubs – so you knew where the money was. I played against Wycombe and their centre half, John Delaney, was an England amateur international, who finally – at the age of 32, I think – turned professional. I didn’t get much of the ball that day, and they were a very good side, so I asked him what he was on and he said he was on £75 a week. That was 1971/72, or something like that, so it was a lot of money.
There was no Conference back then. There was the Southern League, which was officially a professional league, where ex-league pros could go and get paid, and then there was the Isthmian League, which was the top level of the amateur world in the south of England, where we played.
I don’t think we’re letting out any secrets now, that’s all an era gone. As soon as I finished, actually, it became all the same, so everybody could pay, including Corinthian-Casuals. Up to that point, they were adhering to the rules and the Corinthian spirit and all that stuff – doing it absolutely by the book. After that, it’s been a choice. The choice has been not to pay.
As we know, they’ve got a decent side now and they had a very sad in the end unfulfilled brush with promotion which would have been wonderful, to go back to the level the club was at – the old Isthmian League – when we were playing. It’s a bit of an anachronism, I suppose, but I’m proud of it – the term “the Corinthian spirit” resonates with me. That’s not to say we were perfect on the field, because we weren’t, but you knew if you got sent off – and very occasionally it happened – you had to pay the price, and that was usually being sacked from the club.
Really, that strong?
You mentioned Micky and Alec Stewart already, and there have been plenty of other examples of all-round sportsmen turning out for Corinthian-Casuals, which seems to have formed part of the club’s identity…
Yes, we had a lot who were also with Surrey. Graham Roope played before my time, as did Arnold Long and Geoff Arnold. I played up front with Geoff Arnold, I think mostly in the reserves, and he was a fast bowler for England. So yeah, we have a good connection with cricket and of course, with Micky Stewart, that connection only expanded. They were great people. I brought in Bob Willis, who I went to school with and is still a good friend, and he played a few games in goal in the 1970/71 season. One was at Barking, where he got chipped…and he’s six foot seven! Then he was called out to Australia in November 1970, as a replacement fast bowler, and I don’t know whether he played any more after that. But he certainly had a run of games, and it was fun to have your flatmate in the same team, although I don’t think we won any. I think he saved a penalty on his debut, and obviously made more headlines because people knew a bit more about him when he wasn’t in goal! One other person I should mention who coached us for a little while – and I think Micky was responsible for this – was George Cohen, the World Cup winner. This would be five or six years after the World Cup was won, so you can imagine what it meant to us. And he was great.
Non-league football – or certainly Isthmian League football – at that time seems to have been taken quite seriously by clubs further up the ladder looking for players or coaches, and also by the press…
Oh yeah. David Miller who was a top writer – I mean a really top writer – and he came to the games against Oxford and Cambridge University. There was reasonable press, the South London press was always around and there were non-league magazines. You could make a name for yourself. The most famous player I played against was a guy called John Lacy, who was a tall centre-half who played for London Universities and Kingstonian against us. He later signed for Fulham, and then went to Spurs. I commentated on him in the early eighties, six or seven years after I’d played against him. But I didn’t get a kick against John.
Then I saw him play for Spurs at Everton, and Graeme Sharp – who played for Scotland – was the Everton striker at the time. Graeme absolutely destroyed him. I still see Graeme, and I always say to him, “You showed me my level. You were up there, Lacy was in the middle…and I was right down the bottom.” Lacy had me in his pocket, and Graeme had Lacy in his pocket.
So you were actually able to grade yourself as a player, on some level. Did that help you in your broadcasting career?
Oh definitely. The knowledge that I was able to pick up, even from a struggling team helped me enormously. I always say this about non-league: we’re on the same food chain as the top guys. You are part of it. John Mitchell – who played in the cup final for Fulham – played his last game for St Albans against Corinthian-Casuals in 1972, and I was part of the opposition team. Then, in May 1975, ITV sent me on the Fulham bus to Wembley and I was interviewing him live to the country! That kind of stuff really resonated. I felt dressing room banter and football chat is the same at all levels, and I’d had plenty of it by then in my not very distinguished, but still proud, non-league career.
Regarding the sort of football you played, was it different dependant on the coach or was there a Corinthian-Casuals way?
We’d gone beyond that kind of poshness, I suppose. I don’t mean poshness of people, but poshness of style. No, we just tried to win the next game. We were always up against it, to be fair, but I remember Micky Stewart wanted to play a bit more. That’s why I don’t think I really fitted into the way he wanted to play! My last Isthmian League game was, I think, in the April of 1973, although I didn’t know it was my last at the time. I came on as sub against Wycombe at Loakes Park and we got a 1-1 draw. As far as I can remember, the last time I touched the ball I blocked a free-kick in the wall with a painful part of my anatomy in injury time.
Then, in the summer, I got the chance to go on television. But there was one other occasion when I played. One of my teammates, Steve Hamer, became manager a couple of years after I stopped. He got a good team together, one of the better teams in the seventies. He’s chairman of Bristol Rovers now, and he’s still exactly the same as he was. They were playing Cambridge University at Sandy Lane, and Steve phoned me at home and said, “We’re short. Quarter to eight kick-off. Get yourself down here.” I was just having my supper. Anyway, I went down there, and we lost, but I really enjoyed it. I had no build-up, I went down, I knew that I was helping out, I didn’t have any pressure about it, I wasn’t going to be picked next week or not picked next week. I think we lost 5-2 or something like that, but it was probably one of the better games I played.
Was that the end of your Corinthian-Casuals story?
Well, I coached against them a lot in my Kingstonian days. I remember they beat us in a cup tie at Kingsmeadow, when we were strong favourites – one of the worst results we’ve had – but we’ve won a few as well. Alan Dowson, the manager I work with, is very closely connected with the club and we’ve had a few players: Joe Hicks, who is now Walton Casuals, played a lot for Corinthian-Casuals and played for us at Hampton – he helped us win the league. So it’s very close, I still feel a great warmth. I’ve got a replica shirt, which you couldn’t get in my day and I’ll probably go and have a little jog in it sometimes. I’m very proud to have been involved and I can only wish them all the very best for the future. Getting the ground was such a massive thing. Such a massive thing.
I have happy memories of Corinthian-Casuals. I played senior football for them, I could never call myself a stalwart of the team, but I had some good games and some very undistinguished games. The older I get, the more I look back on it and think, while we always near the bottom of the league and that was quite unfulfilling at the time, the level was very good. I’ve got the memories and the programmes, and I do remember a lot because it was special. I’m proud to have made a tiny contribution to Corinthian-Casuals and it’s certainly helped me in my work because I was well-coached and learnt a lot about the game.
Martin Tyler was speaking to the Broadway to Brazil podcast. Subscribe via iTunes, or find us on your preferred podcast app. Follow us on Twitter @broadway2brazil