Ready for kick-off

Andy Gray and Richard Keys are two of the best known faces in British sports broadcasting. As they prepare to head up Al Jazeera Sport’s live coverage of the English Premier League, Arabian Business meets the popular duo in Qatar.
By Daniel Shane
Thu 08 Aug 2013 11:10 AM

For two sports broadcasters who have spent the last 20 years working together, Andy Gray and Richard Keys disagree on a lot.

“When things are going wrong, I’m in my element. I’d rather things go wrong, than go well, because when they’re going wrong — it’s a test of your skill set,” Keys tells Arabian Business. “If you’re a goal down with five minutes to go, you’ve actually got to work a bit to get a result.”

Gray, shaking his head in disbelief, quips: “I’d rather be 5-0 up any day of the week.”

Over the last two decades the careers of both men have been inseparably intertwined. As presenters of Sky Sports’ English Premier League coverage, Gray and Keys were known to every football fan in Britain, achieving enormous popularity with their insightful, witty and animated approach to talking about the beautiful game. The duo followed this up with a successful stint at London radio station TalkSport, before this summer transplanting themselves to Qatar to head up Al Jazeera Sport’s schedule of live Premier League coverage across the Middle East and North Africa.

The on-air chemistry of Gray and Keys is consistently electric and this is perhaps down to — not despite — the fact that they are very different characters.

Veteran anchor Keys, who leisurely reclines into his sofa during our exclusive interview in Doha, is suave and unflappable. Former Scotland legend Gray, who in his heyday was a fearsome centre forward for clubs including Aston Villa and Everton, is by contrast boundlessly enthusiastic and excitable. What you can say about both though is that their football insight is unrivalled.

Keys and Gray say they are relishing the opportunity to recreate their famous partnership in the region.

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“It’s really exciting. There are a lot of similarities in what we’re doing now to what we were doing 20 years ago,” says Gray. “We turned up 22 years ago to [British Sky Broadcasting] where they didn’t have football. They didn’t have the Premier League — they were starting a new sports channel.”

Al Jazeera Sport secured the lucrative rights to broadcast live all 380 Premier League matches for the next three seasons after reaching an agreement with TV sports firm MP & Silva in July. The coverage, which kicks off on 17 August, will be beamed into homes in 23 countries from the UAE, to Morocco, to Iran.

Global TV revenues for the league, generally seen as the most popular in the world in terms of its audience, are approximately $8.3bn. Al Jazeera Sport is believed to have shelled out more than $300m to trump rival Abu Dhabi Media in the race to secure broadcast rights for the Premier League. Gray says that this is an obvious sign of his employer’s determination to become one of the best in the business.

“We’re working for a hugely ambitious company — I think everyone knows that. Their ambition is limitless, and they have a drive and a desire to be the best sports broadcaster in the world,” Gray believes.

The format of Al Jazeera Sport’s Premier League schedule will see Gray and Keys present three dedicated live football programmes on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The network will launch three high definition channels to show the matches. Premier League coverage will also be joined by the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s top club tournament, and a raft of other support programming including live Spanish, Italian and French football.

The station has also lined up a glittering supporting cast of football legends to provide analysis throughout the season, including Alan Shearer, Kevin Keegan, Ruud Gullit, Gordon Strachan, Peter Reid, Ray Wilkins and Alex McLeish. There are also talks ongoing to secure current England manager Roy Hodgson as a guest at some point, and the pair do not rule out the possibility of David Beckham at some point making an appearance in the studio.

“We’re organising a raft of guests — Qatar will be flooded by quality ex and current footballers, who will be coming to join Richard and I, and offer their expertise,” says Gray.

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The preparation for the coming season has not just involved recruiting big name stars to lend their talents, Gray adds, with Al Jazeera Sport also building a dedicated technical team to operate out of its studios in the Qatari capital.

“We have a small, tight-knit team at the moment, which will ever be increasing between now and the beginning of the season, and thereafter,” he explains. “We’ll end up with probably 40 or 50 people from the UK and various other parts of the world coming to join us.”

Gray and Keys, who have spent the vast majority of their careers up until now working out of the UK, claim they did not take much convincing to up sticks and move out to the Gulf.

Keys says one the most compelling reasons for he and Gray to make the switch was the opportunity to work for Nasser Al Khelaifi. In addition to his role as director of Al Jazeera Sport, the 39-year old Qatari national is also the president of big-spending French champions Paris St Germain, bought out by Qatar Sports Investment in 2011.

“He’s an extraordinary guy. He’s a genius. I’ve never come across anyone who shifts work in the way he does. He’s constantly on the phone, he’s constantly thinking. He’s a clever man. It’s a pleasure to work and do business with him,” says Keys.

Both agree that they have so far been impressed with the knowledge within the Gulf state’s football community. This is after all, a country with a national team ranked a lowly 112th in the world, but one that will have the privilege of hosting the FIFA World Cup come 2022.

“Their knowledge is very, very good. We were sat in one meeting and someone was talking to Andy about his double win at the PFA Awards — young player and player — all those years ago [in 1978],” recalls Keys. “He also knew that [Cristiano] Ronaldo was the only other man to do it.”

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Keys claims that the duo’s experiences of working in Qatar so far are in huge contrast to that of their previous career at BSkyB in the UK. After the best part of two decades fronting Sky Sports’ live Premier League schedule, the two were dismissed from the station in 2011 amid accusations of sexism. The two enjoyed a career renaissance at TalkSport in the three years immediately prior to joining Al Jazeera Sport, but Keys says that he does not look back at his time at BSkyB entirely favourably.

“At Sky you operated in an arena of fear. Anyone at Sky would tell you that it was a difficult place to work, in that however well you did, few if anybody in terms of personnel would ever say ‘well done’. I think I got told that once, in a letter at the end of the first year,” Keys says.

One consideration that was decisive in both men choosing to move to Doha was the opportunity to keep their professional relationship going. Their on-air rapport is renowned among Premier League football fans and was at one stage viewed as an intrinsic part of BSkyB’s success in sports broadcasting.

“In terms of acclimatising, it’s great to have your mate. I wouldn’t want to be here, trying to do this on my own. That would be really tough I think,” explains Keys. “When you’ve got somebody to bounce off and work with — that’s brilliant.”

Al Jazeera Sport’s deal for live Premier League coverage runs for the next three seasons, but Keys and Gray both say that if everything goes well they hope to see themselves staying in the region for the long-haul. In the meantime though, their ambition is just to bring the same on-air analysis and light-hearted banter that made them two of Britain’s best loved sporting personalities to a whole new audience.

“I’ve personally promised [Al Khelaifi] that we will make this better than the product we were once part of at Sky. With [Al Jazeera’s] ambition and cash, and our experience and desire, I don’t see why we can’t do that,” Keys believes.

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Richard Keys on... the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar

In the five years since my last visit here the changes here have been extraordinary. They can do anything they want here, and they do it with class. They don’t make a song and dance about it. They will make sure they put on a fan-friendly, top class World Cup — whenever they put it on. There are differences here compared to European culture. They will put on a World Cup here that I’d like to think will be respected by the rest of the world. People will come here and enjoy the facilities for three or four weeks and not abuse them. As long as they respect the culture and respect the people who own this country, in a way that they should. There’s no reason that Qatar should put up with marauding English football hooligans — why should they?

Andy Gray on... the Premier League 2013/2014 season

I think that Manchester City with what they’ve done and what they’ve spent, and who they’ve brought in, and who they will bring in — they can win it. I think they’ve done fantastic business in areas of pitch where they probably need it, and I think with [Manuel] Pelligrini’s experience [as manager] — I will be very surprised if they’re not in the first two.

Manchester United under David Moyes, if they don’t get people in, I’m not saying they’ll struggle, but I don’t think they’ll retain their title.

I hate talking about relegation because it’s such a negative, but the clubs coming up you have to look at — you’ve got Cardiff, Hull City and Crystal Palace. Probably for the first time in a long time, the three teams coming up, they don’t have a huge cache of gold they can spend on players.  So I think the three coming up might well struggle, if any of them survive they will have done extremely well.

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