If football has changed almost over the last twenty or thirty years or so, one of the more comforting ways to reach back into the past is to delve into the all too rare BBC radio commentaries of matches from days gone by, and in particular to locate the lush, almost melodic vocal range of Peter Jones. Over a period from 1966 from his sadly premature death in 1990, Jones became the BBC’s voice of football in a way that perhaps not even the corporation’s senior television commentary team could. Blessed with a turn of phrase that could paint a full watercolour for the listening audience in just a few words and a sense of theatre that could turn the dullest of matches into an event, Jones was a truly distinctive voice, of the old school of received pronunciation but timeless in terms of his style and authority.
That his introduction to the BBC should have come about thanks to a fortuitous meeting was something that the corporation’s sports department would have cause to feel grateful for over a period that would last almost a quarter of a century. A chance meeting in 1966 with the BBC’s senior radio commentator at the time, Maurice Edelston, led to the beginning of a career that would take in many of the great sporting events of the time. He commentated on every FA Cup final from 1968 until his death, and during the same period reported on the World Cup finals, the Olympic games, the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race and even a couple of royal weddings. In the early 1970s, he was frequently paired with Bryon Butler – the pressures of providing radio commentaries were such that the BBC’s radio team would do half of one half each, with Jones usually taking the final quarter of each match.
This meant that Jones was frequently the man charged with the task of those final, nerve-wracking seconds of the biggest matches. One of his finest moments came at the end of the 1979 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Manchester United. With ten minutes to play, United had clawed their way back into a match that had looked hopelessly lost, but in injury time and with their defence looking momentarily asleep, Liam Brady crossed for Alan Sunderland to steal a win for Arsenal – their first domestic trophy since the double win of eight years earlier. Jones is light on the words throughout this passage of play. There is no need for him to gynaecologically describe it, but his words as the ball hits the net – “And I do not believe it. I swear I do not believe it.” – concisely encapsulate the feeling of disbelief at an extraordinary end to this match. One particular line of his, “..and Smith must score”, as Gordon Smith’s last minute shot for Brighton & Hove Albion in the 1983 FA Cup Final was blocked by the Manchester United goalkeeper Gary Bailey, certainly entered the vernacular at Brighton, a club which may never come as close to winning a major trophy as it did that day, in becoming the name of a club fanzine.
The media landscape was, by the end of the 1980s, starting to change in terms of football coverage, though. Television was, by this time, the dominant medium with the nascent expansion of the live coverage of matches beginning to supplant radio’s position of dominanace as the obvious source for those that wanted up to date news from matches. Throughout the beginning of these changes Jones remained unsurpassable, but it was the effects of other events during the decade that would lead to the end sad end of his career and life. He was present at The Heysel Stadium in Brussels in May 1985 when a combination of hooliganism and the decrepitude of the venue at which the European Cup final was being played meant that the evening ended in tragedy and the deaths of thirty-nine people.
It was the events at Hillsborough of a little under four years later, however, that dealt Jones, both as a broadcaster and as a man, a body blow from which he never fully recovered. His description of the absolute horror which unfolded on the fifteenth of April 1989 was searing, with pain aching from every word that he spoke. Even more or than twenty years on, it is difficult to remain composed at his closing comments at the end of the BBC’s coverage of the day. Deeply affected by being an eye-witness to a second major football tragedy within four years he spoke at the memorial service, but it has been said that he couldn’t fully emotionally recover from that day, and within a year he had joined those that died. On the thirty-first of March 1990, he commentated on the Boat Race for the BBC, but collapsed after the race and died in hospital the following day, at the age of sixty.
Television images of the greatest matches of all time continue to flicker across our screens, keeping the voices which accompany them alive in out heads. Radio, however, is a different matter and we hear too little of the great radio commentators – and Peter Jones was, perhaps, the greatest of them all. Capable of catching the moments of the highest drama with a pitch that matched what we were feeling at the time, understatedly elegant in his use of words and also perfectly able to inject humour at the most tense of moments. For an example of this, his calming words for co-commentator Emlyn Hughes at the start of this clip are a sheer delight – “Close your eyes, Emlyn, close your eyes”. And for all the sadness that accompanied the end of his life, that is how we should remember Peter Jones – as a brilliant broadcaster, a wit, a true original and, above all, a gentleman. He is, and will continue to be, sadly missed.
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