Voices of Football: Bryon Butler – The Quiet Authority

by | Apr 2, 2021

Football commentary to a broadcast quality is an exceptionally difficult job, and it says a lot about those who make it to the top of the trade that they make it sound so easy. Having said that, though, commentating on the television and on the radio are very different disciplines. The television commentator has pictures, which can speak for themselves, leaving them to pay more attention to space and pacing. The radio commentator, on the other hand, has to describe what is happening in a way which allows the listener to form the idea of the match in their head. The radio commentator is the eyes and ears of the listener, in the stadium.

Since the 1970s, television audiences for football broadcasts have far outweighed those for the radio, and consequently the best remembered pieces of television football commentary have passed into our general lexicon in a way that hasn’t been the case for the radio since the 1950s. Sometimes, though, the radio just manages to catch the moment.

In 1986, when Diego Maradona skipped through the English defence to score arguably the greatest goal in the history of World Cup, broadcasting offered up three different slices of commentary gold. In Argentina, the Uruguayan commentator Victor Hugo Morales summarised probably the most celebrated moment in the history of that country’s game with flourish and style, whilst on British television Barry Davies conceded the beauifully understated that, “you have to say that’s magnificent.” When the producers of FIFA’s official documentary for the tournament, Hero, wanted an English perspective on Maradona’s moment of brilliance, though, they turned to the radio instead, and to the BBC’s Bryon Butler. Butler’s voice swells with foreboding as Maradona slaloms from England’s hot butter defence and deposits the ball into an empty goal.

Maradona, turns like a little eel, he comes away from trouble, little squat man… comes inside Butcher, leaves him for dead, outside Fenwick, leaves him for dead, and puts the ball away… and that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the world.

He buried the England defence. He picked up that ball, forty yeards out. First he left one man for dead, first he went past Sansom, it’s a goal of great quality by a player of the greatest quality. It’s England 0 Argentina 2. The first goal should never have been allowed, but Maradona has put the seal on his greatness, he’s left his thumbprint on this World Cup, he’s scored a goal that England just couldn’t cope with, they couldn’t face up to. It was beyond their ability. It’s England 0 Diego Maradona 2.

Subsequently, the internet has come to recognise Butler’s brilliance throughout this passage of play, the rising cadence of his voice, the articulate acknowledgement of Maradona’s brilliance, his expression to a disappointed home audience of the resignation of knowing that the entire England team’s role that day was to act as stooges to the force of nature who’d just danced their way through their defence. Times and fashions inevitably change, but recognising brilliance at work is eternal.

Bryon Butler was born in Taunton as Ewart Bryon Butler in 1934, the slight westcountry burr in his voice adding a hint of melody to everything that he said. He began in journalism on the Express and Echo in 1951 before moving to the Nottingham Evening News, the Leicester Mercury, the News Chronicle and the Daily Telegraph, and would remain a prolific writer throughout his career, writing official histories for both the FA Cup and the Football League upon them reaching their centenaries, as well as biographies of Billy Wright, Ron Greenwood and Alec Stock, amongst others, whilst continuing to write about both football and cricket for the Telegraph.

Radio commentary, however, would prove to be his true calling. He joined the BBC as their football correspondent in 1968, and both his voice and name would soon become familiar to millions when he was given the job of reverently guiding listeners through the solemnly reverent job of the FA Cup draw. Coming live from an oak-panelled bunker inside Lancaster Gate, Butler would introduce the FA dignitaries who would be pulling the balls out of a velvet bag by saying, “The first person you will hear is….” The line later became the title of former FA Secretary Ted Croker’s autobiography.

It’s not rose-tinted nostalgia to suggest that the 1970s and 1980s were the golden period of BBC sports broadcasting, even as the game itself began to crumble before our very eyes. Butler covered six World Cups, his first in Mexico in 1970, and his last in Italy in 1990, and while he wasn’t on commentary duty for BBC Radio every week – he mixed his commentary with reporting and presenting – he was usually present for the biggest occasions, alongside other giants of the genre, such as Peter Jones, Mike Ingham, Alan Parry and Alan Green.

And Butler’s style may have been aided by the fact that football wasn’t the sport that was closest to his heart. That place belonged to cricket, and he would spend his summers reporting on that instead, considering the slower pace of the game to be relaxation in comparison with the strains brought about by the required immediacy of football. Such a pressure valve looks all the more important now, when we consider that during the time that he was working, disasters like Heysel and Hillsborough cast a long shadow over the sport, an extra layer of pressure on top of an already pressured job.

Those pressures revealed themselves in the most heartbreaking way possible when his long-time commentary partner Peter Jones collapsed while commentating on the 1990 Varsity Boat Race and died shortly afterwards. It’s said that Jones, whose closing report from Hillsborough on the 15th April 1989 has since received a similar level of retrospective praise and reverence to Butler’s Maradona commentary, never truly recovered from the horrors of that day, either physically or emotionally.

Butler retired as the BBC’s football correspondent the following year, though he did continue to write on both football and cricket. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1996, and died in a hospice in Surrey in 2001, at the age of 66. The tributes paid to him when he died reflected a deep and heartfelt respect and admiration for a unique journalist and broadcaster. His former colleague Mike Ingham, who replaced Butler as the BBC’s football correspondent in 1991, said:

He was the master of the considered radio report, lyrical, provocative, thought provoking and always beautifully delivered with that never to be forgotten voice. His voice fitted like an overcoat in winter and made you feel comfortable and warm.

A voice and a gentle authority that blended perfectly in the commentary box with the spontaneity of the late Peter Jones. He was a gifted writer, a passionate club cricketer, a devoted family man, a colleague and a friend. A very hard act to follow.

While television commentator John Motson, who’d started his BBC career on the radio at the same time as Butler in 1968, said:

He was the finest one minute wordsmith in the business. His match reports were a sheer delight and the rest of us tried unsuccessfully to match Bryon’s style and prose. He could turn a phrase better than any other commentator of his generation.

The media broadcasting landscape has changed considerably in the 30 years since Bryon Butler left the BBC, and it’s easy to slip into the trope that he represents a bygone era, an age before performative histrionics, when calmness, authority and an ability to paint a picture with words were the most valuable commodities that a commentator could bring to their profession. And it’s similarly easy to say that the broadcasters of the past were superior to those of the present day, when what has really changed is the environment in which they work and the requirements placed upon them rather than the quality of the individuals concerned.

Even without comparison with the modern age, though, there can be little question that the BBC struck gold with their choices for commentary box throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The ability to exude that authority, to place an audience that cannot even see what’s happening at the centre of the action, to be able to – on the fly – craft an approximation of the emotions being felt all around, inside a stadium, at home or in a car, requires a unique combination of skill requirements which were personified by Bryon Butler. And even now, thirty years on from the beginning of the end of that era, it feels counter-intuitive to talk in the past tense about people whose entire careers were built around the live event. Time, however, marches inexorably on.