Voices of Football: Peter Brackley & The Changing Nature of Broadcasting

by | Oct 15, 2018

Football in the media in the UK was, for many years, a stultifying experience. On the television, there were only a small number of matches shown live throughout the course of an average season (in years when there wasn’t a World Cup finals to occupy us during the summer, at least), and viewers had to settle for two sets of highlights being broadcast each weekend, one on a Saturday night and one on a Sunday afternoon. Those who wanted to experience football live without going to a match had only the option of the radio, which was almost entirely dominated by the patricianly hand of the BBC, through Radio 2 for its national coverage of matches and also through its network of local stations. And the printed media was largely limited to local and national newspapers, with a handful of magazines for children and teenagers and only a couple of outliers such as the still-extant World Soccer catering to anything approaching an adult audience. These were different times.

The weekend just gone has been marked by the announcement of the passing of the owner one of the voices that soundtracked football’s long, slow march from this world to the world of media saturation that we now inhabit. Peter Brackley wasn’t just a television football commentator. He covered the radio, the first serious attempt to bring football from overseas to these shores, and the video gaming revolution, which has now started to converge towards serious competition for the actual game itself. He may never have been a household name in the same way that, say, John Motson or Brian Moore were, but Peter Brackley was doing multimedia before multimedia even truly existed, and the strength of reaction to his passing demonstrates just how far ahead of the curve he was in choosing this particular path.

His career path began in the conventional manner of the time, firstly with BBC Radio Brighton (now BBC Sussex) before moving to the national network with Radio 2, where he worked as a commentator, reporter, and even as a stand-in host for Sport on 2 and Sports Report, perhaps two of the greatest institutions in British sports radio alongside Test Match Special. By the end of the 1970s, his star was clearly on the rise. He can be heard here, commentating on the 1980 League Cup Final between Nottingham Forest and Wolverhampton Wanderers (in case you were wondering, the byzantine nature of the BBC’s radio coverage at this time was a result of the still-extant paranoia at the Football League about the effect that any live coverage of matches might have on already declining attendances – the BBC had the rights to broadcast commentary of the second half of one match per Saturday, with the corporation unable to even confirm the identity of that match until shortly before three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon), and also covered two FA Cup finals and the 1982 European Cup final between Aston Villa and Bayern Munich.

This match, however, turned out to be the coda for this period of his career. At the end of the previous year, the commercial television network ITV had undergone a shake-up which to the partial replacement – it was complicated – of the old franchise-holders ATV and their replacement with Central Independent Television. Hugh Johns, ATV’s commentator since the early 1960s, took this opportunity to move on to semi-retirement (although he would continue to work for Wales and the West of England contractors HTV until the middle of the following decade), which left a position for which Brackley was a perfect match. There’s a strange incongruity that used to occur when a radio football commentator used to first appear on the television. It happened with Jon Champion, Peter Drury and Alan Green. Their voices, at first, just don’t quite sound right when accompanied by pictures. Brackley, however, soon settled into his position and became a familiar enough voice to go to the World Cup finals with ITV in 1986 and stood in for Brian Moore at that year’s European Cup final after the live commentary feed from Seville failed.

By 1988, however, the broadcasting landscape was shifting towards something that we’d never seen before. Regional football highlights on ITV had ended at the end of the 1982/83 season, to be replaced by networked highlights and live matches from the start of the following season, and Brackley now found himself some way down a competitive pecking order headed by Brian Moore and Martin Tyler. In 1988, the Football League signed an exclusive deal for live matches with ITV and Brackley left for the newly-formed Sky, commentating on their first live match (from the ZDS Cup) whilst working for Eurosport as their lead commentator for the 1990 World Cup finals. The merger of Sky and British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) in 1991 brought the FA Cup and, critically, Italian football commentary work for Brackley, but he wouldn’t stay with Sky following their coup d’etat to hoover up live television coverage rights for the Premier League in 1992.

It may be difficult to explain the cultural significance of Channel Four’s launch of Football Italia in 1992. The company had barely touched football before – the only truly high profile match previously shown on Four in the decade since its launch had been live coverage from Melbourne of Scotland 1986 World Cup play-off second leg against Australia, which ended in a goalless draw – but a conflation of circumstances led to the company making a bid for the rights when they became available that summer. For one thing, they were cheap. Channel Four picked them up for £1.5m, against the £305m that Sky had paid for their Premier League package. Secondly, there was the “Gazza factor”, with interest in Italian football having grown following the transfer of Paul Gascoigne to Lazio that summer, despite the injury that he’d suffered – some might say, “brought upon himself” – during the 1991 FA Cup final between Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest. In addition to this, there were other English players plying their trade in Serie A at the time (David Platt and Des Walker, from England’s 1990 World Cup team), and Channel Four executives had also had their heads turned by the European highlights show Sgorio, which had been showing highlights from European leagues in Wales through its sister company S4C since 1988.

The first live match that was shown by Football Italia was between Sampdoria and Lazio on the sixth of September 1992. Those who had presumed that Serie A matches would be underwhelming (mostly on account of outdated presumptions regarding the defensive nature of Italian football) were muted by a three-all draw, and an audience of three million people tuned in to watch a show linked by former BBC veteran Kenneth Wolstenholme, with Paul Elliot joining Brackley in the commentary box, and all of this with Gascoigne – starting a trope that would become very familiar to regular viewers of the show throughout his stay in Italy – absent through injury. The weekly live matches soon became accompanied by Gazzetta Football Italia, a weekly highlights and news show which had initially been identified as a vehicle for Gascoigne, but which soon had to find a new host – which arrived in the form of James Richardson – after a few weeks on account of his unreliability.

Football Italia didn’t only bring overseas club football to a mass British television audience, though. Sky Sports had decided to present their coverage of the Premier League in an surprisingly bombastic manner, full of its own self-importance, but Chrysalis Television, the producers of the show who’d first become involved in Italian football as a result of producing a documentary series on Paul Gascoigne’s return from injury called “Gascoigne – The Fightback”, opted for a completely different style altogether. Channel Four painted its distinctive logo to red, white and green before the start of each match, and the titles were accompanied by a completely contemporary piece of music with the distinctive – if, some might argue, slightly geographically illiterate – hook of “Golaço!”, a cry of delight in Portuguese using their word for “fantastic goal”, which Chrysalis transcribed themselves as the more Italian-looking “Golaccio!” instead. The stylish, continental feel of the coverage was further exaggerated by Richardson sitting outside a cafe flicking through the week’s news with the appropriate refreshment, a look that couldn’t have provided a greater contrast with the hatchet-faced men of Sky Sports, the BBC and ITV, whose own football coverage immediately looked somewhat dated by comparison.

Brackley kept one foot in the old way of doing things throughout the early years of his time on Football Italia. His arrival at Central in 1982 had coincided with a sudden and dramatic decline in the fortunes of the football clubs of the Midlands, but even after his departure from Sky in 1988, he maintained links with the company through providing the voice of Jimmy Greaves for their weekly satirical puppet show Spitting Image. When top level football coverage went to Sky and the BBC in 1992, ITV signed a new contract with the Football League for largely regional live coverage of matches, he covered one live match for Central before a combination of being supplanted by Alan Parry and the upcoming Football Italia coverage ended his brief return to that particular region, but he stayed on ITV’s commentary team for the World Cup finals until 2006, and was a regular on ITV’s Champions League coverage and regional programmes in the Midlands and the south of England as well.

It was away from television coverage, however, that Peter Brackley found another nice in the first years of the twenty-first century. After having first dipped his toes into the water of video games with Michael Owen’s World League Soccer in 1999, Brackley became the English language commentator for Konami’s Pro-Evolution Soccer series between 2001 and 2006, alongside the monotone interjections of analyst Trevor Brooking. This happened to coincide with what is widely to be considered this series of game’s golden period, when it threatened to usurp Electronic Arts’ expensively-licensed FIFA series of games (Pro Evolution was considered, at least by its fans, to be a purer representation of the game than its rival), and whilst the technological limitations of providing pre-recorded commentary for video games remains a hurdle that the industry will probably never flawlessly master, his distinctive nasal voice means that he remains fondly remembered for this work. These out-takes, from Who Ate All The Pies, give a flavour of how he approached this particular job, and in particular his sense of humour when facing such an unusual gig.

In his later years, Brackley returned to his roots. Born in Brighton and a keen supporter of Brighton & Hove Albion, he did voiceover work for the club and vital work for he club’s Albion In The Community initiative, as well as maintaining a weekly column in the Brighton Argus newspaper, which he continued until recently. As such, it is perhaps fitting that the news of his passing should have been delivered by the club itself, with the club’s chief executive Paul Barber commenting that, “So many of us here at the club knew Peter well. He was a hugely talented, knowledgable, funny and, above all else, a good man. We will miss him. Our condolences go out to Peter’s family, including our colleague and his nephew Paul, and all of his many friends.”

Football – and in particular our consumption of the game – has changed beyond recognition over the course of the last thirty years, and it is notable that, for all the dominance of “personality” that grips it today, so many people can reach back into their memory banks to remember such an unassuming presence within its soundtrack. Peter Brackley may well have become another forgotten voice of the game were it not for his sense of adventure and an interest in pushing the boundaries of what he could do within the confines of his profession. Repeatedly throughout his career, Brackley jumped ship to the shock of the new, from ITV to Sky in 1988, from English football to Italian calcio in 1992, and into the brave new world of a new generation of sophisticated video games at the start of this century. None of these jumps were into the cosy familiarity of the established football media. They were jumps into the unknown, which happened to be picked up on by a new audience who were consuming the game in a very different way to those just a few years older. And only with his passing in 2018 do we come to realise that this diversity and this sense of adventure was ahead of its time in ways that those tuning into Football Italia for the first time, more than a quarter of a century ago, wouldn’t have been able to understand at the time. Arrivederci, Peter.