The Sad Magic of English Football Commentary
The death of the beloved Peter Brackley was a reminder of what a fixture commentators are in the lives of every football fan.
Photo: Ed Simons / Alamy Stock Photo
Aside from those instant surges of infatuation that sucker-punch would-be lovers on witching hour dance floors and in after-office bars and wherever else limerence is able to strike, obsessions don't tend to start off at full pelt. The passions that can define a life usually work their way into the system more subtly than that, staking you out over a period of months or even years, waiting patiently for that pivotal moment when everything clicks and suddenly the world no longer makes sense without an avid mania for Airfix models or interpretive dance or pup play wedged firmly at the forefront of it.
I was eight when football took up position just behind the eyes and simply refused to leave, the prism through which pretty much everything else must, now, be absorbed. It's an obsession that has irreparably altered my perception of both time and space; I can no longer sincerely believe that anyone's best years lurk beyond 30, while every solo flight through London's public transport networks invariably becomes a strange attempt to "see the play" all around me, to jockey for position, evade markers and dance my way through the gaps like a human through ball.
It is, as it took a mere 200 words to communicate, a very stupid and sad obsession, and I often wonder what else I could have done with all the hours, words, energy, bile, love, sweat, money and dream-time I've devoted to it. But in truth, there's no obsession I'd rather have than football. And it's an obsession that began with Peter Brackley.
Well, kind of. To say it began with him and him alone is a slight overstatement of the role that the beloved commentator – who passed away last Sunday at the age of 67 – played in all this. It'd be more accurate to say that it began, as it did for so many of my generation, with Gazzetta Football Italia, the weekly Serie A highlights show that lit up rainy, suburban Saturday mornings on Channel 4 throughout what I remember of the 90s. (The full matches shown live on Sundays, billed simply as Football Italia, were a touch too rich for my primary school tastes.)
Once host James Richardson had got a few puns out of his system, smashed a pie in Gazza's face and reviewed the Italian sports pages, Brackley would take over, a plummy angel peering into the ever-present fog of flare smoke to guide you through footage of the latest Atalanta-Cremonese dogfight, of another 35-yard Exocet flying from the boot of the fat, fallen god Álvaro Recoba, of Milan Rapaić springing an exhaustively drilled offside trap simply by running at it very quickly in a jagged line. This was the primordial ooze from which my obsession with football bloomed, the rhythm and cadences of Brackley's delivery still trapped somewhere within me, emerging every now and then to hijack my inner monologue while I'm having a shower or waiting to pay for milk.
He isn’t the only commentator who's had this effect on me. Even from those barely sentient mid-90s, when I'd be allowed to stay up late to watch England with my mum, I can remember feeling odd as John Motson and Barry Davies growled over David Batty slide tackles like a pair of street-cast extras approaching climax in a Bedfordshire dogging video. Oh yeah: that was the thing I'd meant to say earlier about Football Italia and obsession – that I had no interest in Serie A or in football at all, really, when I first became aware of it, when I'd watch my dad watching the show on his day off and annoy him by repeatedly asking how many teams were playing. It was only when he left the family home permanently that I started paying attention, developed the curiosity to understand. This is a crude way to join up dots, but children's brains aren't especially complicated. Obsession takes its time, but looking back, the pivotal triggers aren't usually hard to identify.
Is there such a thing as a Proustian response to a punch in the face? To this day, maybe my favourite sound – one I got used to hearing on the way home from Wycombe Wanderers' Adams Park with my dad – is the rain drumming down on the roof of a gridlocked car, trapped on the motorway with the engine idling, as BBC Radio 5Live's Alan Green moans and grimaces his way through a truly awful game of football. I wonder sometimes if commentators are aware of this role they play in people's lives, the one that transcends football to such an immeasurable extent. The global obsession with the game allows them to get in everywhere, their voices soundtracking awkward cab rides, break-ups and trysts, a fixture on the evening news, finding their way to you via Apple earbuds, scratchy handheld wireless radios and booming from pub cinema systems, infiltrating millions of hungover bedrooms every Saturday for the late kick-off livestream. These are the faceless voices of Britain, always caught in the atmosphere like a thin drizzle, ubiquitous and cherished geeks whose timbres pre-date punk but are as much a part of today's wider culture as chips, trap hi-hats and cocaine.
Alerted to Brackley's death live on air, TalkSport’s Danny Kelly declared that without Football Italia, his show Trans Europe Express would not exist. In truth, the influence of the programme – and thus of Brackley himself – runs far deeper than that, the spark that ignited an interest in football beyond these shores that we can see blossoming all around us today in the form of FIFA tournaments and Mundial magazine and Football Manager house party kitchen chats, in midweek five-a-side pitches littered with the replica strips of Borussia Dortmund, Fiorentina, Athletic Bilbao, Ajax and countless other foreign clubs. His was a voice that was utterly key in widening the scope of what football is and could mean to people locked in an island culture that, until Football Italia, was stubbornly content in its blanket ignorance of other leagues, lifestyles and ways of playing.
There is an idea that great football commentary involves gradually adding to a pantheon of canonical high points – "I'll swear you'll never see anything like this ever again," "Take a bow, son," "It's up for grabs now" and all the rest – moments when talking about football seems to tear through the lining and become utterly inseparable from the game itself. To me, though, it's an art that has always found its purest expression not in these euphoric, communal outbursts but in its sheer ambient persistence, in the voices given free reign to burble on and on, and to await, usually in vain, the next moment of high drama to convey intimately to a watching, listening, obsessive world.