In the latest in a series of light-hearted articles on his career, former radio and TV football commentator and sports presenter Peter Brackley, born in Brighton and a lifelong Albion fan, relives his days as lead commentator on the iconic Football Italia show back in the golden era of Serie A!
Ah, winter Sunday afternoons in the nineties. Those were the days. The homely scent of Sunday roast wafting through from the kitchen, granddad snoring peacefully in the fireside armchair and on the telly, the beguiling charms of Van Basten, Vialli, Batistuta, Signori, Baggio, Mancini and the like bewitching us with their extraordinary talents.
It was a familiar scenario for many back in those heady, glory days of Italian football, when innovative Channel 4, on the back of Paul Gascoigne's much-trumpeted move to Lazio, brought to large and enthralled UK audiences the glamour, colour and spectacle of the league that at the time was the best in the world.
As for me, well, as the lead commentator for all ten of the ground-breaking Football Italia years, it was simply the most enjoyable time of my broadcasting life.
And clearly, for the many viewers who still remind me of those wonderful teams and players, and the stunning, atmospheric grounds that housed the big games in the San Siro, the Olympic Stadium, the Stadio Delle Alpi and the rest, the memories are just as fresh and endearing, not forgetting, of course, the accompanying Saturday morning Gazzetta Football Italia programme, featuring the incomparable James Richardson sitting in a cafe surrounded by Italian newspapers while reporting the week's news and views in his own zany, entertaining style.
Football Italia seemed to connect with so many people. From the other lads in my son's class at school who mimicked me for shouting " Ravannnnelleeeeeeee!" whenever the ex-Juventus man scored or went close, to my very elderly mother-in-law's even more elderly friend - who, to my shock during a conversation about bus passes or bed pans or something, suddenly revealed that she loved the programme, her favourite player, Sampdoria's Attilio Lombardo, needed to cross the ball sooner, and that she never missed a match!
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A few turkeys apart - even in those days, Serie A still had some absolute stinkers! It was gripping stuff for the most part and we tried to make it fun, too!
Ray 'Butch' Wilkins, for instance, was my most regular commentary partner in the early years especially, and he would spend much of the match tut-tutting at my constant references to his ever and rapidly-receding hairline and his refusal to give in to the ravages of time by extending his own playing career into what seemed to be at least his fifties or something older.
"Ray," I informed viewers one week, "spent all morning doing his hair and then left the flipping thing at home.
He was on my telly last night sitting next to Gianluca Vialli in the dugout at Chelsea, and I thought I'd tuned into Star Trek!"
"Is it true Ray," I wondered during another commentary, referring to his nickname 'The Crab', a dig at his alleged reluctance to pass the ball forward, " that when you were transferred from Chelsea to Man United, it was a bit of a SIDEWAYS move?"
And when James Richardson got his favourite musician Elvis Costello to join him as a live match guest in one of the stadiums "Who would have been the top live act in YOUR younger day, Ray?" I asked. "Mozart perhaps, or Beethoven maybe?"
Ray would just smile wryly, which I could see even if the audience couldn't, and respond in that lovely, dry, laid-back tone, " You really are a rather unpleasant young man."
Not that he minded really, of course, even joining in at his own expense. "Milan haven't won this fixture away since 1928, which was a particularly wet day I think Ray?" I would suggest. "As I recall, I believe you're right," he'd reply with deadpan delivery, as producers chuckled away in our headphones. "Indeed, I remember now it was absolutely chucking it down."
Actually, he was, of course, a terrific analyst on Italian football, his expertise drawn from his successful playing experience with Milan, and, with his relaxed, warm and yet informative approach, Ray was a huge hit with production team and viewers alike.
But, of course, there's always been one question that's never gone away. One even Sir Alex Ferguson asked me, Glenn Hoddle and other prominent names, too, over the years.
"Is it true," someone inquired of me again at a recent function in Brighton, "that you never actually went to Italy and that you did all the commentaries off a TV monitor in a basement studio in Oxford Street?"
"Total and absolute rubbish," I replied. "It was REGENT street." Yes, I'm afraid, it's true. Mainly for financial and logistical reasons, I did do all the commentaries from London, along with co-commentators such as Ray, Don Howe, Joe Jordan and ex-Albion manager Liam Brady - although James and his guest were ALWAYS in the stadiums.
It wasn't easy either! All we saw on the TV monitor was what you saw at home and we didn't even see that for long on one famous occasion, when someone in the Italian control room pushed the wrong button and actually CHANGED the game we were commentating on live at the time!
Not that Wilkins even seemed to notice: "Well, that's a shame," he said, "after I'd explained on air what had happened, and we then continued with now a completely different game to commentate on. I thought the goalie looked a bit different."
"Still, never mind," added Ray in his usual matter of fact, unflustered way, "as long as they stay on their feet, I'm sure these new young chaps will do us proud, whoever they are."
Some of the Italian coverage was a bit iffy too, in those days. One week the camera position was so high and so far from the pitch, the players looked like tiny ants on the screen.
"Today's match," I told the viewers,"comes live from PERUGIA, although the cameraman appears to be in PERU."
All great fun, with some wonderful memories, and I'll do some more from Football Italia later in the series. Just one more for now, though, and, again, it's something I'm constantly asked.
What was being shouted in the opening musical sequence played at the top of Gazzetta and the live matches?
"GO LAZIO!" seems to be the most popular view, based on Channel 4 reflecting Gazzas's move to Lazio. Well, it wasn't, it was "GOALATO!" Actually the cry of a URUGUAYAN commentator simply shouting GOAL in his native tongue. So now you know!
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