A life in football – Peter Smith charts his 30 years in the game

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From the back streets of Nelson, to the Maracana, Peter Smith has seen it all in a life in the game.

Over 30 years, and more, people will be familiar with him as the voice of Burnley Clubcall in the 1980s, or from bringing live updates from grounds up and down the country on Sky Sports.

Over three decades, he has detailed the fortunes of clubs all over the north west, at home and abroad, cultivating contacts and relationships with the biggest names in the domestic game.

And, as he looks to build a new venture, passing on his expertise to the reporters of the future on a specialist sports media course, Smith looked back on his humble beginnings, and a sliding doors moment that changed his life beyond belief.

Smith worked on a greengrocers stall in his home town, but dreamed big, of commentating on the big names at the big games.

He explained: “I left school with not a lot, but always knew I wanted to be a football commentator. However, you needed the qualifications, and it was difficult to get into it without them.

“I worked on a greengrocers stall, but my mum worked at Burnley General, and had suggested I knock on the door of the hospital radio and try my luck.

“And at an outside broadcast one day, rather than turn left, I plucked up the courage to turn right and ask a presenter if there was the possibility of getting involved.

“They took me under their wing, and I got on with it, no training, just going to games with a tape recorder I bought, and speaking to whoever I could,

“My first interviews were with people like Kevin Keegan, Terry McDermott, Emlyn Hughes.

“I interviewed Brian Clough in that first season.

“From the back streets of Nelson, to turning right instead of left, to Keegan and McDermott to Clough...to the Maracana and a one on one with Pele!”

Smith’s early years in the job were spent describing the worst period in Burnley’s history, as they slid towards the basement division, and near extinction.

But he has fond memories of the time: “I’ve commentated on Giggs’ goal (in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay), Solksjaer’s goal (in the Champions League Final in 1999), Aguero’s goal (for Manchester City in 2012) - but I learned the art of commentary at the worst football matches in the history of Burnley Football Club.

“When you think about it, those first couple of seasons, my first real commentaries were 1984, 85, in the John Bond, John Benson era.

“It wasn’t great, and then you think about 85-86, with Tommy Cavanagh, it was an absolute shocker.

“The 1986-87 season, the football was shocking, I have so much regard for Brian Miller, god rest him, but the football churned out that year wasn’t great.

“I have a press ticket from Burnley v Colchester, the lowest crowd, 1,696 I think it is, but, for me, it’s really pertinent I’ve gone on to do the Aguero moment, and all the United stuff, by learning the trade watching the worst football.

“But I used to absolutely love it. Even though it was the Fourth Division, the buzz of it, and I used to record it and listen back to it - if I had a bad game, I don’t like the drive home, no one needs to tell me!”

In 1988, after the Sherpa Van Final, Smith moved on to Clubcall covering Burnley, before taking on a staff job covering the north west clubs, which is where he ended up commentating on one of the biggest clubs in the world, Manchester United, in one of the most successful spells in their history, including their treble year of 1999.

The following year took him to Brazil for the Club World Championship, and the Maracana.

But, asked about his favourite moment, Giggs, Solksjaer and Aguero don’t come close to Neil Grewcock, in 1987.

“I’ve been the Maracana, for the Club World Championship, Vasco Da Gama against Corinthians, the year United were there, but it doesn’t top the Orient Game!

“Vasco stayed at the same hotel as us, and I have a signed Romario shirt.

“And I’ve spoken to Pele - from the back streets of Nelson to a one to one with the best player in the world...unreal.

“I used to fantasise, playing football on the back streets, pretending I was playing for New York Cosmos. He has to be the greatest.

“But the moment that stands out most for me, is that goal from Neil Grewcock just before half-time against Orient.

“One of the biggest moments in the club’s history, followed in the second half by that header from the smallest man on the pitch, Ian Britton, god rest his soul.”

The Orient Game was stressful for all concerned, as founder members Burnley nearly slipped out of the Football League.

The day after, Clarets reporter Keith McNee suffered a stroke, and while he returned to work at the start of the following season, he died not long after.

Smith remembers the sight of McNee vividly: “I remember that day, normally we’d have a press corps of five, six, seven, and that day everybody was here.

“Keith was withdrawn, he looked ill before the game, and at half-time, on the steps, he was sitting there, shaking.

“Within 180 seconds of commentating on Grewy’s goal, I saw Keith shaking, in a proper state.

“The first game the season after was a 3-0 home defeat against Colchester, he wasn’t there, and someone said he was listening to me in Burnley General, ‘can you give him a mention?’

“We wished him well, and he died not long after, so probably his last involvement with the club was through us.”

Burnley went on to Wembley in 1988, promotion in 1992 and 1994, and Smith is delighted to see the club prospering in the Premier League, having just enjoyed a return to European competition.

And while Smith will remain on our screens with Sky, he is hoping to aid the reporters and commentators of the future, after launching a media coaching course: “I’m the Nelson boy, who came from nowhere, and now want to impart my knowledge and experience to those who want to work in the industry.

“The ones I’ve got currently are from the Bolton area, I’ve had enquiries from Fylde and further afield, but I want to get it going.

“I’ve worked with a lot of top journalists and got to know the industry so well.

“In 2008 I got asked if I could fill in at a university for a few months and I really enjoyed it.

“I feel strongly that the only people who know the media, are the media. I think a lot of educational establishments don’t really understand, there are a lot of gaps.

“I only coach when I think students would need if they got a break in a football club media department, or a local newspaper office.

“Then, if they got the break to move on to a national level, I’d also be able to tell them how it is done.

“Reporters nowadays have got to do a Twitter feed, a running match report, audio-visual stuff, the job has changed beyond recognition.

“And one of the important things, for me, is that not everyone wants to go to university to learn journalism.

“I think maybe people get seduced by degrees, but all I get asked from contacts in the game is that they want individuals who can handle a tough job.

“I feel qualified because for 30 years I have been under those pressures.”

And three decades in, he continues to love what he does: “My biggest fear is having to go back to work one day.

“I appreciate the luck I have had professionally.

“I love the job I do, it’s the best in the world.”

For more information on Peter Smith’s media coaching course visit www.pro30smc.com