The life of Brian ... farewell tribute to former Rotherham United commentator, Rotherham Rugby Club community champion and sporting ambassador Brian Chapple as he departs for a new life in Wales

The life of Brian ... farewell tribute to former Rotherham United commentator, Rotherham Rugby Club community champion and sporting ambassador Brian Chapple as he departs for a new life in Wales

By David Beddows | 01/11/2021

The life of Brian ... farewell tribute to former Rotherham United commentator, Rotherham Rugby Club community champion and sporting ambassador Brian Chapple as he departs for a new life in Wales

 

FOR a lad from the North East who originally moved down to Rotherham to work as a teacher for a year, Brian Chapple left quite an imprint on his adopted town.

He met his future wife here, raised a family here, became a familiar voice to thousands as the Rotherham United commentator on BBC Radio Sheffield and then helped Rotherham Rugby Club through some turbulent times, helping drive a community programme that still thrives to this day.

Brian worked with business and for Rotherham Council and other local groups and was eventually made an Honorary Freeman of the Borough.

Now 73 and father to two grown-up sons, he isn't one to dwell on the past and is about to move to embark on an exciting move to North Wales with his partner, Joyce, to be nearer to his family.

But as he does so, Brian can look back at 52 years in Rotherham that gave him some amazing experiences and one or two uncomfortable ones.

The son of a miner, Brian was brought up in Blyth, Northumberland.

Although his dad took him to his first Blyth Spartans game when he was three, the young Chapple grew up a Newcastle United supporter.

At 18, Brian moved down to Sheffield to train as a school teacher with the idea of returning home after qualifying. Then fate intervened.

On his teacher training course he met Joyce, who was a year behind him. The two struck up a relationship and so to bide time until she qualified he took a job at Wickersley School with the idea of returning north.

“After a few days at that school I said to Joyce 'I really like it here.' The kids reminded me where I came from, a mining area etc, so that was it. We stayed.”

Brian taught in Rotherham from 1969 to 1985 at Wickersley and then Old Hall (now Winterhill School) before becoming a schools advisor and inspector.

But it is for work in local sporting circles that he is best known — although that particular journey didn't start promisingly.

At Old Hall Brian became friendly with Richard Finney, the Rotherham United player who coached youth club members there.

Brian recalls: “At the time Bob Jackson at Radio Sheffield was looking for a new football commentator.  Richard said 'you talk for England, why don't you do it?'”

Brian phoned the station one Saturday afternoon, thinking nobody would be there, but Bob picked up the phone and asked him to come to the studio on Monday after school.

“I was given a mic and some headphones and Bob gave me a newspaper and asked me to read an article from it on Rotherham United,” remembers Brian.

“Ten seconds in he said 'I need to be honest. I don't think Rotherham United supporters will want to listen to a Geordie talking about their club. They'll want a Rotherham or a South Yorkshire accent.

“I came home thinking there was no way I'd got the job.”

Brian was wrong.

A few days later Bob rang back and the rookie reporter was duly despatched to a match between Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough at Hillsborough.

“The plan was for me to just sit and watch what the main commentator did and take notes, but I turned up at 2.30pm to be told the Middlesbrough reporter from Radio Newcastle was ill and they needed two minutes on air from me before 2.40pm That's how I started. I was rubbish. I didn't know what I was doing.

“I reported on a couple more matches and found it very challenging so I told Bob how nervous I was getting. He asked me to just do a few more games and then we'd have a chat about whether to carry on.

I ended up doing it for 24 years!”

And what a 24 years it was, first as a match correspondent and then as a full-blown commentator.

Brian's first working Millers match was against Leicester at Millmoor in 1982 and he was there to report on promotions, relegations, the 1996 Auto Windscreens Shield win against Shrewsbury at Wembley and more.

It was hard work though alongside his day job.

Brian recalls: “I'd work all week and then on Friday nights I'd research the opposition in readiness for my commentary. Of course there was no internet then, it was books and newspaper articles.

“Matchdays could be hectic. If the opposition team — Plymouth, for example — didn't send a reporter, I'd do 30 seconds for Radio Sheffield, phone down, 30 seconds for Radio Devon, phone down, and then a bulletin for Club Call. That went on throughout the game.

“At 5.15pm I would do a piece for Look North Leeds. What with interviewing players as well, by Saturday night I was knackered.

“Doing all that and sticking to time frames, it was hard.”

Brian still had a fantastic time in commentary boxes the length and breadth of the country and it helped his work in schools because the kids knew his voice from the radio.

By the early 2000s, things started to change.

Brian was asked to go and help out at Rotherham Rugby Club by its then owner, Mike Yarlett.

The club needed a vibrant community department as part of the criteria to play in rugby's Premiership and Brian went to Clifton Lane to help build it with support from the players.

“We began with six. After about two months 24 would come and help,” he said.

“We started a reading scheme in local schools that reached 500 kids a week.

“I have done all sorts of things but the most satisfying was taking that community department from nothing with the help of players and volunteers etc.

“It wasn't about me. It was about being part of a movement for good. It's teamwork.”

Alongside that work, Brian commentated on Titans' games during their time at Millmoor and on World Championship Snooker.

“On the radio that's a challenge, I can tell you,” smiles Brian. “'The yellow ball is behind the black,' and all that.

“The rugby at Millmoor was also a challenge because the commentary box at the time was at one end. It was hard spotting exactly what was going on in a five-metre scrum at the other!”

Brian left the rugby club in 2008 and later worked in Rotherham United's growing community arm, eventually becoming a club director.

He worked hard, sometimes too hard, which contributed to him suffering a stroke in 2011.

“My head burst, that slowed me down,” he says.

It was a good move, the pathway to a life in which he can just enjoy sport these days rather than be heavily invested in it.

“One of the joys in this is the people I've met, the players I 've met, some of whom are still in touch, and the fans I've met who still stop me in the street,” he says. “It's about people. Some people connect with others through art, drama, music or politics. I've done it through sport.”

Now, as he looks forward to a new start in Wales, Brian says he has done his final commentary.

He hasn't forgotten his North East roots and every year his sister sends him something in the colours of his beloved Newcastle United just to remind him where he's from.

Rotherham, though, is the place where he has ended up spending most of his life.

“Through accident I ended up living and working in Rotherham for 52 years, meeting a wide variety of people, most of whom have been lovely,” he says.

“If I could do it again I would do exactly the same.”

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BRIAN CHAPPLE was working at Rotherham Rugby Club in 2004 when it went bust and was plunged into a dramatic race against time to give it a new start.

On the fateful week in question, “Titans” were given until a Friday night by the rugby authorities to show they had a commitment of £500,000.

The club was able to raise £250,000 with massive support from Martin Jenkinson and Nick Cragg, its current directors, and from sympathetic rugby fans throughout the country.

But by the Thursday, the club was only halfway towards its total and Brian had to think on his feet.

“I rang the leader of the council, Roger Stone, who I hardly knew at the time, and said we were going to go under,” remembers Brian.

“He came to the club with Mike Cuff, the chief executive at the time.

“To cut a long story short, as a result of that meeting the council gave the club a £100,000 grant to be able to continue its reading and community work, plus a £150,000 loan which had to be repaid in three years.

“Roger and Mike helped to save the rugby club.”

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Brian's highlights

Millers v Shrewsbury,

1996 Auto Windscreens Shield Final

“Bob Ballard, as the full-timer, commentated on the second half of each half.

Of course, Rotherham scored in the 19th minute and in the 60 something minute, so I got the two goals.

“When Jackie Milburn scored in the 1952 FA Cup final for Newcastle, his autobiography described the ball as thrashing about like a salmon in the fisherman's keep net.

“In 1996 Nigel Jemson scored a similar one at Wembley and that phrase came out in my commentary.

“When I got home, someone had pushed a tin of John West salmon through the front door.”

Alan Lee goal v Brentford

April, 2001

“I commentated on that game with Gerry (Somerton) when Rotherham beat Brentford to win promotion. Of course, when Alan Lee scored the late winner we went ballistic. I had criticism from some people about that but at the end of the day we were fans. It won a BBC award.”

Brian's lowlights

“Relegations were hard. When teams are winning, players and managers want to talk to you.

“After a few defeats it's heads down and some managers could be caustic.

“In commentary you'd have to choose your words and be careful not to be too critical. At the same time, if the team was poor, you had to say it.

“Also, I'd get in from a long away trip at two in the morning and be up for work next day after a few hours sleep.”

Proud moment

“FOR a son of a miner, like myself, who was brought up in a two up two down house, to be made a Freeman of the Borough in a town I wasn't even from was amazing.

“Who would have believed that? I still don't.”