In the BBC’s recent list of the 100 Greatest Britons, quietly in 43rd position – above Bobby Moore but below David Beckham – sits veteran broadcaster John Peel.
Nearly 40 years of playing obscure music discs on the wireless has endeared him to the heart of the nation. “Forty-third Greatest Briton of all time? I’m not even in the top five in this house!
"It demeans the achievements of genuinely great people, reducing everything to the level of Big Brother,” says this self-styled “grumpy old sod”.
Ambling into his cosy, not exactly showbiz home in rural Suffolk, he notices the fabric league table hanging by the door is out of date. He adjusts Liverpool upward. “This is a very good time for you to be turning up in our house,” he grins. “Now, I could make you tea,” he offers, “but it would be disgusting...”
Peel, 63, has been around for as long as anybody can remember. His radio career predates The Beatles – inspirationally, Elvis Presley was “like a stark naked person running into your living room” – and his love for Liverpool FC stretches back further still.
“The first match I can recall, I listened to on the radio – the 1950 FA Cup final against Arsenal, who won 2-0. That put them at the top of my shit list for the rest of my life.”
Peel tried to emulate his heroes, with limited success. “Free-kicks were the one thing I was good at. It was a skill I developed by bullying my brother Alan. I used to put him in goal in our garden and whack the ball at him as hard as I could. He’d rush into the house in tears. Twenty minutes later, patched up, he’d be back out!”
"I GOT OFF THE BUS WITH BILLY LIDDELL..."
Attending a boys’ boarding school in Shrewsbury proved incompatible with Peel’s passion, despite playing for a school side. “It was a nightmarish experience – all these very snooty people being very snooty.” After a two-match career, he quit.
Peely retains a boyish spark. He still has pictures of Billy Liddell and Jimmy Harrower in “my room” – which, presumably, is also home to his wife Sheila (known affectionately to his listeners and readers as The Pig, she supports local side Ipswich).
“The first time I went to Anfield on my own, I got off the same bus as Billy Liddell, their greatest player at the time. When I went regularly it was the same 11 players every week. That doesn’t happen now so you end up with a bunch of players whose names you can’t pronounce and they turn up in whatever sports car was nearest the door of their garage.”
After moving to Suffolk, he began a matchday ritual that only stopped when he had children. “I’d get up at 6am on Saturday, drive to Liverpool, park in the same place, go to the same pub and sit in the same corner by myself. I’d buy two pints of bitter – and I don’t even drink bitter – then I’d go and queue. In all that time I wouldn’t speak to anybody!”
The playful Peel named his children William Robert Anfield, Alexandra Mary Anfield, Florence Victoria Shankly and Thomas James Dalglish. “While I loved Robbie Fowler, Kenny Dalglish is my all-time favourite player,” he adds. “I had dinner with him once and he got me and Sheila tickets for the Heysel match.”
The mood in Peel’s home studio, from where he broadcasts his Radio 1 show, darkens. Peel gazes out of the window onto a broad field.
"IF WE STAY HERE, WE'LL GET A HIDING..."
“We saw a bit of a kerfuffle and it just got bigger and bigger. It probably started when someone finished a can of beer and just chucked it away. People were trying to leap over each other to get out, like salmon leaping up waterfalls. On the edge of the pitch, people in wheelchairs were being knocked over and were lying on the ground flapping about rather unpleasantly.
“Juventus fans climbed up into our part of the stand and were very angry. I thought, if we stay here we’re going to get a terrible hiding. As we crept out there was an Italian, his head thrown back, just screaming and screaming into the sky as they were stacking bodies up outside.” Peel’s eyes glaze over and he rubs his grey stubble.
“It was three years before we went to another match...
“We took our girls to see Michael Jackson at Wembley and Sheila and I were more frightened than we’d ever been in our lives, just being in such a big crowd. We were absolutely scared shitless after Heysel.” A few years later, before a game at Aston Villa, it got personal. “I got a low-level kicking,” he laughs.
“A mob of lads trotted down the street shouting ‘F**king Scousers!’ I turned around and there was this bloke in mid-air like Bruce Lee! He left a footprint on my jacket and then I got a few kicks on the floor – nothing that spoilt my rare physical beauty, however. If only they could have shown that kind of skill on the field.”
In later years Peel seldom made it to Anfield, preferring Ipswich’s Portman Road, where it’s easier to get a ticket. He is rather depressed with the state of the Premiership, drawing parallels between Manchester United and Arsenal’s dominance and that of Michael Schumacher in Formula One.
“I don’t like the inequality – we end up with a Premiership that’s as bad as the Scottish Premier League. The more you win the more money you get to win next time. Of course, if it’s your team that’s doing it every year, it’s not quite so bad. Almost agreeable, in fact...”
From the May 2003 issue of FourFourTwo.