Neil Bell – the loss of a legend
Neil Bell – the loss of a legend

A tweet posted by the BBC Radio Kent Sports twitter account on Sunday heralded the true end of an era in Kent Sport.

It simply read: “It’s with great sadness we have to report that our sports reporter Neil Bell passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning after a battle with cancer. Neil was a broadcasting legend, a supreme sporting storyteller and a wonderful person. Put simply, Belly was the best.”

The word legend is used a lot these days but in Kent sporting circles, Neil Bell was a broadcasting legend. His rounded homely trusting tones were the voice that a generous of the counties sports fans grew up with and for me for over a good number of years I was lucky enough to be part of his team that covered the game we love on a Saturday afternoon.

When I first got involved with Radio Kent, Neil wasn’t so much the main man, but over the years he became a Sports Producer who was respected by so many in the sporting environment as you knew that with Neil you would get a fair balanced verdict, not just occasionally, but every single time he reported.

On many a Saturday evening, when I’d drop equipment to the old studios in Chatham, there would be Neil and Matt Davison hard at work producing the sports package for the following day as I’d walk into the office, but there was always time for a joke and a laugh as to the games that we’d seen.

But as well as that, there was the advice too. You knew that if a certain part of your reporting was mentioned, there was a reason for it and believe me when I say – you listened. There were the evenings too when there would be just Matt – these were predominantly the weeks when Neil made the short trip down the A2 from his home just outside Canterbury to Dover’s Crabble ground.

Many a time we joked about it, but always deep down, I always felt that Belly had a soft spot for them…

But that was Neil – he was a gentleman always, but my god he knew his subject front to back, upside down to turned on its head and then back again – he was a perfectionist from which so many – me included – owe so very much indeed!

There are a couple of stories with Neil that I will always remember and show what sort of a man he was. The first occasion was the 1999 Play Off Final that was so savagely stolen from my beloved Gillingham by “Five Minute Mark”.

Commentating when the Gills went two goals ahead late on, Belly made the comment that Scunthorpe wouldn’t be on the visiting list the following season. Sadly, they were to be as referee Halsey found five minutes (and to this day I still don’t know where from – will never forget current Gills boss Steve Lovell’s tone of “how many?” heard in the background as Belly called the fourth officials board) of additional time where Manchester City scored twice and subsequently denied Tony Pulis’ side promotion.

Anyhow, the following October or November I believe it was – and on a Tuesday night to boot – who was the Radio station’s man at Glanford Park?

Belly – and an evening was spent now almost joking about the comment he made at Wembley.

The second story is more personal to me. I had a friend who was seriously ill in a coma in hospital with a viral infection who was a big Gills fan and, so he said enjoyed my commentaries. I got a call from his father asking if I was commentating on the Gills one particular week – it was a game away to Northampton, one that Belly was due to report on as he was at that time, the stations “voice of the Gills”.

To show what a compassionate guy Neil was, after he was told of my pal’s predicament, he allowed me to take the seat at Sixfields and as skipper Paul Smith powered home the winner in a horribly scrappy game, my commentary line went something like, ”…Northampton nil, Gillingham one – JB that ones for you; thanks Belly!”

But Neil wasn’t just a football man! He was of course for a long time one of a double act that became one of the most respected cricket commentary teams in the country.

In the days when there was actually a domestic limited overs league, Neil and John Warnett would travel the country and bring ball by ball commentary on every single Kent fixture.

It wasn’t formal, it wasn’t Test Match Special – it was brilliantly pitched at somewhere in between and earned them rave reviews as they passed to their audience the fun that two cricket fans and obviously very close friends were having on a Sunday afternoon.

They became the standard that others had to match – not sure if the reviews from the various curry houses around the country counted, but goodness they brought a smile to your face. I can still picture them doing a full broadcast plugged into a box that British Telecom had stuck on the side of a tree at Mote Park in Maidstone.

In later years of course, Belly became the voice and the face of BBC South East Today sports – not bad for someone who once said to me that he had the best face for radio going! But when he moved into television, he did so with the same gusto, but this carrying a camera around with him. It certainly added something and how now we’re going to miss his bulletins taken literally from Sun Pier in Chatham on a Friday night with the River Medway flowing in the background.

Yet the one thing about Belly and that goes from the first day we met until the last time I saw him, which would have been at a midweek press briefing at Priestfield, I don’t think he ever actually called me “Mike” off air – it was always “Michael” or “Mr Green” – but then that was Belly – a gentleman from a generation of broadcasters the like of which we will never see or hear again.

To his wife Jane – a lady I have heard so much about down the years but never met – and the rest of the family, please accept on behalf of the thousands upon thousands of those of us in the Kent Sporting family who grew up with Neil, our deepest, sincerest condolences – your loss is ours.

And from those of us who knew him personally, it’s a terribly, terribly sad day as not only have we lost an undoubted legend of Kent broadcasting, we’ve also lost one of the nicest guys you will ever meet – thanks for the memories Belly, it was a privilege to know you and to listen to you… you really were THE best!