Cooney and Black

The Fleet Street show pony: I’m referring to the ego-fest who wants a cosy relationship with the sports stars, and hires those same people, ad nauseam, to clutter his pages.”

Fleet Street

bybryancooney

MANY national newspapers, even those positioned on the bones of their backsides, are consumed by the vacuity of fame. It’s scarcely surprising, then, that this is the age of the celebrity sports editor.

I’m referring to the one-man ego-fest who wants a cosy relationship with the sports stars, and hires those same people, ad nauseam, to clutter his pages with their various banalities.

Here is a guy who is predisposed towards recreational activities rather than the more prosaic events of office life. His first and final consideration seems to be what life can offer him.

Yeah, man. Self promotion sounds good to him and thus he places his physiognomy on television at every opportunity.

Is this unfair? Quite possibly. After all, I’m locked into that generation accused of being reactionary. And I recognise that out there somewhere are others who apply themselves to the job with commendable diligence and dedication. The point is they’re in danger of being eclipsed by the show ponies.

To place that statement in an appropriate context, it may help to recall those stalwarts who dictated the tempo of our newspapers when that industry enjoyed its pomp.

It seemed you couldn’t move in the Fleet Street of the Sixties and Seventies without meeting a talented, intuitive sports editor. I worked for a few: Neville Holtham, of the People; John Morgan, of the Daily Express; Tony Smith, at the Sunday Mirror.

The general consensus, however, insists that the colossus was The Sun’s Frank Nicklin. I served him, too. My memories of the man are vivid. You loved him one minute but experienced conflicting emotions the next.

Befitting a hero of World War II, he was one pugnacious and hardy hombre. I once played in a football match for the paper’s under-35s against its over 35s at Regents Park. I can see him now, defying anyone to come near him. Not too many took up the challenge. Nicklin was 50 at the time.

In his Bouverie Street office, he offered the paradoxes of a Shakespeare character. His mood dictated whether you occupied the role of giant or pygmy. He could be contemptuous and cutting; he could also be the epitome of understanding and generosity.

Sure, he helped to initiate the culture of the ghost-written sports column but, inevitably, his focus was on talent that was organically grown. He managed and manipulated disparate, occasionally desperate, characters like Peter Batt, Frank Clough, Bob Driscoll, Alex Montgomery, Colin Hart, Jack Statter and Claude Duval with effortless dexterity.

Not only was Nick a good writer, he was politically astute. He needed to be when the rambunctious Kelvin McKenzie signed up as editor. The powerhouse that was Nicklin was selected for target practice. McKenzie should have known better: he sacked a unique individual who brought genius to the newspaper table.

Where is this variety of genius now? It pains me to say this, but the exploratory expertise of a Ferdinand Magellan would be required to locate it in today’s troubled world of Fleet Street. And even then he might return empty handed.

Such thoughts of declining standards had a deleterious affect on me recently when I arrived at the Big Seven-O. Slightly depressed, there was a temptation in me to respect the authenticity of old age and pootle off towards the nearest potting shed – which some might see as a fitting place for me.

The sombre mood, however, was scattered by a session on the internet. Mail Online had posted a video of my interview with Denis Law for the Movember cancer campaign. The caption described me as a much-loved sports journalist.

The portrayal provoked much amusement in this quarter. Someone was testing the boundaries of irony. Any sports editor demanding a kilo of flesh rather than the statutory pound from his workers is unlikely to find himself featuring prominently in popularity contests. In my six years at the Mail, I possibly couldn’t have placed more demands on the flesh had I worked as a porter at Smithfield Market.

Mind you, I laughed even harder when I then read a bulletin from the Sports Writers’ Association – a website that consider itself highly authoritative and accurate.

An article by Norman Giller declared that Martin Lipton was to be appointed deputy to Sunsport’s new head of content, Shaun Custis. Significantly, it suggested that a staff blitz reminiscent of the golden days of Nicklin was being prepared.

Now, this is arrant nonsense. Frank was involved in more than a few blitzkriegs in his time at The Sun, but these were conducted in places like the King and Keys and the Printers Pie. He was a man who liked a drink.

Rows, tears and tantrums were everyday facts of life on the sports desk back then, but the fact remains he had perhaps the most settled and proficient sports writing squad of all. Never mind the London A team, what about those out in the boondocks – John Sadler, Mike Ellis, Peter Fitton, Bob Cass, etc?

Aside from that, mentioning Custis and Lipton in virtually the same context as the great man at this juncture in their executive careers was surely bringing exaggeration to a whole new level.

I have no doubt that a pretty comprehensive personnel change is required at Sun Towers – it’s possibly about ten to twenty years overdue – but time will tell whether these are the appropriate gentlemen to effect it. Do they have the requisite instinct and boldness for the attrition that inevitably lies ahead of them?

In my opinion, this is what is lacking in Fleet Street 2014. Back in the Nineties, I recall one Daily Mail reporter arriving in Germany and gleefully filing a story about Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson criticising Borussia Dortmund. There was a familiar ring to it.

That same day, goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel spewed forth with the rather incredible hypothesis that his United team, if fielded against the one that won the European Cup in 1968, would win by ten goals to nil.

Our reporter was outraged when informed that his potential back-page lead had been trumped by one that would stimulate debate among the punters. He inferred I didn’t know what I was doing. I suggested to him he would have difficulty in recognising a story if he climbed into bed with one.

He resigned shortly afterwards and is now a sports editor. The last time I saw him, he was downloading his wisdom to Des Kelly on BT Sport.

Another of my former employees, having joined the hierarchy, has everything that a good journalist should have, aside from the essential spirit for confrontation.

I once saw him dive under his desk, out of sheer terror, when some apoplectic football personage sought to take issue with him over a piece he had penned. How, I wonder, does he fare when the kitchen in the executive suite overheats?

In my opinion, many of today’s sports pages are shallow and predictable. There has never been a more propitious time for investigative journalism with so much money swilling about football. Yet blockbuster stories, such as the tawdry regime at FIFA and the colourful emails of Malky Mackay, brilliant as they were, belong to the hens’ teeth category.

The negatives don’t end there, unfortunately: many interviewers lack the skill or indeed the boldness to open up their subjects, and consequently miss salient points.

What’s freely available, however, are clichés, misspellings, turgid intros that incline the reader towards catatonia, and, occasionally, tracts of unintelligible writing. I read a golf correspondent’s column three times the other day without extracting much sense from it.

Whatever happened to the fine art of sub-editing? I’m told that the copy of some sports writers cannot be touched. Now, who in hell’s name allowed that to happen? It should be noted that not even the great Ian Wooldridge considered himself sacrosanct.

Before resting my case, it would undoubtedly do journalism a favour if those in charge of today’s sports pages put their egos into cold storage and returned to basics. By all means, they should hire sportsmen to become columnists, especially those with something important to say, but it should never be at the expense of encouraging young, properly-trained talent.

I’d also advise these guys against becoming too friendly with sportsmen/women. It interferes with judgment. One day, they might be obliged to put something in their papers that is offensive to that man or woman. Suddenly, they are in the land of compromise.

Above all else, I would advise them against becoming show ponies. They should have more respect for the product. Being a hands-on sports editor is ultimately far more satisfying and rewarding. It might even increase sales in these days of diminished circulation.

I’ll sign off with memories of a man who still encourages me to perspire. Charlie Wilson, a former Royal Marine, was co-opted temporarily to the sports department of the Daily Mail in the months before that paper’s conversion from broadsheet to tabloid. The year was 1970.

There were tempestuous months ahead for a workforce which included yours truly. But, if my memory is on its best behaviour, meaningful journalism began to supplant the mediocrity of the past.

You could understand the reasoning behind the Private Eye sobriquet of “Gorbals” that attached itself to Wilson. There was something essentially inner city about him. He bustled around the old, rat-riven building in Whitefriars Street in the manner of a bailiff pursuing a debt.

He was not infallible, of course, as this story illustrates. Having concluded, for instance, that golf writer Michael McDonnell was effectively unemployed during the winter, Wilson set him a task that was underpinned by several degrees of difficulty: an impromptu interview with the notoriously taciturn and unhelpful England football manager, Alf Ramsey.

The urbane McDonnell suddenly found himself vacating his comfort zone of birdies and old boy networks, and being deposited at the epicentre of a frenzy.

He arrived at the then FA headquarters of Lancaster Gate, only to be told that his quarry had newly departed and was believed to be on his way home. He duly reported this to Wilson on the nearest available pay phone.

The boss was unable to recognise any notion of surrender. He sent a motor bike despatch rider to pick up the reporter and whisk him, at illegal speeds, to Liverpool Street, where Alf was catching a train to Ipswich.

When McDonnell finally ran into the station – sweat trickling into his trousers, his customary urbanity in shreds – it was only to see the rear of Ramsey’s transport disappearing down the track.

But, if he believed matters were concluded, he was about to experience considerable disappointment. Another telephone call instructed him to climb aboard the next train to Suffolk and doorstep the elusive football boss.

The story does not possess a happy ending. When finally confronted on his home turf, Ramsey was mightily unimpressed with the golf writer’s application to duty, and was not slow to inform him of his disaffection. The language employed had certainly never been heard by the WI while taking tea and muffins.

You can deduce from this that the whole exercise had been a considerable waste of time, effort and money, and you might be right. But the Wilson mantra was that the white flag of surrender should never flutter until all else had failed.

We were taught the benefits of such intensity and industry in those few months (it certainly served me fairly well). This energetic man went on to edit The Times and become managing director of Mirror Group Newspapers.

The thought occurs that if Charlie “Gorbals” Wilson was available today, the age of the celebrity sports editor would no longer exist.

 

 PICTURE COURTESY OF: Neil Howard

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