SJA lunches: real stories without the PR spin
In 2007, the SJA’s chairman, Barry Newcombe, decreed that we should have a homecoming – we were to return to Fleet Street.
Nearing the Association’s 60th anniversary in 2008, the SJA took a step back in time to the old heartland of the newspaper industry for its “power lunches”, and has proceeded to deliver journalistic coups as well as very enjoyable occasions.
Our guests in the past couple of years have ranged from the top coaches and managers of national teams – such as Dave Brailsford, the man in charge of Britain’s cycling revolution, rugby chiefs Rob Andrew and Rob Howley, swimming martinet Bill Sweetenham, and BOA chairman Lord Moynihan – through to great champions such as Olympic sailor Ben Ainslie, Three-day Eventer Mary King, Arsenal and England footballer Martin Keown and 14-times darts world champion Phil Taylor.
What’s more, there are always further lunches planned, with double Olympic gold medallist and SJA Sportswoman of 2008, Rebecca Adlington, lined up in February 2009 together with Peter Keen, the performance director of one of our sponsors, UK Sport.
The aim is always to provide our members with access to leading sports figures in a relaxed, working atmosphere, with no pre-ordained agenda – just good, hard copy on the menu.
In recent lunches, Brailsford announced his plan for a British Tour de France team, Andrew gave our members an early look at an England 6 Nations team; Moynihan grabbed the back pages when he announced that he wanted Sir Alex Ferguson to manage the GB Olympic football team; 18 months out, Sweetenham tipped us off that Adlington would win Beijing gold; Taylor told us how he wished he looked more like David Beckham; and as well as talking about Wales and British Lions rugby, Howley also gave us £1,000-worth of big match tickets for one of our lucky lunch attendees.
Our lunch venue varies. Boozers on or near Fleet Street, such as the Old Bank of England, the Cheshire Cheese and the Doggett’s Coat and Badge, have all been booked, while we have also ventured elsewhere on occasion, up the BT Tower and to Arsenal’s Emirates home.
But the aim remains the same.
Andrew, on the eve of his first 6 Nations’ rugby tournament in charge of England, clearly relished being able to announce to the more than 30 assembled journos that his protege, Jonny Wilkinson, was to make his international return after nearly four years out through injuries.
Short of inviting the restored England No10 himself to lunch (and apparently, he wouldn’t have been allowed to sample the treacle pudding any way), Andrew was, as The Times put it, “the man who knows Jonny Wilkinson better than anyone”. And the SJA’s guest was able to pass on his inside insight behind Brian Ashton’s headline-grabbing selections an hour before the England XV for Saturday’s Calcutta Cup match was formally announced.
Even Andrew himself had to wait for confirmation of the team, but thanks to some deft planning by our chairman, he proved to be a most timely guest to talk on Wilkinson’s first rugby international since he kicked the three points that won the World Cup for England in 2003.
In the build-up to 2012, Sweetenham met with two dozen SJA members and guests in the intimate surroundings of an upstairs room at the Cheshire Cheese. He had set an ambitious goal of at least one Briton in all 30 swimming finals by the London Olympics.
“That would be quite something to give the fans around the pool and watching at home someone to cheer in each final,” he said.
Sweetenham began our lunch with an off-the-record account of his formative years Down Under in which he left home in dramatic circumstances. His story helped us understand his no-nonsense attitude to some of his charges.
During our diamond jubilee year of 2008, there was a golden hue about our Olympic-themed guests. Ainslie – acclaimed as England’s finest sailor since Admiral Nelson – spoke to his audience without notes for nearly an hour, predicting his Beijing gold-winning feat and looking forward to his America’s Cup campaign.
Brailsford likewise talked frankly about his plans for Britain to dominate world cycling, the need for stricter doping controls, and his dream of a Tour de France team delivering a British winner of the world’s greatest cycle race.
Despite his commitments in the High Court on behalf of the BOA that summer, Lord Moynihan kept a packed room of more than 30 SJA members and guests in his thrall for more than an hour, and then for a good period in the bar afterwards.
Jeff Powell, the Mail’s veteran columnist, was clearly thrilled with the backpage-lead his lunch generated. Powell wrote:
“The vital importance of football to the London Olympics was spelled out by Colin Moynihan when he said: ‘The impact of a British team on the public and their support of the Games will be enormous.
” ‘We would also expect that team to be a strong medal contender and thereby generate tremendous excitement throughout the country. We must have a team in these Games and we will have a team.’”
And still the stories keep coming. In January 2009, Taylor, fresh from winning the world darts title for a 14th time, revealed that if he had his way, he would ban players from drinking alcohol during competitions.
And despite two hours’ practice each morning and swimming half a mile each day, he provided members such as the Daily Star’s Brian Woolnough with plenty of headline-grabbing material when he revealed that he is not happy with his stout physique. “Imagine what I’d be worth if I went up on the stage looking a million dollars, if I looked the business like Beckham,” Taylor said.
For a modest lunch fee – which covers the cost of a two-course meal and a drink – the SJA’s lunches regularly deliver great copy and an excellent opportunity to network.
Keep checking the SJA’s website here – http://www.sportsjournalists.co.uk/?cat=4 – for announcements of other headline-grabbing guests.
Reports by Ian Cole and Steven Downes. Pictures by Steve Rowe