Mike Ingham, for many years the voice of football on BBC radio, has written his autobiography, reviewed by ANTON RIPPON.
On 29 May 1985, Mike Ingham was preparing to commentate on the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.
Ingham and his BBC colleague Peter Jones were waiting to follow a recorded feature on the life and times of the about-to-retire Liverpool manager Joe Fagan when trouble started. Ingham advised producer Dave Gordon, back in London, to drop the feature and just come live to Jones. Gordon immediately abandoned the package on which he had been labouring for most of that day.
The events that unfolded in that “pitifully ramshackle stadium with insufficient police and medical resources, chaotic ticketing and inadequate security” are graphically retold in After Extra Time And Penalties: Memories of a BBC Football Correspondent, the autobiography of Ingham, the 2014 recipient of the SJA’s Doug Gardner Award for services to sports journalism.
Ingham had spent the previous half-hour before he went on air checking on what was happening outside the press box. He had previously seen only one dead body, that of his grandmother when he wanted to say goodbye to his father’s mum. Now he saw dozens, including that of a huge man, built like Giant Haystacks, purple in the face after having life squeezed out of him.
Back in position, he waited while Jones introduced him: “To start the commentary, my colleague who’s been doing very different things for the last hour – Mike Ingham.” There was a 10 to 15-second silence because Jones had grabbed Ingham’s arm and was squeezing it tightly. Then Ingham: “This final was billed as the dream final; it is the nightmare final now.”
This is but one gripping passage of the remarkable autobiography of a boy born in Cheshire, lived in Swansea and Plymouth, but whose most formative years were spent in the Derbyshire mill town of Belper with its “cobbled streets, corner shops … pigeon lofts and a foreign language” before he launched his broadcasting career on the back of a stint on Birmingham Hospital Radio.
I first met Mike Ingham in the mid-1970s after he landed a job at BBC Radio Derby. He says it was not a promising start. After being introduced as the new station assistant, he heard someone sniffily say: “Oh? I didn’t think we needed one.” Then one of the main programme producers, who went on to become a senior regional figure at the BBC, told him: “What you need to know is that the management here is crap.”
“All in all,” says Ingham, “quite an induction for an impressionable 23-year-old just given a short-term contract by that so-called ‘crap’ management.”
But he also says that the five years he spent at Radio Derby were the happiest of his career. Not least because he met a young lady called Lorna Dickinson, who was learning to make a radio programme at night school. She became his wife as well as a high-flying television producer.
When Ingham joined the BBC Radio sports department in London in January 1979, his father boldly knocked on Brian Clough’s front door and asked him to record a farewell message for his Radio Derby sports producer son. That might have been restricted to two words, but Clough invited Ingham senior to come in, poured a couple of Scotches, and recorded a message that included: “It’s far easier to be interviewed by you than by your father.”
Again, though, there had been a less than promising start to a new career. After previously failing to get a job as a sports assistant in London, he was invited back on attachment but did not turn up – because Radio Derby wanted to block the move and so did not bother to tell Ingham about it.
But it turned out all right in the end, Mike Ingham MBE can now look back on the almost a quarter of a century he spent as the BBC’s chief football correspondent, only the third person to hold the post after Brian Moore and Bryon Butler. He covered eight World Cup finals, 28 FA Cup finals, worked with ten full-time England managers, fulfilled a childhood dream of presenting Sports Report, and just to show that he wasn’t all about sport, also presented his own music show on BBC Radio 1 and commentated on the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.
He remains a Derby County fan – when his family moved 250 miles north because of his father’s job, he had to find a substitute for Plymouth Argyle – and during a week’s annual leave in 1984, he returned to Derby to record the scripts that I had produced for a 13-part documentary series on the Rams. Sitting with him in the studio I learned a lot about writing for the spoken word. “Would you mind if I altered this a bit and instead said … ?”
After Extra Time And Penalties: Memories of a BBC Football Correspondent is a candid, at times controversial, compulsive and comprehensive eyewitness account of how the worlds of broadcasting and of football changed beyond recognition on Mike Ingham’s watch.
He says: “I wrote about my early life because I think it’s important to know the pathway that led to where people ended up. And I also wrote the book because I wanted to pay tribute to the pioneers of radio sport.”
But for all the things that have happened to him, and all the experiences, good and bad that he has had, there is one evening that stands out above all others:
“The SJA’s Doug Gardner Award is the most prestigious of my lifetime. I was the first broadcaster to be honoured in this way, and to be endorsed by my peers was what made it extra special. Especially as I had no formal journalistic upbringing myself. I was joined on the stage by four of the most respected sports writers in the industry … Hugh McIlvanney, Jeff Powell, Patrick Collins and James Lawton … it was probably the last time they were ever photographed together.”
When Ingham retired in 2014, Sir Alex Ferguson said: “Mike has a warmth and quiet authority in his commentary – painting an accurate picture of the game and allowing his audience to enjoy it. He has been a fixture on the broadcasting landscape for over 30 years now and his integrity, his love of the game and his ability will be sorely missed.”
Former England captain Terry Butcher once told the Daily Mail: “Mike is great company and has a million and one stories, I hope he’ll bring out a book one day.” Well, now he has.
After Extra Time And Penalties: Memories of a BBC Football Correspondent by Mike Ingham (Book Guild, paperback, 200pp, £12.99) is published next month and now available to pre-order.
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