An Express 35 years finishes on a winning streak

Having started at the titles in 1979, BOB McKENZIE has written his final report for the Express. Here, the paper’s former F1 motor racing correspondent looks back on his varied career

Sir John Junor was God when I joined the Scottish Sunday Express in April 1979.

Bob McKenzie, hard at work in Bahrain in 2012 interviewing F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone
Bob McKenzie, hard at work in Bahrain in 2012 interviewing F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone

God’s message when I met him – him having had the Ayrshire Post and Ayr Advertiser researched so that he could impress me – was simple: We are the Sunday Express, we sell more than 2 million, no one can touch us, the Express empire is safe.

After a fun-filled career with Brenards Airport News Agency and the bi-weekly that was the Post, but little in the way of wages, this was sweet music for someone with a young family.

The theory was that the closure of the Scottish Daily Express in Albion Street in Glasgow in 1974 had reduced the workforce from 2,000 to 200, shoals of staff had moved to Manchester and the savings were huge.

I got a quick lesson in how to do expenses the Express way from Bullet McCartney, the chapels reluctantly accepted a 15 per cent increase (nowhere near the 22 per cent they had recently had) and into the 1980s we rolled.

A year after I had arrived as sports sub/reporter, a position uniquely suited to me, came DX80, a “streamling” exercise from Trafalgar House, who had bought the paper from Beaverbrook.

That reduced Glasgow to 100, mainly editorial.

A week after the Mail on Sunday launched, there was a huge Sunday Express reception and laughs were had at the expense of the newcomer. Junor ended his career working for it!

On SSE sport we subbed the broadsheet in Manchester on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, travelling down first class by train and returning either by sleeper on Saturday night or in a limo with an Express driver during the summer.

The routine was that four or five of us would travel down to Manchester’s Black Lubyanka where you could tell the time by the rhythm of the building = the phones ringing in the morning as corrs and reporters rang in, the chatter of the afternoon as subs caught up, and the tremulous thunder of the evening when the presses ran.

Bob McKenzie, right, with (from left) Malcolm Folley and David Emery at the leaving party for the Mail-bound Charlie Sale
Bob McKenzie, right, with (from left) Malcolm Folley and David Emery at the leaving party for the Mail-bound Charlie Sale

The trips to Ancoats Street were a welcome relief for me to avoid ringing a set of Scottish football managers who revelled in cursing, attempted bullying and lying. They tell me it is the press officers who do that nowadays.

The message re drawing-up and subbing that page was short – never leave out the Sporting Sam cartoon no matter how tight space was and always find Ewan Murray, now Sky golf commentator. Junor had met him, liked this “fine young man” from the European tour and wanted his name in the paper even if Murray had missed the cut.

The curse of the job for me was stone subbing page 31 of the broadsheet on Saturday night in the edgy, throbbing heat of the caseroom in the hot metal days, the printers’ holy ground.

You never knew who would be the stone hand, what mood, how co-operative, how bloody-minded.

Of all the jobs I did, this was the most stressful, more so than facing up to Fergie (the manager, not the royalty) at Aberdeen.

I recall looking at a fleet of lorries outside waiting for a special late run of Sundays to carry the report of the world title fight involving Jim Watt. Copy was dictated round by round from ringside to a designated copytaker, run to the desk, subbed, sent down and quickly and whipped from the linotype machine to the stone.

For Bob McKenzie, the "commute" to work has sometimes involved taking a lift in a F1 driver's private plane, as here with David Coulthard
For Bob McKenzie, the “commute” to work has sometimes involved taking a lift in a F1 driver’s private plane, as here with David Coulthard

All was going well until five minutes before off stone when the stonehand walked off for his break with no replacement standing ready.

Explosion of frustrations followed.

There were many good guys there who went the extra mile in difficult circumstances, but a few who had pubs to run.

In those days if there was no ball in a football save photo, the picture desk had a jar of cut-outs which they would stick on after a discussion about whether it had been hit high or low. Mike Dempsey, the legendary Daily Express sports editor, took me to lunch at Sam’s Chophouse one day and I moved to the Daily Express in Glasgow.

New technology arrived and as Father of Chapel on the union committee, this was a key time as we bargained for payments to accept changes to our working practices, although even we thought being paid to take mobile phones was asking too much.

The era of journalist power never arrived, much like the revival of The Express, as it was now called.

London and David Emery called and there was just time for a flavour of Fleet Street before the paper joined the exodus from the street and moved to the south side of Blackfriars Bridge.

When McKenzie said that McLaren wouldn't win a GP in 2005, he wagered that he'd run a lap naked if they did. And here he is with Kimi Raikkonen afterwards. The McKenzie streaked raised £11,000 and lots of laughs
When McKenzie said that McLaren wouldn’t win a GP in 2005, he wagered that he’d run a lap naked if they did. And here he is with Kimi Raikkonen afterwards. The McKenzie streak raised £11,000 and lots of laughs

Death by a thousand cuts was under way with a succession of hapless owners and editors, with the most bizarre being the Rosie Boycott era, with a load of ex-Independent staff.

Express readers fled even faster. And then came the move to a mini-Lubyanka with one Richard Desmond.

Thankfully, I was spending most of my time away on Formula 1 duties, or tied up as rugby corr, or tennis corr.

After everything from shinty cup finals to seven Olympics, summer and winter, it ended at the Commonwealth Games when the latest round of cuts offered a voluntary deal which saw die-hards like myself jump.

After 35 years at the Express, it officially ended with a letter from HR telling me that my application for redundancy had been accepted, asking for equipment back.

I only hope that the talented survivors now trying to fill the big holes in the crippled liner will manage another 10 years. My time as motor racing correspondent ended as it had begun, with a British world champion.

For someone who never expected to travel round Scotland, it was 35 years of writing on a great canvas, touring the world at their expense, laughing, and meeting some dazzling people.

Norman Giller, in writing here, was absolutely correct. Morale is on the floor and a real newspaper baron would make something of one of the greatest newspapers ever, rather than just squeezing it for every penny. My proudest day was walking in, and my pride at being banged out on my last official visit was intact. I hope others have the same Express experience.

  • On December 15, at the Walrus on Lower Thames Street, myself and a few others, at our expense, will celebrate with anyone who turns up


Thu Dec 11: SJA British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery, at the Grand Connaught Rooms


Mon Mar 23: SJA British Sports Journalism Awards, sponsored by BT Sport, at the Grand Connaught Rooms. Entry forms now available here

Wed May 13: SJA York Races Day, sponsored by Ladbrokes, at the Dante Festival. Click here to book your places

Mon Sep 14: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill Golf Club