Folley’s lifetime of stars, deadlines and scoops

Malcolm FolleyIt is the end of an era. Among many changes as the Mail, Mail Online and Mail on Sunday sports desks are merged, one of those to have left Associated Newspapers is MALCOLM FOLLEY, after 22 years as the Sunday title’s chief sports reporter. Here Folley, pictured, remembers his Fleet Street career

They called the Art Deco Daily Express HQ in Fleet Street the “Black Lubianka”, after the Russian jail for political detainees. But to me as I walked in on September 22, 1975, it was like I had entered heaven.

At 23, I had become a football reporter on a national newspaper, the paper we had always had at home, the domain of journalistic giants such as Desmond Hackett, and Peter O’Sullevan.

It was a time when reporters went to the training grounds of football clubs without an invitation to a “media conference”. We met managers and players, contacts were forged, telephone numbers were harvested, and trust established without an agent or spin doctor in sight. It was a time of typewriters and telephones mounted to desks.

It was a time stories were dictated through ad-libbing to in-house copytakers from a phone box, or from a football ground, from notes scribbled on a dog-eared pad. It was a time that when the job was done, you went to the pub to drink with the guys you had just been working against from the Mail, or the Telegraph, from The Sun or the Mirror.

I found I had mentors galore at the Express: I will be eternally grateful to Jim Lawton, who became one of the most respected and articulate commentators of this age, or any other, for showing me infinite patience and support, as well as lasting friendship. I sat next to Steve Curry, who continuously illustrated his enviable skills of story-getting, while sports editor Ken Lawrence and his Falstaff-like deputy, Norman Dixon, encouraged and chastened this young reporter at the appropriate moments. Strangely, I wasn’t as good as I thought.

My first meaningful story was breaking the news that Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa were signing for Spurs shortly after assisting Argentina to win the World Cup in the summer of 1978. I owe the tip to Ken Lawrence who, to my good fortune, found me to be his only reporter in the office when he took a call telling him of the impending deal happening in Argentina. After trawling through a list of hotels in Buenos Aires, I finally tracked down Spurs manager Keith Burkinshaw.

Ricky Villa, left, and Ossie Ardiles, being shown off by the Spurs manager Keith Burkinshaw in 1978. The story was Malcolm Folley's first big break
Ricky Villa, left, and Ossie Ardiles, being shown off by the Spurs manager Keith Burkinshaw in 1978. The story was Malcolm Folley’s first big break

After recovering from the surprise of being discovered, Burkinshaw confirmed – to his credit and my delight – that Ardiles and Villa had signed for Spurs.

It was an enormous coup for the north London club, one made all the greater at the time as there were so few overseas players in English football, and here were two World Cup-winners destined for our game. “World Exclusive” boasted the back page of the Express the next day under my byline.

Ken followed through on this “scoop” by sending me to Madrid to intercept Ardiles and Villa when they changed planes, on a Sunday night, to complete their journey from Argentina to London. I managed to get time with them at the airport and cross-examined Ossie in his broken-English and heard him talk with a passion for “Tott…Ing…Ham” and about his excitement at coming to live as an English gentleman. At his side, Ricky smiled without understanding a word.

I persuaded the manager of British Airways’ station in Madrid to use his office to dictate my copy – and only stopped filing when I was told the doors on the aircraft were about to close. At 12.30am on Monday July 17, Ardiles and Villa passed through immigration into the arrivals hall at Heathrow to be met by a group of reporters and photographers from rival newspapers whose mood deflated somewhat when they saw me in tow and realised, no matter the nonsense I had already filed from Madrid for Monday’s edition, that the Express had stolen a march again.

I cannot think that in the next 36 years I ever came close to delivering a football story to match that. Other moments do spring to mind, though. I had been “ghosting” Jim Laker’s cricket column, had got to report from one or two Formula 1 races, and become the Express’s No2 on tennis when the chance to join a brand new paper, the Mail on Sunday, proved irresistible in spring 1982.

It was a mistake. I was too young – 30 – for the change of pace of a once-a-week publication and too naïve to appreciate how the limited amount of space would be restrictive.

When sports editor Tom Clarke invited me to become Daily Mail tennis correspondent in January 1984, I thought I had struck gold. However, Tom gently explained that before finalising my role, I would have to pass muster with the Editor, Sir David English.

Lunch followed at The Savoy Grill where Sir David appeared to have a table at permanent readiness for him – and, kindly, he put me at ease as we dined alone with tales of his own days as an Expressman, where he flourished before he steered the Daily Mail to its position as a market leader. Kinder still, he told Tom to go ahead and hire me as the successor to the doyen of British tennis writing, Laurie Pignon.

Tom was always energised and always swift to back his troops, led with such distinction by Ian Wooldridge and Jeff Powell, two colleagues who befriended and guided me with wisdom that was dispensed with the same generosity as the gins and tonic, wines and brandies, all shared over long, laughter-filled nights in places around the world. Tom looked forever beyond the diary, something that I believe underpinned my own instincts and led me over the years to stories and interviews that seemed to have a currency that has never deflated.

John McEnroe: Folley doorstepped him in California when at the Mail
John McEnroe: Folley doorstepped him in California when at the Mail

In late April 1986, John McEnroe had been seen in self-imposed exile for three months after being beaten at the Masters in New York by a tennis journeyman called Brad Gilbert (later the coach of Andy Murray, of course). With his usual infectious enthusiasm,Tom and I agreed that as I was going to New York to cover a tournament, it was worth investing the effort to go to McEnroe’s beach-front house in Malibu, California, staked out by local paparazzi. Business class, of course. The Ford Mustang rental car was my idea, I admit.

After a night’s sleep at a hotel in Santa Monica, around midday I approached McEnroe’s home nervously, as he was not noted for being a morning person. On the gate, a notice warned: “This property protected by armed response”. This was door-stepping on another level.

Still, I figured the Mustang would give me an edge if I had to run, so I knocked on the door. A voice growled through an intercom: “What do you want?” I told him I wanted to know how he was doing – and trusted his memory for faces, if not names, would identify me as someone from the tennis press that he knew.

“You gotta speak to my father,” said McEnroe, still on the intercom. I told him that when I called his father, John senior, in New York, to ask how his son was doing, he had replied: “Ask John.” So, on the doorstep, I spoke into the intercom and said, as if it was the most logical thing in the world, “Here I am!”

Silence followed. Was he calling security? Could I get to the Mustang in time?

Thirty seconds later bolts on the back door started to unlock. And there was McEnroe to usher me into his backyard right on the beach. He was unshaven, bleary-eyed and clenching a litre-bottle of water. I climbed over his heavily pregnant girlfriend, actress Tatum O’Neal, sprawled across the deck and talking on a phone, and sat down at a table opposite McEnroe. For 40 minutes, he answered my questions, and promised he would be at Wimbledon. Then, we shook hands and I left. Tom pushed for the story to run on page three. Mac and I never looked back – and I am being serious.

My own return – to the Express – came at the beginning of 1987 after a brief spell with a magazine called Sportsweek. At the same time as appointing me senior sportswriter, the new sports editor David Emery, an inspirational journalist and great friend, lured Jim Lawton back from Canada to be chief sportswriter and made Charlie Sale sports news editor. In five years together – with all the others in the team David assembled and motivated – the Express regained some of its old sparkle, introducing a sports supplement on Mondays, ground-breaking then.

Malcolm Folley swapping notes with two England captains, Gary Lineker and Will Carling
Malcolm Folley swapping notes with two captains of England international teams, Gary Lineker and Will Carling

It was in this period when new technology arrived. In March 1989, I took a Tandy 200 – the first generation portable computers for journalists – to the Brazilian Grand Prix in Rio de Janeiro.

My good colleagues Derek Allsop, from the Mail, Stan Piecha, from The Sun, and Maurice Hamilton, of The Guardian, watched with increasing glee as I uncoupled telephone handsets in a futile attempt to connect this new-fangled machine to the outside world, or tried to coerce telephone operators to place calls through to the room when the line from London was making a noise like an angry swarm of bees. “Honestly,” I pleaded. “When you hear, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, put the call through.” They never did.

As I battled technology, my mates filed in the conventional way through copytakers and were on their third drink in the bar by the time I joined them. None of us wrestling with these beasts of burden and, frequently having to resort to copytakers as the technology inevitably failed anywhere outside the Home Counties, knew at the time that we were pioneers opening up the frontier to the luxurious generation of computerised gizmos making all our lives so much easier.

If the Express second time around was an adventure, and one that gave me the privilege of being named Sports Reporter of the Year for my work in 1991, I felt compelled to go back to the Mail on Sunday when Roger Kelly, another old Expressman, asked me to become his deputy sports editor in 1992. It was a role that lasted for less than nine months – when I returned to the road as chief sports reporter. Under Roger, Dan Evans and David Walker, then, Malcolm Vallerius, an undemonstrative man with an intuition for producing agenda-setting pages, and for the final year with Alison Kervin, and her staunch lieutenants, Roger Lacey and Mike Richards, I have had a charmed existence these past 22 years.

Two men in a boat: Matthew Pinsent recovered from having Malcolm Folley crewing in a Boat Race training session to go on to win four Olympic golds and 10 world titles
Two men in a boat: Matthew Pinsent recovered from having Malcolm Folley crewing in a Boat Race training session to go on to win four Olympic golds and 10 world titles

I secured the first interview with Monica Seles, at her home in Florida, just seven months after she had been stabbed by a demented German fan when she was sitting down at a changeover during a match with Steffi Graf in Hamburg.

I spent an afternoon with Mike Tyson, at a mixed high school in white middle-class suburb of Ohio, when he was on community service during his time of a sex offenders’ register. Tyson had not expected photographer Michael Brennan and I to be there – which led to an uncomfortable stand-off with his security team who travelled by Humvee until Tyson’s therapist intervened to say he had invited us. By the end of the afternoon, Tyson actually posed for pictures for us.

Over the years, it was revealing to be at close quarters as great champions such as Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Senna fought against one another, as they confided, through a sense of trust built over time, their inner-most emotions, their fears, and their unseen vulnerability.

It was a pleasure to be in the Olympic Stadium in Sydney throughout the Millennium Games, but, it was extra special to be there to write about Steve Redgrave winning his fifth Olympic gold and to be present the night Cathy Freeman won the 400 metres as the pride not only of all Aboriginal people, but of an Australian nation coming to terms with its past. That same night, Jonathan Edwards won the triple jump Olympic gold medal he had been expected to win in Atlanta four years earlier – and as his biographer, it was easier than most to comprehend the complexity and trauma of the journey he had completed.

Sydney was also the scene of one of my favourite stories of all: England’s triumph in the Rugby World Cup in 2003. Alongside my colleagues, chief sports writer Patrick Collins, the master of his craft to this day, and Ian Stafford, a tireless reporter with an enviable contacts book, we filled more than 20 pages. I had my first drink at the conclusion of the night’s toil at 7am.

I have left to last the biggest story of my lifetime: 9/11.

I was in St Louis when the planes delivered their deadly cargo of aviation fuel to the World Trade Center, having left New York the previous evening to move from the US Open to a pre-Ryder Cup golf tournament. With all flights grounded, I was fortunate in getting a rental car within 24 hours. With Michael Brennan for company and the radio tuned to ABC, we embarked on a 1,100-mile drive across America. After 16 hours, we could see the lights of Manhattan: sombre and unwelcoming. It was 4am on Thursday, September 13, and New York City was a city haunted and afraid.

On Saturday morning, I attended the funeral for the chaplain of the New York Fire Department, Father Mychal Judge, and Bill and Hillary Clinton were among the mourners at the St Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street. After the service, I walked a couple of blocks and dictated my copy from a pay phone on a street corner as the time difference meant I was against a tight deadline.The piece on the funeral ran on pages two and three. Professionally, nothing has come close to those days in New York.

Malcolm Folley in typical style, interviewing an international sports star, Mary Pierce
Malcolm Folley in typical style, interviewing an international sports star, Mary Pierce

The mood was mournful and poignant, yet, paradoxically, it was upbeat and uplifting as the people of the city formed together to offer assistance and aid to those grieving and, most of all, to offer hope for the future.The images will live with me forever from a city my eldest daughter, Sian, currently calls home.

The newspaper world is almost unrecognisable from the day I walked into Fleet Street. It is a world becoming increasingly dependent on its digital content, it is restless and barely allows time to pause for thought. It appears to be demanding of young sports journalists, many without a background in local newspapers, or any kind of formal training, who sit eternally behind a computer screen and rely on information from other outlets to keep the wheels of the sleepless websites grinding. The closest they come to a sports event is what is being shown on the television sets in their offices.

It is what the market commands, we are told. It is an argument, but we are not educating, nor offering a proper reward, to this generation chained to a computer terminal.

Only by meeting managers, coaches, and players can you begin to have a coherent understanding of writing about sport. Only through contacts can you get a story, a real story, or clinch an interview that matters, at the time it matters. Anyone telling you different is deluding you.

Of course, there is still the kind of journalism of high integrity, and great writing, of Wooldridge and Hugh McIlvanney, of Collins and Lawton. Paul Hayward, Martin Samuel, Henry Winter, Matt Dickinson, Michael Atherton and Oliver Holt are skilful reporters, as well as notable commentators.The art of interviewing is safely guarded by Donald McRae and, running hard at his heels, is Oliver Brown. At The Times, Simon Barnes is an independent spirit, while Matthew Syed has established a niche in the firmament.

I must hope other colleagues from down the years are forgiving for their omission here; but, for some of us, just being on the stage, and not scuffing our lines that often, has been evidence of a job done not too shabbily. You are too many to name. I hope with great sincerity the generation to follow has half the satisfaction I have had these past 38 years.

In these changing times, I am aware that others who have recently been allowed to leave the Mail on Sunday and Daily Mail are less fortunate than myself after agreeing to a settlement under voluntary redundancy that became irresistibly attractive after the merger of the sports desks. So, I hope this is taken for what it is: a meander down Memory Lane.

As for the future, who knows what is in store for a hack with a past? With six books to my credit, I hope that I might be able to come up with an idea that is marketable. I may have some value as a consultant. What I do know for certain is this: my golf can only get better and I can treat my brilliantly supportive wife, Rachel, and our daughters, Sian, 26, and Megan, 25, to some special moments that I might have overlooked for too long.

  • Malcolm Folley’s concluded decades of globe-trotting, after covering his 13th Olympic Games at Sochi in February, with his final dispatch for the Mail on Sunday from Italy last month, when he recalled the 20th anniversary of the San Marino Grand Prix that claimed the lives of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger



Thu May 15: SJA members’ Race Day at York

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One thought on “Folley’s lifetime of stars, deadlines and scoops

  1. May be the best piece you’ve ever written pal. Just disappointed you neglected to mention Binky and the San Fran hotel caper. Ah well…maybe golf this summer? Cheers, Bill

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