There have been so many tributes from across the industry following the news of the death of past SJA chairman David Emery.
Malcolm Folley, Charlie Sale, Bob McKenzie, Peter Tozer and Barry Flatman remember days under David’s editorship at the Daily Express.
Spring was in the air in Fleet Street in 1987, when David Emery quit as chief sports writer of the Daily Express to become sports editor.
Revolution, too. David had a plan that editor Nick Lloyd had approved.
David’s first call was placed to Vancouver to entice former Express sports feature writer Jim Lawton home from Vancouver to be his chief sports writer and columnist.
Simultaneously, he selected a young, ambitious, work all-hours journalist with an already enviable contacts book called Charlie Sale to be his sports news editor.
His other call was to me, another old Expressman, who’d crossed the street to join The Mail on Sunday launch, then became tennis correspondent of the Daily Mail. David probably had me at, ‘Hello…’
Already in place was formidable football story-getter, Steve Curry. And David unhesitatingly appointed respected sub-editor Peter Tozer, whom he had known for years, to be his deputy.
For me, there followed five privileged years alongside a great team. Before too long, the sports pages of David Emery could not be ignored.
I travelled the world covering Formula One, tennis championships, Olympic Games, and with additional freedom to seek interviews with sportsmen and women without budgetary restraint.
Not everything always ran like clockwork. Of the many moments of anxiety one in particular stands out.
David wanted us to have a serialisation in place to be published before Wimbledon in 1991 – and I suggested a young American with a toupee and a lousy wardrobe, who had previously chosen to miss Wimbledon because he disliked the all-white dress code.
His name was Andre Agassi. No one on the Express back bench had heard of Agassi – but David stuck his neck out to sell the idea. So, I interviewed Agassi at a hotel near the Champs Élysée on the eve of the French Open. Our arrangement necessitated Agassi doing a piece to camera for an Express TV advertising campaign to run in the days before Wimbledon.
Imagine the tremor in my voice the next afternoon when I called David to tell him Agassi was two sets down in his first round match and looking like he was headed home. Later he told me, he batted away the sarcasm of other department executives in evening conference by insisting Agassi would become a star… one day.
That was David. He stood up for his team no matter what.
Agassi survived the drama of the first round – and then drew headlines across the nation as he reached the French Open final.
Our serialisation on Agassi, the man, the enigma, ran for four days before Wimbledon over two-page spreads on the feature pages. The TV adverts featuring Agassi – looking like a rock star, urging people to buy the Daily Express – were sending a powerful message to rival publications. The Express was back in the game.
Awards from the SJA were won by Jim Lawton, a coruscating columnist and reporter, and myself, who had a licence to roam.
But at the heart of the renaissance of the Express was David. He became one of the most significant journalists of his generation through empathy, knowledge and his human decency.
Others like me benefitted from his leadership, and desire to see his protégés succeed.
We shared memorable times. But beyond that, David was always the largest presence in the room – because, although he cared passionately for his newspaper, he cared as much for the people that surrounded him. No one had a dull time in his company.
When I left the Daily Express to spend the last 22 years of my career as chief sports reporter on the Mail on Sunday, my friendship with David never missed a beat.
We were together with Charlie Sale, Peter Tozer and Roger Kelly, and our wives for our annual Christmas lunch at the Royal Mid-Surrrey Golf Club in 2021. Weeks later, David suffered the stroke from which he never recovered.
Emers left an indelible impression on all those he encountered on his remarkable journey through life. He will be greatly missed – but never forgotten.
On January 27, 1987, David wrote to me: “Dear Charlie, welcome back. What with you, Malcolm and Jim Lawton all returning to their alma mater, someone is going to excuse me of wearing the old school tie.
“They could be right. They would also be right if they considered the Daily Express now possesses the strongest line-up in Fleet Street. These are exciting times Charlie and you will play a key part.”
That letter was especially poignant for me because my father died unexpectedly aged 67 just a week later and somehow working with David – such a charismatic figure – became all the more important to me. I hung on to his every word, as did many others. He was the biggest influence on so many Fleet Street careers.
Nothing before or since was as enjoyable or memorable as that Camelot decade on the Express with David. And it wasn’t just working at close quarters with such an accomplished journalist, he was just as lively at play as well.
Life after 1996, when David left the Express, might have been professionally rewarding but it was never the same as being with David on the Express. Looking back over a quarter of a century later, it was a very special time. David was chiefly responsible for Express Sport going toe-to-toe with arch rivals the Daily Mail on a daily basis, which certainly hasn’t happened since.
There are so many memories involving David. He was inspirational as a sports editor. He could do every role on a newspaper with consummate ease.
But he was also just as engaging away from the workplace. He enjoyed life to the full, always first to the bar and the first to suggest a sporting challenge, and, of course with a sizeable side bet to boot.
We had the bike ride from London to Brighton. Toze won that one. Then there was the run from Blackfriars across Westminster Bridge and back. The bet with Toze and David was £5 if they beat me but I got £500 if I beat either of them. I was never going to beat Toze, the ironman, but I should have beaten David, who could hardly run at that time because of a knee injury.
But I went off too fast and collapsed short of the finish unable to prevent David limping past me.
Next was the two-length swim in the 50m pool at the Shell Club in Westminster, for which David gave me a length start. I just got home having swallowed most of the pool. There was playing for David English’s Bunbury Cricket team together, golf in Spain. No wonder David built such a camaraderie in the Express office.
We went on the Cresta Run in St Moritz. David did four runs with a best time of 57.08 seconds. I only plucked up the courage for one run which took me 134.06 secs – apparently the slowest time since Eroll Flynn, who had stopped en route to chat up a girl.
There were those lunches in that Chinese restaurant across the road from the Express, for which we span the wheel to see who would pay the bill.
It normally landed on Norman Dixon who had retired by then but came into the office almost on a daily basis because he just loved being around David. Didn’t we all. He was a special person and a giant of a journalist.
By the time David Emery invited me to move from being rugby correspondent for the Scottish Daily Express to London, I already knew him well, had time to wander the rabbit warren corridors of the Fleet Street building and was keen to go south.
I was to replace Malcolm Folley, who was was departing as F1 correspondent for great times at the Mail on Sunday. Like many things at the Daily Express, it happened quickly and I went to Mexico in 92 business class. Emers had style and as a sports editor with a background of serious reporting, he was full of energy, enthusiasm, experience and charisma.
Saying no to David was never really an option, not because he used his ultimate executive powers, but because he sold a vision, sold the wonders of being a reporter and all the places you would visit, the people you would meet, the story you would bring to the page.
After two months, I told him I hated F1, it was too much of a clique, and I wanted to simply concentrate on being the rugby correspondent, which he had also gifted to me. He took me to Stamford’s wine bar across the road, and by the time we left, he had convinced me that journalism might not make me a millionaire but sometimes you could live like one, especially if you were doing Formula 1.
About 25 years when I finally stopped after about 400 grands prix, we marvelled at my naivety as we went round Berkshire golf course at a Press Golf Society outing where David, a past captain, would produce the hip flask, and two of his sons and myself would laugh our way way along the fairways.
Play hard, work hard was the motto that was never said, simply understood from his example. He was a newspaperman. You knew he had done it all, digging, getting in, writing superbly under pressure. He loved a challenge and expected those working with him to be as impromptu, as inventive, to care about the words.
When a new executive wandered down one night at the Blackfriars building, saw the back page mock-up and asked ‘what is the Masters?’, David looked as if he might flatten him but used all his patience to answer ‘a golf tournament.’ We knew the world was changing.
He had no time for the pessimists and before accountants ruled, he would come up with an idea, find the money and we went all over the place.
I would go to the Alpine stages of the Tour de France, to Argentina to see Maradona boxing, to sign up Gavin Hastings for columns or Los Angeles to track down British athletes.
When he came up with the idea to send four illustrious football managers, including Malcolm ‘champagne’ Allison, on a nationwide Daily Express discussion tour for a week, I remember the phone call when he was told ‘they drank the budget – all of it’ and after just one night. Another challenge, another Emers chuckle.
The man was a joy to work with as a journalist because you never wanted to let him down.
As David’s deputy for much of his time in charge of Express Sport, I know that those of us who worked with one of the most talented all-round journalists of his generation, who displayed such even-tempered and encouraging management skills, counted ourselves lucky and privileged.
David was, of course, also a talented, authoritative writer on a wide variety of sports, with an easy-to read style, a feel for a bon mot, but never a candidate for ‘Pseuds Corner’.
In his time as sports editor, long lunches (often productive as ideas were floated, then accepted or rejected with increasing volume) were the given. But as an alternative there were also Emery Lunchtime Long Runs from Fleet Street to Battersea and back, or Hyde Park, as he encouraged colleagues to train with him for the London Marathon in support of the Express-backed Rupert’s Runners for charity.
After leaving the Express, to cap it all he demonstrated entrepreneurial skills in starting up his stable of weekly, specialised sports papers.
RIP Emers, my friend, my boss, my running mate, and, to many of us, a hero.
I remember the day David told me was becoming sports editor at the Express. I must admit I was a little disappointed because I viewed him as an exceptional writer. But he proved me wrong by becoming a great leader of men who engendered a team spirit second to none.
Writer, sports editor, publisher, tremendous guy. Rest well Emers.