John Sadler – the writer who stood up to Fergie

DAVID WALKER, chairman of the SJA, pays tribute to his old friend and former colleague, John Sadler, who has died, aged 74

John Sadler was a giant of British sports journalism who never forgot his roots.

John Sadler 1940-2015. Picture, courtesy of The Sun
John Sadler 1940-2015.
Picture, courtesy of The Sun

For 26 years, John was the chief sports writer of The Sun. He was the most identified journalist among The Sun‘s array of stars; yet he retained a totally grounded humility.

I first met Sadles when he was The Sun‘s Yorkshire district reporter in the early 1970s. As you can guess, I was only a lad at the time but was warmly welcomed into a gang of White Rose stars that featured John, Peter Cooper of the Mirror, Bill Mallinson of the Mail and Mike Morgan, then of the Express.

They all possessed a sharp humour and willingness to poke fun at themselves. They all hated the pompous. On occasions the fun was allowed to creep into copy filed, such as when Sadles described Huddersfield left-back Geoff Hutt as “a little wooden”.

When he was promoted to the role of chief sports writer, John’s sporting horizons expanded but writing about the big football events and delivering a beautifully composed column remained his top priorities.

His live match reporting was superb. During my days at the Daily Mail, I sat next to John at venues like Wembley and Old Trafford and marvelled at his running copy that could be seamlessly joined together to create a typically sharp insight into the game.

Sadles accepted that he had to be critical of authorities, managers, players and misbehaving fans. His column carried the tag-line: The man who gives it to you straight.

He didn’t aim for cheap, outrageous strikes to create headlines. He delivered his considered, authoritative views. Usually he was right.

There were times when his status as The Sun‘s top reporter provoked angry responses. I’ve been in more than one bar with John when irate fans abused him because he had criticised some aspect of their club.

To my knowledge he never ran away.

And he certainly didn’t run away from some of the famous managers he criticised in his column. I recall him writing a very critical piece about Manchester United in the early 1990s and then turning up at Old Trafford for their next game.

In those days Alex Ferguson would agree to a separate post-match chat with the Monday reporters. It has been known for some star columnists to lie low when they’ve delivered a particularly withering attack on a top-line manager.

Sadles was different. He pointed out that Fergie may not want to speak to him but rather than hiding at the back of the pack he would stand at the front and ask the first question. If Fergie objected to his presence, the rest of us could follow on with our questions after he’d been dismissed.

John stood at the front, asked his question, Alex looked him in the eye, glowered and answered. They were two giants of their respective trades.

It was my joy to work alongside John in the 1980s. He would always call to say he was heading to a game I was covering and looking to write an opinion piece from there. He went out of his way to help his younger colleagues, be it with advice or a tip-off on a story.

John was invariably early for games. He’d drive to a venue and park up. In the late 1980s we would often to sit outside Wembley as John would explain his wish to retire to France with his wife Jo.

In 2002 they managed to do that. I know many sports editors who’ve wanted to lure him back as their columnist – even writing from France. But John had retired from the frontline and that’s how he wanted it.

Undoubtedly, Sadles was one of the giants of our game. Like many other friends and colleagues we were blessed to know him.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Jo and the Sadler family at this time.