Joe Lancaster: agency man who drove a bargain

Joe Lancaster was a champion distance runner, a football trainer and entrepreneurial journalist who dabbled in a bit of import-export at the Moscow Olympics. He was also a friend of RANDALL NORTHAM

When you get to my age, more people you know appear in the obituary columns. It shouldn’t be a surprise but it always is, even if they are 89, as Joe Lancaster was when he died last week.

Joe Lancaster, left, training the Manchester City squad with, centre, Malcolm Allison and, right, former mile world record-holder Derek Ibbotson
Joe Lancaster, left, training the Manchester City squad with, centre, Malcolm Allison and, right, former mile world record-holder Derek Ibbotson

Joe was the epitome of the hard-working freelance. If you can imagine George Formby with an entrepreneurial streak and a notepad, then that was Joe. Within hours of his death being announced in the Manchester Evening News, Dave Harrison on FaceBook reminded me of the Moscow Olympics when Joe left with twice as much money as he had when he entered the Soviet Union. As you can imagine, Soviet officials took a dim view. Joe had made the extra selling things, jeans and especially Toblerones.

“They love Toberlones over here, Rand,” he said. How he knew, never having been to the Soviet Union I don’t know, but Joe seemed to know a lot of things that would make him money. “I won it playing cards,” he told the grim looking military guards at border control, and they believed him.

I’d first met Joe on the athletics circuit. Before he contracted TB when he worked as a railway clerk, he had held the world best for two hours. After recovering and the break-up of his marriage, he became a freelance journalist. He set up an busy sports news agency – Lancaster and Crowther – with Brian Crowther, who was to be The Guardian’s swimming correspondent. They made a good business in the Manchester area focusing mainly on sports other than football. What sports editors call “minor sports”. Naturally, Joe concentrated on track and field and was the athletics correspondent of the Manchester Evening News.

I got to know him a lot better when I bought Lancaster and Crowther in 1976. Joe wanted to leave Manchester and move to Athens with his new wife, Illiana, and her son Denis.

Within two years Joe was tired of Athens – “you can only wash your car when it rains” – and wanted to come back. We became partners.

He taught me many of the wrinkles that help a freelance get on, although I’m not sure many other agencies worked in quite the same way. For instance, every night at 6pm we would ring Bob in Bolton. Bob was the secretary of the Lancashire Snooker Association and he would give us the previous night’s results. Joe would then wait until 10.30pm, and send them around as if they had been played that night.

Results were a big earner. For instance, I wrote a squash column for the northern edition of the Daily Mirror and earned £15 a time. But the sports editor, whose son was a top-class squash player, would get four or five squash results in the paper each week and these paid £5 a result. Occasionally a result – squash, snooker, hockey, athletics – that we hadn’t sent would get in the paper and intense paranoia would ensue. It always turned out to have been filed by someone who was proud of what they’d achieved, and they phoned it in.

Joe’s return from Greece confirmed what I knew about his driving. Before going to Athens he confided in me that he had failed his test seven times and only passed on the eighth because the garden of a Manchester City player backed on to that of his examiner. A couple of Cup final tickets changed hands and Joe was legally allowed to drive. No names, as they might still be alive.

Mind you, in Athens Joe had seemed quite an accomplished driver, albeit one with a strange habit. If he was cut up, as he often was, he would toss a couple of drachma into his opponent’s car and shout the only Greek he knew. “It means here’s some money towards your driving test,” he said. “It’s one of the worst insults you can pay them.”

When he returned to England he drove a small sit-up-and-beg car but he was soon badgering me. “You need a better car, Rand,” he’d say. Eventually, I exchanged my Austin Maxi for a two-litre Cortina and Joe turned up in a gold Mercedes. After I’d left Lancaster and Crowther Joe drove into Manchester one day and found an Arab admiring the car. Within minutes, Joe had sold it to him and arranged for it to be shipped out of the country.

Joe’sown running career may have been curtailed, but his sportswriting saw him get to cover five summer Olympic Games, from Mexico City to Seoul. And his hard-work on the snooker circuit in the 1970s and 1980s paid dividends, too, as he helped that sport get much of the publicity which saw its growth in popularity.

The Manchester Evening News obit centred on Joe’s fitness coaching of the title-winning Manchester City side run by Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison. But, in truth, Joe was much prouder of his involvement with the great Charlton, Best and Law Manchester United team.

He worked at United at the time that Best would often go missing.

United didn’t want that news in the papers. In an era long before there were mobile phones or laptops, the only telephone was in the busy foyer of United’s training ground, The Cliff. So Joe devised a system worthy of the best Cold War spy thrillers.

If Best was there, he would ring the Evening News sports desk and say, “Salford Harriers are training tonight.”

If Best had gone missing again, it would be, “Salford Harriers are not training tonight.”

It was typical Joe Lancaster.

Sadly, I hadn’t spoken to him since he moved to Italy years ago. But I shall still miss him.