Old-school sports writer who was made for the job

SJA member COLIN HART worked with John Sadler on The Sun for 24 years. Here are some of his memories of a sportswriting Titan

John Sadler often used to say to me, “All you need to do our job is an empty fag packet, a stub of pencil and a telephone box.”

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

That was long before the days when you needed a degree in computer science to be a sportswriter.

John was of the old school, and proud of it. If ever a man deserved to be called a giant of Fleet Street it was Sadles. Though he must have been the skinniest Titan of all-time.

That was the only thing I resented about him. Wherever we were in the world, thanks to Rupert, we would sort out the finest restaurant in town. John could eat for England, yet to my disgust the bugger never put on an ounce in weight.

I had the great good fortune to have worked closely with him for 24 of the 26 years he spent as The Sun‘s Chief Sports Writer, before I retired from the staff in 2000.

We all know many of the leading sports columnists have egos so large they make the Taj Mahal look the size of a council house.

But there wasn’t a narcissistic bone in Sadles’ body. Yet he had every reason to puff himself up – he used to be read by 12 million people every day.

As someone said to me when they received the news of his death this week, “John Sadler was to The Sun, what Ian Wooldridge was to the Daily Mail.”

Yet there has never been a more self-effacing or self-deprecating star than Sadles. He would always go out of his way to help his colleagues – even rivals on opposition papers – and when asked, was more than willing to give advice and the benefit of his experience to young journalists.

John was the ultimate professional. His columns were always an absorbing read. Extremely talented he wrote with great authority about a multitude of sports and would never use 10 words when two or three would do. His readers had the benefit of his wit and wisdom in equal measure.

In all the years we travelled together, there was never a cross word between us. Though he was seriously miffed with me at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He was covering his first Games and as I’d been to Mexico and Munich I was supposed to be the knowledgeable one.

As I was locked into the track and field programme, John would call me every morning and we would discuss where I thought he ought to go that day.

On one occasion, John suggested he might get something out of the Modern Pentathlon, as the British team was expected to win a medal.

“You must be bloody joking,” I told him. “It is the fencing day at the Modern Pentathlon and there’s nothing more boring than watching that for eight hours.”

Another boring day at the Modern Pentathlon:  Boris Onischtschenko in Montreal in 1976 - one big story John Sadler didn't get the chance to cover
Another boring day at the Modern Pentathlon: Boris Onischtschenko in Montreal in 1976 – one big story John Sadler didn’t get to cover

This happened to be the day the Russian Boris Onishchenko was caught cheating by doctoring his epee so it triggered the electronic scoreboard in his favour. To make matters worse, his opponent was Britain’s Jim Fox.

It was one of the most sensational stories of those Games, as Bent Boris was sent back to the Motherland in disgrace.

When we met that evening, nothing was said. Later over a drink, John said quietly, “I hear it was another boring day at the Modern Pentathlon.”

Another incident that always sticks in my mind was 12 years later at the Seoul Olympics. We were woken in our billet in the press village in the middle of the night with news that Ben Johnson had failed a drug test. It was 4.30am in Seoul but nearly first edition time in London.

The desk informed us the Editor – none other than Kelvin MacKenzie – was demanding a thousand words from me on drugs in sport and a thousand-word feature from Sadles on the history of cheating at the Olympics – and he wanted it in less than 30 minutes.

Still half asleep, there were two of Fleet Street’s finest, in our underpants, ad-libbing our stuff to the copytakers – remember them? – and praying we were making sense.

I admired John for so many reasons. Besides being the ultimate pro he was simply wonderful company – a great guy to be with. You knew as soon as you clapped eyes on him laughter wouldn’t be far away.

I have discovered that the saddest part of growing old is you lose your friends.

I know it is one of the most used and abused cliches but, “You will never see his like again” is a perfect fit for Sadles.

Many moons ago, Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck said, “a journalist is a person who has mistaken their calling”. He could not have been more wrong where John Sadler was concerned.