Patrick Collins rolls back the years

Patrick Collins, a past sportswriter of the year and this year’s sports columnist of the year, pictured right, looks back on 25 years of his newspaper, The Mail on Sunday

“Argentina 8, England 0” – this was the first back-page headline in The Mail on Sunday.

Desmond Lynam reached for the first edition of the new paper, swivelled in his chair and held up the back page to the BBC camera.

“Hmmm,” murmured Lynam. “So this is the first new national Sunday newspaper for 21 years. Tell me, will The Mail on Sunday be covering roller hockey on a regular basis?”

I gabbled an explanation, a lame affair that involved being courageously different and responding to the demands of turbulent times. Finally, abjectly, I conceded that we had no plans for regular coverage.

Des raised an eyebrow. Across the Sunday Grandstand studio, technicians silently sniggered.

The programme moved on and Lynam, a decent man, was privately reassuring. “Don’t worry, old son,” he said. “It’ll get better.”

Yet the times were truly turbulent. A day earlier, British planes had attacked Argentine-held airfields on the Falkland Islands and a grave diplomatic incident had erupted into a shooting war.

As the world watched events unfold in the South Atlantic, Lisbon staged the world roller hockey championships. By macabre coincidence, the opening day featured a match between England and Argentina. And so, while braver journalists bobbed around in battleships, I set off for Lisbon.

Now roller hockey is a game that involves swishing sticks and speeding skates. Argentina are the aristocrats of the sport, England the peasants. I feared the worst when I met the English goalkeeper, a fragile fellow in National Health spectacles.

He was brave, of course, but courage was not enough and the Argentine goals piled up like unpaid debts. The English were admirably phlegmatic in defeat. The coach, a bank official from Orpington named Derek, remarked: “Funny game, roller hockey.”

I scribbled a whimsical piece and flew home. The BBC called to say that Grandstand would like to discuss the birth of The Mail on Sunday. I arrived at the studio to discuss our hopes, dreams and prized projects, and finished up defending our dubious decision to offer international roller hockey as our main sports story. Still, Lynam had said it would get better. And, of course, it did.

We were helped by the fact that in 1982 sport was producing more than its share of genuine heroes. The beguiling Tom Watson won the fourth of his five Open titles at Troon, while at Wimbledon, Jimmy Connors beat John McEnroe for the men’s title and Martina Navratilova overcame Chris Evert in the women’s final.

The England cricket team that won the summer Test series against Pakistan included such names as Gower, Gatting, Randall, Lamb, Botham and Willis. But the game had been seriously shaken by the recent rebel tour to apartheid South Africa.

Our then cricket correspondent worried about the way in which the various counties might react to those players who had joined the tour, to people such as John Emburey of Middlesex and Bob Woolmer of Kent.

Then there was Graham Gooch, of whom our man wrote: “Essex will not confirm Gooch as their vice-captain as long as bad feelings persist. Their fear, I believe, is that the notoriously red student population of Colchester might take exception.”

Four years were to pass before Gooch became captain of Essex, the Colchester reds having done their work well.

Boxing was a popular sport, with the gradual emergence of robust talents like Frank Bruno and Barry McGuigan. In time, it would degenerate into the gimmick-ridden, title-strewn cousin of professional wrestling which we know today, but back then it could still draw arena crowds and television audiences.

As Watson had demonstrated at Troon, golf was a game best left to Americans. For Britons, the majors were a distant dream, while the Ryder Cup had not been won in a quarter of a century.

We were aware of all this when we produced the first edition. Indeed, the best service we could do to golf was to offer four readers the chance to play in the World Match Play pro-am.

To qualify, they had to tell us a funnier story than the following rib-tickler from “top comedian Jimmy Tarbuck”: Two golfers were at the first tee when a funeral passed by on the street below. One reverently doffed his cap. “That’s extremely civil of you, old chap,” said his opponent. “Oh, the least I could do,” came the reply. “After all, we’d been married 17 years.”

In retrospect, we should have rewarded those who came up with even worse jokes.

Then there was track and field; still successful, still revelling in the glory years of Ovett, Coe, Thompson and Cram.

Seb Coe, in fact, contributed to our first edition, deriding the inadequacy of professional footballers’ preparations: ‘Is it any surprise that international footballers seem incapable of playing a physically committed game for more than three-quarters of the match?’

I doubt that Coe could make a similar charge today but some things never change. To a chorus of frustration, Ron Greenwood’s England team was beaten in the second round stage of the World Cup. Yet frustration was surely preferable to the bellowing outrage that would follow later failures.

In terms of public and media interest, football had yet to turn into an all-devouring beast. The old First Division attracted an average crowd of 22,332 per match in that 1981-82 season, a distinctly modest figure when set against last season’s Premier League average of 33,875.

Liverpool were champions in 1982 and Manchester United were in third place. Chelsea were mid-table in Division Two, but then Roman Abramovich was only 15 years old, with a preposterous fortune still to make and a social position to secure.

The national game was struggling on several fronts, most notably the problems of rampant hooliganism and crumbling, inadequate stadia.

On our opening day, we recorded the sickening events at the Arsenal versus West Ham match at Highbury, which involved rioting, smoke-bombs, dozens of arrests, a pitch invasion and the murder of a young man at a nearby Tube station.

We recorded, with sorrow and pity, the Bradford fire and the violent tragedy of the Heysel Stadium in May 1985, and, four years later, the shaming deficiencies in ground safety and crowd control that produced the carnage of Hillsborough.

In time, the sport would be transformed, but the cost of that transformation was wholly unacceptable.

In that opening week, we boasted of publishing nine pages of sport. In recent months, we have published as many as 42 pages, such is the radical re-evaluation of sport’s place in the scheme of things.

And we have filled those pages with the richest fare that sport has to offer: six summer Olympics, seven football World Cups, five rugby World Cups and seven cricket World Cups, along with innumerable world-title fights, Ryder Cups, Grand Nationals and all those things that intrigue and excite our sporting souls.

Yet always we have tried to look beyond our own world of men and women playing children’s games. At the end of our opening month, the Editor “suggested” that I should cover Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Britain, rather than the Scotland v England football match. I therefore found myself in a privileged pew at Canterbury Cathedral instead of a flip-top seat at Hampden Park.

Down the years, the Sports Department has been enlisted to help cover all manner of State occasions, from Royal weddings and funerals to that momentous referendum which transformed the face and future of Northern Ireland.

We have tried to bring to those assignments the robust, non-deferential attitude of sportswriting. In this, we have followed the example set in that first edition of The Mail on Sunday.

A day or two before publication, I walked through the Features Department as the sub-editors prepared various stories. One man, stubbily pugnacious, was applying his thickly leaded pencil to a television review.

The reviewer, John Osborne, was getting spectacularly tucked into Barry Manilow: “With no neck, the movement of a pre-Raphaelite Muppet and a line in cloying smut . . .

“Mercifully, I only hear him in provincial pubs now and then. Perhaps, in time, he’ll go away. Nobody seems to get diphtheria any more.”

The sub-editor looked up and bawled at the chief sub: “Osborne’s four pars too long!” The chief sub bawled back: “Cut it!” Whereupon the thickly leaded pencil began to flash.

Foolishly, I attempted to intercede with the flasher. “That’s the John Osborne,” I said. “So?” he replied.

“He wrote Look Back In Anger,” I said. “So?” he repeated.

“I mean, you wouldn’t have cut that, would you?” I said.

He stared at me for a moment. “If it was four pars too long, too right I would,” he said. “Now sod off back to the Sports Desk.”

And off I went. No point in arguing with one who held the great Osborne in such distressing contempt.

And anyway, there was a roller hockey match to cover.