The man who made Alfie Noakes a global superstar

MARTIN GILLINGHAM pays tribute to his best friend, Nigel Whitefield

Family, friends and colleagues attended a requiem mass of thanksgiving at St Joseph’s catholic church, Birtley, near Durham, last Friday to celebrate the life of former sports writer Nigel Whitefield.

Nigel Whitefield with his children
Nigel Whitefield with his children

Nigel died on March 1, aged 52. He had undergone a kidney transplant on December 30 and was recovering well. But a few days before Nigel was due to be discharged, he contracted influenza type A. He was transferred to intensive care and subsequently put in an induced sleep from which he didn’t recover.

Nigel, who had specialised in athletics and boxing, worked for the Coventry Evening Telegraph, Today and Scotland on Sunday. He had worked at six Olympic Games and numerous other major sporting events. He later worked as head of communications for sports marketing agency Alan Pascoe Associates before joining Teletext. He left London in 2007 for the north-east and was working as a senior communications adviser at Newcastle City Council at the time of his death.

It was while working at APA in the early 1990s that he met his wife Sandra. Their two young children, Charles and Amy, adored Nigel and were with him to the end. “The hospital were great,” Sandra says. “We explained that although Daddy could hear them he wasn’t able to speak to them. They chatted, cuddled, kissed Daddy and put on a show of songs and dancing. Nigel would have been proud of the kids that night. I was.”

The mass followed a private family burial and featured delightful choral accompaniment from Charles and Amy’s friends and fellow pupils at St Benet’s RC School in Ouston, Co. Durham.

Tributes were made by Nigel’s best friend Conor O’Hagan and colleague Will Mapplebeck. Both tributes struck the perfect note. They were moving and humorous in equal measure.

Will said: “Nigel had that rare talent of being able to relate to anyone. He was interested in people’s lives. Almost everyone liked him, he made them smile or laugh. He charmed them, even despite themselves sometimes.

“Nigel had a passion for great communication; he had a gift for strategy. He could tell you what someone would think or what a journalist would write – and he was almost always correct.

“In a profession where too many people can be ruthlessly on message and therefore ultimately rather dull, Nigel was different. He wasn’t afraid to say what he thought. Sometimes that upset people, but he had just enough personal charm to get away with it.”

I had the pleasure of knowing Nigel for almost 30 years. He was the best friend anyone could wish to have and certainly one of the funniest. Whitefield anecdotes could fill several volumes and, as Conor pointed out, finding the most wicked and witty is a fiercely competitive process.

“Your listeners will always believe they have better ones, and they’re probably right, even if they knew him only briefly,” Conor said. “Nigel was magnificently, gratuitously and exuberantly profane, yet with more charity and integrity than a coachload of bishops.

“Nigel was a natural non-conformist; someone who dismantled convention and rebuilt the essentials from the ground up. That takes courage and judgment, which he had in spades. The result was everything you need and nothing you don’t – except an awful lot of entertainment.”

One of my favourite experiences came on the eve of the 1995 athletics world championships in Gothenburg, when Nigel and I were doing what journalists do; hanging around the official IAAF hotel looking for stories.

There in the lobby, a championships “visitors’ book”, under the watch of security staff, caught Nigel’s eye. The grand tome was intended to be signed by just the great and good of the “athletics family” as they passed through the hotel to enjoy the hospitality of their IAAF hosts.

When we returned to the hotel a few days later Nigel pointed out an intriguing signature in the book.

There, beneath “Javier Sotomayor, reigning world high jump champion and world record holder (2.45m)” and immediately above a similar entry filled out by Daley Thompson was a listing which drew on one of Nigel’s alter egos – a character borrowed from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s notorious Derek ‘n Clive recordings:

“Alfie Noakes, Norfolk 800m champion”