CHARLIE BURGESS, founding sports editor of The Independent and the man who gave Martin Johnson his break in national newspapers, tells the story behind the man.
It was the summer of 1986, shortly before the start of The Independent, when Andreas Whittam Smith, the editor, asked who we had lined up for cricket. He knew there was an Ashes that winter which would be a competitive sport for newspapers and he wanted someone of stature. I told him not to worry, I’d got this brilliant, funny writer from the provinces called Martin Johnson. A slightly worried Andreas came back later to say that none of his friends had heard of him.
They soon would.
Then I had my Andreas moment. The day before he boarded the plane for Australia, Martin said: “By the way, you know I’ve never been to a Test match.” I told him to keep that little detail to himself – at least until after take-off. And take off he did.
Readers were astonished and amused – and some bemused – by a hilarious wise-cracking correspondent with a unique style. If there had been a rule book he would have torn it up. For over ten years Martin, who has died aged 71, kept a gimlet eye on the soap opera that is the England team and, in the days when this still meant something, he was a reason why people bought and stayed with the paper
Martin had been the cricket and rugby correspondent for the Leicester Mercury when I came across him a few years earlier. As a Guardian sports reporter I would be sent occasionally to report from Grace Road, so reading the local paper was a must. That wasn’t just the case for an outsider: it was not uncommon at the end of play to see a Leicestershire player, the latest to have felt the witty sting of Martin’s pen, stride across from the pavilion brandishing the Mercury. Martin would welcome him in and within minutes would have his arm around his victim and off they would go for a drink.
We seldom saw him in the office – the usual reason was to deliver his expenses which were always late and brief. The first set from that Australian jaunt said something like ‘to three months breakfasts, lunches and dinner and sundries’
The original plan was to get Martin to do rugby, where he would have been equally good, but then we had a piece of luck. Simon Kelner, my colleague on the sports desk who went on to edit the paper for many years, persuaded Geoffrey Nicholson to defect from The Observer to cover rugby and so we persuaded Martin to shift to the summer game. Meanwhile Andreas had been assuaged by the hiring of Henry Blofeld as an extra voice for Test matches .
And so the tour circus began. Martin wrote what he wanted and was merciless in his put-downs – and fearless with it. To be funny day after day is one of the hardest tasks in journalism but Martin pulled it off. He was perhaps at his best when England were doing badly.
We seldom saw him in the office which was not surprising – the usual reason was to deliver his expenses which were always late and brief. The first set from that Australian jaunt just said something like ‘to three months breakfasts, lunches and dinner and sundries’. That hid a lot of partying and fun with his fellow scribes.
There were some serious moments when we had to calm him down when months abroad got to him, notably on tours of Pakistan which were always difficult – and not helped by the lack of proper drinks. Water or Pepsi did not count for Martin.
It was also in Pakistan that we had our most serious moment on the pitch. In the winter of 1987 Gatting, the England captain, took the team off the pitch after an eyeball confrontation with the umpire Shakoor Rana, causing a diplomatic rift between the two countries. The umpire had accused Gatting of being a cheat. In fact Martin had found out that the umpire had said: “Gatting, you are a f***ing cheating c***.”
To explain the England captain’s actions, the words were important. I asked Martin to file his report using the exact words and after a meeting with the editor and deputy, we decided to use them in full. We were the only paper to do so.
Gatting had to apologise to Rana in the end and we were taken to the Press Complaints Commission by Kelvin McKenzie, then editor of The Sun – for fun, I think. The complaint proceeded to be thrown out.
Later he used to come to my house, emerging for dinner out of a taxi, always a can in hand, and we would have a long, liquid dinner and I would get him another pay rise
Martin’s star continued to rise and, inevitably, others came courting. The Telegraph’s David Welch had known Martin since their days on the Mercury together and I think was peeved that The Independent had got him.
A ritual emerged whereby Martin would ring to say he was coming to see me for a chat. The first time we went for a long lunch and I arranged a pay rise. Later he used to come to my house, emerging for dinner out of a taxi, always a can in hand, and we would have a long, liquid dinner and I would get him another pay rise. My wife was forewarned and forearmed. The children took pleasure in acting as his alarm clock the next morning by jumping on his bed.
To make the evening less of a stand-off I once did a pre-sup with Andreas. We could not allow our star to leave, he was worth every penny etc. We agreed a five figure increase. Martin emerged from his taxi, I told him the figure, he said ok and we had a lovely evening.
In the end The Telegraph came calling one too many times. Welch had got his man and he went on to be brilliant for them in their ground-breaking sports supplement.
But eventually, this extraordinary man who had time for everyone and was as good company off the page as on, didn’t really want to write more and more, as others wanted. He told me: “I don’t think anyone realised that all I really wanted to do was play golf.”
I hope that now, relieved of the pain of his illness, he’s enjoying a large one at the 19th.