The SJA’s immediate past chairman, DAVID WALKER, pays tribute to John Bean, the retired Manchester-based football writer who died on Friday.
In a media world of larger than life, irrepressible characters, John Bean was unique. A true one-off who served the Daily Express, Daily Mirror and Stoke Sentinel with distinction.
I had the privilege of working with him on the Manchester beat and with the Republic of Ireland during those halcyon days when Alex Ferguson had arrived at Old Trafford and Jack Charlton was leading the Irish to tournaments they’d never taken part in before.
Beano, as everyone knew him, was brilliant company. He did have his moments of intense eccentricity. Most revolved around him not possessing the greatest sense of direction but demanding that others followed the Bean instinct for getting to a destination somehow, if not by the easiest route.
Wherever we were in the world Beano would want to seek out a good restaurant, enjoy a glass or three of fine wine and then entertain us with his personal tales from the press box. Some from his early days on the Stoke Sentinel were both incredible and unrepeatable here! He was brilliant company. Unfailingly funny and invariably self-deprecating.
A little later in the evening, if he was in the mood, the guests might be treated to a Bean soft-shoe shuffle, which involved him climbing on the table, singing and dancing
That was after a few glasses of wine. A little later in the evening, if he was in the mood, the guests might be treated to a Bean soft-shoe shuffle. This involved him climbing onto the table, singing and going into a dance routine that wasn’t quite Lord of the Dance but might have been honed from watching some Staffordshire Morris dancers.
He could be in Sir Alex Ferguson’s room on a Manchester United trip or in a restaurant in Istanbul on the eve of an Ireland game. With the right preparation and encouragement, Beano would be up on the table, singing and dancing away.
I was working for the Daily Mail, sitting behind John at a Blackburn v Leeds game in the late nineties. Later, on his way home, John had his first heart attack. He was to tell us later that the medics said he did everything wrong. He felt so unwell on his way home to “deepest Staffs” that he’d pulled onto the hard shoulder of the M6.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been there but eventually drove home, climbed the stairs and went to bed. It was Ann, his wonderfully supportive wife, who insisted he had medical checks the next day.
That heart attack was to precipitate John’s early retirement. He didn’t want to go out with a fanfare but agreed to a small lunch with the other reporters who’d worked on the Manchester scene with/against him and we invited Sir Alex Ferguson to join us.
After a few glasses of wine Beano decided to regale his audience with tales of how Fergie had blown his top and banned him from Old Trafford on three occasions.
His impersonation of the mad Scotsman screaming down the phone was quite good. The exact words uttered had clearly left their mark.
Holding an imaginary phone to his ear he relived the words: “Bean, you’re finished. You’re banned. I never want to hear from youse again.”
Now, the other guests sensed he was entering dangerous territory here. How would the United boss take to having his famous bollockings revived in a Beano party-piece?
We nervously glanced at Fergie to see tears of laughter streaming down his face. That was the point with Beano. He could drive you mad but you loved him all the same.
Driving you mad is a particularly apt way to introduce covering the World Cup in Italy in 1990 when we were with the boys in green. Ireland reached the quarter-finals in Rome and the British press covering the team had three hire cars to travel into the media centre at the Olympic Stadium from our hotel.
On this particular day Beano teamed up with another fine man, now much lamented, Rob King. The journey should have taken 30 minutes. Perhaps with the traffic around
Rome it might have been an hour.
King appeared first, FOUR hours after setting off. Clearly flustered Rob declared: “Don’t ask. Just don’t ask where we’ve been. The man’s mad.”
‘When in Rome, follow the Tiber. You can’t go wrong’
Enter Beano, who had a perfectly good explanation. “Bloody Rob. I told him to follow the Tiber and we’d be all right but he kept taking different turns. When in Rome, follow the Tiber. You can’t go wrong.”
I’m sure everyone who worked with or enjoyed trips with Beano will have their own fund of stories. But I’d also like to stress that as well as being a warm, funny man he did break some big stories.
In 1992 Leeds would have gone out of the European Cup to Stuttgart but for Beano revealing that the Germans had fielded an ineligible player. He made the call to Leeds that led to UEFA enforcing a third, play-off game at the Nou Camp. A game Leeds won.
My final Beano anecdote involves a press conference with Fergie after Roy Keane had been sent off for stamping on Gareth Southgate in a FA Cup semi-final. As we waited for our audience with the United boss it was agreed to leave the Keane stamp until we had some other issues resolved and knowing he would likely use the stamping story as a reason to shut up and offer us nothing.
Everyone agreed? “Yes,” said Beano.
The hacks sat around Fergie’s desk and Bean pitched In with the first question. “Alex, matey, how can you defend the stamping by Roy Keane?”
‘I much prefer the hand grenade down the underpants approach’
There were gasps and moans from the media ensemble as Fergie turned red with rage but before he answered he challenged the rest of us: “What are you lot moaning about?”
We told him that before we’d come in we’d all agreed to park the stamping question until later, see if we could get other copy out of him and then mention Roy Keane. Fergie stared at John and said: “Is that right, Beano?”
The man from the Express confessed: “Yes, but I much prefer the hand grenade down the underpants approach!”
Fergie cracked up and immediately spoke about the Keane stamping episode and relaxed. So there you have a sense of the life and times of one of the friendliest, funniest, most charming sports journalists you could ever meet.
He served the Stoke Sentinel, Daily Mirror and Daily Express with joy and commitment. We will miss him.
PS The Bean family were touched that Sir Alex slipped quietly into church to attend John’s funeral on Friday, April 28.