Eric Burley, a former chairman of the Association and a committee member for 23 years, has died, aged 87, in tragic circumstances.
For 40 years from 1943, Burley was Agence France-Presse’s British sports and motoring correspondent based in London. Bilingual – Burley’s mother was French – it meant that when he retired in 1983, AFP needed to replace him with two reporters – one for its English language service, another for its French.
After a career that included covering five Olympic Games and three football World Cups, Burley spent his retirement living in Ewhurst, Surrey.
But on November 30, he went missing after attending an appointment at the Royal Surrey Hospital in Guildford. In the midst of the worst winter weather for many years, Burley failed to return home and it was not until last Saturday that his body was discovered, just a mile from his house.
The SJA sends its deepest condolences to Eric’s widow, Margaret, daughter, Julie, and their family.
Burley’s journalistic career saw him cover some of the greatest historic moments in sport, including Roger Bannister’s first sub-four-minute mile in Oxford in 1954, while he served as the chairman of what was then the Sports Writers’ Association in 1963.
As well as World Cups and Olympics, Burley also covered five Commonwealth Games, three Asian Games and 38 Wimbledon tennis championships.
Burley’s daughter, Julia, today told AFP that her father was not above using his then pregnant wife to nab a public phone box at Oxford’s Iffley Road track so that he might speedily file his copy on Bannister’s historic mile run.
“My father was such a journalist that he sent my mother, who was pregnant with me at the time, on to bag a telephone box so he could be certain he had somewhere from which to file his report because he’d seen from his stopwatch that Bannister was going to break the record,” she said.
During his time on the committee, in an unbroken period of service from 1955 to 1977, Burley was instrumental in two significant developments of the Association.
As David Hunn’s history of the SWA records, “Eric was largely responsible for opening awards dinner to women.”
In 1963, when chairman of the SWA, Burley was also involved in the founding of the Bill McGowran Trophy, recognising the achievements of athletes with disabilities. Awarded last week to archer Danielle Brown, the Bill McGowran Trophy is believed to be the oldest of its kind.
Burley was also a life member of the Rugby Union Writers’ Club.
One of Burley’s contemporaries in the press boxes of the 1960s and 1970s, Norman Giller, said, “I came into Fleet Street at the back end of Eric’s career when he was still AFP’s Mr Omniscient.
“He was a legend in the business for his energy and output, and his ability to talk fluently in two languages put him in the Glanville class for being (1) envied, and (2) useful to have at your side at press conferences.
“Very few could match Eric’s experience and all-round knowledge; a true master of all he surveyed. He was a credit to his profession.”
A service for the life of Eric Burley will be held at Ewhurst Parish Church from Noon on Thursday, December 23, followed by a private burial.
Julian Guyer, one of the three full-time sports reporters now based in the AFP London office, writes: “I last saw Eric when he was a guest of ours at the Rugby Writers’ Club dinner a couple of years ago, where he held court on with equal charm, grace and fluency in both English and French.
“I had been planning to invite him again when his daughter called the office to give us the sad news of his passing.
“Eric had, by any standards, a remarkable career. Whenever I believe I am having a tough day, I think of how Eric kept going without all the benefits of modern technology but with all the demands placed upon an agency reporter, in both English and French, for so long. He really was something.”