Gubba, Gigi and the Great Hoax of Trondheim

It’s confession time for NORMAN GILLER, the instigator of a hoax that helped cost commentating all-rounder Tony Gubba his hair

It is too good a story not to tell from a ringside seat, and it becomes topical because of Tony Gubba’s brilliant performances as the disembodied summarising voice on ITV’s Dancing On Ice. Like it or not, as we’ll see next month with the Vancouver Winter Olympics, it just about passes for sport and it has a huge following.

We have to go back to the football season of 1969-70. Tony had just arrived at Southern TV from a reporting job on the Daily Mirror, this in the days when Frank McGhee was the sports columnist and Ken Jones the well-informed and authoritative chief football reporter.

Unions had a grip on Fleet Street and television companies then, so when Tony was assigned to travel with Southampton for their Fairs Cup tie against Rosenborg in Trondheim, he had to be accompanied by a cameraman, a sound technician and an electrician. No “one-man crews” 40 years ago. A gang of four for, at best, five minutes of local TV time.

Desperate to impress his new employers, Gubba irritated the life out of everybody on board the charter plane by interviewing all with Southampton connections. This meant his camera crew had to keep interrupting their card school to shuffle down the aisle for filming that would never see the light of day.

The camera would have been better trained on the drinking school behind the card school, where two senior Southampton players were polishing off their duty-free bottles of brandy while manager Ted Bates and his training staff were too busy answering Gubba’s questions to notice.

In the hotel in Trondheim, Tony told me that he had known Ken Jones in his days on the Mirror. At just about that moment, Ken walked past us without a hint of recognition. It was at that moment that a mischievous prank was born.

I allowed Tony to overhear me telephoning an exclusive to the Daily Express in which I revealed a concocted story that top Italian football agent Gigi Peronace was in Trondheim, ready to set up a deal for Southampton centre-forward Ron Davies to move to Milan. Gubba was not to know that I was dictating into a dead receiver.

His news instincts were aroused and he pestered me into giving him the background to the story. Being a generous guy, I offered to set him up with an interview with “my old amico” Gigi.

The camera crew were in on the joke, and duly set up their equipment in a side room at the hotel. Eventually, Gigi arrived, wearing a pair of sunglasses, his overcoat slung casually, Italian-style, over his shoulders. It was Ken Jones.

He gave an Oscar-deserving performance, speaking English with a totally believable Italian accent. Tony conducted the interview on camera, while those of us knowing the facts tried hard to keep from laughing out loud.

Gigi… sorry Ken, had just finished giving a glowing tribute to the talent of Davies when a hotel messenger boy called out: “Urgent telephone call for Signor Ken Jones …”

Ken, still in character as Gigi, cut the interview short and took the call in a nearby booth. It was the Mirror sports desk telling him that Tony Gubba had telephoned to tip them off that Gigi Peronace was in Trondheim on the trail of Ron Davies. For once in his life, Jones the Scribe was speechless.

To his great credit, Tony took it on the chin and laughed along with the rest of us when the full facts were revealed. Meantime, we had all missed a real story. The two senior Southampton players, both internationals, had continued drinking when they got to the hotel and to such an extent that they could not train the next morning. Both were “rested” because of what Ted Bates described as niggling injuries.

Tony has gone on to an incredible career in television. He is TV’s man for all seasons. Who else can you name has covered ice skating, hockey, table tennis, bobsleigh, ski jumping, speed skating, cycling, swimming, rowing, judo, golf, lawn tennis, squash and darts, as well as having performed soundly as stand-in anchorman for Grandstand, Sportsnight and Match of the Day? He is also a professional-standard singer, an acknowledged expert on salmon fishing and an in-demand after-dinner speaker. Wonder if he will ever tell this anecdote?

I raise my old hack’s hat to you, Tony, and all these years later apologise for my part in the Great Trondheim Hoax. And I can vouch for the fact that you had a lovely head of ginger hair.

□ Quick change of subject: Knees must have knocked at Wapping this week with the report from Long Island newspaper Newsday on their subscription sales since hiding their major columnists and features behind a paywall three months ago.

How many subscriptions do you think they have sold at $5 a week, or $260 a year? This for a website that has an average of around 2 million hits a month?

Go on, have a guess. Think of something silly.

The answer: 35. I will spell it out for you: thirty-five. It’s difficult to take it in at first or second reading. Yes, I did type 35.

I logged on to the Newsday website to take a look, and what I found was a real mess. You need a SatNav to get around the website – and this a site that was recently redesigned at a cost of a cool £2 million. No wonder they have had so few take-ups.

But the Newsday paywall project is being monitored around the globe because it is one of the first non-specialist or business websites to go down the subscription road soon to be travelled by all Rupert Murdoch’s online papers.

I stick to my belief that they are making a whopping mistake at Wapping, but I hope I am proved wrong. And that’s not a hoax.

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

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