B-B-Bulgaria and the Insignificant Seven

Forty years ago, in an age before mobile phones when “recycling” meant using a rag and bone man, sports reporters abroad often struggled with stuttering phone lines, as the not-insignificant NORMAN GILLER recalls

Here comes a paradox – sadly, the present conflict involving Israel and the Hamas militants triggers a memory of one of the funniest episodes in my sports reporting career.

We have to go back to the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 for the facts, which I have since seen borrowed to dress up invented anecdotes. This is the true, original story.

The England under-23 summer tour that year coincided with the Six-Day War, and at the height of hostilities the squad was briefly stranded in Bulgaria. There were16 players, six doddery members of the FA blazered brigade, trainer Wilf McGuinness, manager Bill Nicholson and seven of Fleet Street’s finest football writers. I would say that, I was one of them.

The central character in the story is Peter Corrigan, he of the Independent on Sunday and former sports editor of the Observer and certainly one of the superlative journalists of my generation. At that time Peter was reporting for the broadsheet Sun before it morphed into the soaraway tabloid toy of Murdoch.

As the war reached its peak, it suddenly became impossible to make telephone or telex contact with our London offices. I was earning my daily bread at the time with the Express, and along with my colleagues I sat fretting and frustrated in the team’s hotel headquarters in Sofia as the edition deadlines for our copy approached and disappeared into the distance.

In those non-STD days you had to order your telephone calls through the hotel switchboard, and we were informed that all lines were down. You have to remember the mood at the time. There was wild rumour of Russia getting involved and nuclear weapons being used as Israeli tanks and jet fighters destroyed the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. We agreed among us that if anybody should be lucky enough to get through we would put over a shared story that could be distributed at the London end.

After two days of total silence, it was Peter who suddenly got the desperately awaited call and found himself being put through to the Sun sports desk from the lobby of the hotel.

It was an appalling line and he was reduced to screaming “Peter Corrigan” into the mouthpiece in a bid to make himself heard at the other end.

The rest of us were gathered around him, willing him to keep the precious line open. We couldn’t believe it when he suddenly threw down the receiver without having dictated a word.

On the other end of the line had been a veteran sub-editor with a pronounced stutter. Peter, tearing out what little hair he had left, looked at us wild-eyed and said: “I’ve just been told that P-P-Peter C-C-Corrigan is in B-B-Bulgaria, and then he put the phone down and cut me off …”

It was around about then that the Daily Mail’s exceptional chief football writer Brian James was overheard making the dismissive remark: “The No2 football reporters these days are such an insignificant lot.” Instead of getting angry, we No2s were highly amused, and at an impromptu meeting agreed to form a club called The Insignificant Seven. We took it very seriously and had a special tie manufactured by Spurs maestro Dave Mackay (his sideline: he had the sports market tied up).

Brian James was installed as President, and we had plans for golf days and liquid-propelled jaunts. The Insignificant Seven founder members were Peter Corrigan (Sun, later Mail), Steve Richards (Sun), Harry Miller (Mirror), Brian Scovell (Sketch, later Mail), Bryon Butler (Telegraph), Peter Blackman (Evening Standard) and – most insignificantly – me.

Sadly, our little club fell apart because too many insignificants proved themselves somewhat magnificent in the pursuit of the written word. To this day I have been threatening our dishonourable treasurer Peter Corrigan with legal action, because when the club folded there was to my certain knowledge 7/6 still in the kitty. Time for a share out, Pete.

One last Corrigan tale. We both harboured ambitions to become comedy scriptwriters, and we got ourselves a top agent in Ted (Voice of Them All) Kavanagh. This was circa 1966, when one or two things were happening on the football front as something of a distraction.

There was also a comedy series on ITV at the time called Mr Aitch, starring Harry H Corbett in the lead role this time not as a rag and bone man in Steptoe and Son, but as a Cockney spiv (it always amused me how a Wythenshawe, Manchester boy could be passed off as a Cockney).

It was the first sit-com produced by an independent company, and was brilliantly scripted by the masters Galton and Simpson (both football daft, incidentally). The independent company, run by a Mr Aitch-type character called Johnny Arrow, hit funding trouble and could no longer afford the great G&S team.

Arrow was pointed in our direction, and he said he wanted one full script and seven synopses for the rest of the series before the end of the week. He told us this as we sat swanking in the back of his Rolls Royce, feeling like the next Galton and Simpson but more like Bart and Homer Simpson. We were suitably seduced.

Peter and I were each paid 50 quid up front and spent the next day in Harry H. Corbett’s bedroom. His latest lady sat in bed alongside him while we ran through a shaft of ideas.

By the end of an exhausting week we had a full 30-minute script written about Mr Aitch running London’s buskers as if he was Lew Grade; there were also seven outlines for the rest of the episodes.

We took the scripts to Johnny Arrow’s office only to find it locked. The production company had gone bust and Mr Arrow disappeared from our lives.

As with all good comedy, there is a punchline. A month or so later Clive Toye resigned as chief football reporter on the Express to become a soccer pioneer in the United States. I was promoted to his role and my pal Peter Corrigan was interviewed for the job that I vacated and which was later filled by Steve Curry.

Years later I asked sports editor John Morgan why he had not given Peter Corrigan the job. He drew heavily on his Mr Aitch-style cigar, and said: “Clive Toye tipped me off that if I appointed Corrigan to work with you, all you would be interested in was writing comedy scripts …”

To read previous columns by Norman Giller, click here

More sports journalism links

Your SJA subscription was due from JANUARY 1 – click here for details of how to make your payment