Beckham in London? But no joy in Belgrade

NORMAN GILLER was on the phone this morning, booking his tickets to see the British football team at the London Olympics, and it reminded him of another important call nearly 40 years ago

In the week of the contentious announcement that a Team GB will compete in next year’s Olympic football tournament, I have a quiz question for you: Who was the sportswriter who captained Britain’s football team in the 1936 Berlin Games?

David Beckham wants to play at London 2012, but would be one of only three "over-age" players allowed in the mens squad

The answer, Bernard Joy, who will forever be in the record books as the last amateur capped by England (a 3-2 defeat by Belgium in 1936). A dedicated Corinthian, he played for the Casuals while winning 10 England amateur international caps as a towering, tactically aware centre-half.

Bernard was the hugely respected football correspondent of the Evening Standard, and a treasured press box colleague throughout my Fleet Street reporting career. He used to slowly and patiently handwrite his copy, as if marking homework in his schoolmaster days before the war when he combined playing football for Arsenal with teaching.

He was an intelligence officer in the war, and during visits to his home to get hammered by him on his tennis court, Bernard used to hold me enraptured with tales of how Britain out-thought as well as outfought the Nazis. Goodness knows what he would have made of an ex-KGB man – Alexander Lebedev – owning the Standard and giving it away free. It would have been MI6 meets Smersh.

And I wonder what Bernard ­– who died in 1984, aged 72 – would have written about the internal war over the British Olympic Association decision to commit Britain to entering a united team in the men’s and women’s competitions next year.

The Scottish, Northern Ireland and Welsh FAs view this as being dragged into the FIFA noose, and that the move will strengthen Septic Bladder’s inevitable case for having the four home countries competing in all international football under the one Union Jack flag, with England dominating.

I have read some poorly informed articles by football writers not doing their homework. One predicted a team for the 2012 Olympics including David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Irish veteran David Healey. A maximum of three of the 18-man squad can be over 23, which means all but three players must be born after January 1, 1989.

The Celtic FAs are warning their players not to accept an invitation to play for Team GB as they jealously hang on to their independence, which seems to me unfair and undemocratic – particulary for their women footballers, who have a rare chance to compete on a world stage.

London Welshmen Gareth Bale (Tottenham) and Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal) have both stated how much they would like the chance to play in the Olympics, but each of them is now under pressure from the FA of Wales to snub the BOA.

I think they – and their Premier League clubs, because the Olympics start in the last week of July next year – should allow their players to take part, strongly making the case that the Olympics are unique and should be above FIFA politics, which stink at the best of times.

FIFA’s Bladder has stressed that the autonomy of the four home nations will not be compromised by their unified, “one off” Olympic participation. We can, of course, trust the word of FIFA. And if there is anybody who believes that, please contact me. I want to show you a London Bridge, which you might be interested in buying.

All of this would have been considered appalling and unacceptable by true Olympian Joy, who led Britain to the quarter-finals of the Berlin tournament before going down 5-4 in an amazing match with Poland. Britain were 5-1 down when Joy switched from defence to attack and scored two goals in two minutes to inspire a stirring comeback. “We had the Poles in a panic,” Bernard recalled, “but ran out of time.”

The 1936 Great Britain Olympic football team ready for a game in Berlin. Bernard Joy is second from left on the back row

The British squad featured four Scots, Belfast Celtic defender, Robert Fulton, and 10 Englishmen, several serving with the RAF and Royal Navy or still at university, including Maurice Edelstone who followed Bernard into the media world and later became a leading voice of the BBC television commentary team.

To reveal just how amateur it all was in those days, Bernard showed me the British Olympic Association letter inviting him to take part. There was a handwritten PS: “As we are out of season, please try to get in some fitness training at least a month before departure.”

This all gives me the excuse to revisit one of my favourite Fleet Street anecdotes, in which Bernard is the central figure. Fast forward to the summer of 1974, and the day that Kevin Keegan was beaten up by airport guards in Belgrade. This was during the England tour under the caretaker management of “Uncle” Joe Mercer. Bernard, with open mouth, witnessed the whole incident and thought he had the scoop of the season.

There were only daily newspapermen on the spot with Bernard at the airport, where three armed policemen laid into Keegan as if he was a drug runner. He and his Liverpool teammate Alec Lindsay had been skylarking by the luggage conveyor belt, and the guards reacted by frog-marching Keegan off to a side-room, beating him up as they forced him to kneel in front of them.

The incident happened right in front of a disbelieving Joy and affable provincial newspapers reporter Bob “Bomber” Harris (later sports editor of the Daily and Sunday Mirror). While Bob alerted tour manager Mercer to what was happening, Bernard dashed to the nearest telephone. The true amateur had become the cold-eyed professional newshound.

As it was early afternoon, he knew he had time to catch the late editions of the Standard (they still did such things in those days) with what was a certain front-page splash. He booked a call to his Shoe Lane office, and while waiting for his connection got first-person quotes from Mercer and even from Keegan, talking through swollen lips and nursing a black eye and cuts (“I don’t love it, love it” perhaps?).

When the call finally came through, the switchboard operator on the Standard said in a pleasant tone: “Good afternoon, Mr Joy. What’s the weather like? It’s a beautiful sunny day here.”

Bernard snapped: “I’ve got no time to discuss the weather. Put me over to the copy-taker immediately. I’ve got a major story.”

There was silence at the other end of the line that could be measured in fathoms. “Uh, but Mr Joy,” the operator said. “Don’t you realise it’s Sunday? There is no paper today.”

Suddenly, there was no joy in Belgrade. It was the greatest scoop Bernard never had.

Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here


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