Bournemouth taxed off the field more than on it

Concerned by the plight of his local football club, NORMAN GILLER wonders whether a former colleague who began his career nearby might have been able to assist

If I were sports editor — or even politics or economics editor — of a national newspaper, I would send an investigative reporter to the south coast to unravel why all but one of the football clubs down here are mirroring the financial state of the country.

It’s as if a tsunami has hit the football south coast, sweeping from west to east with Plymouth, Bournemouth, Southampton, Portsmouth and Brighton all drowning in a sea of crushing debts and — in Pompey’s case — crashing defeats.

The one club with its head just above the water is Torquay United, recently returned to the Football League with scars to show for their “penny wise pound foolish” scrimping and scraping attitude.

Yet just down the road from where I live in dozy, delightful Dorset there is an unlikely rainbow of hope over Dean Court that far outshone this week’s generally uninspiring Liberal Party Conference in Bournemouth. AFC Bournemouth have long been like the Liberals of the Football League, making themselves felt occasionally but never likely to be in power.

In something close to a minor miracle, 31-year-old Eddie Howe — the youngest manager in the League — has guided the Cherries to the top of the Second Division.

That’s the good news. The distressing news is that they are playing in the shadow of the gallows, with a winding-up petition due to be considered on October 5 by — all bow the knee — HM Revenue and Customs.

This all brings to mind one of the finest sportswriters of any generation, Ian Wooldridge, who went on to international fame from his apprenticeship writing days down in Bournemouth, when it was sitting in Hampshire rather than Dorset.

I wonder how Ian would have written about his beloved Bournemouth as they continue their long-running battle for existence? For sure, the debt collectors trying to bring the club to its knees would have been allowed no mercy.

Oh, how I wish I had his vocabulary and mastery of phrases to make a case for Bournemouth to be spared the taxman’s axe.

I sat alongside Ian in many press boxes, reaching for my penny-farthing words while he was showering golden guineas down the phone to the copytaker.

He was creating a stunning word picture of what we were both seeing and reporting, while in comparison I was reduced to painting by numbers. How about this: I was once sat between Ian Wooldridge and Hugh McIllvanney in the press box at Wembley. Best sporting metaphor I can come up with is that it was like playing a three-ball with Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.

They were joint winners of the SJA Sports Writer of the Year award when it was first presented in 1976, and I find it impossible to choose between the two of them as to which has been the finest sports scribe of my lifetime.

I just know I was privileged to write in their shadow, and I am proud to have had them as colleagues.

Something young aspiring sportswriters can learn from both Ian and Hugh is their attention to detail. There will be a gallery of reporters from my day who will confirm that each of them polished and juggled their words with such care and dedication that they were nearly always last to file.

Desmond “Man in the Brown Bowler” Hackett, my Daily Express team mate for nine years, told me the tale of when Ian was new to the No1 reporting role for the old, much-loved and lamented News Chronicle before it was swallowed up by the Mail in 1960.

“We were reporting live from behind what was then the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia. It was in the days when a phone call from your office was more luck than certainty. Ian got his call during the match and told them, ‘I’m not ready … ring me back’.

“The return call never came and I told him, ‘When that phone rings dictate anything, even if it’s the Lord’s Prayer’. It’s a cardinal sin not to file something.”

Woollers continued to be studious in sculpting his words for the rest of his career, but never again made the mistake of not putting over copy in some shape or form.

Much to the embarrassment of self-deprecating Ian, I never used to hide the fact that he was a hero of mine. When I was on the local Stratford Express with my old mate Harry Miller (late of the Mirror and Mail), we used to pin up his News Chronicle reports on our notice board to inspire us.

One sticks in the memory, and it was probably the simplest intro Ian ever wrote. Harry was a fanatical supporter of Southport Football Club (perhaps that should read “the” rather than “a”). One day, we stood on the terraces at Millwall’s dirty old Den to see them take on the Lions in a 1958 midweek match. The game was decided by a brilliantly struck goal from Millwall’s South African centre-forward, Alf Ackerman.

On the train journey back to the East End, Harry and I tried to imagine how we would have described the goal, and competed against each other with a procession of purple phrases.

In the News Chronicle the next day, Woollers reported: “Alf Ackerman scored quite a goal down at The Den last night.” Harry and I both knew from that moment on we would never be in the Wooldridge class.

I treasure a letter Ian handwrote to me the week before he died in 2007. He enclosed a donation for my late wife Eileen’s memorial fund and signed off with the poignant sentence: “Thank you for a lifetime of friendship.”

Of the current Bournemouth crisis, he would probably write something like: “AFC Bournemouth face being kicked into touch by the taxman. Now that is a tackle that should be outlawed.”

But who am I to try to imitate The Master? There was only one Ian Wooldridge.

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

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