Looking back somewhere over the rainbow

NORMAN GILLER, once dubbed the “Original Ghostwriter of Fleet Street”, ventures into the blogosphere to look back to a sports writing era long before direct-entry pages, to copytakers and typesetters, Geoffrey Green and Bobby Moore

Here I am, an old sports hack from the hot metal days, stumbling blindly into the world of blogs – and I want you to come with me. Instead of me droning on and drowning in my own self-indulgent words I am calling on all old sports hacks to play the memory game with me.

Let’s build an SJA archive of stories about the wonderful days of Fleet Street that are now sadly consigned to the dustbin of history. Tell today’s generation of sporting journos – tied to their computers, mobile phones and trapped in the great World Wide Web that is threatening to engulf the print profession – what they missed.

When I was earning my daily bread as a football reporter with the Daily Express in the 1960s and into the ’70s, Fleet Street rumbled and thundered with the sound of huge presses and had a pungent smell of print that inspired the nickname Street of Ink. Today it is an overflow of the City’s financial district and has the stench of money and greed; now more the Street of Chink. I much preferred the days of headlines and deadlines.

This column is aimed at those battle-scarred sportswriters, sub-editors and photographers who recall when we dictated to copytakers and hammered out our words on typewriters, drank in smoke-filled Fleet Street watering holes and, when reporting from abroad, were free of any tracking down once our stories had been told in those gloriously frustrating pre-STD days. It was two typing fingers to the office as soon as the copy was filed.

As reporters on my old beat of the Express prepare to submit (with trepidation, I’m sure) their copy direct into the page it is worth recalling that to get a match report into the newspaper “in my day” took a relay of at least nine people.

Okay, you are sitting alongside me at Upton Park. West Ham home to Manchester United, circa 1966. Geoff, Bobby and Martin playing for the Hammers. Denis, Bobby and Georgie boy on parade for United.

I start my running report 10 minutes after the kick-off at 7.30. On the other end of the line, Ted Lee the copytaker asks: “Who’s this?”

“Norman Giller at Upton Park,” I yell above the roar of the crowd.


“Giller … it’s Norman Giller.”

“You staff?”

“Stop pissing about, Ted, and take this down … it’s for the nine o’clock first edition.”

My ad-libbed running report would be taken in short bursts by a copy “boy” (often a veteran Cockney geezer) from Ted’s noiseless Remington typewriter to the chief sub (Don Woodward). He would skip read it before handing it down table to a sub (possibly Tom Clarke, later Sports Editor of The Times, Sporting Life, Daily Mail and Evening Standard).

Tom would polish the words to make me seem a writer worth reading, add the print sizes and widths for each paragraph, and then hand it on to a second copy “boy”.

He would place it in a brown, Bakelite canister and send it whooshing through an air-pressure pipe to the print desk on the floor below our open-plan third floor editorial office in the Black Lubianka building that was designed in the 1930s as a joyous anthem to art deco.

The printer would put type codes on each page and then share the folios out among two or three linotype operators. They would retype what I had written so that they came out as slugs of lead, which would be transferred to the composing room and fitted into the page, following a blue-pencilled layout from Don Woodward.

There would be four chunks of running copy prepared in this way, then a hurried intro at the final whistle.

Twenty minutes later I would be giving a considered report for the 10.10pm edition, adding quotes (or Nannies, as they were famously dubbed by Peter “The Poet” Batt … Nanny Goats for non-Cockneys).

Now reports are going to go straight into the paper. The mind of this Old Git boggleth over.

Before all memories of that bygone era are lost, I’d like you to join me with your recollections and anecdotes. There is no money in the pot for anybody, including me. This is a labour of love in an effort to get some off-beat Fleet Street sports history into the archives for future generations. Write to me – inevitably using a computer – by email to

I want to hear, for example, from my old scriptwriting partner Peter Corrigan with the true facts of the Six Day War story …

Sydney Hulls, please come up with some tales about the legendary Des “The Man in the Brown Bowler” Hackett …

Kenny Jones, I am relying on you for reflections on your Mirror days …

Pat Collins, please get in touch with tales about your lovely Dad, an excellent football reporter who encouraged you to take up the quill with such astonishing success.

Colin Hart, I will allow you to tell the story of how we first met in a courtroom in the East End, gulp, 51 years ago.

Neil Allen, what about those magical miles you have witnessed from Bannister’s historic 3 minutes 59.4 seconds to the bejewelled duels between Coe and Ovett? There have got to be some rare, behind-the-scenes pictures you can paint for SJA members.

Jimmy Mossop, you have a fund of stories about the likes of your former Sunday Express stablemates Alan Hoby and Denis Compton.

I could go on and on naming warmly remembered Press Box colleagues. I am looking for stories from all points of the sports journalism compass, not just football.

One of my favourite anecdotes is about the unique Geoffrey Green, late, much-mourned “Association Football Correspondent” for The Times.

When Bobby Moore arrived in Mexico to rejoin the England squad for the 1970 World Cup finals after his four days under arrest in Colombia on a trumped-up jewel theft charge, I was among a posse of press reporters and photographers gathered on the tarmac of Mexico City airport to meet him (can you imagine the press being allowed on the tarmac today?).

Prominent among us was the elegant, Peter O’Toole lookalike Green, arguably the greatest football writer of any time.

Geoffrey had a habit of using lines from songs when he talked, and he always greeted people with such phrases as “Younger than Springtime, baby …”, delivered in a cut-glass Oxbridge accent. He was using the phrase “I’m over the Moon” long before it became the cliché crutch of tongue-tied footballers.

As Bobby Moore stepped out from the plane into the dazzling light of scores of flashbulbs, he spotted the tall, willowy figure of Geoffrey among the hordes at the bottom of the steps. He punched the air and shouted, “Over the rainbow, baby …” Foreign reporters, anxious to record Bobby’s first words on his return to freedom, scratched their heads as they tried to decipher what the England captain had said.

They don’t make them like Geoffrey or Mooro anymore.

A quick explanation about the name of this column: The Original Ghostwriter of Fleet Street was a nickname given to me by Daily Express cartoonist Roy Ullyett when I ghosted a series of articles for Moore in 1966.

I used to weigh nine-stone wet through, and Roy reckoned I could hide behind Bobby and work him with my foot without being seen. He drew the caricature of me to emphasise his point.

When he was 82, I ghosted Roy’s autobiography, While There’s Still Lead in My Pencil. He revealed: “When I joined the Express in 1953, Lord Beaverbrook told me, ‘You won’t become a millionaire working for me, but you will live like one’.”

Ah, those were the days my friends.

Please, anybody and everybody, share your Fleet Street sports days anecdotes with us … for posterity, not prosperity.

Read more from the SJA’s online archive

Ted Corbett on a previous terror-threatened cricket tour to India
John Samuel on handling the changeover from stone to Atex
David Hunn on the beginnings of the Sports Writers’ Association
When Swan Vesta provided an Olympic flame – John Rodda on the last London Games
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