“Many happy returns to a newspaper, Jim”

NORMAN GILLER believes that his old byline partner James Lawton deserves a much bigger audience than can be offered at The Independent, and thinks back to his time trying to report on a non-event

James Lawton: birthday wishes
James Lawton: birthday wishes

Congratulations to my old teammate James Lawton on being set free by The Independent. He reaches his three score years and 10 on Sunday and this is no time for him to have his great talent virtually hidden from the world.

The Indy circulation is coming down quicker than a royal baby’s nappy. It has now fallen to below 74,000 a day. Adding the giveaway Standard in London to the readership of his work was a small relief.

James deserves a far greater audience for his words of wisdom and perspicacity, and there will be a queue of discerning sports editors prepared to give him a freelance platform for his beautifully hewn views.

How The Independent think they can stop their rot by turfing out their peerless voice of sport is the sort of logic found at the Mad Hatter’s Teaparty. If he can be considered expendable, what hope for those who write in his shadow?

There was what I used to call “the Holy Trinity of Welsh sportswriters”: Ken Jones and Peter Corrigan from the south and the untouchable Lawton from Flintshire in the north. I worked the same patch back in the 1960s and into the 1970s, and I always felt privileged to share a press box with them.

"I've had more illustrious company in joint bylines," Jim Lawton has never said
“I’ve had more illustrious company in joint bylines,” Jim Lawton has never said

James and I cut our teeth together on the Express and from his earliest ghost writing for Malcolm Allison I knew here was a precious talent too good to be locked away in the Manchester office. Modest Malcolm once told me: “James makes me come across as the genius that I am.”

Lawton was soon shipped down to London and became one of Fleet Street’s finest and most incisive writers. We often worked together on stories (I have dipped into my scrapbook to prove it), and after I dived into the freelance pool he went off to the Vancouver Sun for seven years, where they still look on him as one of their best ever sportswriter imports.

Since returning to the home front he has picked up just about every major sportswriting award on offer, and the fact that he will join me as a septuagenarian at the weekend does not mean he has suddenly lost his unique gifts.

Old Fleet Street writers never die, they just get deleted.

My advice to James is he now finds the time to write that novel we often used to talk about back in the day when we dreamt of being the next Hemingway or Steinbeck. I have tried and failed miserably, but Lawton has the phrases and the proficiency to pull it off.

I am sure he is going to enjoy his independence. Happy 70th, James.

I KNOW THE ROYAL BABY is hardly sports news, but there cannot be a journalist among us who has not felt compassion for the media brigade covering the “Birth of the Century”.

I have watched with a mixture of amusement and sympathy as the scores of reporters on duty outside the maternity hospital have tried to fill time and space with only gossip and conjecture to go on.

The BBC’s charismatic newsreader Simon McCoy could put together an hour-long clip of his vigil that would make a great comedy doco, including many interviews with colleagues who knew as much (or as little) as he did. At one point, he told viewers: “Plenty more to come from here of course, none of it news. But that won’t stop us … see you later.”

It takes me back to a classic case of trying to make something out of nothing during the Big Freeze of 1962-1963. Football reporters of a certain age will remember the daftest assignment we ever had. The call each of us got from our sports desks: “Get down to the Connaught Rooms. They’re about to announce the football results.”

This was the launch of the Pools Panel, and its first day of full operation on Saturday, January 26, 1963 was the nearest I ever knew to reporting an episode of The Goon Show.

The panel – dreamed up by the bankruptcy-fearing Pools companies – was chaired by flamboyant Tory MP Gerald Nabarro, with former footballers George Young, Ted Drake, Tommy Lawton and referee Arthur It’s A Knockout Ellis as the result-deciding experts.

Gerald Nabarro: language lessons
Gerald Nabarro: language lessons

The BBC’s Grandstand Saturday afternoon live sports programme was in those days brilliantly anchored by David Coleman. We pen-pushing reporters – particularly the deadline-chasing Sunday men – were more than somewhat put out when it was decided the results would first be relayed to the nation by television before we were told them.

While Coleman, struggling with his earpiece, was straining to hear the phantom results being read monotone to the London studio, there was pandemonium off camera.

One of our Sunday brethren, who had helped himself too liberally in the hospitality room, was laying into the Pools representatives because the demands of television had been put before the needs of newspapers (a battle we lost long ago). Nabarro, he of the huge handlebar moustache and ego the size of Big Ben, walked into earshot and was greeted with the question: “How the fuck could you say Port Vale would beat Northampton? You wouldn’t know a football if it hit you in the fucking face.”

Nabarro, not a man renowned for his sobriety, took a step back to reply: “Sir, you are drunk. Even if you were sober you would get the same response, ‘No comment’. And you can quote me on that.”

Just a few weeks later it was decided that perhaps Nabarro was not quite the man for the Pools Panel chairmanship when, live on Any Questions?, he let rip with an appalling racist diatribe that included the “N” word.

West Ham manager Ron Greenwood – a pioneer in bringing black footballers into our game – was moved to say: “Mr Nabarro should keep his racist comments to himself. If one of our MPs is using this sort of language, what chance of encouraging young black British footballers to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Pelé and Garrincha?”

The pools panel would have put it down as a home defeat for Nabarro.

And it would have given Simon McCoy something to talk about.

  • Visit for the book Bobby Moore The Master, all profits to Bobby Moore Fund for Cancer Research UK


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