Mirror man who had sports pages make big headlines

NORMAN GILLER pays tribute to Tony Smith, the former sports editor of the Sunday Mirror, with tributes from Ken Jones, Dave Ellis and Keith Fisher 

He stood just 5ft 5in tall and had to get on tiptoe to order his pints at the Stab in the Back, but former Sunday Mirror sports editor Tony Smith made a giant impact on the world of sports journalism. His death last week, aged 81, left everybody touched by his magnetic personality deeply saddened.

Tony Smith: big impact on sports journalism
Tony Smith: big impact on sports journalism

I knew the mighty Smith from way back when we used to share ringside seats at the major boxing shows. We were both Henry Cooper “groupies” and the last time we met was at Our ‘Enery’s funeral three years ago.

I sensed then that all was not right with the wonderful little man, and his widow Vilma – former People and Sunday Mirror sports department secretary – tells me that at the end he could not remember all his achievements as an outstanding old school journalist.

When I first met him he was making a name for himself as an energetic and enthusiastic sub-editor on the old Sunday Pictorial before it became the Sunday Mirror.

He was coaxed to go ‘oop north to the Manchester office, which was like emigrating for this Woolwich man with the Cockney twang and Charlton Athletic red blood.

He made a huge impact as northern sports editor, pioneering the pull-out sports sections that are now taken for granted. Then he came “home” to London to head a lively and imaginative team in High Holborn and then Canary Wharf.

Tony gave me lots of work and exposure as a freelance after I had tunnelled my way out of the Daily Express. “I’ll look after you, me old darling,” he’d say. “You must be effing mad jumping ship.”

He ran one of the happiest offices in Fleet Street, working in close harmony with his long-time faithful deputy Dave Ellis. They were the odd couple, tiny, extrovert Tony and willowy, thoughtful Dave, but they balanced each other perfectly and produced some fabulous pages in the hot metal days.

Ellis says: “Tony was one of the most charismatic characters you could ever wish to meet. He reigned in the exciting days when England won the World Cup, Henry Cooper knocked down Muhammad Ali and Ted Dexter was the England cricket captain. And it was all reflected in our paper, with every major star you can think of contributing articles that Tony had generated.

“The son of a railwayman, he was a lifelong Charlton fan and would often queue as a kid at The Valley to get the autograph of his hero, goalkeeper Sam Bartram.

“He started off working for the The Scout magazine, and regularly used to call in at Buckingham Palace to take messages to the Royal household. After National Service, he became assistant on the Sunday Pictorial to sports editor Sid Gibbon, and then moved to Manchester where he led a team of northern giants that included Alan Tweedie, Peter Shaw, George Dowson, Steve Millar, Bill Thornton, John Huxley, soccer reporter Vince Wilson and up-n-under rugby league man Eddie Waring.

“Tony thrived under Manchester editor Jack Stoneley, who gave the thumbs up to his revolutionary, ground-breaking idea for a sports pull-out,” Ellis says.

“He knew ‘em all on the northern sports beat – Manchester United boss Matt Busby, United legends George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, and over at City the likes of chairman Freddie Pye and Mike Summerbee.

“Tony, his first wife, Jean, and son Richard even went on a family holiday to Spain with the Charltons. Everybody knew they could trust Tony to keep a confidence and he was respected by all, both in sport and in journalism.

“London Editor Mike Christiansen recognised a fantastic talent, and in 1971 Tony was persuaded to swap the Swan With Two Necks in Manchester for The Stab. He was an ace layout man, and he revamped the Holborn sports pages. In came the big headlines, the big names and the big exclusives.

“One of his biggest coups came – with the help of chief sportswriter Ken Jones laying the foundations in America – when Muhammad Ali agreed to appear in a TV advert. The Greatest did the paper proud with: ‘Holmes and Tate, and all the rest, they gotta know I’m still the best. Read the report in Sunday Mirror Sport’.

“Tony used his famous charm on Ali, and he did not ask for a penny fee!”

Ken Jones paid this tribute to his former sports editor: “Tony Smith’s greatest quality was that he had balls. Whatever it took to get the job done, he would do – no matter what the problems were. He’d take on anybody.”

Keith Fisher, the former Daily Mirror sports editor, got his break in the business when he was working as a casual sub on the Sunday paper and Smith offered him a job. “Tony called me to the office one day and told me there was a staff job going and if I accepted there were only two ways I could get the sack: ‘embezzlement or ****ing the chairman’s wife’.”

Ellis adds: “Tony wasn’t just a great journalist. He was also a great colleague, and a great mate who cared passionately about the Sunday Mirror and the people who worked for it. He made it to 81, bravely fighting through a long illness and he used to sing his old Cockney songs to his carers right up to the end. He was a born raconteur with a great zest for life.”

Smithy, who used to give Robber Maxwell as good as he got in heated debates about the content of the sports pages, left the Sunday Mirror in 1986, and the following week became sports editor of Maxwell’s European. He later returned to his old hunting ground as Travel Editor of the People before finally retiring in 2002.

Tony Smith’s funeral will be at St Peter’s Church, Woodmansterne, Surrey, on Wednesday, July 23 (12.30pm) followed by a wake at the nearby Oaks Park Golf Club.

Smithy, a mighty man was he. RIP old pal.

John Goodbody adds: I remember many people who have helped me in journalism. Tony Smith is certainly near the top of a long list. In 1974, when I was on the old London Evening News, I decided to go up to Cambridge to read for a degree in English (“About time too”, someone said), but I wanted to keep working at the weekends and in the vacations.

Neil Wilson, who had been covering athletics for the Sunday Mirror, generously offered to step aside from the post and recommended me to Tony to replace him.
My brief interview with Tony lasted less than three minutes at the Stab, although the actual meeting went on for about three hours on what was one of Tony’s shorter drinking sessions. For the next four years, until I went to work in Paris, Tony looked after me, giving me regular work on athletics and football, with coverage that ranged from the 1976 Olympics to frequent trips to Mansfield Town.
Tony said to me: “You can charge first class rail fares wherever you go and can sit on the buffers for all I care. I know you students don’t have much money.”  Whenever I have subsequently seen Tony – sadly too rarely- we reminisced fondly about those days, including the Saturday in 1976 when I took an exam on 19th and 20th century English Literature in Cambridge in the morning and then covered the Olympic athletics trials at Crystal Palace for him in the afternoon, and how the subs (quite justifiably) rewrote my opening sentence for the Mirror into three paragraphs because I was still in exam mode.
Tony was one of Fleet Street’s good guys and a consummate professional on the desk, as the copy flowed in on Saturday evenings
and pages were redrawn to reflect the drama of the afternoon. I am only sorry that I will be not be at his funeral because I will be on a flight to the Commonwealth Games at that very time. But I, along with many other journalists, who owe him a lot, will always remember him. Thank you, Tony, for so much.