My Close encounters of an interview kind

NORMAN GILLER expresses his admiration for a fellow football reporter and for a cricketing hero

Neil Ashton has my deep admiration as he fronts Sky Sport’s always-watchable Sunday Supplement, while fighting a medical condition that would have most of us hiding from the world.

Neil Ashton's hosting of the Sunday Supplement on Sky Sports has impressed Norman Giller
Neil Ashton’s hosting of the Sunday Supplement on Sky Sports has impressed Norman Giller

Neil, the Daily Mail’s football news correspondent, has literally faced up to suffering from Bell’s Palsy, a form of facial paralysis that I know all about from personal experience.

My mother’s father, Tom Sims, was a Thames lighterman who worked the barges and tugs from Wapping wharf and became a Freeman of the Thames after 50 years’ service on the river.

He suffered severe Bell’s Palsy as a teenager that left him for the rest of his life with a half-paralysed face and a mouth that ran lopsided down to his chin, and with a bloodshot left eye that never closed. It sounds horrific, but I never once thought it odd. He married my Granny Martha, and they had two sons and four daughters together.

Thank goodness for Neil that his condition is (hopefully) the manageable type from which he can gradually recover.

Like me, Neil has his share of sneerers and snipers on Twitter, some of whom have said they want him killed. My most terrifying troll was the one who threatened to “do a Raul Moat” on me.

Then there was a chap called Piers Morgan who tweeted: “Oh shut up you insufferable pompous old fool.” Imperious Piers calling me pompous. Pot and kettle come to mind …

But it would need to be a cold, inhumane person who did not applaud Neil Ashton for having the courage to get back in front of the cameras.

When he took over from the much-mourned Brian Woolnough I wondered if he would be able to fill those large shoes, but he has settled down to become a balanced and authoritative anchorman.

He was understandably self-conscious in his first appearance after his facial paralysis scare – caused by the dysfunction of a nerve. Now he has conquered any doubts, and if you did not know he had the condition you would not notice it.

Well done, Neil. You are an example to all how to face up to adversity and meet it head on.

Also well done to Sky Sports for sticking with you.


Brian Close: a fearless batsman
Brian Close: a fearless batsman

THERE WILL BE FEW sportswriters from my generation who will not have a favourite Brian Close story.

Mine comes from his old Somerset team-mate – protege, even – Ian Botham.

I was in Ian’s study/games room at his beautiful North Yorkshire home when shooting a video with Both and Dickie Bird. On the wall was a picture of the young Botham and his mentor Closey at Somerset.

It triggered a conversation about the cicketing legend, who passed on to the great pavilion in the sky on Sunday, aged 84.

Both recalled: “Closey could play single handicap golf either left handed or right and, as on the cricket or football field, he was a terrier on the golf course. There was one game when he completely lost it after a bad shot, picked up his golf bag and threw it in the nearby lake and stomped off. Ten minutes later he came back sheepishly, took off his shoes and socks and waded into the water and retrieved his clubs. ‘Left my blankety-blank car keys in the bag,’ he said.”

I interviewed Close several times, and found him a cantankerous sod with an opinion or three on any subject, but if you dug hard enough you found a warm, very intelligent and likeable man who had a deep knowledge of all sports … and could play most of them at professional standard.

He was very much like his good friend Brian Clough, a couple of Tykes who lit up the sports world with their character and class. Nowt like ’em.

  • Norman Giller’s 100th book, his autobiography, Headlines Deadlines All My Life, is soon available. More details here
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Tue Oct 6: Entry forms for 2015 SJA British Sports Journalism Awards published

Thu Dec 17: SJA British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery


Mon Feb 22: SJA British Sports Journalism Awards dinner, sponsored by BT Sport