Patrick Collins: a sports writer of authority and style

NORMAN GILLER believes that when the Mail on Sunday’s Patrick Collins retires in January, we will be witnessing the career end of one of the finest of all sports writers

It was April 5, 1958, when I first met Pat Collins. The place: the press box at Upton Park. The match: West Ham United versus Charlton Athletic. He was on duty for the Sunday People, and I was reporting for the Stratford Express in my exalted position as assistant sport editor. There were only two of us on the sports staff. And the big banana, Harry Miller, was off sick with chicken pox.

High profile: SJA President Sir Michael Parkinson arrives for our Sports Awards with doyen of sports columnists, the Mail on Sunday's Patrick Collins (left)
Sense and sensibility: Patrick Collins arrives for a recent SJA awards with our President, Sir Michael Parkinson.

So here I was with the responsibility of covering the main match, and when I found myself sitting alongside Pat, he greeted me as an equal and made me feel comfortable and relaxed. He was an affable and engaging man, and we spent much of the goalless match talking boxing, mainly concentrating on the fortunes of the club he followed, Fisher ABC in Bermondsey, and their upcoming tournament against West Ham Amateur Boxing Club, for which I handled the publicity.

The uninspiring match was about 20 minutes old when Pat introduced me to the quiet boy sitting on his left. “This is my son Patrick,” said Pat. “He is a Charlton Athletic fanatic and one day wants to be a sportswriter like us.”

Patrick was 14 years old, bursting out of his school blazer and like a mini version of his dad, apart from the waves of white hair that accentuated Pat’s ruddy features.

From then on, I was always a follower of the Collins’ family fortunes, cementing my friendship with Pat Snr and watching Patrick Jnr grow into one of the finest sportswriters of his or any other generation.

If you are reading this, young Patrick, your dad would be so proud of all that you have achieved. He was one of life’s gentlemen who always treated colleagues with respect and represented our profession with quiet dignity. You learned well from a master.

It’s a little known fact that Patrick and I joined the Mail on Sunday sports department in the same week in 1982. I lasted 48 hours before having an altercation with sports editor Alan Hubbard as to what my brief would be, and we decided that perhaps I would be better off travelling my chosen freelance road.

All this has come flashing back to me as Patrick announced here on the SJA website that, at 70, he is hanging up his quill after one of the great sportswriting careers.

I admire his sense and wisdom in getting off the mountain at the top. So many in our sports world never know when it’s the right time to quit, and that includes we observers as well as the champions.

Patrick’s decision has made me revisit my view of which have been the greatest sportswriters of my lifetime, coming up (gulp) to five and seventy years.

There are a lot of talented young Turks around today, but I have not considered any of them for my Top 10 list because they cannot be compared with sportswriting masters who have covered the field – left, right and centre – for 30 years and more.

Here goes, in reverse order, my personal list of the Top 10 post-war British sportswriters:

10. David Miller
9. Martin Samuel
8. James Lawton
7. Frank Keating
6. Geoffrey Green
5. Patrick Collins
4. Peter Wilson
3rd. George Whiting
1st eq: Ian Wooldridge and Hugh McIlvanney.

Yes, I copped out in the end, unable to separate Woolers and the Mighty Mac. But then, nearly 40 years ago when the first Sports Writer of the Year award was presented, that was the result the judges decided upon, too.

Both McIlvanney and Wooldridge could capture any sporting action with the accuracy of a vintage Leica camera, and then get it down on paper with the colour, detail and depth of a Goya painting.

I feel honoured and privileged to have shared press boxes with all these Fleet Street giants, overshadowed by them but overjoyed to be breathing the same air – even though it was often contaminated by Hughie’s Havana cigars.

They set the highest possible standards for all of us lucky to qualify for membership of the Sports Journalists’ Association, and I look on with interest as young, bright-eyed sportswriters enter a rapidly changing world, where dinosaur journalists like me are being replaced by “media-ists”.

A word to the wise, study the way Patrick Collins has conducted himself and the way he has always written with style and authority, never using a poison pen but one dipped in sense and sensibility.

It has always been the Collins way, a father and son thing. The world and the word was their oyster.

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One thought on “Patrick Collins: a sports writer of authority and style

  1. I wonder why David Lacey continues to be underrated and undervalued as a sports journalist of the highest international calibre. He is the greatest football journalist ever to work in the English language – maybe in any language.

    In the annals of British sports journalism, and not just of the post-World War II era, Lacey has only three rivals: Neville Cardus, Geoffrey Green and Hugh McIlvanney. History will always allot a quality part of its recording to the achievements of the Fab Four of modern British sportswriting. A profound understanding of football, an incomparable gift for reporting accurately and accessibly on the global game, a remarkable ability to be good-natured, fair-minded and evenhanded over nearly half a century of football reporting, an eschewing of jargon and jingoism, a consistent capacity for compassionate intelligence distilled in a lucid and graceful economy of language are some of the qualities that have set Lacey apart as the yardstick by which football writers everywhere have to be judged.

    It has to be hoped that sports journalists both in the British isles and the world will swiftly learn the wisdom of appreciating and honouring David Lacey, a sportswriter of genius, a football reporter for the ages.

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