NORMAN GILLER pays his respects to a master of football stories, and pays respect to the latest Premier League managerial casualty
Yesterday, I kicked off my eulogy to The Master, Dennis Signy, by telling a full house at Hendon Crematorium: “He would have had the Harry Redknapp story 48 hours before anybody else.”
It got a laugh, but discussing it later with the great and the good – including a Lord, a mayor wearing his chain of office and dozens of managers, ex-players and top-notch journalists – we all agreed that Dennis at his peak would have been all over the story and would have cracked it long before anybody else.
I drew up a list of outstanding football news gatherers from “my day” and came up with Reg Drury (News of the World), James Connolly (Sunday Express), Vic Railton (London Evening News), Alan Williams (Daily Express, Midlands), Derek Potter (Daily Express, Manchester), Harry Miller (Daily Mirror), Brian Scovell (Daily Mail), Bob Oxby (Daily Telegraph), Bob Harris (Birmingham Mail), Steve Richards (Sunday People) and Peter Lorenzo (Daily Herald). They all had a common denominator: Signy of Hayters and Hendon was their first call of any day to see what was happening on planet football.
“Yes, he was untouchable,” agreed Lord Grade, who started his working life in the early 1960s as a Daily Mirror football reporter when plain Michael Grade, when he collaborated with the one and only John Bromley on a column called Sportlight.
In later years, he used to collect Dennis from his home in a Rolls Royce and they would go together for an annual visit to watch Charlton play, eating fish and chips in the back of the Roller to try to recapture the mood of the 60s.
“Dennis was comfortably the best of all the news reporters,” said the Mail on Sunday‘s Patrick Collins, son of the Sunday People’s Pat Collins, who was another of the Signy flock back when reporters actually got to meet and talk to players and managers away from today’s carefully controlled environment of engineered press conferences.
Jeff Powell, who has comfortably switched beats to the boxing world for the Daily Mail, said: “On Dennis you could rely. If he tipped you off that something was occurring, you could put all your money on it being right.”
The Evening Standard’s Michael Hart, who was under the Signy wing at the renowned Hayters agency in the 1960s, said: “He was the supreme professional who taught a string of reporters how to do the job. Many Fleet Street writers owe him their careers because of the foundation he gave them.”
Reuters football editor Mike Collett went to heroic extremes to get to the funeral. He needed three flights from the European football championships in Poland and Ukraine to make it to Hendon. Collett had started his reporting career under the Signy editorship at the Hendon Times.
“I was determined to be here to say a final farewell to a man to whom I owe so much,” Collett told me. “I was so lucky to be taken on by him when I was a young journalist. There was no better teacher or nicer man.”
While Collett managed to make it from Warsaw, the redoubtable James Mossop failed to manoeuvre the M1 on his way down from Altrincham. “I was stuck for three hours in a log jam,” he lamented on Facebook, “and in the end had to turn back without getting to pay my respects to not only a great reporter but a great human being.”
Alex Montgomery, former chief football writer for The Sun and News of the World, revealed how Dennis and his lovely wife Pat had saved the Football Writers’ Association from extinction by their brilliant and energetic organising over a span of 20 years. “He would help anybody and was a wonderful colleague and great company whether in the press box or at the bar.”
Tom Clarke, former powerhouse of The Sporting Life, The Times, Daily Mail and Evening Standard, contacted me with apologies for absence. “Where ever I edited,” he said, “one of my first calls would always be to get Dennis on board. He was the best contacts man in the business. Please let me know where and when the memorial service will be held.”
Well I can tell him. Son Richard Signy, who gave a beautifully crafted family tribute, said: “We will all gather again at St Bride’s in Fleet Street on Thursday September 13 when we can share the many Dennis stories that have, I am proud to say, made our Dad a legend in football and in journalism.”
THE BUZZ AT THE WAKE – held at Barnet Football Club – was all about the sudden departure of Harry Redknapp from Tottenham. Dennis, like me, knew him from when he first made his breakthrough as a flying winger with West Ham (I nicknamed him the Boleyn Greyhound after reporting his debut, when he not only continually beat his full back but the corner flag too).
Two ex-Spurs managers – David Pleat and Peter Shreeves – were among the army of football folk who turned out to mourn Dennis’s passing. Both were bewildered by the goings on at White Hart Lane.
“If finishing fourth, fifth and then fourth is going to be measured as failure,” said the wise Pleat, “then a lot of managers are in trouble.”
One prominent manager commented: “Daniel Levy has shot himself in the foot. He has given himself an unnecessary problem.” I won’t name him in case he is in with a chance of getting the job as Harry’s successor, along with the 20 other names I have seen in the frame.
Within a few hours of Harry going out of the door with his head held high, the following names were being passed around the internet by ITKs (“in the knows”): David Moyes, Jurgen Klinsmann, Roberto Martinez, Fabio Capello, Rafael Benitez, Alan Pardew, Michael Laudrup, Louis van Gaal, Josep Guardiola, Laurent Blanc, Slaven Billic, Martin O’Neill, Chris Hughton, Glenn Hoddle, Owen Coyle, Frank de Boer, Ally McCoist, Brendan Rodgers, Roy Keane, Paul Lambert and at least a dozen European managers.
And strongest tip of all was Andre Villas Boas, because he had been positively identified walking through the arrivals lounge at Heathrow.
It is going to be harvest time for the bookmakers while punters chase the suggestions being tossed around like confetti on the internet.
The perfect man for the job in my opinion would be a pensioner living close to me on the south coast, one Harry Redknapp. He knows all there is to know about the game and his CV shows the three highest successive placings for Tottenham in the Premier League and a natural ease with bringing the best out of players. What a coup that would be for Levy.
Now Dennis Signy would have loved to break that story. Rest easy old pal.
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