Reg Hayter’s f-f-f-f-unny old game

NORMAN GILLER remembers one of the giants of old Fleet Street, Reg Hayter, from the days of independent sports agencies when there were still telephones in press boxes

The news of Hayters having to chop their staff by one-third will have caused much sadness and stuttered swearing in the Great Press Box in the Sky, which is surely where dear old Reg Hayter resides.

It was 15 years ago this week that Reg departed this mortal coil to end an astonishing near-40-year run as proprietor, promoter and powerhouse of the finest independent sports agency in Fleet Street history.

Hayters kick-started the careers of a procession of exceptional sports journalists, from the doyen of freelances Dennis Signy, statistician “Ask Albert” Sewell, up through modern masters like Richard Keys, Gary Newbon, Henry Winter, Steve Rider and Mark Irwin, and including our esteemed SJA chairman Barry Newcombe.

The count must also include the Mail on Sunday‘s Peter Hayter, following in his father’s typing path as a probing and well-informed chronicler of cricket.

Reg started out as a cricket reporter for Pardons, an agency that specialised in cricket that had been taken over by the Press Association. He had the courage and vision to quit his job and launch his own agency in 1955. It was the same year that I became a Fleet Street copyboy, and I witnessed his hands-on approach to establishing his business.

He would come into the Evening News office from his single room above the Wig and Pen in The Strand armed with exclusives for football correspondent JG Orange and cricket gossip for EM Wellings, with whom he had shared many cricket tours.

Reg made a fascinating character for my young eyes and ears, because you could not help but notice that words like football and cricket were a challenge for him, and they would come out as f-f-f-football and c-c-c-cricket.

He had managed to conquer a terrible stammer in his youth that came back in moments when he was excitedly selling his latest stories.

As my career slowly progressed, Reg’s agency quickly grew into a formidable force in Fleet Street. Faithful Freddie Garside ran the admin side, with Reg’s lovely wife Lucy somehow finding time to keep the accounts while bringing up their five children. The agency made four moves to bigger offices within Fleet Street, before settling down to a 15-year stay at Gough Square. With each move, Reg would tell his contacts: “No worries. Hayter’s the name, always the same.”

Football and cricket reporters could not enter a Press Box without having to ask for “the Hayters man”. Clever old Reg had installed telephones at many of the major grounds, and he hired them out to the newspapers. The arrival of the mobile phone and laptop must be among the curses for today’s Hayters.

Reg was something of a Fagin of Fleet Street, gathering together teams of young, day-dreaming junior journalists and teaching them how to pick up stories (rather than pick pockets). Anybody lucky enough to work for Hayters would not earn much money but would leave much richer for the experience.

He once told me that he had three commandments for his troops: “One, above all accuracy. Two, knowledge – get to know your sports and the sportsmen. Three, if you’re not sure what to do at a match, follow the Express man.”

As a former Daily Express man, that last commandment filled me with pride. He believed that the Express signed the best writers and reporters. I would go along with that theory, wouldn’t I? This, though, was in the long-gone days of the 4 million daily circulation.

Reg cleverly diversified and went down the literary agent road to boost the Hayters income. In his peak years he was agent/adviser/nursemaid to a string of leading sports stars including Denis Compton, Bill Edrich, Keith Miller, Godfrey Evans, Ian Botham (pictured above), Basil D’Oliveira, Henry Cooper and Bob Wilson.

It is part of his legend how he used to keep details of all his negotiations hand written in a red book, and he would be first in the office every morning with a ruler and a pile of newspapers, measuring how many lineage inches he could charge.

My fondest memory of Reg is when he and dynamic Sun sports editor Frank Nicklin were jointly running the El Vino’s cricket team. These two loveable reprobates were inseparable at the bar or on the cricket pitch (always standing together at slip). Frank was even notorious for picking subs or reporters for The Sun who could play cricket to a good standard.

Back in the days when I was helping to establish Jimmy Greaves as a columnist, I negotiated for him to join The Sun. Frank was almost as interested in the fact that Jimmy had been a first-class wicketkeeper as to what he could bring to the paper with his football celebrity and insights.

We are talking the early 1980s, and Frank put the arm on Jimmy (pictured left) to join the El Vino’s team for a charity match somewhere in deepest Derbyshire, Frank’s home county.

By then Greavsie was becoming a huge star in the Midlands because of his regular appearances for ex-Hayters man Gary Newbon’s Central TV sports show. His catchphrase, “It’s a funny old game” had caught on, and was hung on him at every opportunity, even though Jimmy insists that I ghosted it into his mouth and that he never actually said it.

Jimmy and I drove to Derbyshire for the match, a round trip of nearly 250 miles and, because of motorway hold-ups, we were in the car together for more than seven hours.

In the middle of it all Jimmy went into bat for the Hayter/Nicklin team and was bowled middle stump first ball. As Jimmy trudged back to the pavilion after his golden duck, Reg Hayter said, for all to hear, “It’s a f-f-f-funny old game …”

Two punchlines to the story. Driving back through London, Jimmy’s BMW was smashed into by a London bus. A few days later Jimmy received in the post the local Derbyshire newspaper. The huge headline running across seven columns: GREAVSIE FLOPS WITH A DUCK.

“Eff me,” said Greavse, “that’s a bigger headline than I ever got for anything I did on the football pitch.”

A final personal story featuring Frank Nicklin. He became sports editor of the Daily Herald in 1964, holding the reins and the secret that it was shortly to become the old broadsheet Sun.

He was quietly getting the SP on all the subs at the table from assistant sports editor John Kendrick, a larger than life character from the Black Country. John crouched alongside Frank giving a rundown into his ear about each one of us.

When John pointed to a Scottish sub-editor called Ron Trevorrow he said: “He is a brilliant sub but so slow we call him Tomorrow.”

Frank Nicklin followed John’s pointing finger, but somehow managed to look at me rather than Ron Trevorrow. So it was burned into his mind that I was very slow. I applied for the boxing writer’s job for the new paper about to be launched, but Frank told me: “You need to be quick to do ringside reports. Sorry, but you’re not right for the job.”

The job went to John Kendrick, who on his first assignment at a European title fight in Austria got so legless that he failed to file a single coherent word. He was given back his old desk job, and the boxing writer’s post went to the sports news editor, one Colin Hart.

Meantime, I landed a football writer’s job on the Express and left before the old/new Sun was launched.

I knew none of this until my farewell party at the Express 10 years later. Frank Nicklin told me: “I owe you an apology. I didn’t give you the boxing job because I thought you were so slow your nickname was Tomorrow.”

Yes, Reg, it’s a f-f-f-funny old game.

Jimmy Greaves is still working with Giller, having written the introduction for the soon-to-be-published book Lane of Dreams. For more details, click here

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