Soccerball pioneer and a tale of Express delivery

NORMAN GILLER celebrates a former colleague being honoured by north American football this week, and gets him to share a tale from before the age of laptops, mobiles and easy connecting flights

My American correspondent, Clive Toye, this week achieved a notable first for any ex-Fleet Street sportswriter when he was inducted into the CONCACAF Hall of Fame. This regional governing body of soccer represents North America, Central America, the Caribbean and its 40 member nations. It’s like Uefa, with more sunshine.

Clive (pictured receiving his Hall of Fame award from CONCACAF President Jack Warner) has grown into a colossal figure in the soccer world on the other side of the Pond since quitting his job as chief football writer at the Daily Express in the autumn of 1966. Fittingly, for someone born in the Pilgrim Fathers city of Plymouth, he crossed the Atlantic to help pioneer the launch of the North American Soccer League. He has become instantly recognisable in the States because of a huge beard that gave him the look of a candidate for Mount Rushmoor.

His escape from the Express allowed me the chance to try to fill his very big shoes, and I watched his rise through the ranks of the American soccer establishment with an admiration bordering on awe.

It was Clive, as President of New York Cosmos, who was instrumental in bringing Pele to the United States to give the game an enormous kick in the grass. He enisted the help of the then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to help clinch the deal, as you do.

Clive is a man of a million anecdotes, and before he jetted off to the Bahamas this week for the CONCACAF Congress I asked him to enlarge on a story he had told me about an adventure with the Express during the build-up to the 1962 World Cup finals.

Reaching in his imagination for his battered old portable typewriter, this is how Clive responded:

I was in Lima, for Peru v England, when some bright spark in the Fleet Street office noticed that in two days’ time Wales were playing Mexico in Mexico City. “Pop up there old boy,” I was instructed. “It won’t be over until the small hours of the morning here, but we’ll do a special slip edition and fly it down to South Wales.”

Now, Lima to Mexico City is not exactly a stroll up the road today but back then there was no direct flight, no jet aircraft, just a long haul to Panama, an overnight stop and then the “milk run” by Panagra Airlines through every capital of Central America before reaching the destination on the morning of the game.

I wasn’t alone. David Miller of the Telegraph was along for the ride, although memory tells me he was not due to file the night of the game; just a follow-up for the next day. That was not good enough for the trailblazing Express of those days when the circulation was 4.2 million and rising.

On arrival in Mexico City, I hastened to the Cable & Wireless office to show my C&W card and get the necessary teleprinter service that night.

“Of course, señor, no problem, all is well,” I was assured by a desk jockey with a huge smile. “You just need to get this card approved by the Ministry of something or other, then come back.”

So I went to the Ministry. “Of course, señor, no problem,” the man from the Ministry told me. “It needs to be signed by Señor Somebody. He will be back in the office tomorrow morning.”

“But I need it now,” I said, in a mixture of despair and urgency.

“Ah, well, only Señor Somebody can sign, and he will not be back in the office until tomorrow morning.” Si, mañana.

I wasted time and breath pleading with what had become a Mexican wall, and finally gave up and returned to the Cable & Wireless office.

I sent, and paid for, a brief message to the Express in London so they could send late-night subs home, switch off the propellers and forget the special edition: “Cannot file. C&W will not accept my credit card.” Simple. And cheap. No instant telephone calls in those pre-STD days.

Off to meet up with Wales. Their affable manager Jimmy Murphy, Matt Busby’s No2 at Manchester United, offered David and I a lift to the game, and then said that if were not filing any stories, why not come and sit on the Wales bench? Not the sort of offer you get very often.

So we sat on the bench and had Cliff Jones join us at some point when he was sent off. Great copy that deserved a running report, but it would have to wait until the next day.

The game over, David and I went and sat on the bus for the return journey. We were sitting there waiting when a beaming Mexican gentleman came on the bus and said: “Señor Toyay, Señor Toyay? Where ees Señor Toyay?”

“That’s me,” I said.

“Ah Señor Toyay, there is now no problem. We will accept your credit card.”

“It is far too late now,” I said, exasperated, “and in any case, I sent them a message saying that I could not file, so they are not expecting anything.”

“Ah, but do not worry Señor Toyay,” he smiled. “We did not send the message.”

My mouth made goldfish movements as I tried to assimilate what he had said. “We did not send the message …” Not only did my past flash before my eyes, but so did my future.

I could see Express dynamo Norman Dixon and whoever else was stuck in the office in the early hours waiting for Toye’s perfect prose to arrive. I could see them fuming. I could see the pilot sitting at the controls, getting ready to rev the engines for the early morning flght to Cardiff. I could see someone writing a message telling me to head straight home to be fired, instead of turning south to the World Cup in Chile.

So I picked up my luggage and headed straight for the airport and caught the same midnight plane as the Mexican team heading to Santiago via Lima, from where I sent the best story I could write and the best explanation I could make and got back on the plane again, toute suite, before any return message could possibly arrive.

“Ah but do not worry Señor, we did not send the message.” It played over and over in my mind like a stuck record.

I don’t think I can remember any sentence more clearly than that one. Though one comes to mind now as I type. I did an interview with Pele from Vina del Mar during that 1962 World Cup, and some 12-plus years later we were having dinner in Rome, as my efforts to sign him for Cosmos were reaching a conclusion after a worldwide chase. “Clivee,” he said, “my English it is not good.”

And I said: “Yes it is Pele. Your English is fine.”

And he said: “No, my English it is not good. In Brussels two weeks ago I said I would sign for the Cosmos for two years for $Xmillion and now here you want me to sign for three years for less money. My English, it is not good …”

Clive, your English is very good and you earned your place in the CONCACAF Hall of Fame. I know I speak on behalf of many of your old Fleet Street colleagues when I congratulate you on your honour.

And just so you know, you are in the Express land of legend for your expenses claims. I was never in your class as a reporter but always cheaper. Your exes would have made Westminster MPs feel as if they were under achieving.

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