Sports journalists outsprinted in latter day bull run

NORMAN GILLER on an old newspaperman who opposed sports desk merger plans, and books himself in for some extra speed work

Now is the winter of our discontent and not about to be made glorious summer for columns (for the want of a better collective noun) of sports journalists.

Sorry to mess with the words in Richard III but it leads me a little too obviously to another Richard, who has muscled his way into being more a media baron than a king.

Richard Desmond, for it is he, will be watching the contentious plans at the Lebedev-owned newspapers to merge the sports departments into one at the cost of many jobs.

The Standard's front page. Or is it The Independent?

The whisper is that this is just the sort of money-saving plan that will appeal to Desmond across his empire that includes the Daily and Sunday Express and the Daily and Sunday Star. He will drool at the prospect of one sports department – and one budget at less than half the current cost – for all his titles.

I remember this very point being raised way back in the early 1970s when the Express first started to leak readers, starting the slide from its circulation peak of 4.2 million.

Chief executive Sir Jocelyn Stevens was thought to be considering the one sports department theory for both Express papers. Our FoC (Father of the Chapel for non-journo readers) was a feisty Australian called Lloyd Turner.

As a member of the Daily Express Chapel committee, I reported the Stevens plan to Lloyd, who said in his typically strong Aussie language: “If he tries that we’ll fucking well stop Fleet Street. What a dangerous precedent that would be. Next he’d want to merge features and eventually have just the one staff. No fucking way.”

Lloyd, one of my favourite characters, turned gamekeeper when he later became Editor of the Daily Star. He suffered the ignominy of the sack in 1987 after being convicted of “libelling” Jeffrey Archer for accusing that fine upstanding author and Tory politician of buying a prostitute’s silence.

“I’ve been shafted for printing the truth,” said Lloyd, who switched to farming and breeding bulls.

He told me: “I’ve been dealing with bullshit all my career, so I might as well get involved with the real stuff.”

Lloyd became a spokesman for the National Farmers’ Union and had to battle with the nightmare of the BSE outbreak.

He found farming was no substitute for the buzz of newspapers and later had a spell as an executive at Today, and he was lined up for a role at the Daily Mail when he died in 1996 at the age of 58. At the time he was still President of the “84 Drinking Club” that he formed in Fleet Street with gossip columnist Peter Tory, and which included such professional piss artists – and master wordsmiths – as Keith Waterhouse and Ian Wooldridge among its members.

I wonder what Lloyd would make of the Lebedev plans to merge the sports desks on the Independent and Standard titles, and the similar plan for the business departments?

Sadly, the journalists today do not have the sort of muscle and might that Lloyd enjoyed in his FoC days and they have little ammunition with which to fight. Strike threats are coming from the mouths of NUJ officials but these are self-defeating, because Lebedev is likely to shrug and shut down any paper he feels is not worth saving.

Going into London Olympic year, I have never known the morale of Fleet Street sports journalists so low.

A pal in the Independent group told me: “Our employment terms were considerably weakened as part of the takeover agreement, but we snatched at them because we thought Lebedev was going to guarantee us a good few years without fear of losing our jobs. Now none of us know if we will be employed much beyond Christmas.”

I am assured by contacts at the Mail offices – Kensington neighbours to the Lebedev papers – that there is no suggestion of a merger of the Daily and Mail on Sunday sports desks. But that, as Lloyd Turner would say, might be bullshit.

LESS THAN 40 DAYS TO Christmas and it is knees-knocking time for publishers and authors like what I am (©Ernie Wise circa 1972).

Anybody considering going down the self-publishing route will hopefully improve on my record.

My Tottenham: The Managing Game book is averaging sales of two a day, and I hear tales of worryingly poor business from several publishers. A friend who manages a branch of Waterstones told me: “Compared with previous years we are way down with our sales, but there has been a recent pick-up as customers wake up to the fact that Christmas is around the corner.”

I have gone down the personal autographed books route to try to stimulate sales and am offering books signed by Tottenham legends Jimmy Greaves, Steve Perryman and the indomitable Dave Mackay (77 this week). Their autographs alone are worth more than my books, but it is still proving an uphill battle to attract customers. So far the Christmas Rush is a dribble.

One book that I wish I had written – and which should sprint into the best seller lists – is Usain Bolt: The Story of the World’s Fastest Man, written with feeling and inside knowledge by Steven Downes, the omniscient athletics specialist who edits this column of mine each week with skill and discernment (Get on with it Giller – Ed).

I have been keenly interested in the progression of sprinters since back in the days of my schoolboy idol Emmanuel McDonald Bailey, who performed the 100 and 220 yards AAA double a remarkable seven times in the 1950s.

But even he could not match my achievement of back to back 100 and 220 yard victories on the 1948 London Olympic track.

I will let you bask in my glory for a moment before I confess that by then the pink-cinder track had been ripped up from its Wembley home and relaid at Eton Manor in east London, where my school’s championships were staged.

Steven’s book on the phenomenal Bolt reveals that as a 16-year-old schoolboy he was recording times that would have left my idol McDonald Bailey several metres in his wake.

I have worked it out that had I raced him on the Eton Manor track over 220 yards Usain would have been finished and his tracksuit back on as I was crossing the finishing line.

Truly a Bolt of lightning, with an astonishing story well worth reading.

Norman Giller’s book selection can be viewed here

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