NORMAN “Bites Yer Legs” GILLER, in his 200th column for the SJA website, recalls an England team of 40 years ago that left its mark, at least on Gunter Netzer, and applauds the achievement of the Telegraph‘s Henry Winter, whose Tyne swim made Desmond Hackett’s circulation stunts look like rubbish
When I was recently bold enough (ok, silly enough) to list the 50 greatest British sportswriters of my lifetime, I managed to upset the present generation by not naming anybody under the age of 40.
I think they need to prove themselves over at least 20 years to be mentioned with the all-time sportswriting masters, and so lasting fame will not come until middle age.
But let me start to mend bridges with the young guns by pointing out that many of today’s enthusiastic and energetic 20- and 30-somethings are setting standards that put old hacks like me to shame.
Let me, for example, point you to what is the best article I have read on line this week, and it comes from the keyboard of Rob Bachi, one of the Guardian’s army of young writer/subs.
In The Forgotten Story of England Under Joe Mercer he tells the often hilarious tale of the seven game reign when “Uncle Joe” was caretaker manager between the going of Alf Ramsey and the coming of Don Revie.
Jimmy Greaves and I combined on a book on the history of England bosses (Don’t Shoot the Manager), in which we devoted a chapter to what we described as The Comic Interlude.
Rob does a better job, with a nicely balanced and revealing piece that highlights just how vicious England had become under the Ramsey baton. He quotes the always emotive Alan Hoby in the Sunday Express after a goalless draw in Germany: “I felt ashamed by England’s violent, ugly methods.”
Just to remind you, that was the game in which, 3-1 down from the first leg at Wembley, Alf elected to play both Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter and Peter (the original Psycho) Storey together in midfield. Ouch and ouch again.
As well as a beautifully crafted article, there is a priceless photograph showing Mercer with the travelling press boys, with Nigel Clarke and Jim Lawton flanking a wind-blown Jeff Powell, who would I am sure have paid good money not to have the picture published.
Bachi captures the Mercer moments perfectly, but misses the funniest story, which I never tire of telling. It featured as the central figure Bernard Joy, who will forever be in the record books as the last amateur capped by England (in a 3-2 defeat by Belgium in 1936). A dedicated Corinthian, Joy played for the Casuals while winning 10 England amateur international caps as a towering, tactically aware centre-half.
Bernard was the hugely respected football correspondent of the Evening Standard, and a treasured press box colleague throughout my Fleet Street reporting career. He used to slowly and patiently handwrite his copy, as if marking homework in his schoolmaster days from before the war, when he combined playing football for Arsenal with teaching.
He was an intelligence officer in the war, and during visits to his home to get hammered by him on his tennis court, Bernard used to hold me enraptured with tales of how Britain out-thought as well as outfought the Nazis. Goodness knows what he would have made of an ex-KGB man – Alexander Lebedev – owning the Standard and giving it away free. It would have been MI6 meets Smersh.
During the Joe Mercer-marshalled summer tour of 1974, Bernard was a disbelieving eyewitness as Kevin Keegan was beaten up by airport guards in Belgrade. Bernard, with open mouth, saw the whole incident and thought he had the scoop of the season.
There were only daily newspapermen on the spot with Bernard at the airport, where three armed policemen laid into Keegan as if he was a drug runner. He and his Liverpool teammate Alec Lindsay had been skylarking by the luggage conveyor belt, and the guards reacted by frog-marching Keegan off to a side-room, beating him up as they forced him to kneel in front of them.
The incident happened right in front of a disbelieving Joy and provincial newspapers reporter Bob “Bomber” Harris. While Bob alerted tour manager Mercer to what was happening, Bernard dashed to the nearest telephone. The true amateur had become the cold-eyed professional newshound.
As it was early afternoon, he thought he had time to catch the late editions of the Standard (they still did such things in those days), with what was certain to be a front-page splash. He booked a call to his Shoe Lane office, and while waiting for his connection got first-person quotes from Mercer and even from Keegan, who was talking through swollen lips and nursing a black eye and cuts.
The call finally came through. “Good afternoon, Mr Joy. What’s the weather like? It’s a beautiful sunny day here.” Bernard snapped: “I’ve got no time to discuss the weather. Put me over to the copy-taker immediately. I’ve got a major story.”
“Uh, but Mr Joy,” the operator said. “Don’t you realise it’s Sunday? There is no paper today.” It was the greatest scoop Bernard never had.
HENRY WINTER, a 40-something who did make my Top 50 list, gets my full admiration for the way he honoured his bet with Newcastle owner Mike Ashley by swimming the Tyne on Sunday.
The Telegraph’s erudite and engaging football correspondent made the big splash after going into print with the prediction that Newcastle manager Alan Pardew would not be a long-term appointment under Ashley.
Henry turned it into a bet with Ashley, and instead of wonga settled for the swim after Pardew was given an eight-year contract. It was a case of now is the Winter of our content because the swim raised money for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.
I have always been careful about committing myself to wild predictions in print since my days as a team mate on the Daily Express of the Man in the Brown Bowler, Desmond Hackett.
Des used to make outrageous, attention-seeking statements, and once after saying he would eat his famous brown bowler if Terry Downes beat Sugar Ray Robinson, he duly ate one made of chocolate following Terry’s victory over a fading ring master.
In 1967 Des wrote that if Chelsea reached the FA Cup final he would walk barefoot to Wembley. Tommy Docherty’s team duly battled through to the final against Spurs.
Never one to duck his duty (particularly when he knew its circulation value), Des started on his barefoot walk, accompanied by the Doc and half a dozen Chelsea first-team players, who were ribbing him in good-humoured style.
A rubbish truck came slowly by and Des, without breaking step, said to the Chelsea players: “Here you are, chaps, your coach has arrived to take you to Wembley.”
Tommy Doc, not exactly slow with the quips, shouted: “No, Des, it’s come to collect your next column.”
What Des did not know as he watched the dustcart disappear into the distance was that one of the Chelsea players had put his shoes on the truck.
Yes, and Des wrote the next day: “What a load of rubbish.” Happy days.
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