Tales of punchy copy and historic achievement

An old pals’ reunion prompted NORMAN GILLER to recall one of the hardest fought contests at Wimbledon and fond memories of 1966 and all that

Old timers talking old times: Norman Giller (left) with Matthew Lorenzo (centre), Nigel Clarke and Brian James (front)
Old timers talking old times: Norman Giller (left) with Matthew Lorenzo (centre), Nigel Clarke and Brian James (front)

There is more than 220 years of sports writing experience gathered together in this photograph, taken recently in the sanctified setting of Langan’s Restaurant in Mayfair.

I give you right to left:

NIGEL CLARKE, for many years the Daily Mirror ghost for  Bobby Moore and then Sir Alf Ramsey, and a tennis reporter who at a sprightly 76 is still serving up stories for the Daily Express.

MATTHEW LORENZO, son of my old business partner Peter, who has combined sports writing with television presenting and producing for more than 30 years.

LITTLE OLD ME, coming up 60 years a sports writer and recently given the accolade online by pious Piers Morgan: “An insufferable pompous old fool.” I wear the insult like a badge of honour, and am considering suing for what I consider ageism. And at the front…

BRIAN JAMES, who comfortably sits in my top 10 all-time great football writers, and certainly one of the most intelligent of my eminent press box colleagues over the years. At 84, Brain Box Brian is a true doyen of our profession and I consider it a privilege to have had our careers overlap and occasionally intertwine.

We were brought together by Young Lorenzo to share Bobby Moore memories for a film he is co-producing about the “golden boy” England captain. It will be released next year to coincide with the 50-year celebrations of Bobby collecting the World Cup.

The stories we came up with are embargoed for the film, but I can share one that I know will land on the cutting room floor. It will fascinate and possibly frighten all those who recall just how prominent Brian James was in his time as the Daily Mail‘s chief football writer.

Golden days: Captain Bobby Moore on his day of days in 1966
Golden days: Captain Bobby Moore on his day of days in 1966

I was his admiring rival on the Daily Express, along with my superiors Desmond Hackett and Clive Toye. Brian’s was always the one we read first when the morning papers dropped on our mats.

It is largely forgotten now that before the 1966 World Cup tournament started, most of Fleet Street was gunning for Alf Ramsey. Brian was one of the few who gave him consistent, unstinting support and insisted that England would win the World Cup.

Hackett led the anti-Ramsey brigade, and then on the first day of the tournament came out with typical volte-face with an “England will win” fanfare.

After the gruesome goalless draw with the hatchet men of Uruguay in the opening match, Des then had a change of mind and predicted England could not win until Ramsey changed his tactics.

In the Mail, Brian stuck to his belief that England would win. I did not realise just how brave (or foolish) he was being with his unconditional support for Ramsey’s men.

During our chat last week, Brian revealed: “I was taken on one side by a Mail executive who told me that I was making the newspaper look foolish by my stubborn stand, and that I should write a piece explaining why I had changed my mind and giving reasons why England would not win.

“I refused point blank, and was told very bluntly that if England did not at least reach the World Cup final I should start looking for another job.”

You have to put this in the context of the time. The Daily Mail was trailing the Express in a no-holds-barred circulation war, and were already plotting to put former Beaverbrook foreign editor David English in charge. The World Cup was the battleground between the two huge rivals. This, of course, was in the days when the Express was a proper paper, rather than a family album for its proprietor.

With his job riding on England reaching the final, it is less surprising now when I remember at the final whistle of England’s semi-final win over Portugal that Brian punched a small hole in the ceiling of the Wembley press box. It was a mixture of celebration and relief. For weeks afterwards he had the bruise to prove it.

You might wonder where Brian has been the last few years. After writing acclaimed books on the England-Scotland football rivalry, his close friend Geoff Hurst, and a superbly plotted journey to Wembley for the FA Cup final that started in the preliminary rounds, he edited the marathon Marshall Cavendish partworks, The Book of Football.

Then he seemed to vanish from the scene. But Brian did not put down his poetic pen. Disillusioned by the falling standards of English football, he switched with distinction to writing about military history and quietly, without fuss or fanfare, earned himself a Master of Arts degree.

I asked him to fill in the missing years: “I decided on a change after spending too many winter evenings in the downpour putting together 500 words on Orient v Newcastle – ‘and right on the final whistle please old boy.’ At around 70 years of age and facing retirement I decided on a complete change of guise. I got to thinking about having left school at 13 virtually uneducated. So time to do something about this … King’s College London happily accepted my application for their War Studies course. Two years of fascination resulted.

“So what next? I started a Masters degree in Naval History at the Greenwich Maritime Institute. More fascinating fun which ended in an MA with distinction. And, if you don’t mind me blowing my trumpet, the highest score the Institute had recorded. Armed with these mental baubles I started work for History Today and the BBC History magazine. It’s been quite a journey.”

You can catch up with some of Brian’s military history articles here. They read even better than his  football runners.

I bow the knee to a master.


AS FOR Nigel Clarke, he has lost none of the bounce and cheerfulness that I remember from when we first used to hunt together for football stories. This was in the 1960s, when “hacking” meant riding a horse, or possibly chiseling out an article.

Back then Nigel was the willing lackey on the sports circuit for the Mirror‘s Peter Wilson, one of the greatest tennis reporters of any time. Amazingly, Nigel has now covered 22 more Wimbledon finals than his hero, and was honoured by the All England Club for completing 50 years’ reporting duty at Wimbledon.

Nigel provided one of my favourite tales of the unexpected from the press box.

In 1981, I was a member of the This Is Your Life scriptwriting team and was doing the groundwork on a programme that was to feature legendary tennis commentator Dan “Oh I say” Maskell. I was sitting with the film researcher in the editing suite when a breathless editor brought in the latest rushes from the Wimbledon press conferences.

“There’s been a punch-up at Wimbledon,” he said. “We need this edited quickly for our news bulletin.”

It was semi-final day at Wimbledon and the volcanic John McEnroe – then at his “Superbrat” peak – had eliminated the unseeded Australian Rod Frawley, and would go on to beat Bjorn Borg in an epic final. “Is it McEnroe?” I asked, which was the immediate and obvious notion.

“No,” the editor said. “It’s two pressmen. Apparently all hell let loose at the McEnroe conference.”

First of all we saw McEnroe storming out of the conference behind a flurry of “F” words because the Mirror‘s royal reporter, James Whittaker, had asked a question about the rumours that McEnroe had split with his girlfriend. This started an argument between the British and American reporters, who complained that non-tennis questions had wrecked their chances of interviewing McEnroe about his match.

John McEnroe: Back in the 1980s, he was worth fighting over to get a story
John McEnroe: Back in the 1980s, he was worth fighting over to get a story

I watched open-mouthed as on the screen came footage of my old mate Nigel Clarke wrestling with a journalist I did not recognise. It transpired that Nigel’s opponent was American radio reporter Charlie Steiner, later of ESPN.

“I was defending the rights of reporters asking whatever questions they wanted to,” Nigel told me later. “It was jam-packed in the press room, and this American was shouting right in my face about what he thought of Limey reporters. I invited him outside but the room was so packed we could hardly move, so we started fighting right there. I was standing on a chair and was punching down and so I was getting the better of it.

“It all ended in a mass scrum, and then the two of us being called into the office of the All England Club chairman ‘Buzz’ Hadingham. He gave us a rollocking, but told me privately that in my shoes he would have done the same thing.”

Fifteen years later Clarke was in Las Vegas covering a world title fight when – at the weigh-in – he came face to face with his old antagonist for the first time since their Wimbledon showdown. “We fell into each other’s arms and had a good laugh about it,” Nigel said.

It was four years before we got the Dan Maskell show on to the screen. Eamonn Andrews kept refusing to sanction it because all Dan’s seven brothers and sisters declined to take part. We finally ran with it in 1985, without any of Dan’s siblings involved. They claimed their brother had shunned them once he found fame.

Oh I say.

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