The day Jeff Stelling was as sick as a parrot

NORMAN GILLER is spending too much time watching daytime television. Why else would Sports Broadcaster of the Year Jeff Stelling’s performance on Countdown start a cliche hunt (and no, that’s not rhyming slang)?

Congratulations to Jeff Stelling on being voted SJA Sports Broadcaster of the Year for a fourth successive time for his hosting of Sky’s Soccer Saturday show (pictured here on Monday night with fellow winner, Sports Betting Writer Steve Palmer). But Stelling of the stellar sports knowledge was caught out on his daytime Countdown job this week, and was – let’s think – as sick as a parrot.

Neither he nor Susie Dent, the lithe and lovely lexicographer (file that under alliteration), knew the original source of the footballers’ crutch cliché “sick as a parrot”.

No self-respecting sports reporter should be unaware of where and how the saying started.

There are two theories, one myth and the other fact. Let me give you the myth first because it makes for a good story and gives me the chance to plug yet again the book I am writing/publishing on the history of White Hart Lane.

In 1908, Spurs went on a goodwill tour to South America, spreading the gospel of the game in Argentina and Uruguay, where the fervour for football was in its infancy. They played seven games, including two exhibition matches against fellow tourists Everton.

On the long haul home club chairman Charles Roberts became friendly with the ship’s captain, who as a mark of respect presented Roberts with a parrot as a souvenir of the trip.

Legend has it that the parrot – who took up residence at White Hart Lane – was found dead on its perch the very day that conniving Arsenal were voted into the First Division. This was infamously at the expense of Tottenham when the Football League resumed after the First World War.

Some clever wag invented the legend that this is how the “sick as a parrot” football cliché originated, but now I have to spoil a good story by pointing out that it was more than 40 years before the saying entered the limited vocabulary of interviewed footballers.

The Tottenham parrot story by then had been lost in the mists and the myth of time.

Now for the facts. “Sick as a parrot” came into regular use in the early 1960s when a much-televised comedian called Freddie “Parrot Face” Davies used it as a catchphrase (actually, “Thick, thick, thick as a parrot”, said with a pronounced lisp).

I was there when it was first uttered by a footballer, and I diligently reported what were to become immortal words following a match at Fulham. Step forward, to a roll of drums, Tosh Chamberlain, Fulham’s long-serving and swerving winger who was one of the great characters of Craven Cottage in the days when pass master Johnny Haynes was king of the castle.

Tosh, as Cockney as a jellied eels stall, was sent off for allegedly calling the referee a Berkshire hunt, only he did not use the rhyming slang.

Pleading his innocence, Tosh told the referee: “But I wasn’t talking to you, ref. I was calling ‘Aynsie a c***, and I’m allowed to, ‘cos he’s on my side.”

As we interviewed Tosh in the Craven Cottage forecourt after the game, he reached for a description of how he felt and said (with the Freddie Davies lisp): “I’m thick as a parrot.”

By the time it got into Monday’s newspaper reports, that had become “as sick as a parrot”, and a cliché was born.

I hope Countdown queen Susie Dent is sufficiently impressed to put that into her collection of original sayings. But I wonder how she will get round the Berkshire hunt reference? Over to you, Jeff.

Tosh Chamberlain was always good for a laugh. I was at Brisbane Road the day Fulham were playing Orient, and he was so preoccupied looking for Johnny Haynes that as he took a corner he missed the ball and kicked the flagpost out of the ground.

He once ran a right-back into dizzy array to the point where the humiliated defender growled, “Try to go past me once more and I’ll break your fucking leg.”

Quick-thinking Tosh, with self preservation top of his menu, switched to the other wing. He said to the youngster with whom he was swapping places: “You go to my position now. I’ve broken that full-back for you.”

I was delighted to see my old friend and erstwhile press box companion Patrick Collins lifting the SJA’s Sports Writer of the Year award for a fifth time. Totally deserved. Not bad for a boy from The Valley. He writes with a natural flow and rhythm that you cannot teach, and he couches blistering opinions and destructive criticism in palatable phrases that somehow makes the target on the receiving end feel almost privileged to be the victim.

Pat comes from good stock. His Dad, Pat senior, was an outstanding Sunday newspaper football reporter who was known, liked and trusted by anybody who was anybody in the game.

He welcomed me into the business when I was a young buck learning the reporting skills, and was always ready with a friendly welcome and advice to a kid who thought he knew it all but in fact knew f’all.

One of Pat Senior’s favourite stories was of the day he was at Millwall when John Macadam was reporting for the Daily Express. John was an intellectual, Bohemian character, who lived on a barge moored by the Thames Embankment and was a leading member of the artistic “Chelsea Set”.

An artist himself, the wee, handlebar-moustached Scot wrote like a dream (try to get hold of his autobiography The Macadam Road) and painted in words in the Express with descriptive phrases that came from the heavens.

Sadly, John got lost in an alcoholic maze and towards the end of his career was trusted only with lower league matches.
Thus his appearance at The Den, when Millwall were in the Third Division South. The particular game that Pat Collins pere recalled ended in a dull and dreary goalless draw.

Macadam dictated the following intro: “This was much ado about nothing-nothing …”

A Philistine of a sub changed it to read: “This was much ado about nil-nil …”

Macadam was reported as saying: “He should be bard.”

If it had been the Ides of March he might well have stabbed him. Take it from me, John was as sick as a parrot.

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