Queen of the press box scores another winner

NORMAN GILLER has been sacked from this column this week and received a settlement worth twice his annual fee. So he’s gone out and bought another book about Tottenham. Having applied for his old job, he’s been re-appointed on reduced terms, and promises to check his facts…

If you are going to buy only one sports book this Christmas, it has to be the latest masterpiece from Queen of Sportswriters, Julie Welch.

Julie Welch: first by-lined woman writer on a national sports desk

It is called The Biography of Tottenham Hotspur (Vision Sports Publishing), and is written with such clarity, passion and insight that it makes me wonder if I should hang up my quill.

You do not have to be a Spurs follower to enjoy a book that is a perfect example to any writer as to how stories should be told. Welch has the gift of being able to take her reader by the hand, leading through a field of facts without ever boring or losing you in a statistical maze.

Welch has been putting me and a queue of sportswriters in our place for more than 40 years. I was among those in the then all-male bastion of the Press Box who sniggered behind her back when she became the first by-lined female football writer in a national newspaper.

A woman in the Press Box? Good grief, next they’ll be banning smoking in pubs. As if.

She was promoted from sports desk secretary to football writer on The Observer back in 1969, and to my lasting shame I joined in the chorus with those who said: “A silly gimmick. It will never last.”

The Observer sports editor, one Ronald Atkin, got letters from readers complaining that that there was a literal in the by-line: “Surely it should read Julian?”

Julie was a jewel in the Observer crown, and “the Atkin” stood by her, and we were all soon bowing the knee and acknowledging she could write better than most of us and had an in-depth grasp of the Beautiful Game. In fact, she made it more beautiful with her prose.

Welch rewarded Atkin’s stout defence by marrying him, and they are among the most talented husband and wife teams in the world of literature. As well as being one of the finest of all tennis writers and a former SJA Sports Journalist of the Year, the Atkin is a distinguished historian with books about the Mexican Revolution, the Canadian Mounted Police, the Dieppe Raid of 1942 and the evacuation of Dunkirk under his belt.

While taking time out to bring up two sons, Welch switched to screenwriting and won wide acclaim for Those Glory Glory Days, about her schoolgirl crush on Danny Blanchflower in the 1960-61 Tottenham Double season. It was turned into a screen classic by David Puttnam.

Welch writes like Tottenham traditionally play the game: simple, to the point and often breath taking and dazzling.

I recommend that any aspiring young sportswriter, male or female, reads, inhales and learns from this pioneer how to stitch sentences together and bring them all expertly together in a superbly finished tapestry.


MY REGULAR READER will know that I am always banging on about the first rule of reporting: check and then double check your facts.

Clive Efford MP: “Who is Norman Giller?”

Then imagine the embarrassment of this pious prig when last week I managed to get wrong the name of the shadow sports minister. It would have been enough to get me a sacking from any decent newspaper.

Indeed, over last weekend and several heated phone calls from deepest south London, I was summarily dismissed, although because I took responsibility and offered my resignation, I received a pay-off of twice my annual fee. On Wednesday, I was re-engaged, though on different terms and conditions. Looking at the small print, it seems I have no longer have rights to the SJA pension fund.

My offence? I got Ian Austin mixed up with the new man in the shadow sports minister’s job, Clive Efford. He is a qualified football coach, supports Millwall and used to drive a black cab. Among his battles in the House is an on-going campaign to get more concentration on improved sports facilities at schools, for which I hope he gets across-Party backing.

What I got from my shaming experience is further evidence that the internet can be a minefield. To get background, I Googled: “New Shadow Minister for Sport”. Up came a page welcoming Ian Austin as the new man, giving full details of his appointment and outlining his thoughts and ideals. What it didn’t say is that this was a two-year-old page that had not been updated. No excuse that I took it as fact, but just a warning to you that what you read online is not necessarily topical or accurate. This old hack was confused and bemused (and certainly not amused).

Alan Hubbard, Independent on Sunday guru, informs me that Efford is very approachable, knows his sport inside out and literally has an encyclopedic knowledge of London.

He completed The Knowledge back in the 1980s, and when he saw my column putting Ian Austin in his job, he no doubt said, “Taxi for Mr Giller.”

I know Julie Welch would not have made such a mistake.


Thu Dec 6: 2012 SJA British Sports Awards. An Olympic year extravaganza at the Tower of London. Click here for more details, news of members’ discounts and a booking form.


Mon Mar 11: SJA British Sports Journalism Awards at the Grand Connaught Rooms in London. Entry forms will be available early in December.