Dixon provided football copy that delights the ages

Play up, paly up and play the game: the 1936 FA Cup Final, as covered by NJN Dixon and early forms of drones
Play up, play up and play the game: the 1936 FA Cup Final, as covered by NJN Dixon and early forms of drones

Trawling through the archives provides unexpected gems, as ANTON RIPPON has discovered the long-forgotten works of a football writer from a bygone age

NJN Dixon has become my hero.

I wish I had met the man who could write: “Just before the end, O’Donnell banged a fierce shot against the underside of the crossbar, and an eagle-eyed linesman announced that a goal had been scored. Arsenal could hardly have been more indignant had they been told that this goal counted four, that Preston had won the match, the championship, the FA Cup, Doggetts Coat and Badge, and the Open Golf Championship, and that the Arsenal team would have to carry their bags to the station.” They don’t write it like that any more.

He was also responsible for: “Burke could not have defended his own home with greater zeal; and by a pretty precision in charging and perfect timing of his leaps to the lofty passes which were tossed like Westminster School pancakes towards Smith, he removed United’s centre-forward from the game.”

And “Rowley did make two fine shots from long range, both of which might have gone home without damage to Biddlestone’s reputation, and on one fleeting escape from bondage in the second half, Baird was denied by Biddlestone’s third save of considerable merit and acrobatism.”

More John Buchan than Charles Buchan.

NJN Dixon’s words illuminated the Manchester Guardian’s sports page in the 1930s. I first became aware of him 30 years ago when my occasional co-author, Andrew Ward copied down some of Dixon’s prose while trawling through the British Newspaper Library at Colindale.

Andy came across this sportswriting giant’s work when he was writing a book on Manchester City’s history. We both laughed out loud at the goalkeeper who conceded a goal and “looked like he’d seen a giraffe for the first time”, and at Frank Swift “looking as lonely as an Eddystone lighthouse-keeper”.

Dixon, whose initials stood for Norman James Neilson, was born in Eskbank, Midlothian in 1898, the son of a Methodist minister. The family moved to Lancashire when NJN was still a boy. In 1916 he joined the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and, attached to the Royal Engineers, served on the Western Front.

Quite when Dixon’s journalistic career began isn’t clear but apart from his Manchester Guardian columns he was also a regular contributor to BBC wireless programmes. On April 18, 1939, for instance, he was a team member on a Northern Home Service programme entitled “Football Bee”. Sandwiched between Jack Payne and his Band and the national news, Football Bee was a quiz about the rules of the game. Dixon, of course, was playing for the journalists, his fellow team members being Tom Cragg and HD Davies. The spectators’ team comprised Miss Bertha Hamer, BF Davies and WH Wilkinson. Archie Ledbrooke, who would die in the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, was the “Bee-master”.

Dixon’s name keeps popping up in back issues of the Radio Times. On April 27, 1937, the National Programme, broadcast from Daventry, carried news of a programme presented by him: “Do you remember the auto-gyros hovering over Wembley when last year’s FA Cup Final was being played? The film companies and the Stadium authorities disagreed over the fee for filming within the ground. So the film people chartered a covey of auto-gyros and took pictures from the air. This afternoon NJN Dixon will describe the incidents of the 1936 Cup Final, going on to talk about the development and organisation of sport in Britain in recent years.” As if drones were a new thing.

He also gave listeners “eye-witness” accounts of First Division matches.

But it is his prose that fascinates me: “Certainly there was some barefaced plundering of Preston’s fragile passes, and sometimes, in spite of great roars of ‘Look Out!’ from the multitude, Preston players would be waylaid and robbed like innocent old gentlemen.”

“Hapgood was playing with the fervour of a Welsh revivalist.”

“Indeed, only one drive of Bryant’s demanded of Hall’s brave goalkeeping qualities other than a good balance and a sense of humour.”

“This game will make pessimists out of us all.”

In April 1951, by then night editor of the Manchester Guardian, Dixon was one of a number of British journalists – they included JL Manning, then sports editor of the Sunday Chronicle – on a press flight to the United States to meet President Harry S Truman.

He may also have been the Mr NJN Dixon who in the February 1937 edition of Animal World magazine “offers some sound advice on showing a dog”.

Does anyone remember him? I’m pleased to have given his words an airing again …

“As a burlesque the game had its points; as a serious match it was exasperating.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist just one more.

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