Sheer delight to be at the SJA British Sports Awards

THE VIEW FROM TABLE 31: Staged in London each year since 1949, the SJA’s British Sports Awards remain an event for all the Association’s members, as ANTON RIPPON, who travelled from Derby, shows

Days that end in the sheer delight of having enjoyed another brilliant SJA British Sports Awards can sometimes begin badly, especially if you don’t live locally.

Ripping yarns: Anton Rippon, left, with his guests
Ripping yarns: Anton Rippon, left, with his guests Olympic gold medallist oarsman Martin Cross (centre) and former Derby County footballer Nigel Cleevely

On one occasion my train from the Midlands was delayed, London’s traffic was heavy, my cabbie had never heard of the Pavilion (fortunately, he had heard of the Tower of London) and I arrived to find the chilled fizzy wine no longer chilled and now less than fizzy. Not their fault, and it didn’t matter anyway because I hadn’t time to grab a glass.

Last year was a bit of a rerun. My train was cancelled altogether, I stood for most of the way on its replacement, the traffic was even worse and I paid £30 to travel about a mile before arriving at the Grand Connaught Rooms just in time to see the starters being removed from the table.

So, this year I set off on a much earlier train. It was imperative that we arrived early – I say “we”: that’s Mrs R and daughter Nicola – because for the first time Rippon Features was hosting its own table. Part of the fun had always been discovering who our table companions would be. In 2016, we decided it was about time to entertain.

So Martin Cross joined us. Martin, who writes for The Guardian, won his Olympic gold medal in the coxed four – the boat in which Steve Redgrave won the first of his five – at Los Angeles in 1984. I published Martin’s autobiography, Olympic Obsession, and we’ve been pals ever since. He brought along his medals – Olympic gold and bronze – and they were almost caressed as they were passed round the table. Can there be any other sporting medal so revered?

My other guests included interviewer, consultant and filmmaker Leon Mann, who has reported for both the BBC and ITV. Leon started out as the international spokesperson for football’s anti-racism campaigns Kick It Out and Football Against Racism in Europe. He founded the Black Collective of Media in Sport (BCOMS), a network that lobbies the UK’s leading power brokers in the media industry to raise the prospects and profile of black sports journalists, and he was a big help when the SJA staged its first Diversity Forum earlier this year. The SJA plans to work more with him.

Graham Snowdon is the second of three generations of SJA members. Graham developed Snowdon Sports Media Partners into one of the best specialist agencies in the country. More importantly to me, he shares a dry northern wit. We need that whenever we find ourselves this far south. Graham’s first such event was exactly 50 years ago, when the event was held at the Café Royal and he shared a table with his parents, his then boss, Phil Drackett, and his wife, and, Peta, Graham’s girlfriend of around two months’ standing (now his wife).

The Pavilion at the Tower of London provided a glittering venue for The National Lottery-sponsored SJA British Sports Awards lunch. Photo: Steve Rowe/SJA
The Pavilion at the Tower of London provided a glittering venue for The National Lottery-sponsored SJA British Sports Awards lunch. Photo: Steve Rowe/SJA

“We had invitations to pre-dinner drinks at the Martini Terrace on the roof of New Zealand House, where Peta was delighted to meet Beryl Burton, a runner-up that year, but Sportswoman of the Year in 1967,” Graham said.

Back to 2016, Mirror Group sportswriter Will Price also joined me. He is a Derby lad who now lives in Bournemouth, and who recently co-wrote a book that I published (Clough, Maxwell and Me; check it out on Amazon).

Our table was completed by two friends from Derby, Ian and Gill Browning, together with my old pal Nigel Cleevely whose Derby County career came to abrupt end when new manager Brian Clough told him that he could have a pound rise there and then, or wait while Cloughie saw him play, and he might get four pounds; Nigel could choose. He gave the wrong answer. Still, he ended up as a director of Lunn Poly, so perhaps it was just as well.

So there we were, a well-balanced table of many talents, all set for an afternoon of fine entertainment as the best in British sport was honoured, all royally organised by an SJA sub-committee chaired by Mary Fitzhenry. I managed to congratulate Mary as she flew past. She assured me: “James Green from Start2Finish is the real star. We literally would struggle to organise this event without him.” I can believe that. The task is immense, and James and his colleague, Petta Naylor, deserve full recognition.

There are two things that you can always rely on the SJA British Sports Awards to deliver: Jim Rosenthal compering the whole event seamlessly, and Sybil Ruscoe’s table interviews. She teases out just the right responses. They are one of the highlights of the event. Same again this year.

Toni Minicello's delight is evident after he collected his award for services to sport. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Toni Minicello’s delight is evident after he collected his award for services to sport. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

It is always a disappointment when a recipient doesn’t turn up to collect their trophy. It can’t be helped. I did not expect to see the SJA’s Sportsman of the Year, Andy Murray. And probably not Sportswoman of the Year, Laura Kenny. It was, though, good to see three members of the Team of the Year, Britain’s Rio gold medal-winning women’s hockey team, come up to take their bow.

Jess Ennis-Hill’s coach, Toni Minichiello, proved a dry wit when he was interviewed by Sybil Ruscoe, and even more so when he later came up to receive the BT Sport JL Manning Award for services to sport.

There was a nice moment when gymnast Max Whitlock, winner of the SJA Committee Award, admitted that he was more nervous when he proposed to his girlfriend. Whitlock’s demanour on stage summed up that of all the winners – self-effacing and humble.

Indeed, I heard one guest say that the whole event had been “humbling” because it celebrated – and honoured – sport in all its forms, and reminded them that there is much more to write about than Premier League football.

All in all, another great occasion that should surely outrank the BBC’s personality-driven version.