Phil’s Forty, 32: Sporting chances

Even as a business journalist there were opportunities to write about sport. Usually they involved covering the business angles, such as a Hull City sponsorship deal, but in 1997 I bagged the press pass for the Five Nations decider between England and France at Twickenham.  

Phil Ascough, at the National Sports Club, Bermuda.
Phil Ascough, at the National Sports Club, Bermuda.

Chris Harvey was the Sports Editor at the time, nobody on his team was that keen on rugby union and he was aware I’d reported on the game regularly during my time in Bermuda. And, unlike Chris’s sports journalists, I didn’t usually work Saturdays.

But Chris said he could use 500 words on the whistle as he handed me the coveted pass and one of the very few classic grey Nokia phones which were available to reporters heading out of the office. The instructions for that were simple – make sure the battery wasn’t dead when the time came to file the report!

[Editor’s note – I’m sure I’ve seen Phil still using that Nokia…]

It was a long, manic, memorable day given a surreal touch by bumping into a guy called Thor Valdmanis in the gents’ loo at the Twickenham press box. Thor, from Canada, was a colleague in Bermuda. I hadn’t seen him since my wedding reception in 1992 at Willerby Manor, where he arrived about two hours late having mistakenly gone to Willerby near Scarborough. I haven’t seen him since the chance meeting at the rugby.

We didn’t have time for a chat. The press box was over-subscribed and I had to rush for a seat in the back row of the top tier of the stand, notebook perched on my lap as I took down the details of what would be the Grand Slam decider, in France’s favour.

I was rusty, not having covered a rugby match for more than five years, and I was far from certain my report would do justice to the match, the occasion and Sports Mail given the difficult working conditions. But I managed to find a quiet corner for the call to the office and I was delighted the following day to see that my interpretation was entirely consistent with the Sunday Telegraph’s, written by former England international Paul Ackford.

In Bermuda the regular rugby diet was modest fare, with just four clubs who played each other maybe half a dozen times during the winter season and a similar fixture list for their reserve teams. But every November they took a break from domestic competition to host the World Rugby Classic, a veteran’s tournament which attracted some of the stars of the international game, slightly past their prime, for a festival of running rugby.

In the spring the organisers would bring in current top players for the Easter Classic, with David Campese leading his team to a 72–36 win over Jeremy Guscott’s side in one memorable contest.

Football was the biggest sport at a time when Kyle Lightbourne was embarking on a career which would lead to him making more than 100 appearances in English football, including three on loan at City. His compatriot Shaun Goater was already playing in England by then, and I was reporting the action for Reuters when they lined up together to beat Haiti in a World Cup qualifier, with Goater getting the only goal.

So many young journalists dream of covering sport and for me the door opened in my first job. I was the only reporter on the small staff who wanted to do it. And I wanted to do it more than anything else. 

For two seasons I covered every Doncaster Rovers home game and a few away games. That might not set the pulse racing but for most of that period the manager was Billy Bremner, who joined the club from Hull City during my first few months in the job. Bremner was great to work with, and his standing in the game was such that the Fleet Street sports reporters were regular visitors to Belle Vue, providing fantastic learning opportunities for a fledgling reporter who was naïve enough to believe that top sports stars didn’t smoke – until Bremner pulled out a packet of cigarettes in a nightclub as we enjoyed a drink after a fund-raising event!

For a couple of years in Hull the sports reporting stopped because I would be in the office most Saturdays, although there were a lot of news stories to be done with rugby league fans flocking to Wembley to watch Challenge Cup finals and City fighting for survival before the arrival of Don Robinson.

But at the Yorkshire Post we rarely worked Saturdays and from 1983 until 1989 I would usually find myself covering football every Saturday of the season, assisting the Donny freelance Peter Catt and on alternate weekends helping out the late Mike Ackroyd, one of the nicest men and finest journalists I’ve ever met.

There’s a separate piece to be written about working with Mike, but time spent with him and with Pete brought invaluable experience of advance preparation, hitting tight deadlines and developing different styles of writing.

With Hull City and Doncaster Rovers in the lower divisions for much of the 1980s the national press would generally order from us rather than send their own writer, and they would all want 300 to 400 words at full time. 

Depending on who our teams were playing we might also have orders from their media. A visit by the likes of Rochdale, Bury or Oldham Athletic would bring a call for maybe 800 words from the Manchester Evening News, broken down into line-ups 15 minutes before kick-off and updates every 15 to 20 minutes.

In a dull game you might find yourself asking the copytaker in Manchester for a bit of background about their team to try and pad things out a bit. But it wasn’t unknown for a match to burst into life in the last few minutes, necessitating a major rewrite of the top of the story.

Occasionally I’d cover Sheffield Wednesday in the First Division for the Yorkshire Post, but the best opportunities came from cricket, when I booked a few days off to cover tours of Bermuda by Australia in 1991 and England A the following year.

The Aussie squad had hardly changed from the one I’d spent most of the summer of 1989 watching as they trounced England. Mark Taylor and Geoff Marsh, Steve and Mark Waugh, Allan Border and Merv Hughes, stopping off to play festival cricket on the way home from a tour of the West Indies.

England A arrived on their way to a Caribbean tour which was seen as a big test of the leadership skills of Martyn Moxon, captain of Yorkshire and of this touring side. Things began well. Too well. 

England A disposed of Bermuda so rapidly in the opening game that the captains decided there was time for a 20-over filler. Attempting a catch in a match that meant nothing, Moxon broke a thumb and was ruled out of the rest of the tour. I arrived at the ground the next day for the second match to find him with his arm in a sling, knowing I’d want some quotes to send to the Yorkshire Post.

“I guess you’ll be wanting to talk to me,” he said.

Almost as crestfallen was my Royal Gazette colleague, Dexter Smith, a few days later. A fine batsman, Dexter had been selected for one of the representative sides and hoped a big score against the tourists would earn him a place in the Bermuda national team. 

He studied a touring party packed with some of England’s rising stars – Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe, Mark Ramprakash, Dominic Cork – and targeted Devon Malcolm. Dexter watched hours of video, examining the threats and opportunities presented by England’s latest fast-bowling sensation, and declared he would hit Malcolm into the car park.

But the match fell on Malcolm’s birthday, he was given the day off to enjoy the social side of Bermudian cricket and Dexter was bowled round his legs, third delivery, by Ian Salisbury. Dexter had neglected to research the strengths of the Sussex leg-spinner. In fact he thought the guy’s name was Ian Sainsbury.

Dexter wasn’t selected for Bermuda’s tour of England that summer, but I was there. Having left the Royal Gazette at the end of May I spotted an earning opportunity between jobs, following the team around their six matches, reporting the action for my previous paper and picking up a few additional stories to cover the rest days.

When they dropped in at Lord’s for a net session I managed to get an interview with a key figure at what was then the Test and Country Cricket Board, about the preparations for the Test match against the West Indies which began the next day. I wrote the story on a portable typewriter as I sat in one of those little boxes used by the people who sell match scorecards, and I then paid a nearby hotel a couple of quid to fax it to the office in Bermuda.

Kyle Lightbourne, a dual international who featured in the visit of the Aussies, missed the tour of England having instead signed to play football for Scarborough, where former Yorkshire Post colleague Terry Carrott joined me in putting together a piece for the Royal Gazette’s glossy magazine.

We covered training on the beach and at Oliver’s Mount, and over lunch we spoke to Kyle’s manager, Ray McHale, about the pressures of survival in English football’s fourth tier. On the next day I returned to cover the home match against Hereford United which, with Meshach Wade and Kentoine Jennings subbed on by the visitors, saw three Bermudians playing in the same English league game for the first time. Kyle claimed the bragging rights, scoring once to help his team to a 2­–0 win.

Reporting on English football for a magazine in Bermuda was a first for me as well, and another example of the exciting sports writing opportunities which were a fun distraction from the day-to-day of general news reporting.

Phil Ascough

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.