Dennis Signy – an appreciation by Gerry CoxWhen Dennis Signy rang, he didn't need to introduce himself – that marvellous, gravelly basso profondo could not have come from anyone else.
But of course, being unfailingly courteous and having been brought up to introduce himself at the earliest opportunity, even to old friends, he would say: “Gerry, it's Dennis. Everything alright, son?” before getting down to the nitty gritty, which was invariably a tip-off, a lead to follow up, or a bit of hot-off-the-press gossip.
In recent years the phone calls became less frequent and began to include more sombre news. It was Dennis who took it upon himself to relay the passing of some of the biggest influences in my career – Reg Hayter, Reg Drury and Ken Montgomery.
But Dennis was the biggest influence of all, so when his wife Pat rang on Wednesday morning, I knew what was coming. It was not unexpected. I had gone to see them only a week earlier, along with Nick Callow who now runs the modern version of Hayters with me. We'd both started out at Hayters in the late 80s, and while Reg instilled in us the essence of good writing and how to run a business, it was Dennis who told us all about getting a story. Their principles remain with us today, and we do our best to pass them on to the next generation of young sportswriters.
And when we started Teamwork in 1993, around the same time as Dennis found himself without a daily outlet for his steady stream of stories and tip-offs, it was then that the daily phone calls began.
“Might be worth getting yourself down to Chelsea's training ground this morning,” he'd say, and sure enough we were often ahead of the pack on a new signing. And being so generous with his advice and experience, the only 'payment' Dennis would accept would be the occasional bottle of Scotch, accepted with gratitude and shared with pleasure, over some of the funniest stories in Fleet Street. There was the time a young copper called asking for Mr Signy-Obe, not realising that Dennis did not have a double-barrelled surname but did have the Order of the British Empire, recommended by his local MP (and good friend) Margaret Thatcher for his charity work.
The fact Dennis had friends everywhere, even in 10 Downing Street, was testament to one of his main principles – look after your contacts and you'll have friends for life. He also taught me that stories come from the most unexpected sources – a car park attendant, the club doctor, the dinner lady. Dennis knew everyone and everything worth knowing, and sometimes created the news. When he was chief executive at QPR, having fulfilled a similar role at Brentford, he signed David Seaman from Birmingham for £225,00 before the goalkeeper was sold on to Arsenal at £1m profit two years later. It was a standing joke at Chelsea in the old days that you could get the lineup from Dennis before the teamsheet was printed – because he'd told the manager who to pick!
When Dennis moved on to help the Football League with their media relations, it was he who would introduce us to the young Richard Scudamore and David Sheepshanks, usually at a fashionably smart venue like The Savoy. And it was at the FWA events at the Savoy and the Lancaster where Dennis was in his element, as someone who served the FWA as Chairman twice, while Pat kept the operation running smoothly for years as executive secretary. It was Dennis who first got me involved in the FWA, telling me about its history and importance. No-one was prouder than Dennis when I followed his example by becoming Chairman in 2002, and he was the first man I thanked, having had such an influence over my career. I know the same goes for many of my peers.
We were all shocked when Dennis was taken seriously ill late in 2010, the day after Ken Montgomery's funeral. He was in intensive care for some time, and not expected to survive long. But 11 weeks later he was discharged, baffling the nursing staff with his strength and resolve. The cancer wouldn't stay away, unfortunately, and when Pat rang not long ago to say he was not long for this world, Nick and I went straight round. He was in good spirits, not surprisingly since his surreptitious slurps of Scotch were through a straw, and he recalled the day he and Reg Drury sat in El Vino's making a vow never to retire. Reg reluctantly quit the News of the World, and he and Dennis spoke every day until his sad demise, knocked down by a car in 2003. But Dennis was still writing a column in the Hendon Times and doing his stuff for Barnet, almost until their final day survival against relegation once again. He was pleased with that, and pleased to see us last week when we called. I asked if he'd ever written his memoirs. “No, but there are plenty of stories I could write.”
He was right about that, sure enough, and those stories live on with us, as does his spirit. I'll always think of him with a Scotch in one hand, cigarette in the other, and that wry grin as he asked. “Alright son?”
Yes, thanks to you, Dennis.