Gala Tribute Evening to Gary Neville and Paul ScholesPAUL HETHERINGTON on a night – and knife – to remember, the missing brochures and Bryan Robson’s motorway dash
By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
THE FOOTBALL WRITERS’ ASSOCIATION breaks with tradition on Sunday when Gary Neville and Paul Scholes will be honoured at the Gala Tribute evening at the Savoy.
Since the first event in 1983 when the late Ron Greenwood was the recipient one person has been chosen each year by the FWA to recognise his services to English football.
This is the second Savoy dinner Paul Hetherington, executive secretary of the FWA, has organised following the death of the long-serving Ken Montgomery. He was also FWA chairman for three Gala Tribute evenings when Bryan Robson, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham were the recipients, the latter honoured at the Lancaster London.
Hetherington, the Daily Star on Sunday football editor, said: “The FWA chairman traditionally has the choice of who will be honoured but as a courtesy it is discussed at the monthly national committee meeting. I can’t remember too many dissenting voices for the chairman’s choice.”
Or in this year’s case, the double choice by Steve Bates, the current chairman and chief football writer for the People.
Hetherington said: “Steve thought it was appropriate to honour Gary and Paul because they both retired at Manchester United last season. Well, so we thought. Now, of course, we have the situation where Paul is no longer retired, not that a player has to have quit to be recognised.”
AROUND 360 members and guests will be present at the Savoy for the FWA’s first-ever double tribute. For Paul Hetherington the biggest problem is turning people away because the event has become a victim of its own success.
“The biggest headache I have is not being able to accommodate everyone. The dinner was a sell-out in 12 hours,” said Hetherington. “Within a day I was looking at a waiting list situation. The demand for the function is huge.
“With the Footballer of the Year dinner at the Lancaster London we have more scope. The room there could, at a squeeze, accommodate 1,000 people though we normally have between 750 and 800 guests.
“We are restricted at the Savoy because of the size of the function room so we can only have around half the number of the May dinner, so sadly we have to disappoint some people for the Gala Tribute evening.”
The Lancaster London has always laid on an excellent Footballer of the Year dinner plus the years it staged the January function while the Savoy was being refurbished until its re-opening in 2011. But for a black tie event with members’ partners present the Savoy has a special magic that gives the Gala Tribute evening a unique atmosphere.
Hetherington said: “The Savoy is a magnet, people want to go there and say they’ve been there. It’s an iconic hotel and I am sure one of the factors in the demand is the venue. Ladies, particularly, enjoy going to the Savoy, not least because it’s a dinner-dance event. It is far from being a so-called boring football evening packed with football speeches.”
WHEN IT comes to the fine turning of the Gala Tribute evening the Football Writers’ Association is at the mercy of the fixture list. The bonus this year is that Manchester United are in London on Sunday to play Arsenal at the Emirates in a Barclays Premier League game – “though if the score is Arsenal 4, United 0 we may think otherwise,” added Hetherington with a smile.
“At least we know where Gary, Paul and all the United party will be that day.”
Hetherington also knew where Bryan Robson was going to be when the then West Bromwich Albion manager was honoured in 2006. Unfortunately from a logistical viewpoint Albion were playing at Wigan that day.
“When I looked at the fixtures and saw Wigan v West Bromwich I thought, without being disrespectful to those clubs, there’s no way that will be a televised game. I assumed the match would go ahead on the Saturday.”
“Luckily it was a lunch time kick-off rather than the later game which would have given us big problems. We had a driver waiting outside the stadium and 10 minutes after the match had ended Bryan was in the car ready to come down to London. He left the press conference to his assistant, Nigel Pearson and Bryan arrived at the hotel pretty well on time.”
What did not arrive on time – or even arrive – were the brochures for the David Beckham Gala Tribute evening four years ago.
Hetherington said: “The delivery company’s driver, for some reason, decided to try to gain access to the Lancaster by a rear entrance which was locked. When he couldn’t get in he simply drove off with all the programmes in the back. All he had to do was to walk round the front of the hotel and he would have found numerous members of staff present. That didn’t occur to him, though.”
IN A quarter of a century of service to the FWA, Paul Hetherington has also been involved with numerous regional functions in his native north-east and the north-west. One in 1995, the FWA's Northern Managers' Awards Dinner at The Portland Hotel in Manchester, stands out.
He said: “I was sitting there during the dinner when someone tapped me on my shoulder. Behind me was Mick Buxton who had not long been sacked as Sunderland manager. He had a knife in his hand. ‘Paul,’ he said. ‘Just take this and stick it in my back.’
“The background to that was that when Sunderland decided to replace Mick, I was involved it setting up the appointment of his replacement, Peter Reid. Word had reached Mick that I was the man behind Reidy getting what was his job. When I initially saw Mick and what he was holding I thought he clearly did not appreciate my role in what had happened.
“He then broke into a smile and a laugh saying: “Don’t worry Paul...you’re all right. I’m only joking.”
Hetherington said: “He knew that if I hadn’t been involved then somebody else would. He knew he wasn’t going to keep his job and accepted that.”
SIR ALEX FERGUSON has kept his job at Manchester United for 25 years with, he said, at least three more to come. Ferguson will be present on Sunday to speak about Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, two of United’s finest products and loyal servants.
Depending on which game he is covering Paul Hetherington will travel to London either on the day of the dinner or on the Saturday. He said: “If I come down on Sunday I’d aim to be at the Savoy early afternoon. Between two and three I’ll have a meeting with Steve Bates and the key hotel personnel involved in the function to run through everything.”
The evening will be enjoyed by FWA members and guests but for Bates and Hetherington relaxation is on hold until the presentations have been made.
“It is easier to let your guard down and have a few drinks when you are not on the top table,” said Hetherington. “If you aren’t involved in the organisation and speeches there are no worries. I’ll make the most of it once the dinner is completed, hopefully successfully.”
Another change is that on Sunday the Gala Tribute evening will follow the lead of the Footballer of the Year dinner over the past two years with a question and answer session rather than Neville and Scholes each making a speech. Sky Sports’ Ben Shephard will be in charge of proceedings.
Hetherington said: “This has worked well at the Lancaster and the Q and A format also provides good copy for FWA members. The recent recipients have preferred this to having to make a speech though I have to say the standard of speeches we have had is excellent.
“David Beckham spoke for around 40 minutes and had obviously put a lot of thought into what he was going to say. He made the point that he’d had a few ups and downs with the media over the years but underlined that he could not really complain because the majority of publicity he’d received during his career was a lot more positive that negative.”
The only part of Sunday’s event which Hetherington was reluctant to talk about was the table gift for the ladies.
He said: “Let’s just say the national committee are very happy with the ladies’ gift. I’m sure they will appreciate it.”