JOHN MOYNIHAN, our former friend and colleague, died ten years ago today. His son Leo, also a successful football writer and FWA member, has written this lovely tribute to his father.
Among football people, conversation can often turn to how the game used to be. Not that reminiscence is exclusive to us. Film buffs will lament contemporary CGI, whilst those with a passion for modern art can be heard missing the good ol’ days of pickled sharks and soiled bed sheets. My own inner conversation about football always makes me think of my dad, John Moynihan, the long-serving football correspondent and writer, who died ten years ago today.
Dad never shied away from nostalgia — the mere mention of Tommy Lawton always brought a childlike smirk to his lovely, big face — but I’m not so sure, if he were here, that he would simply house himself in the ‘football was better in my day’ camp. For all the new, annoying trimmings that come with today’s game, I do believe that dad would have remained very much in love. VAR would have amused and enraged, players covering their mouths when chatting would have baffled, but then, come match day, he would have – like so many of us – remained very much enthralled.
The same sentiment applies to covering the game. I chuckle to myself when I think of John Moynihan, football writer, in today’s much changed environment. Dad wrestling with Twitter? Memories of his face when more hate mail landed on the mat from another angry, fellow Chelsea fan asking impolitely why he was always so tough on the blues, suggests he would have struggled with trolls. Put him in a modern press box though, the game and the story about to unfurl in front of him, and I know that his enthusiasm would have been as great as ever.
I saw him there many times. Lucky enough on occasion to join him as a young boy at Wembley or Anfield, I saw the smile that proceeded his work. Yes, there would be the mood swings, but even stories told in later life about the almost pugilistic struggle for a phone, or a late Michel Platini goal in the 1984 European Championships semi-final that so ruined his copy, were told with a glinted eye.
A day as a boy, at the match with dad meant matching him drink for drink (those who knew him, know that this was no mean feat) with salt ’n vinegar crisps and cola. Many evenings saw me run past my mum and straight to the loo to relieve myself of the days excesses, but if my bladder was full, so was my heart, as through dad I had fallen for his passion.
Sundays spent with his own football team helped further cement that love. Dad had met Brian Glanville in the 1950s over a game of Subbuteo, and having asked Brian if he’d like to play ‘the real thing,’ a kick-about was arranged on Hyde Park (Glanville says the best player was a tree) and in time, the Chelsea Casuals were born (dad wrote that theirs, ‘might be called LSD soccer, a pleasure only for the participants’).
By the time I was a boy, dad had made a big money move to Battersea Park F.C and it was watching him among his beloved team-mates, determined not to let four pre-match pints hinder their performance, that I further fell for the round ball. I made my debut, aged eleven, and early on, met a corner taken by dad with an overhead kick that rattled the woodwork. In the bar after the match, he approached me. There was a hush, he paused with that infamous hum of his and said, ‘Mmmmmmm…should have scored’.
Dad’s first steps into journalism were on the Bromley Mercury. He was eager to get on, and despite remarking that, ‘In Petts Wood, twins are news’ he recognised the solid grounding he got from those days. It was 1954 when he made the leap to the Evening Standard, where he would write a gossip column called ‘London Last Night’.
Its sociability appealed to the fun-loving young writer and later, in his 1970 autobiographical book, Not All a Ball, he observed about the changing face of London and celebrity in the late 1950s:
‘During the years that we sat squinting over our typewriters on unspeakable Shoe Lane dawns, after returning with some reluctance from junketings given by Aristotle Onassis at the Dorchester and Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe-Langenburg at the Casanova (try typing that out at four in the morning), London nightlife changed from being the addiction of the privileged minority to the raw diet of the swinging masses.’
There was then a short stint co-editing a pop column for the Daily Express. Things looked shaky when, one night in 1963, whilst interviewing four lads from Liverpool whose No.1 hit, She Loves You had just been knocked from the hit parade’s top spot, he asked, ‘Do you think the bubble’s burst, lads?’ John, Paul, Ringo and George had other ideas, and so, luckily, did dad’s editors.
Eventually and inevitably, his writing would combine with his love of football. He wrote his seminal book, The Soccer Syndrome on the eve of the 1966 World Cup, and whilst working for many Fleet Street names such as the Observer and the old Sun, Dad found his place as the Football Correspondent at the Sunday Telegraph. A spot he filled with pride for two decades.
Working alongside his dear friend, Colin Malam (one of our finest ever match reporters), dad, in those days of limited television coverage, adored telling the story. Yes, there was great pleasure in observing the seriousness of the occasion, but then with a turn of phrase, he relished adding a touch of playfulness that he felt any sport deserved.
Not to say that he didn’t have knowledge about the game’s intricacies. He had more than he sometimes let on. In The Soccer Syndrome, Dad prophetically mused on that Jimmy Greaves (a talent he had so adored in the striker’s teenage years at Chelsea) might in fact lose his place in Alf Ramsey’s XI, citing the manager’s desire for a greater work ethic, and calling Geoff Hurst (complimentarily) a willing ‘opportunist’ along the way.
Serious matters were never shied away from. Dad covered the 1981 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough, and such was the severity of the situation at the Leppings Lane end of the ground that day, where luckily Tottenham fans were able to get onto the pitch from overcrowded but not yet fenced pens, that Dad went onto write an important piece, headlined; FOOTBALL SAFETY: WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE. Not enough people read it.
It was, however, that whimsical side of the game that most grabbed him. Maybe it was growing up in the bohemian world of his artist parents that drew him towards football’s more diverse brushstrokes; those layers upon layers of paint that help produce the final masterpiece.
There was his first cup final as a reporter in1973, a glorious day for Mackems and romantics alike; and then there was the day in 1987 when the once huge Burnley salvaged their league status with a last day win over Leyton Orient. These were the days that had his fingers tapping the typewriter with extra vigour.
And then there was the meteoric rise of Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town. A journey that so appealed to him, not only because of the brand of football played by the likes of Arnold Muhren and Paul Mariner, but also that it took them across Europe, and dad enjoyed nothing more than sampling the gastronomic pleasures in the bistros of St Etienne with the club’s like-minded owners, Patrick and John Cobbold.
Intrigue came not (only) from the central action, but from the periphery, where those who followed and loved the game could be found. A trip to an Italian restaurant meant long conversations with our waiter about Verona’s Serie A glory in 1985, and latter visits to hospitals had him quickly knowing the full footballing background of one or two interrogated but willing orderlies.
Those who watched the game, those who travelled to be there; each fan had a desire to be at the match whatever the weather, and it was their involvement that always pricked dad’s attention. He would have hated the recent season behind closed doors. In The Soccer Syndrome he wrote:
‘There is always the match and there is always the crowd. Without the crowd it wouldn’t be the same because with a yelling, baying, bawling crowd around him, a player’s metabolism rises as each swell of sound gushes towards him from the terraces as he heads for goal. If there was no crowd he could still be heading for goal, but there would be no sound to make him wallow in the moment, in which needles of piercing devotion are driven into his bloodstream from the terraces, uplifting his efforts.’
When I played football, Dad would be a regular face among the leaves and trees. Hackney Marshes, there was dad. A summer tournament in Amsterdam, there was Dad. For many years, I was a regular on Islington’s astroturf at Market Road, and – despite him once saying, ‘This is the coldest pitch in Britain…and I’ve been to Pittodrie’ – there was dad.
Talking of Aberdeen, I remember one visit. Dad returned, beaming with news of an Egyptian win over the Scots. This wasn’t English jingoism (he had no time for all that) but more that he had witnessed a rare footballing story. It was spring 1990. Little did we know that in the shape of Cameroon that summer, African football would capture so many hearts, and so a winning team from a continent hitherto labelled ‘unfashionable,’ would have seemed very much en vogue to his mischievous nature.
Dad loved that football could reach global corners, and that’s why he adored the World Cup. Today, we all face awkward conversations about Qatar hosting the event, and whilst the human rights issues and the scandalous death rate among those who have built the stadia would have more than raised concerns; from a pure footballing point of view, the curious side of his journalism would have delved into both the controversy of the tournament but also the newness of its location.
After all, this won’t be the first World Cup hosted by a questionable regime. Dad was a fascinated member of the press corps in Argentina in 1978. Maybe his big bush of dark hair and a lush bandit moustache gave him more sway among the military junta, but he always talked fondly of his month enjoying both Malbec and Mario Kempes.
My first World Cup memory was Spain ’82. Not yet nine-years-old, I sat eagerly in front of the television but also next to the phone, hoping for one of dad’s calls from the press box. Italy were taking on Brazil in a game that he would insist was the among the very best he would ever see. At half-time, the call came. Over the crackling line, he urged me to keep watching. As if I needed telling. The following Monday at school, as friends on the playground tried to replicate the magic of Socrates and Rossi, I bored them with boasts. ‘My dad was there!’
Eight years later, dad told me to get my GCSEs finished, raise the train fare to Italy, and he would put me up in his plush (those were the days) hotel on the Italian riviera. That summer there was an alcohol ban 48-hours prior to World Cup games, and dad was with the Scottish press, a group hard hit by that particular rule. On my arrival in beautiful Santa-Margarita, I was taken by how friendly the Scottish contingent were. The wonderful Ken Montgomery eventually explained. Dad, as was his way, had hunted for and found a basement bar that would serve clandestine drinks. ‘Your dad is a bit of a god to the lads,’ Ken said. ‘He literally turned water into wine.’
By then, dad had moved to the new Independent on Sunday, but as newspapers left Fleet Street, so dad soon left newspapers, and a whole decade ago, he left us. Life goes on, the game continues to flourish, but maybe, on reflection, when John Moynihan was covering it, football was just a little bit better.