Football writers are reluctant to reveal their sources, but here JACK IRVINE tells the details behind the exclusive story of the ground-breaking transfer of former Celtic striker Mo Johnston to Rangers.
The Sun has been a potent force in Scottish journalism since its launch in 1987.
However in the first couple of years under my editorship there was always a degree of resistance to this “English interloper” into the cosy world of Scottish newspapers then dominated by The Daily Record.
That all changed on July 10, 1989 with a Sun front page headline that read simply “MO JOINS GERS.” Since that day it’s the one story that I am repeatedly questioned about and the one surrounded by myth and misinformation. Did I pay Graeme Souness £100,000 for the story? Was it Rangers owner David Murray or Maurice Johnston’s agent Bill McMurdo who delivered the goods? Why did the Daily Record fail to pick it up when it hit their desks on the evening of July 9?
Well, the truth is much simpler and at the same time an example of good old fashioned journalism and gut instinct tinged with the wee bit of luck that every reporter needs
At the end of June I had attended a Press Fund Charity lunch at the Marriot Hotel in Glasgow. To my delight I won the raffle which was a week for two in Majorca. That evening I showed the hotel details to my wife who said: “What a dump, I’m not going there. Take one of your golfing pals.” I arranged to do just that.
A couple of days later Graeme Souness called me. I had got to know him and Walter Smith because of the number of stories we had broken about Rangers and we had always got on well.
Souness indicated that he had heard about my win and he would be visiting his kids in Majorca following the breakdown of his marriage. His former wife was staying with her parents, who had been resident on the island for a number of years, but he would only be able to see the children for a couple of hours a day and would have a lot of time on his hands.
“How about we team up when I’m there? “said Souness. “And we can play golf and soak up some sun?”
Sneakily I then up upgraded our run of the mill hotel to the five star Sheraton Son Vida where Souness would be staying. Naturally I didn’t share that information with Mrs Irvine.
The pattern was the same every day for the next week. Lying by the pool (oddly the place was deserted), lunch, golf for me and my mate (Graeme didn’t play in these days) then out for dinner every night to the island’s finest restaurants where Graeme was instantly recognised from his days with Liverpool and Sampdoria.
Round about the third bottle of Rioja, Souness would always ask the same question, “Should Rangers sign a Catholic?”
Now remember Souness was married (or about to be unmarried) to a Roman Catholic and as an Edinburgh lad he had never really experienced sectarianism until he joined Rangers in 1986 as player/manager.
He knew only too well that things had to change at Ibrox if only to give them access to top continental players, but I must stress that the questions and the conversations were non-specific and extremely general.
However, I had observed that every day as we lay by the pool Souness was repeatedly approached by a waiter to be informed that a “Mr Rodger was on the phone from Scotland.”
Mr Rodger was the legendary sportswriter Jim Rodger of the Daily Mirror. I say “sportswriter” but to be perfectly honest the then 66-year-old was probably the worst writer in the business. However his contacts were legendary and he had access to every leading football manager in the world, not to forget The Pope and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who he insisted on calling “hen.”
Souness kept his cards close to his chest and I assumed that Jim was talking to him about some future transfer because the Daily Mirror man was notorious for acting as a go-between between managers and agents. Whether the Mirror ever benefitted from this inside information is a mute point. They were certainly going to miss out in a few days time.
I flew back to Glasgow on the Saturday July 8 to be informed by my wife that we were buying a new house. I think that was my punishment for the Son Vida. Souness was flying back to Edinburgh on the Sunday.
As I’d been skiving for a week I felt obliged to give my deputy the Sunday off and take the editor’s chair. Early in the afternoon our young gofer, a 16-year-old schoolboy called Keith Jackson [now a respected sports writer with the Daily Record] nervously popped his head round the editor’s door and asked if he could speak to me.
The conversation was surreal.
“Mr Irvine, I was round at my girlfriend’s house last night.”
“I saw a fax on her dad’s machine.”
“It had Mo Johnston’s name on it…”
“Oh, I should have explained, her dad handles all the insurance for Rangers players.”
The world stopped on its axis. “Bloody hell,” I shouted or maybe something fruitier.
I dialled Souness’s mobile and as luck would have it he had just stepped off the plane at Edinburgh
“Graeme, remember you asked me if you should sign a Catholic? It’s Mo isn’t it?”
Souness, a man of few words simply said: “Call you back.”
About 20 minutes later he called: “Print it” was all he said.
The Sun went into meltdown on that Sunday afternoon. The sports desk, under the brilliant Steve Wolstencroft, teamed up with the news boys and it fell to Derek Stewart Brown to write the front page splash which was quite an achievement considering he had virtually no hard facts apart from the Souness confirmation, Keith’s sight of the fax and my endless conversations in Majorca.
If memory serves me correctly there were 14 news pages alone devoted to the story and sport must have done almost as many. My Daily Record spies told me the next day that when the early editions of The Sun landed on the Record sports desk at Anderston Quay they almost collapsed before phoning star sportswriter Alex Cameron who was in his bed.
When the late man on the Record sports desk explained that The Sun were claiming that Mo was about to join Rangers, Cameron grumpily said: “They’re just taking a flyer. Don’t wake me up again with crap like this.”
The Record boys promptly went back to sleep and have remained that way ever since.
The next morning, Monday, Rangers called a press conference. Sun sportswriter Jim Black told me later that day when the media pack all arrived they were heaping derision on The Sun and at the head of the detractors was one Alex Cameron. Suddenly David Murray and Graeme Souness were followed into the room by Maurice Johnston.
Jim told me: “Alex turned chalk white. It was as if his life was flashing in front of them.”
Apparently when I had called Souness he was on his way to David Murray’s home where Mo and Bill McMurdo were waiting for him. He told them that I had been on the phone and had guessed what was happening. I knew all of them and they agreed that Souness could confirm the story.
From that day on we knew we had broken the Record’s spirit and every big story dropped into my lap.
How much did it cost me? I gave young Keith £500 to go on holidays and that was the end of it. How he ended up on The Day-late Record after such a promising start I’ll never know.
So sorry to disappoint the conspiracy theorists. No bungs. No phone hacking. Just old fashioned journalism. Oh, and of course, an editorial genius at the helm.
This is a chapter from “Henrik, Hairdryers and the Hand of God” edited by Brian Marjoribanks (Back Page Press £8.99).
Scottish Daily Mail sports writer Brian Marjoribanks came up with the idea for the project as a tribute to his late baby son Andrew, who arrived stillborn at 39 weeks on September 12, 2011 – three days before his due date. Moved and inspired by the subsequent flood of letters and cards from across the sports writing fraternity, Brian decided to try to put together a book in honour of his son, with all proceeds going to Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity.
Brian said: “The idea I had was for a book telling terrific sports stories first and foremost, while simultaneously giving the reader a unique insight into a career that fascinates many and enrages even more. I was touched and honoured by the response from my fellow sports writers. Each and every journalist kindly donated an article for no charge and it shines through in the book that it is the work of gifted professionals and good people, who love their job, adore their sport and are passionate about what they do for a living.”
The book includes exclusive articles by leading sports writers and broadcasters including Football Writers’ Association national committee member Patrick Barclay, FWA life member Malcolm Brodie, Roddy Forsyth, Graham Hunter, Tom English, Graham Spiers, Kenny MacDonald, Gerry McNee, Davie Provan, Pat Nevin and Brian Marjoribanks.
Brian said: “The exceptional standard of writing in the book makes it a worthy tribute to my son and all monies raised will go to the Sands charity, which my wife Jennifer and I, sadly, know provide such invaluable support to parents who lose children.”