Tony Hudd was given a life ban by Gillingham for something he did not write…the extraordinary story of how a reporter carried on working with a little help from his friends.
By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
IT IS believed to be the longest ban a writer covering English football has endured. In 1998 Gillingham chairman Paul Scally imposed a life ban on Tony Hudd who covered the club for the Kent Messenger Group. What makes Hudd’s ban even more puzzling – and personal – is that the article that prompted the footballing divorce was not written by him. In fact, Hudd was out of the country on holiday when it was published. How innocent can you be?
Banning football writers from pre-match press conferences at the training ground or from the stadium is one of the less appetising aspects of what Pele called the beautiful game. English football leads the way with this dubious practice with clubs flexing their muscles over things as trivial as headlines which journalists do not write. Mostly reporters are shown the red card for simply being critical of a club. Not for writing anything libellous but something the manager or chairman does not like. Accuracy is no yardstick for whether a football writer should have continued access. Never let the truth get in the way of a good ban.
It is not the job of a journalist to be a cheerleader or public relations officer for clubs but freedom of speech too often means we can write what we want as long as the club like it. If parliament took that stance there would be no lobby reporters.
One reporter was banned by a London club for breaking the news they were going to sign a certain striker. “Not true,” they said, their argument weakened somewhat when the player joined them. “But it wasn’t true at the time,” claimed the club which merely underlines the Mystic Meg skills of FWA members.
A club banned their local paper when it reported the FA Cup, which they had won the previous season, was accidentally damaged at a supporters evening. Was it true? Yes but the club were embarrassed so the paper were banned. Another local paper printed details of a club’s stadium extension plans that were on the council’s web site but that did not prevent a banning order. I was banned by a chairman after he unsuccessfully tried to sue the paper I was working for about a true diary item in the paper written by a colleague.
One of the top clubs in England have more papers banned than can attend press conferences – only four, who must be wondering what they have done right, are allowed entry. The FWA have tried to set up some sort of arbitration body to rule on such bans but ultimately clubs have the right to dictate who enters their grounds.
Hudd was the chief football writer covering Gillingham at the Kent Messenger Group and the now defunct Kent Evening Post ran an interview with Tony Pulis, the manager at the time.
He said: “I was on holiday in the United States and a colleague did an interview with Pulis. He asked him who had the more difficult job, the manager or the chairman. Pulis replied that it was the manager.”
Which unfortunately did not go down well with Scally, the chairman. Hudd said: “There was a ban because the chairman took umbrage with what Pulis had said.”
Hudd was banned for an article he had not written with the offending words not those of a journalist but the manager. Innocent can still be guilty in the occasionally mad world of football writing. Hudd said: “The chairman contacted the paper to say we were banned which of course affected me
“The following year there was a high profile court case after Pulis was sacked for allegedly gross misconduct. I was asked by Pulis if I would appear as a witness and with the paper’s permission, I agreed. Of course that fanned the flames. It became very personal.”
The case, which Pulis had brought against Scally, was settled out of court so Hudd was never called to give evidence. But he remained banned. Very banned, his suspension extended to the afterlife. Yes, the afterlife “so I can’t come back to haunt them…I’m told that if he ever sells the club there will be a clause in the contract saying I am still banned.”
Hudd, a long-serving member of the FWA national committee, regarded the ban as a challenge rather than punishment.
He said: “It was never going to beat me. I had to come up with a back page piece five nights a week and no ban was going to stop me from doing my job.”
Hudd wore various disguises to gain entry to Priestfield including false beards, moustaches and glasses. “You name it, I wore it. I was caught twice after being seen on CCTV and was escorted out of the ground. It was ‘You are Tony Hudd, would you come this way…you’re out.’
“Despite this, we covered every Gillingham game one way or the other.”
The paper paid a retainer to a local homeowner whose property overlooked the ground so photographers could shoot from the rooftop but the club put advertisement hoardings up to block their view of the pitch. It takes more than that to stop the snappers who just found a higher vantage point on a ladder.
Hudd said: “Can I emphasise the point to all budding football writers that you must treat such restrictions as a challenge. It’s the only way to respond. I shall forever be in the debt of national and regional football writers who rallied around so splendidly in support. Birmingham City were the only away club to refuse me accreditation because, they said, the press box was full [David Gold was Scally’s best man at his most recent wedding].
“Visiting journalists would help me out with quotes from press conferences. Peter Taylor, who I’d known for years since his days at Dartford, took over from Pulis. I telephoned Taylor but he apologised and told me that he could not speak to me. The sad thing is, I was far from being the first and only reporter to be banned by a club. Other writers who had found themselves in a similar position rallied round to help, the camaraderie was tremendous. I shall never forget the support I received.”
The Kent Messenger Group have since had their ban lifted but Hudd will remain persona non grata at Priestfield. “I regard the ban as a badge of honour,” said Hudd whose situation took a sinister twist when the new breed of internet hooligans posted death threats against him.
Ironically Pulis, the catalyst for Huddgate, remains an idol at Priestfield. In the FA Cup third round last month Gillingham were drawn to play Stoke City. Pulis, unusually for a visiting manager, was given a standing ovation by both sets of supporters but the Welshman had to conduct his post-match press conference by the side of the pitch because he was banned by Scally from entering anywhere but the dressing-room.
For Hudd there was a happy ending because the paper opened another title that covered Charlton, the team he supported as a boy.