FWA Q&A: Alex Montgomery

ALEX MONTGOMERY on ladies panties, what really makes an exclusive, dark days in the Sun and a snake in South Korea

Your first ever newspaper?
The Sunday Post. My work was split between the Post and Weekly News. It was a great training ground made greater by one exceptional journalist, John Dron, then sports editor of the Post. Any career I have had would not have seen the light of day without his mentoring. John died recently and my regret is not being able to attend his funeral.

Have you ever worked in a profession other than journalism?
My schooling was a disaster which ended with me being shown the door as a 15-year-old. I have more in common with Kelvin MacKenzie than he would suspect; the count is one O-level apiece. My first job was in a Glasgow shipping office. From there I moved to a clothing manufacturer in the east end of Glasgow. The speciality was producing ladies panties so I became a panty makers assistant on £5 a week. I had to stand on a platform doing nothing more technical than cutting material in front of a group of local ladies on sewing machines. I lasted six weeks but still carry the scars. From there I made up for lost learning time, then into journalism.

What was your finest achievement playing football?
There was no fine achievement. I was next to useless. My centre of gravity, my backside, was too far from the ground. That’s my excuse.

Most memorable match covered?
It was series of matches involving Brazil, Argentina and Italy in Barcelona during the World Cup Finals of 1982. Other matches which live long in the memory: England’s European Championship 4-1 victory in Belgrade against Yugoslavia (Nov 1987). It was special because it was so comprehensive when we had gathered to record the end of Bobby Robson as national manager; England’s brilliant performance in beating Holland 4-1 at Wembley in the 1996 European Championship, another uplifting result. I have never been able to understand why it was dismissed by many of my colleagues as a victory gifted to Terry Venables’s England simply because the Dutch were rowing amongst themselves. Aren’t they always?

The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
Marco van Basten’s truly amazing volleyed strike from what looked an impossible angle in Holland’s European Championship Final win against the USSR in Munich 1988.

Best stadium?
For me it was Ibrox in the Fifties and Sixties when they packed them in and the atmosphere for big European nights was breathtaking.

…and the worst?
The one where you never have a phone line that works. Benfica’s Estadio da Luz in the old days before mobile phones and dongles was hit and miss for calls. You would pick up a phone, hear nothing, dial your London number, hear nothing, wait, ask for copy, hear nothing, wait, read or ad lib your match report, slowly, finish, say goodbye and hope someone was on the other end. There were occasions when it worked, miraculously.

Your best ever scoop?
So-called exclusive stories are satisfying. Specialist writer/reporters are expected to produce them but if you come up with three in a year it will be three more than most. And even when you find one it is not unknown for desks to hide them, presumably because they do not believe the info. One such was my Gazza for Lazio tip off. The Sun sports desk managed to turn that into Gazza turning down an offer to play for another Serie A club. I then wrote that Gazza’s people had a meeting at Heathrow with Lazio’s representatives. That was thrown away inside. The story was eventually confirmed officially – after Gazza’s then agents had lawyers write to my desk claiming it was untrue — and it was only then the desk asked me to write it as a back page lead. Exclusives drop out of the sky from time to time so you just enjoy them when your hard work makes you lucky.

Your personal new-tech disaster?
I was sent to the Mexico World Cup finals in 1986 with one of Fleet Street’s first Tandy copy-sending machines. I wasn’t taught how to work it and it came without instructions. I first used it as a word processor for a 60 paragraph pre-World Cup piece from Colorado Springs where Bobby Robson had set up England’s pre-WC camp. I was about to file by the usual method of reading it over to a copy taker in London when the American AT and T operator who was dealing with my call heard me mention the name Tandy. When I informed her that I could not work the machine she suggested I asked their specialist Tandy operator for help. The process of transmitting through muffs attached to the phone piece was explained to me. Lesson over, she was going to contact London and get back with a direct line. I was to be ready. Simple. The call came through, I did what I was told, my screen went blank and the copy was lost for ever. It was a great loss only to me. I had to write it again. A nightmare.

Biggest mistake?
We all make them but I cannot think of one that changed my life. I worked with a couple of nasty individuals near the end of my days on the Sun and I should have dealt with them better than I did. I gave them far too much respect. I should have met up with them in a place without recording devices and CCTV cameras, and convinced them of the consequences should they continue with their negative approach. Something along these lines.

Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?

Most media friendly manager?
The ones who talk to you. There are lots of good ones out there so it is a question of getting to know them. You have your favourites who can be reached at any time. They become friends, perhaps great friends. There are others you can nod to and who’ll nod back. And a few, the untrustworthy ones, who will say I am the one not to be trusted.

Best ever player?
Alfredo di Stefano. He mesmerised me with his elegance for Real Madrid in the 1960 European Cup Final against Eintracht Frankfurt. I stood with my dad on the huge Hampden terraces and like so many that memorable night I believed we had come to support the Germans who had destroyed Rangers in the semi-final. By the end we stood applauding Real. I am not sure the best-ever tag applies even to Alfredo. One of the best for sure but I have been so fortunate to have watched the greats on their good and bad days: Pele, Maradona, Garrincha, Best, Greaves, Law, Baxter, Henderson, Johnstone, Moore, Charlton, Beckenbauer, Platini. Zidane, Cruyff plus Messi and Ronaldo of the current era. All on their day unbeatable.

Best ever teams (club and international)
Real Madrid 1960. If only it was possible see them face Guardiola’s Barcelona team. My money would be on Real. International: Brazil of 1970.

Best pre-match grub?
Arsenal are highly rated by my colleagues.

Best meal had on your travels?
It was a one off when Ipswich met Saint-Etienne in what was the Uefa Cup in 1981. The press plus Ipswich directors and officials were invited to pre-match lunch at the stadium. This was a tradition of the French club. The menu had six courses produced by a chef from each of six regions. The Ipswich chairman John Cobbold was so impressed he decided something would be done for the return. The hospitality at Portman Road was magnificent even by Cobbold’s extravagant standards. Ipswich won the quarter final with a 7-2 aggregate against the soon to be crowned French champions led by Michel Platini

…and the worst?
A meal in Beijing where no-one in the restaurant spoke English and we did not have a word of Mandarin. We ordered what we thought was a selection of dishes which included a hand motion to represent fish but turned out to be misunderstood as snake.

Best hotel stayed in?
Goodwood Park Hotel, Singapore. Five star plus and where the coffee costs more than the brandy.

…and the worst?
A scary hotel somewhere in South Korea. There was a steel door opening in one of the walls in my room which was padlocked. I imagined it as a fridge in the morgue where they store the bodies.

Favourite football writer?
In my Glasgow youth Malcolm Munro made his copy so interesting. I never worked with him but it was a privilege to be on the same tours laterally as Taylor, Sanderson, Rodger, Herron and others who knew the job inside out. The men still working can look out for themselves.

Favourite radio/TV commentator?
Kenneth Wolstenholme.

If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
Reduce the money Sky TV pays out to the game. It would mean less money for the players which hopefully would bring their excesses under some control, make them more pleasant to deal with.

One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
It would be a dream to watch live three Olympic finals – the 800 metres, 1500 metres and 5000 metres. Any of the track finals would do but these three would be my preferred events.

Last book read?
Freddy Mercury by Lesley-Ann Jones; Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Andre Agassi’s autobiography.

Favourite current TV programme?
Anything on any sport.

Your most prized football memorabilia?
I have two unused tickets for the last FA Cup Final at the old Wembley and two unused tickets for England’s last international at the old Wembley.

Alex Montgomery has been a member of the FWA for 42 years. He has covered finals of 10 World Cups. Has worked for Hayters Sports Agency, the Daily Mail, the Sun, Today, the News of the World and the Mail on Sunday (freelance).

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    Stanley Faulkner

    July 23, 2018 at 8:35 pm

    What did you think when Lawrie McMenemy told you to be at The Potters Heron and tell the others to come as well or you will be disappointed? Then what was your reaction when Kevin Keegan appeared and that he was coming to play for Southampton FC? Apparently McMenemy phoned you because he said he had a good relationship with and he liked you! I’m going to buy his book that you wrote with him but I guess it was mainly you. Thanks Alex.


    Stan Faulkner.

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