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FWA Q&A: Norman Giller

NORMAN GILLER on being in England’s 1966 World Cup-winning dressing-room…feeding football writers for a month in Mexico…and covering a game at the Nou Camp with Eric Morecambe

Have you ever worked in a profession other than football?
(my profession was never football … it was journalism).

I tunnelled my way out of the Daily Express while chief football reporter in December 1973 to follow a career as a TV scriptwriter and author (pretentious, moi?), but always kept my hand in as a freelance journalist. My first month as a freelance coincided with the three-day working week and no electricity for much of each day. I was 33, had a wife, two kids and a mortgage. No redundancy, just jumped ship. Clever or what? When I joined the Express from the Daily Herald in 1964 it was selling 4.2m copies a day. By the time I left it was down to 2.2m, and the slide has continued ever since. Perhaps I am responsible. Moral of the story: never quit without a redundancy package.

Most memorable match?
Sorry, but it has to be the cliché 1966 World Cup final. I was the only football reporter to get into the England dressing-room afterwards. I tied myself to Wembley PR Len Went, who talked me past all the Jobsworths. I managed to hug my mate Bobby Moore and touch the Jules Rimet trophy before being x-rayed out by Alf Ramsey’s famous stare. Even in that moment of Everest-high euphoria, he insisted on the dressing-room being hallowed ground for players only.

The one moment in football you would put on a DVD?
Jimmy Greaves going past six defenders on his way to an eighth minute goal against Leicester City at White Hart Lane in 1968. There were no TV cameras to record what most eyewitnesses described as the greatest goal they had ever seen. Because of a minor car accident I arrived literally seconds after the ball went into the net. My Monday morning report was headlined: “The Greatest Goal I Never Saw.”

Best stadium?
It has to be Aztec Stadium in Mexico City where I reported the 1970 World Cup finals opening match [Mexico 0, Soviet Union 0] to the greatest football tournament ever. All the spectators were asked to wear clothes that matched the colour of their ticket, and there was a spectacular splash of red white and green in perfect symmetry. People who say this was where the Mexican Wave started are wrong. They started it two years earlier during the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

…and the worst?
Kennilworth Road, Luton, back in the days when we used to have to go through the urinal to get to the press box. The directors thought it was funny.

Your personal new-tech disaster?
Circa 1984, I wiped clean my Apple ‘floppy’ (pre-discs) containing half a book I had written. From then on I have been paranoid about back-ups. In those days you had only enough memory on an Apple Plus to run one program at a time. It would drive you mad today, but it was new and revolutionary.

Biggest mistake?
Tunnelling my way out of the Express without a pay-off. It would have given me a cushion for the bad times that hit every freelance. Stupid boy.

Have you ever been mistaken for anyone else?
I was like the spitting image twin of a Chelsea winger called Bert Murray, to the point where then manager Tommy Docherty shouted across the Stamford Bridge forecourt to me, “Bert, why aren’t you training?”  When he realised his mistake, the Doc said: “The only way to tell you two apart is that Bert writes better than you do …”

Most media friendly manager?
Toss up between Tommy Doc and Brian Clough, both of whom knew you needed a headline and went out of their way to provide one. Trouble with Cloughie was sometimes he was too friendly and would try to get you as boozed as he was. The old school (Ramsey, Busby and Bill Nicholson) were much more cautious. Big Mal Allison was the most flamboyant but was mostly interested in projecting himself.

Best ever player?
On the world stage, Pelé just ahead of Maradona, with Di Stefano the most elegant, a Nureyev on grass. European: Cruyff and Beckenbauer, with George Best as the best of British. My all-time favourite, Jimmy Greaves. We are seeing an action replay of Greavsie with Messi. Could he have done it with Bites-Yer-Legs Hunter assaulting him from behind?

Best ever teams (club and international)?
Pele’s 1970 Brazilians, just ahead of the 1950s Puskas-propelled Hungarians. Tottenham’s 1960-61 Double team, made even better by the arrival of Greavsie the following season. Man Utd of the Best-Charlton-Law days.

Best pre-match grub?
Cheese and tomato rolls and a cuppa at the Cassateri café by the West Ham ground where I served my football writing apprenticeship in the 1950s. All the West Ham players, past and present, used to congregate there.

Best meal had on your travels?
Pie and Mash at Cooks in Stratford after West Ham matches. Reported sport in 33 countries, but nothing in all the hotels and restaurants could touch that taste. I’ve gone and got hungry thinking of it.

…and the worst?
Still waiting for it to be served at a restaurant in Budapest. We waited two hours on a 1960s England Under-23 trip and finally gave up. Ken Montgomery, Sunday Mirror, craftily wrote his order on the back of a cigarette pack and handed it to a waiter, then sat back smugly waiting to beat the log jam. Twenty minutes later his waiter returned with a new pack of cigarettes.

Best hotel stayed in?
The Camino Real in Mexico City. I was there for a month during the 1970 World Cup. It had 1000 rooms, all on the ground floor, with a small garden at the back of every room. Used to have to get a buggy to and from reception. The ‘fire brigade’ reporters, chasing follow-ups to the trumped-up  Bobby Moore jewel theft story, invited themselves into my room and all charged their meals to me. That took some explaining to the powers that be back home.

…and the worst?
A hotel in Sofia during the 1967 England Under-23 tour. Because of overbooking five of us had to share a two-bed room. There was quite a commotion when one of our brigade decide to wash his feet in the one hand basin.

Do you have a hobby?
Apart from trying (and failing) to play jazz piano, regular theatre visits, going to the House for PM Questions (political junkie), listening to the classics and reading, my only hobby is writing.

Favourite football writer?
It has to be McIlvanney, who always makes me feel as if I am writing by numbers.

Favourite radio/TV commentator?
Sadly both gone, Peter Jones and Brian Moore (who was my best mate in the media world and for whom I had the privilege of sharing obituary duties with Bob Wilson).

If you could introduce one change to improve PR between football clubs and football writers what would it be?
I am off the circuit now, but looking in from the outside I feel too much of what I read is spoon fed from conferences and agents. Whatever happened to the good old head to head interviews? I wonder how many of you have the home telephone numbers of all the major managers and players? I’ve got a feeling those days have gone.

One sporting event outside football you would love to experience?
The Masters at the beautiful Augusta course.

Favourite non-football sportsman/sports woman?
Andy Murray, the best British tennis player of my life time (Fred Perry had taken out US citizenship by the time I arrived on this mortal coil). Muhammad Ali, with whom I spent a memorable three weeks in Munich in my boxing PR days when I was Richard Dunn’s mouthpiece. I was heavily outpointed by Ali.

Last book read?
I revisited What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg. Highly recommended for those who, like me, had copyboy experience.

Favourite current TV programme?
Sunday Supplement. I like to see what today’s football writers are thinking and saying. Neil Ashton is admirably filling those big shoes left behind by the much-mourned Brian Woolnough.

TV show you always switch off?
Any Soap or Big Brother-style reality show. I have better things to do with my life.

If you could bring one TV series back which would it be?
Saint and Greavsie. Football is so much up its own exhaust pipe that it has forgotten how to laugh at itself.

Favourite comedian?
Woody Allen in his 60s stand-up mode. Comedy delivered with the bite and accuracy of a Di Stefano pass. And I must mention Eric Morecambe, with whom I wrote newspaper and magazine columns for several years. He was a comic genius. Namedropping: Eric and I went to the Nou Camp to report the 1975 Barcelona-Leeds European Cup semi-final. Eric asked me to get a ticket for his good mate who was living in Barcelona, a chap called James Hunt. He turned up in bare feet! What a character. The following year he won the F1 world title.

What really, really annoys you?
Cheating footballers … cheats in any sport.

Your most prized football memorabilia?
My 1966 World Cup press pass.

Advice to anyone coming into the football media world?
Don’t! Seriously, look beyond the print world. I am convinced my youngest grandson (6) will never ever buy a printed newspaper. Hurt your brain to conquer the internet. Don’t just take what’s there. Add to it.

NORMAN GILLER, born in the East End 1940. London Evening News copyboy (“best possible education”), staff journalist with the Stratford Express,  Boxing News, London Evening Standard, Daily Herald, Daily Express, freelance columnist The Sun, Sunday Express, London Evening News, Sunday Telegraph … 14 years a scriptwriting member of the This Is Your Life team, co-producer more than 50 sports videos/DVDs… just writing his 95th book, Bill Nicholson Revisited. Twenty books in harness with Jimmy Greaves.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Colin Wood

    October 8, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    A very entertaining interview Norman, we really should do lunch next time you’re in “sunny Saafend” (on me of course) as I do love those sporting anecdotes from a more gentlemanly age…

    Love,
    Woodo

  2. Avatar

    Brian Scovell

    October 9, 2013 at 9:57 am

    When the film “The Magnificent Seven” came out in the 1970s several number 2s formed the Insignificant Seven and Basil Hayward, then of Gillingham, was voted The Insignificant Manager of the Year. Three – Norman, Peter Corrigan and me – are still with us and the hardest, most prolific of our gang was without doubt, Norman. What a man! A real giver.

    Brian Scovell

    PS Having written two books about Bill Nicholson, I’ve told him that my lawyers are watching him!

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