THE DUKE – AN OLD SCHOOL REPORTER WHO MADE YOU SMILE A WARM SMILE
By COLIN TATTUM
IAN Willars, a former Birmingham Post & Mail journalist and chairman of the Football Writers’ Association (Midlands), has died aged 75.
Ian, or ‘The Duke’ as he was known, was a legendary character in Midlands football and cricketing circles, and beyond.
He was an old school reporter, a fine and concise writer, who got stories through his contacts and through trust. It wasn’t just what he produced in the newspaper, but the stories behind the stories, the scrapes, the fun. Ian was a bon viveur and charming, never sour, company. Whenever you met him and asked how he was, the answer was always the same: ‘In beautiful condition’. He had that effect on you – he made you smile a warm smile.
Ian was a major figure in my formative years at the Mail, he took me under his wing as a cub reporter when I first popped up in the Colmore Row offices on work experience. Along with the then sports editor Ian Johnson, he was a major influence. The two of them seemed to look upon me kindly and look after me, educating me in the ways of the sports hack’s world back then in the late 80s – and it was a different world.
No mobile phones, no Internet, no set-piece and sanitised press conferences that are the staple of Sky Sports.
The Mail had resources too, we had a big staff. We even had our own pub on site, the Printer’s Devil and – wait for it – a snooker room. They were great, fun-filled days, Ian would bestride the local scene, and I can never recall anyone having a bad word to say about him. He would always pass on little tips and advice, some of which, although they seemed so simple at the time, still matter.
Never more than 25 words in every paragraph in your story, he would say. Never forget who you are writing for.
And when managers would get uppity at criticism, he used to puff on his pipe, look over his reading glasses and remind anyone in earshot: ‘We see ’em come – we see ’em go’.
Those around Ian in his heyday and on the countless trips he made all over, covering our local sides in Europe or with England, plus Warwickshire and Worcestershire, will have many, many anecdotes and tales about The Duke which are better than mine. But I would nevertheless like to share a few, which always make me chuckle.
In 1988, he was covering the European Championship in West Germany and I took two weeks holiday, got a rail card (which was only £50) and travelled around watching as many matches as I could. Ian, already in situ, knew I was coming out and got a message back asking if I could get him an advance on his expenses, in petty cash.
‘Tell them it’s for hotel valeting – I need my trousers pressed’. That was code for beer money.
I would turn up at the various hotels he was booked into with the official touring party, crash out in his room to get some much needed sleep, and then the next day be introduced to the great and good of Fleet Street, and England’s players, who used to stay in the same accommodation as the press.
One evening I remember he called me down to the hotel bar in Dusseldorf and said: ‘Right, there’s this lovely young Fraulein I’d like you to meet’. I got chatting to her and thought my luck was in.
Next thing I know Everton’s Gary Stevens plonked himself down on the other bar stool next to her and, for some reason, she swivelled her chair and started fluttering her eyelashes at him. Can’t imagine why. Ian just laughed that mischievous laugh of his.
Also on duty covering England, at Italia 90, one of Ian’s briefs was to supply a regular diary chronicling the thoughts of a then relatively unknown David Platt. When Platt scored that volley against Belgium, putting England into the World Cup quarter-finals in the most dramatic of fashion, everyone wanted a piece of him. The interest went crazy. Platt was spirited away by England and Ian couldn’t get to him. No one, could, in fact. He was stuck, on deadline, and without a word from the new national hero for the next day’s newspaper.
Nevertheless, the Birmingham Evening Mail’s front page carried a Platt exclusive – ‘My dream goal’, screamed the headline. The Mail bigwigs were delighted.
And how had Ian pulled it off? ‘Well,’ he revealed later, drawing on his pipe, before smiling, ‘it’s what he would have said . . . ‘.
Ian also had a nifty trick to fool the bosses at the Mail base. He would bring two jackets to work; one to wear, one to sling on the back of his chair. The reason became clear – when you disappeared ‘over the road’ to the Queen’s Head pub in Steelhouse Lane, everyone assumed you were still around, just in a different part of the office.
Thus the ‘10.31 club’ was born – in the Queen’s a minute after it opened in the morning. And Ian would often say he was only there for some ‘intro juice’.
I doubt if we will ever see the like of Ian again. The new breed of football journalist is a different case, working in more cloying, less fun conditions. Ian, Ian Johnson and the reporters of that ilk used to joke that they were the ‘last of the BTJs’ – bar trained journalists.
What he would have made of social media, Twitter and the message board sages, I dread to think. I remember when we began using mobile phones, those huge housebrick things that you had to charge up for days.
Ian was in the press box at Bramall Lane shouting to make himself heard to the Sports Argus copytaker on the other end of the line, who was trying to type out his words of wisdom for his live ‘running’ report to go in that evening’s pink.
‘Duke’, someone noticed, ‘you’re holding the phone the wrong way round’.
I played for Ian’s Sunday football team, Boldmere Greens, when I first started out at the Mail. Everyone there found him engaging, a real gent and great company, just like those in his profession did.
I owe Ian a lot. Not only was he an excellent writer, very knowledgeable about football, cricket and extremely helpful to others, but he was a character who brought light into other people’s life, without ever being arrogant or superior.
Rest in peace, Duke.
This article is reprinted from Colin Tattum’s Birmingham City blog