By Alan Hubbard
Despite the absence of live sport almost anywhere on earth it does not seem to have dampened the desire of young people who have aspirations to write about or broadcast about it, judging from the number of emails I still receive from wannabe sports journalists asking how they should go about it. Some even enquire: “How did you begin?”
Well, that was some time ago and things were very different then. I always try to help but it is far more difficult for them than it was for me and others of my vintage. Back in the day – and I mean many, many days ago – you joined your local newspaper or news agency. There were often plenty of vacancies in what was a booming business. Not so now of course.
I left grammar school at 17, answered an ad in my local newspaper for a trainee reporter and got the job at the handsome salary of £4 ($4.9/€4.5) a week. When I phoned my dad to tell him he wasn’t best pleased. It is fair to say he was greatly disappointed because, as a master carpenter, he had always hoped I would follow him into his trade. Even when he realised I couldn’t knock a nail into a piece of wood he still reserved a job for me in his company’s office. “Journalism?” He sniffed when I told him. “That won’t get you very far.”
Well, it has got me to so many countries I can’t remember – probably near 100 – together with a dozen Summer Olympic Games, four Winter Games, numerous Commonwealth Games, football World Cups and internationals, major athletics and tennis events and big fights all over the globe. I travelled the world with the fabulous Muhammad Ali and witnessed ‘The Fight of the Century’ at Madison Square Garden, ‘The Thrilla in Manila’ and the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire. Those, indeed, were never-to-be-forgotten experiences. Being around ‘The Greatest’ was a media man’s dream.
I travelled more than 20 times to Las Vegas without ever rolling a dice or pulling the handle of slot machine. Honest.
I met kings and princes – well, Don King and Prince Naseem Hamed, though I did actually encounter an emperor, one Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and a real prince, Prince Faisal of Jordan who piloted me through his beloved Petra, the rose-red city, in his helicopter.
I was the first to interview Princess Anne when she was selected for the Montréal 1976 Olympics. Plus tea with a young entrepreneur and a boxing promoter named Donald Trump and chatting with Mayor of London and future Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who invited me to take an impromptu ride with him in the train back from the suburbs to London.
When I mentioned to him in the first-class compartment that I hadn’t got a ticket he blithely replied: “Don’t worry, old boy, neither have I.”
I have made lasting friendships with many in sport, including their lordships Coe and Moynihan, as well as quite a few household names in sport. Those days access was easy – quite a few halves of lager at the Boleyn pub outside Upton Park with the England and West Ham captain Bobby Moore, a smashing bloke. Try interviewing the present England captain Harry Kane and you’d have to go through a posse of managers, agents, press officers and publicists. And they all probably want to vet what you write before it is printed.
Plus two or three journalistic awards, sports editorships of one provincial and two national newspapers and the editorship of a sports magazine, I guess I was lucky.
Before he died, my dad – who was actually a very nice man – admitted he may have got it wrong about my career. But he did issue one rebuke which kept my feet firmly on the ground.
Back in the early 1970s I was at my parents’ home when I called my travelling companion, Colin Hart, esteemed boxing columnist of The Sun, to inform him that our travel agent had said he could not get a direct flight to Kingston in Jamaica on the day we wanted, to cover the George Foreman-Joe Frazier fight. “Bloody nuisance,” I told him. “It means we’ll have to sit around in Montego Bay for three hours for a connecting flight.”
After I put the phone down, my father chidingly remarked: “Do you know there are people in this world who would give their right arm to spend three hours in Montego Bay.” It taught me not to be so blasé.
Yes, things have changed and not necessarily for the better in my view. These days you need qualifications galore, and not just those pretty meaningless and easily-obtained degrees in media studies.
Unlike myself and my old mucker Hart. He likes to recount how he got his first job on an east London news agency. He took along a sheath of his GCSE certificates and presented them to the editor at his interview. The editor sniffed, barely looked at them, tossed them to one side and enquired: “What size shoes do you take son?”
Taken aback, Colin replied size eight. “Fine,” said the editor. “That’s good enough to shove. Good enough to shove in someone’s front door when they don’t want you to speak to you.” He got the job.
Well, what do aspirant sports journos need these days? All myself and others of my vintage required to know was the size and shape of the ball and the basic rules of the game you were reporting on. Plus possession of a notepad and Biro and the ability to leg it faster than your rivals to the nearest phone box outside the ground.
Of course it is much more sophisticated now with the advent of new technology – and what a pain that is to us old’uns.
That’s one advantage the youngsters of today have. Press conferences these days are packed with young folk thrusting out microphones and tape recorders; goodness knows who they work for but there is a proliferation of radio and TV stations and of course websites. These are now the avenues for sports journalists as it is nigh on impossible to get a job on a national – or local – paper these days. They are a dying breed.
The great American scribe Red Smith, doyen of all sports writers, once remarked: “Sports writing is easy. All you have to do is sit at a typewriter and sweat blood.”
Nowadays any aspirant sports writer would not only enquire who Smith is, but also what is a typewriter?
To be serious, the first thing to remember is that sport is no longer the province of the rear end of the newspaper, once known by editors as the toy department. Now it traverses every section from finance to politics, crime to medicine, in fact just about every aspect of human life from the front pages to the back. So, apart from the obvious grounding in basic across-the-board journalism which we all had as youngsters, future sports writer may need degrees in geo-politics, business studies, chemistry – you have to know your anabolics from your EPOs, not to mention COVID-19 – law, with so many litigations knocking around, and not forgetting computer studies.
I’m not just talking about young fellas. When I first started, women sports journalists were a rarity – Pat Besford and Julie Welch were the sportswriting suffragettes who led the charge and now there are almost as many women in the game as men, especially in TV sports presentation, and that’s a good thing.
A former head of Sky Sports once told me he received up to a dozen applications today from females wanting to be sports journalists. There is certainly more opportunity there than in newspapers.
So when young folk ask me how to get into sports Journalism, I suggest that the “foot in the door” is not any more a local newspaper or agency, or local TV and radio, but more likely sporting websites, particularly a highly successful one like insidethegames.
As I say you cannot be just a sports nut. You must be well-grounded and well-rounded, with knowledge about the world and not just the world of sport.
It may well be that you can progress from there to a national newspaper when a rare vacancy occurs, or a national TV station. Persistence is a virtue. Just like sport itself you have to keep on trying.
And I always wish them good luck, which is sometimes better than judgement as I well know. Important too, not to fall foul of the PC brigade. In my day, PC meant police constable, not political correctness. Now they seem one and the same thing.
As for sport itself, as the grand old Dame Vera Lynn – just ahead of my own vintage – sings: “We’ll meet again”. But whether sport – and sports journalism – can ever be the same again is open to doubt.
<strong>About the Author
Alan Hubbard is a sports columnist for the Independent on Sunday and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Games, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.