Football greats pay tribute to Joe Melling

Melling was greatly respected in the worlds of football and journalism

The worlds of football and journalism gathered on Tuesday to pay tribute to legendary football writer Joe Melling.

Fittingly for a man who had spent his working life covering the sport’s biggest events, St Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Caversham was packed to the rafters for the funeral of The Mail On Sunday’s football editor.

Among the hundreds of mourners were some of the biggest names in English football, such as Sir Bobby Robson, Ron Atkinson and Peter Reid, who began as entries in Melling’s contacts book – one of the fattest in the business – but went on to become personal friends.

Sir Bobby, Newcastle manager and former England boss, said of Melling, who was chairman of the Football Writers’ Association in 1988, 1992 and 1993: Very few football writers had the depth of knowledge about the sport that Joe had.

“As a critic he was always fair and constructive and therefore you understood and accepted what he said, whether you agreed with it or not. He was never vindictive in his writing, which was always responsible and to the point.

“I counted Joe as a great friend who I could confide in knowing that the confidence would not be broken.

Football journalism has lost someone it can ill afford to do without.”

Atkinson, the ITV pundit and former Manchester United manager who first got to know Melling when Atkinson was in charge at West Bromwich Albion, said: “I have lost a wonderful friend – and I am in good company.

“Joe had a personality and a sense of humour that made him easy to get on with, but most of all he knew what he was talking about.

“We spent a lot of time together socially and often in conversation something would slip out that, in a less discreet audience, could have had difficult consequences. But you knew Joe would never exploit a situation like that – he got his exclusives the right way.”

Melling made an emotional speech at the recent SJA awards dinner

A month ago, one of those exclusives earned Melling the title of Sports News Reporter of the Year from the Sports Journalists’ Association. While others were hedging their bets about the future of England captain David Beckham, Melling had stated categorically that he would be sold to Real Madrid and so scooped the biggest story of the year.

At the awards dinner, he brought the room to its feet then moved it to tears with an emotional speech which ended, in typical Melling style, with a brusque warning that he might just be back the following year to win again.

As a colleague remarked in one of the written tributes that followed his death last week, it was probably the first thing Joe ever got wrong.

His reputation for accuracy was unmatched but every journalist needs a little luck along the way, and Melling’s biggest slice of fortune came right at the beginning of his career.

He was intending to train as a teacher but answered an advertisement for a reporter in the Lancashire Evening Post, not knowing the job had already gone.

But his application was so impressive that the Post felt duty bound to create another post for him.

The 18-year-old from Preston was on his way.

The first national newspaper to come calling was the Daily Express, under whose patronage Joe earned his spurs in the regions before making his way to Fleet Street.

He joined The Mail on Sunday in 1983 and went on to win a number of prizes, including a special award for his coverage of the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989.

But the greatest testament to his qualities as a reporter and a man was the number of people proud to call him a friend and colleague.

From press box to pub to golf course, Joe’s rasping Lancashire voice was unmistakable and he always gave as freely of his good humour and sound advice as he did of his strong opinions and unrivalled tales of mischief.

Many of his best stories featured Atkinson, who gave as good as he got when it came to merciless banter, especially when Joe’s ultracompetitive streak was the target.

On a West Brom trip to Valencia and with the whole team watching, Atkinson and his number two, Colin Addison, took on Joe and Hugh Jamieson, who was working for The Sun, in a tennis match.

At 0-6, 0-5 and 15-40 down, Joe was serving, with one fault against him, to stay in the match. Addison was at the net, Atkinson on the baseline, but as Joe threw the ball into the air they both turned their backs on him and forced a double fault.

“We shared the good and bad times together,” said Atkinson. “He was a great person to know.”

When the worst of times began for Joe last year, with the diagnosis of lung cancer, Atkinson and his other friends were there to lend their support.

Even in his last, often extremely difficult weeks, there were moments of great joy, with bottles of champagne shared around his hospital bed and, most memorably of all, at the SJA Awards.

Joe died at home on Wednesday, 31 March, aged 57, and was buried in his native Preston. He leaves a widow, Pat, and three daughters, Jane, Sarah and Louisa.

As Joe himself might have put it: he was top drawer, by the way.

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