Six years before England last won the World Cup, James Lawton was beginning his reporting career at The Flintshire Leader. The 16-year-old Lawton covered all the council and court stories before being made sports editor, in addition to his usual reporting duties.
He counts himself lucky that the Leader had him, as he was "pretty hopeless at school" and joined the local paper because "it seemed about the only thing I might do".
- February 10, 2017
- September 15, 2016
- July 13, 2016
Forty-six years later, the venerated journalist has, in sporting terms, pretty much seen it all and has reported on football, cricket, boxing, golf, rugby, American football, horse racing, baseball, ice hockey, Indy 500 racing, every Olympics since 1976 and eight football World Cups since 1966.
He has won the respect of many journalists, including the Daily Mirror’s Oliver Holt, who paid tribute to him as he collected his own British Press Award last month, and The Sunday Times’s Hugh McIlvanney, who described him as the most under-honoured sports journalist of his generation.
This imbalance was partly redressed as Lawton picked up the columnist of the year trophy at the highly prestigious Sports Journalists’ Association Awards.
Lawton has been married for 40 years, quite a feat considering the sports beat has taken him from Moscow to Mexico City via Augusta, Sydney and all points in-between.
He jokes that, "We did feel a bit fraudulent when everyone was saying what a great achievement it was.
"We’ve probably only actually lived together for about 15 years, with the travelling."
After two years as a sports sub on The Daily Telegraph, a short spell at the Daily Herald and a mammoth stint on the Daily Express from 1965 to 1980, Lawton spent seven years in Canada writing columns for the Vancouver Sun.
He enjoyed his time across the Atlantic and got stuck in to unfamiliar sports with aplomb.
"In America, sport is such a huge part of life," he says. "It’s not latched onto in the way it is in England for young people to go and fight. They’ve never had that terrible hooliganism there."
As we chat our way through the afternoon over top-notch food in a comfortable nook at Lawton’s local wine bar in the village of Rossett, a few miles from Wrexham, it becomes obvious that, although he is tired of certain malign influences in sport, he has lost none of the awe and passion for excellence that seems to characterise even the most cynical of sports hacks.
Lawton despairs over the big money and the cheats, particularly in football, claims too many English footballers are "overpriced and undertalented" and believes there are too many teams in what was created to be the best league around — the Premiership.
"They won’t shave off two teams from the Premiership because they want the extra revenue," he argues.
But there is a fire in his heart and a spark in his eyes when we get on to the subject of any sporting great, from Muhammad Ali to home-grown Wayne Rooney.
"We don’t produce enough good players in England, but he would have been fantastic, whether he was born in Liverpool, Rio or Sydney."
"I’m slightly notorious for not being the greatest admirer of David Beckham"
I think he is the supreme product of the celebrity age. Richard Desmond showed Beckham around the sports department after I left [the Express] and that wouldn’t have suited me too much. His achievements fall a long way behind his image and his rewards. I think that’s been proved. He’s played in four major football tournaments and his impact has been minimal.
He’s been at Real Madrid now for four years and they haven’t smelled a major trophy. He’s done very well at selling shirts. He’s been the unquestioned captain of England, despite a disciplinary record that would dismay anybody who remembers Bobby Moore.
"No sports editor at the Express ever said ‘you can’t say that’"
You’d just be more conscious of the readership. I got used to a lot of reaction to a piece I wrote on Frank Bruno and people like that who were eccentric heroes. I was a bit more sceptical than some people.
I was a great admirer of Lennox Lewis and that didn’t always gel with the Fleet Street feeling that Bruno was the essential British hero and Lennox was a fighter of convenience.
But I thought you should be very happy to have Lennox. He had genuine British connections and he was a great fighter. I thought Frank was a bit of a creation.
"In my first year at The Independent I missed Tiger Woods winning his fourth Masters"
I was very intrigued to see how the Naseem Hamed v Marco Barrera fight would go. I recognise Naseem’s great talent, but I also thought his career had largely been a fraud in terms of the people he’d fought early on and the way he’d been projected and the showbiz stuff. Frank Warren and I had a bit of a dispute on the Saint and Greavsie TV programme and I got a bit of a hostile reception for my views on Naseem.
Frank said I was a dinosaur because I didn’t understand that boxing had changed. My point was that boxing would fundamentally never change.
I didn’t really qualify as a dinosaur at that stage because we were talking years ago.
I thought that Berrara would beat him and of course Berrara not only beat him, but cleaned his clock. I thought that was a victory for boxing.
It cost me the sight of Tiger Woods, a sportsman I admire more than anybody in modern sport [and] I think arguably the greatest sportsman of all time, potentially. His discipline and talent are phenomenal. I missed Tiger winning his fourth major in sequence.
I did see Tiger win his first Masters by a mile when he was 21 and almost changed the game of golf.
They’ve been redesigning golf courses ever since: "Tiger-proofing" because the guy made a joke of their golf courses.
"Money is the divisive thing"
If Chelsea had a lean spell, how many would go?
Ultimately they’re playing a hazardous game because a lot of the people who go to Chelsea today and can afford to go to Chelsea, are essentially fickle fans.
If TV suddenly pulled the plug, where would they be then? If Murdoch suddenly felt that the big hot ticket was rollerball or something? That’s the big worry, that TV has become the paymaster of sport.
"Foreign players have brought us some of the beauty of the game, but also some of the most appalling cheating and diving"
I think that is the greatest threat to football. So many fundamental things have to be done in football you feel it’s pretty hopeless. A great weariness overtakes you when you talk about these things because it’s been so evident for so long. But I know certain great old players who cannot physically watch football now because of the cheating. Referees are accepting it now as part of the game. They are given diktats on everything else, they should be told to follow the laws of the game, penalise defenders who hang on and things like that.
I also think that referees have to lose their Godlike status. They can’t have it both ways. The most ludicrous rule of law in the game is that [when] a referee makes a mistake it’s written in stone, when he’s palpably wrong. That should end.
There is a problem with slowing the game down, but there should be a way of bringing technology more into play. They’ve done it pretty successfully in rugby league and cricket. The technology’s here so why not use it?
"If you’ve got the greatest talent, that requires training hard, resting, looking after your body"
What a lot of people forget about footballers in this age or any other age is, to be a Bobby Charlton or somebody like that you would have to lead a life that would be considered boring for most people. You can’t go and get pissed, you can’t go and shag around and things like that. You have to be a disciplined player. You’ve got 10, 12 years to be a great player which, in many ways, is the complete antithesis of anything a young player with a few quid in his pocket would want to do.
"One of the worse things that happened in football for a few years was when Rio Ferdinand failed to take his drug test"
Some England players talked about striking because he had been suspended. Gary Neville, a leading member of the PFA, one of the most experienced players in the land, protested that he’d been hung out to dry.
Now Rio Ferdinand is on £80,000 a week, he’s playing for his country, he’s much honoured, but failed in a basic requirement of his profession and within the game there was a great flood of sympathy.
Even Sir Alex Ferguson protested about it. To me that was mind-blowing.
"Any money spent on drug detection is ultimately wasted"
The moment you come up with a solution there’s an antidote. It’s no longer human achievement, it’s chemical achievement. They’ll never be a total success in testing. In the meantime you’ve got to fight the good fight and you’ve got to punish them.
When it’s proved I think two-year bans and all that is bollocks, really. You’ve got to say "Goodnight Vienna" [and ban drug takers for life].
How else can you build in a significant deterrent?
I don’t believe in the death penalty particularly, but I do believe in some ultimate penalty if you break the rules in this area. What we’re talking about is the death of sport. If they’re contributing to the death of something that’s precious, they deserve to pay the highest penalty.
"Hillsborough fills me with anger even now"
It’s something you can never forget. When I think that police were given compensation for trauma when no one suffered, no one was prosecuted, no one paid the price for the complete neglect of the people that day. I know some say there was undisciplined behaviour by the Liverpool fans. Some were there without tickets. But basic policing and stewardship would have prevented the loss of lives. Ninety five almost completely innocent lives were lost that day because of official neglect. They didn’t even have a working safety certificate for that end of the ground.
[Sheffield Wednesday had redeveloped parts of the ground without obtaining a new safety certificate or telling the emergency services. The result was that the safety certificate was out of date and invalid.] I gave evidence at the civil prosecution of the two police officers at Leeds Crown Court. I suppose I feel stronger and stronger about that [than] anything I’ve ever covered. There was a catalogue of errors. You can’t have neglect of that degree without atonement, without some apology.
The guy in charge of the police operation was actually inexperienced. They should have brought in a top man for a game like that. The FA was culpable as well. There were groups of policemen and women talking among themselves and there was this sea of people pressed into the gates.
People were beginning to climb over the wall.
I had to walk all around the ground to get in at the other end.
It was a different world at the Nottingham Forest end. It was calm. I said to a colleague of mine, "People are going to die in there." It was so foreseeable, that was the thing about it.
"I was one of the people actively arguing against the Olympics for London"
I thought it was a totally hypocritical campaign.
I think his professional boxing career has been a grim joke, but Audley Harrison, to his great credit, did say that it’s all very well getting excited about a few gold medals in Sydney, but let’s go back and look at the infrastructure of British sport. We’ll be looking a long time because there isn’t one.
Facilities for young people in this country are atrocious. They have more Olympic-sized swimming pools in, say, Paris than all of Britain. Crystal Palace centre is a derelict joke, we’re selling off school playing fields, and we’re the head of the obesity league. We get this bullshit campaign and yet we’ve got kids standing round Spar shops smoking dope and stealing cars. Why?
Partly because there is nothing for them going on.
We’ve neglected the youth shockingly in this country. I think that the Olympic games for Britain in that sense is a travesty. I’m not unpatriotic, I hope that the country knuckles down and does a great Olympics, but I’m not encouraged by the fact that it’s taken more than years to knock down the old Wembley and get a new one up.
"It was the hairiest few minutes of my life"
I finished an interview with Muhammad Ali and I hadn’t structured the interview particularly well and at the end I said one of those catch-all questions that you hope to reap results with, that you don’t really deserve in an interview. "What would you most like to have written on your gravestone?"
Instead of some quip he started going into a long, doggerel poem, a litany of things like, "I would like them say he made a cake of kindness and he put in a spoon of this."
He went on forever and it was total, unusable baloney, so he must have noticed I stopped taking a note. He finished and sighed and I said, "Thank you champion that was magnificent." He said "Oh? Was it? Read it back then."
He was magnificent. The greatest sportsman of the century, he just encompassed everything great about sport. He was a pretty elusive guy, a one-off, amazingly spirited, with natural charm to kill. The thing about him was, he knew fear. He wasn’t maniacally brave or anything, but he knew what was required of him and he did it with such humour and grace. A beautiful man.
Just for the record, the story about the medal going over the bridge was entirely dubious historically. [Ali once said he was refused service in a restaurant because he was black, so threw his 1960 Olympic gold medal away in disgust.] It has a sort of resonance but apparently, historically, it wasn’t correct. I think those are the kind of things that happen in legends.
If he didn’t do it maybe he should have done.
"I suppose I was most breathless and thrilled by covering an Ali fight with Ernie Shavers"
Ali fought with such courage that night. I thought I was going to have a heart attack, my heart was beating so much. It was 1977 at Madison Square Garden, New York. I always wanted to go there.
When I was a kid, my grandfather, who was a builder in Warrington and loved his sport, used to take me to rugby league games. When I told him I was going to be a sports writer he said, "Oh great Jim, work hard and one day you’ll be with the top boys at Belle Vue [greyhound track] in Manchester."
That was his world.
He’d been long dead when I was at Madison Square Garden for that fight. I remember thinking "old Granddad would be quite pleased now".