Trevillion discusses capturing the essence of sporting heroes

Paul Trevillion's extraordinary ability to capture the essence of great sportsmen and women in ink drawings has taken him all over the world, filing work for every national daily and Sunday newspaper bar the Star, The Independent or The Guardian.

Many sports fans, like me, will instantly know his work without having any knowledge of the man behind it. My mum had cut out the Skills With Trevor Brooking series he'd done for The Sunday Times in the '80s and You Are The Ref was always the first place I turned to in Shoot magazine. The Observer revived the strip earlier this year, in time for its 50th anniversary — and a book celebrating it is published by Guardian Books next week.

He's also a force of nature, a human dynamo whose lust for life is entirely undiminished. I met him earlier this summer at an exhibition of his work in Tottenham, a stone's throw from where he started selling the Standard as a 12-year-old and vowed one day to be featured in its pages. It was less of an interview than an audience.

I barely asked a question; instead I was literally showered with copies of letters and artwork signed by many of the greatest names in sport, amazed by a stream of globetrotting and sometimes dizzyingly tall anecdotes, and spent two hours happily picking up the names he dropped faster than an Ali combination: George Best, Tiger Woods, Jackie Stewart, Oscar de la Hoya, Jimmy Greaves, Paul Gascoigne, Fred Truman, Bobby Moore… He developed the first football swap cards in the '50s, worked with Umbro on the first replica football kits for children, and later made it in America with his drawings for promotional projects for American football, Nascar and baseball.

Somehow it seems not at all odd to learn that he's also a former stand-up comedian, a one-time holder of the World Speed Kissing record (25,009 kisses in two hours, since you ask) and inventor of the split-handed putting method (available on DVD, entitled, Missing Impossible: Paul Trevillion's Method Of Perfect Putting). He once bet Colin Montgomerie £1m for charity he could beat him in a putting contest. (Monty declined.)

He also once joined Darlington Football Club as a sort of forerunner to today's sports psychologists — claiming (erroneously, it turned out) that they could win the 1974 Fourth Division by the power of positive thinking.

But it's his six decades as a newspaper sports artist that we were there to discuss. He's the Cézanne of the sports strip, the Leonardo of the line drawing. And this season, Trevillion's artwork is as much at the heart of the game as it's ever been. As well as being back in The Observer and The People, his work is being used on posters for the PFA's Respect The Game, Respect The Referee campaign pinned in every professional dressing room around the country.

 

It was Winston Churchill and Prince Philip who changed my life.

In 1952 I got the Duke of Edinburgh gold medal — and I was one of the lucky ones who went to the Mansion House and got to talk to him. He said, ‘What do you do then?' And I said, I design furniture. ‘What do you do for a hobby?' I draw sports stars for newspapers. He said, ‘Why don't you do that full time?'

And he's still shaking my hand, and I'm saying, well it's difficult to get a start, and he looks me in the eye and says. ‘Treat every obstacle as a challenge to be overcome.' I thought, my word. He said, ‘Next year it's the Ashes, 1953. You start drawing those cricket stars for the papers and see where that takes you.'

And those words inspired me. So off I went and that's what I did.

That year, we won the Ashes, and — this would never happen today — I'm only in the dressing room with all the lads, aren't I? This is the boys, at the Oval, can you believe it! Hutton, Edrich, Compton, Evans, Bedser, Truman. This is priceless!

That happened, thanks to Philip.

I got a letter just the other day, from Prince Philip, wishing me all the best for the exhibition. I'd written to him to tell him it was on and thank him for his words of inspiration.

The Churchill drawing was done in '55.

Graham Sutherland had done a picture of him for his 80th which he hated — in fact when he died his wife Clementine cut it up into 1,000 pieces. Bernard Sunley knew I could draw and suggested I did a portrait to cheer him up. And I did. I got a phone call and I was invited to meet him. He was delighted with it. He was a great motivational talker. And he could draw too. In fact, I did a bit of scribbling with Winston over a coffee. Winston told me: ‘Every no takes you one step nearer a yes. Never give up!' When I came out of there, I ducked as I walked under every doorway, I felt that much taller.

I couldn't walk until I was two and I couldn't talk until I was two and a half.

But when I could crawl my mum and dad found me one day surrounded by empty jars of jam. And I'd pulled the tablecloth onto the floor and with the jam I'd drawn a horse. And my dad said, we've got an artist. But he's expensive. Get him some pencils!

The handshake is important. I have to feel it in the shoulder.

My hand is softer than any baby's skin. It's never done anything other than hold a pencil. I don't drive a car, never owned a camera, I do it all through my own eyes. I see people walking around with cameras now. And where they go, they don't see because they're too busy looking in the camera. I hold all the pictures in my head.

Philip was like Sugar Ray Robinson with the handshake — if I don't feel it in the shoulder, I have a problem.

My nose has been broken so many times, because I'm always trying to meet the sports stars, and it's the minders saying, go away, stop bothering him. But I don't mind. I have to meet them, if I'm going to draw them properly. There's no disgrace in getting knocked down, the disgrace is in staying down.

Rooney — he's like Cagney. As soon as I saw Rooney [at a PFA function] they said, that's his minder and that's his manger, keep walking. I did keep walking, in Rooney's direction. I can always tell — if the handshake hits my shoulder, I can draw him, I'm there. He shook my hand, nearly dislocated my shoulder. He's the boy!

I'm older than God.

I get up of a morning, 4am — every morning. I go straight to the bathroom and look in the mirror. And if I see my reflection I say, great, I've got another day. Done that since I was a little boy. Because one morning, it's going to be the long sleep. I don't want the long sleep. Ask yourself, tomorrow, how many people won't wake up?

The legendary Clifford Webb of the Sporting Record gave me my chance.

First thing he said to me: ‘Every Wednesday, 10 o'clock, on my desk'. And then one day I thought, I'll pop it in on Thursday. I don't know what it was — I hadn't missed before — and Webb gets up and says, ‘Do that again and not only will it not go in the paper, you will never go in the paper again, but I'll put it round that you don't make deadlines. And that's you finished.' I've never forgotten it to this day.

You hit your deadline. It doesn't matter if you stay up all night — the work fits the time. Simple as that.

I've had a press card all my working life, but I've never once sat in the press box.

I always stand on the terraces, so I can see their faces.

I've met and worked with some of the best sports writers.

Ken Jones, Ian Wooldridge. Wooldridge is an artist, not just a writer, because he paints pictures with words. He is the best writer at painting pictures. The only other man who stopped me halfway through an article, is Hugh McIlvanney. I've never met Hugh, but he did a piece on Johnny Owen [young boxer who died after a bout] and halfway through I couldn't read it any more, because the page was covered in tears. I cried and I cried. The picture he painted was so real. That was the best piece on boxing written in my lifetime.

Pelé said to me, ‘Keep the little boy alive.'

That is my philosophy, that's what I tell the children — and it's what Shearer said to me. I lived the dream. I lived the dream.

I've been drawing footballs since I was a kid, I'm good at circles.

In 1990, I went to America and I met Milt Neil, of Disney — who had worked on Snow White. He won an Academy Award. We were doing The Talking Ball with Pelé. He's animating it, I'm doing the drawings. Milt Neil said, ‘How good are you? Draw a circle.' I said, ‘I'm the best.' So he drew one and I drew one. And then he got his pair of compasses with a red pencil in and ran it round both our circles. Mine had the tiniest amount of black showing. With his, you could only see the red. It was perfect. I learned my lesson. However good you are, there's always someone better.

The Gary Player golf strip was in 375 papers — the largest golf strip in the world.

Peter Knight syndicated it all round the place. I've got letters from all over the world. I travelled the world and it didn't matter if I was in South Africa, America, Spain, Uganda, New Zealand — anywhere, I could go to my hotel, buy the paper, and I was in it. That'll do for me. I was proud of that.

Every day, for The Sun, you had to have a blockbuster.

I went up to Nottingham to see this girl Evonne Goolagong play. She had the most incredible balance and movement and I thought, different class.

So I said to Frank Nicklin at The Sun, let's do something on Evonne Goolagong. I did a sketch, and he looked at it, and he said, there's no clothes on. And I told him, no, every drawing I do, that's how I start. He said, do me another three like that. They'll be in the paper Monday. I thought, is he kidding. He wasn't.

He told me, ‘Paul, if we do this you're going to get nailed. Hammered.' He said, ‘What do you want to do? Want to come out the trenches and do a bit of hand to hand?' I said, ‘I'm on for it.' Nicklin was fearless. I did the drawings and I took them to him and said I could still put the clothes on. He said, ‘No, we're going to go for it. I'll put my byline on it and we'll go out fighting together.'

And we did. It was raised in Parliament. All sorts of things were being threatened. The Sunday Times said I was finished. But Larry Lamb [the Sun editor] beat them. He said, ‘It's an exemplary work of art. There's nothing at all offensive in it. He's drawn her as she is.' And it was accepted. It turned into a series. We did Ali, and Princess Anne.

I got in the ring with Oscar de la Hoya.

I told him I'd been in with Sugar Ray just to see him throw a punch close up. He told me, whatever you do, don't move. So I said, ‘Ready when you are.' ‘What do you mean,' he said, ‘I've already done it.' It was so quick, I hadn't seen it. Then he showed me his glove and there was a smear of sun cream on it from my nose.

The NFL took me over to America to watch American Football.

So I went and watched that — but it's not like football. They're all wearing helmets for a start. I suggested a series called Monsters of the Gridiron. It was huge. 76 million six packs had my name down the side. I did Nascar, I did baseball. I went on Good Morning Atlanta in America and they said, will you do a drawing of Mark McGuire for us — he'd just beaten every record in baseball — he'd just overtaken Babe Ruth. And this is live on television, took me by surprise. So I did a quick sketch and held it up and everyone clapped, but I didn't think it was any good so I tore it up, and I did this on screen. Well the presenter went ballistic, saying that's our hero, you don't do that and started picking up all the pieces. Anyway, afterwards I went to get my breakfast in this diner. And I sat down and ordered and the guy said, ‘You're the guy from London who tore up the drawing of Mark McGuire on TV.' He's not happy. And everybody's getting up out of their chairs and coming towards me. He says, ‘You'd better leave out the back.' They were going to kill me.

I've now literally come full circle.

I'm back in The Observer. I'm happy I'm there because Brian Oliver used to work with Frank Nicklin at The Sun. It's why the Observer is so vibrant — it's because he's brave, he's like Frank, he'll have a go.

I would like to have drawn Jesse Owens, but was never given the chance.

I've drawn him in strips and that, but I never met him, so never really drew him. I'd like to have shaken his hand. Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler, I'd love to have met him and drawn him.

In football, little Alex James with the long pants — didn't look like a footballer, he looked like George Robey the comedian — he's the one I'd love to have met.

When computerised images came in, like in The Sun… they just look like Wallace And Gromit.

I've never seen anyone play football like the computer draws them. They can't get the movement. A computer can't meet the stars or look them in the eye or shake their hands. I've been lucky. I've met them all.

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