The Star And The Wolves – An Enduring ‘Marriage’
In-Depth Spotlight On The Men Behind The Printed Word
Despite his regular quality offerings on this website, his numerous columns in match-day programmes and the early-1990s book he wrote on Wolverhampton Wanderers goalkeepers, Charles Bamforth still nurses a career frustration – one he touches on here as he pays tribute to the newspapers that stimulated his young mind.
5.25pm every other Saturday. I would stand at the entrance to Wolverhampton railway station. Alternately, I would peer anxiously across to the platform where the train to Crewe would appear any minute and then search eagerly for the van I knew was about to scream up to the kerbside and deposit a fat bundle of pink papers. Would the Sporting Star make it in time?
Less than 45 minutes after the final whistle at Molineux, the fabulously informative Express & Star football edition was being pored over by a Wolves-mad youngster as he hurried on to the first leg of his two-train journey back to his home near Wigan.
I loved that paper and, years later, would have it sent on subscription to my home in West Sussex. There was no incessant Internet-driven news bombardment in those days. A portable transistor radio was out of the question, so this was my first glimpse of the day’s final scores and who had done what to whom and how.
I searched first for the Central League results – to see how Wolves’ second team had done. And then checked on the fortunes of the West Midlands League team and the Worcestershire Combination side. And I would devour all the other prose and data.
By the time I reached Crewe, the paper was safely folded away. I would take cuttings next day and, a few years ago, was thrilled to present those scrapbooks to my dear friend, Les Wilson.
But I had a few minutes to kill at the famous Crewe Station and would buy the Sentinel, which was buff-coloured if I recall correctly. And when I got back to Wigan, it might still be possible to pick up the Lancashire Evening Post and Manchester Evening News pink sporting editions. A few shillings had brought me close to a special world through those four papers.
It was my dream to get a mention in one or more of them – as a player. Perhaps with more realism, I should have taken the altogether more logical route and tried to get into the pages as a writer.
So it has been intriguing and insightful to chat latterly with some of the household names that brought the Wolves word to so many through their columns in the Express & Star, Sporting Star and Wolverhampton Chronicle.
Just how was it possible to get the Pink out so quickly? What was life like in what I still perceive in my mind’s eye as smoky tip-tapping offices down Queen Street?
Steve Gordos has gold and black corpuscles streaming through his veins. “I played rugby for Tettenhall College and, because Dad knew George Gillott, the sports editor at the Star, I used to get my reports of the games into the paper,” he said.
“When I left school, I applied to become a trainee but they said they did not take on trainee reporters. However, just when I was thinking I would have to find another career, the Star decided they wanted to launch an evening paper for Shropshire as they were concerned that the Birmingham Mail might be making a move to capitalise on the creation of Telford new town.
“As part of their plans, the Star acquired the Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News, a weekly paper, and decided they would use it to train new recruits. I had two years there and then three at the Express & Star’s Bilston office.
“In 1968, I went to the Wolverhampton office as a sub-editor on sports. Rachael Heyhoe was there as a sub-editor (even though George was against women on the sports desk). She went off on one of her cricket tours and, when she came back, headed off to the Wolverhampton Chronicle, covering the Wolves.
“Wolves were happy to give her a ticket but would not allow her in the press room or press box. They were men only. The irony was that the press box was right at the back of the Waterloo Road Stand while ‘Raich’ was given a ticket on the front row of the stand – and had a better view than the press boys!
“I went to the Chronicle in the 1980s and was editor there for nine years in succession to Gary Matthews, who had been a youngster at Wolves before playing for Willenhall Town. Then the new editor at the Express & Star, Warren Wilson, invited me back as sports editor.”
Anyone who has read Steve Gordos’ books knows he is a keen and precise Wolverhampton Wanderers historian. Thus it is entirely fitting that I should turn to him first for his memories of the doyen of Wolves scribes, Phil Morgan.
“Phil was from Southampton, whose result was the second one he always looked for. He never lost his accent. He came up to the Midlands to cover the Saddlers for the Walsall Observer, which was a big circulation weekly.
“He was over 40 when he joined the Express & Star and must have started his career before the war on a paper in Hampshire. I would imagine he was in the services in the war but he never spoke of it.
“He had impeccable shorthand. He must have trained as a news reporter, like we all did in those days, before getting the chance to specialise in sport. Being a news reporter involved covering court cases and council meetings, so shorthand was essential.
“If he was on the phone to Stan Cullis, Jack Howley or whoever, he would always make notes in his reporter’s notebook in shorthand; a great skill and one which I suppose is no longer vital for sports reporters as they all have some form of recorder.
“It was still the norm in those days for writers to have pseudonyms and his was “Commentator”. The previous guy had been “Pilgrim”. Or it may have been more than one reporter involved but with each report carrying the Pilgrim byline.
“What a season to start Phil’s career up here it was when he was covering Wolves in 1948-49! The “Commentator” nom de plume was dropped for the start of the 1960-61 season, so Phil’s reports started to have his own name on them.
“Reporters travelled with the team then. I don’t think Phil ever fell out with Stan Cullis. The club had a good relationship with the Express & Star. They tended to avoid controversy. Cullis had that incident with a director at Luton. It was mentioned in the Express & Star but along the lines of being “settled amicably”. The likes of the Daily Mirror and Daily Express made a much bigger thing of it.
“There could be problems, though. Phil was told off the record by Jimmy Mullen that he was almost certain to hang up his boots. I would imagine it was at the end of the 1957-58 season. Phil made the mistake of telling George Gillott, who insisted a story must go in the paper.
“Phil said Jimmy was hopping mad about it and it prompted him to have a re-think and play on for much of the 1958-59 season just to prove the Star wrong.
“One of Phil’s prized possessions, before it was pilfered, was an ashtray fashioned on the Nou Camp, a token he had received on that European Cup trip to Barcelona.
“In those days, the writers did sub-editing as well as writing and spent most of the day doing that. We did everything – right down to sub-editing the race cards. No matter what it was we “subbed”, we would go through it with the well-known marking of what should be in capital letters, correcting spelling etc. Then we had to make sure it would fit. The sports editor would say he wanted an article to be about six inches long and we knew what that meant in terms of word count. Then it would be off to the print room.
“The metal tables that would have all the material on them were called ‘stones’ (I think that stemmed from the days of printing in monasteries) and there was a chap called a ‘stone sub’ whose job it was to be the last checker of whether a piece would fit. This is why each paragraph consisted of one sentence. That is most suited to the sub-editing and fitting pieces to the space available.
“It was not only the text. The headline also needed to be fashioned to fit a space. Once the Pink was put to bed, we always had a game of cricket in the composing room, using a rolled-up piece of paper!
“George Gillott was a Yorkshireman and used to talk out of the side of his mouth. When I began on the sports desk, he told my dad I was a good lad and doing very well but one day he asked me to type the envelopes inviting guests to the Staffordshire Open golf tournament, which the paper sponsored each year. I refused and said it wasn’t the job of a journalist. A few days later, he was at my dad’s stall in the market hall and my father asked him how I was doing. ‘Still very well’ he answered ‘but he can be a bit bolshie’.
“In my early days on the sports desk, I would occasionally answer the phone and a voice would say: ‘It’s Stan Cullis, I wonder if someone could provide some information for me?’ The rest of the desk would laugh because I would immediately stand up to continue the conversation out of respect for a legend.
“I would ask him what he needed to know and it was often: ‘Steve, I’m speaking to a Rotary Club tomorrow – when was it we scored a hundred goals three seasons running?’ Amazed that the great man did not know things that were ingrained in us fans, I would tell him: ‘It started in 1957-58, Mr Cullis, and it was four seasons in a row not three.’ Stan would reply with something like: ‘I had it in my mind it was three but you know about these things. Thanks, Steve.’ I would put the phone down, then sit and say to myself: ‘Stan Cullis called me ‘Steve’. Wow!’ Then I would get on with ‘subbing’ the Cradley dog card or Sandown race card – the tasks we all loved to do!
“One of the other main football writers was Tom Johnson, who covered Villa. He, too, would sub-edit. It was hot metal in those days, of course. And there was not a lot of space, I think in part because there was a shortage of newsprint. We didn’t even carry the teams and stats from a match in the daily paper – those were just in the Pink, which in its heyday had a circulation of 20,000, maybe more. It was actually my suggestion that we include the teams and stats in the E & S.
“Phil Morgan would write down every result from every division in a shorthand notebook with the scorers, attendances and League position for each club. It meant he could illustrate his articles with facts like: ‘So-and-so have won three in a row’ or ‘such-a-body has scored so many goals’. And so on. He was meticulous.
“On a Monday, he would make notes in small books about the Saturday game and cut out his report on the game from the paper. He would add little bits of info like the weather conditions. Phil was delighted when Rothman’s yearbooks came out, though he (and later I) carried on with our record keeping. I still have most of his cuttings books.
“Even after he retired, he would come into the Queen Street offices and sub-edit on the Pink on Saturdays, mostly West Midlands League stuff. We used to greet him with ‘Here he comes…..the Wizened White-haired Walsall Wordsmith’. That made him chuckle.”
In October, 1968, Phil suffered a heart attack. Steve tells how the Express & Star kept things low key: “That day, John Dee was called to the sports editor’s desk and simply told to get down to the ground and on to the coach taking the Wolves team to the League Cup tie at Blackpool and there would be a ticket for him at Bloomfield Road.
“Phil was sidelined until January, 1969 and John Dee also covered some Wolves games in 1971-72 (Phil’s last season) because Mrs Morgan was taken ill. It was the rule at the Star that, in your final year, you went on ‘wind down’, which meant doing four days for a few months then three days and then two, so you were eased into retirement.
“The firm also had you attend retirement classes and I remember Phil coming back from one of these and saying: ‘You’ll never guess what today’s subject was – sex in later life.’ Phil retired in 1972 after covering the UEFA Cup final and was really looking forward to spending more time with his wife. Sadly, Dorrie died about a year after he left.
“There were no kids. He re-married and, towards the end of his life, was in a retirement home and had lost both legs. He was a religious man, I think Church of England, and tried to dissuade Peter Knowles from retiring, telling him that surely his talent was God-given. The thing I remember about Phil’s coverage of Wolves was that he was always reluctant to criticise an individual.”
For further recollections of the great man, I turned to David Instone, at 16 and a half years the longest-serving Wolves correspondent on the Express & Star other than Phil. He arrived at the paper in 1982 and made acquaintance with Phil when the senior man would come into the office to do his Saturday “subbing”.
“I bet working with Stan Cullis was not a bed of roses but I could never imagine a manager falling out with Phil,” he said. “He was a very gentle man, a lovely writer with a delightful turn of phrase. But the hard edges we were expected to chisel out in much later years were not expected in his day.
“I have gone back in the archives to read loads of his articles and match reports and, whenever criticism was warranted, he always seemed to do it in a polite way. I interviewed him at his home in Aldridge in the 1980s about the depths the club had sunk to and wrote a piece in the first person. Looking back now, I regret the way I presented it because I came to realise that it was in a harsher style than he used.”
Replacing Morgan was a tough task. George Gillott wanted young Gordos in the role but the incoming sports editor Brian Clifford opted for the more experienced John Dee, who I caught up with by phone at his home in Wombourne.
“I was born in Gloucester and was a youngster when an advertisement in the local paper took my eye,” he said. “A local news agency wanted an assistant, the requirement being that knowledge of sport was essential. We covered the Birmingham Post, Western Daily Press and Western Mail and occasionally stories for the nationals.
“My boss took shorthand at the bankruptcy and divorce courts but I learned mine at classes! I was told this chap didn’t keep assistants for more than a year so I applied to papers in various places, including Stratford and Dudley. It was the Stratford one that I was really keen on but they were late getting to me, so I came to the West Midlands, at first covering news and sport for the Borough News in Wednesbury, where I lived for many years.
“I got the job a year after I came out of National Service in 1956 – I had been in Signals with the RAF, mostly in Castle Bromwich. In 1960, I joined the Express & Star as district reporter in Bilston but was then moved to Stourbridge. I wasn’t keen on that move, so asked in 1968 to move to head office to cover sport. They told me there was no specific job on the desk but that, if I was in the office, then obviously I would hear about anything that did come up. Six months later, a vacancy arose, writing about athletics, West Midlands League football and some cricket. And then came that day when George told me I was off to cover the game at Blackpool. All he said was: ‘Phil is not very well’.
“I stood in for a few months, my last game being the FA Cup tie at Hull. So I was in the dining room that day when Bill McGarry ‘lost it’ with John Holsgrove for ordering a prawn cocktail. He shouted: ‘If you were at home, would you be eating that? No! Then you’re not ****ing well having it here either.’ I had my head down – I was eating soup.
“I probably got too close to the players. But they knew that whatever they got up to, I would not break a confidence. I remember Bill McGarry asking me: ‘Where’s Danny (Hegan)?’ I had no idea and wouldn’t have told him even if I did. Danny was a lad. The story is well told of the Sunday when, just before lunch, his wife Patsy sent him off for a couple of lemonades for the kids and he didn’t appear again until Thursday. Nice lady, Patsy. She took my daughter to an England-Ireland game once and after the Irish had won 1-0, my daughter re-appeared decked out in green!
“Dave Wagstaffe would come into the Queen Street office. Peter Knowles, too. I used to ghost their columns for the Sporting Star – sometimes I did Waggy’s without chatting to him as he was off doing other things. John Richards would come in later but he used to write his own. Peter came one fateful day and said: ‘This is my last one, John. I’m packing in the game. I will give you the story but I don’t want this coming out until after the League Cup tie with Spurs next month, because I’ll be playing against my brother, Cyril.’ I had to tell George Gillott and his assistant Brian Clifford, who insisted that the paper had to carry something but I told them I had assured Peter we wouldn’t betray his trust.
“In the end, Brian Clifford wrote a story along the lines of ‘Peter Knowles is facing a crisis in his life’. Then the Daily Mail went ahead and spilled the story close to the Spurs game. That did not put me in the bosses’ good books at the Express & Star.”
John Dee saw the end of the Ronnie Allen era and the coming and going of both McGarry and Sammy Chung, as well as the start of the John Barnwell regime. By then, however, he was becoming increasingly distressed by what he was seeing on the terraces, starting in 1974.
“A bottle just missed my head one time,” he added. “And then there was a game against Leeds when all manner of things were happening on the South Bank and I saw an elderly chap being helped away with a gash in his bald head caused by an apple with a razor blade in it. I am afraid it all got to me but I carried on until 1978 when I decided it was no longer what I wanted to do. I started to cover rugby, chiefly Moseley but also England international games. Of course, coming from Gloucester, I’d always been a rugby man.”
Cricket too. Which is how he got his nickname ‘Henry’. “Steve Gordos and I went up to Old Trafford to watch the Gillette Cup semi-final between Lancashire and Gloucestershire, the one that finished in the pitch dark. We got there early and there was only one other bloke in the press box. All of a sudden, the door swung open and a voice rang out: ‘Good morning Henry!’ (I really can’t remember if the chap he was greeting was Henry Blofeld.) ‘Gosh you’re here early. The traffic is horrendous – did you come by helicopter?!’ Next day, when I walked into the Express & Star office, Gordos pipes up: ‘Good morning, Henry!’ and it’s stuck ever since. Henry actually is one of my names but I never use it. Even my son calls me Henry now, though.
“After leaving the Star, I did freelance work, including coverage of snooker. I did a lot for Imperial Tobacco with their sponsorship of the Embassy World Championship and Regal Masters. But when the Government vetoed the involvement of tobacco companies in this sort of thing, that was gone. I was the snooker correspondent of the Daily Telegraph from 1990 to 2008. I also wrote for The Sun and The Nation newspaper in Thailand.
“I first met Alex Higgins when I interviewed him after he won at Selly Park British Legion in Birmingham in 1972. We became quite good mates. Things turned sour many years later at a tournament in Blackpool. I was looking after some Thai players and Higgins lost to one of them, Tai Pichit. He started crying, saying the referee was in his line of sight. He rang me at three in the morning, yelling and swearing about my involvement with the Thai players. That was the last time I really spoke to him. Very sad. He could be a great chap and got on very well with my late wife.”
Steve Gordos remembers another story about the Higgins-Dee friendship. “He had given John one of his old cues and once when he was not doing too well in a tournament, announced that he ought to go back to his old one. Brian Clifford was flabbergasted to hear John say: ‘Oh, I’ve got that cue in my loft!’ He hadn’t thought to do a piece on it.”
Gordos confirmed how John Dee got on famously with the Wolves players. “Another like that was Ray Matts, who covered Albion. This was great if you wanted tip-offs about signings or transfers or injuries. We always got the news first. Once, Ray was on tour with Albion and two players broke a curfew imposed by Alan Ashman. I think Jeff Astle was one. The two were fined and, next day, with Ray sitting there, Ashman said proudly that they had the culprits and what a good job it was that the press were not ‘in on this’. He knew Mattsy would be discreet.
“We loved to ask John Dee how to find such and such a place. Irrespective of whether it was Barnsley, East Grinstead or Ipswich, it was always: ‘Go straight through Bilston and then it’s motorway all the way’.
“After Wolves were relegated in 1976, he interviewed Bill McGarry, who told him he really would like to stay to get the club back into the First Division. It was down to me to write the headline and I made it ‘McGarry Pleas for a Second Chance’. McGarry was livid, saying: ‘I have never begged for anything in my life’.
“In the early sixties, when he was on the Wednesbury paper, John was very close to another Express & Star man, Malcolm Williams, who did not drive. John would always take Malcolm with him to cover Villa games. This once, John could not oblige as he was taking his wife to Gloucester, so Malcolm got a lift elsewhere and was the only one who didn’t survive when the car crashed with some of the players in it.”
John Dee was one of the last Wolves correspondents to travel on the team coach. Steve Gordos adds: “When Brian Clifford came in, he felt the paper needed to be much more independent and not beholden to the club. So the days of travelling with the team were over. He also separated sports writers from sports sub-editors and ensured the football men had company cars.”
The next guy in the role was Eddie Griffiths, an ex-matelot who had worked in the town for the Bayliss News Agency. “He was born in Bilston but had Wales and Liverpool connections,” says Steve Gordos. “That Welsh blood suited him in the seventies when the rugby team were doing so well. He had a strange turn of phrase, stemming from his Navy days in the War. Headed to the toilet, he would announce that he was off to the ‘for’ard heads’. Any clergyman was always referred to as a ‘sin bosun’ and, if offered a drink, he would say: ‘Gulpers, not sippers’. That referred to the Navy’s traditional rum ration.
“Eddie was a marvel at putting words into people’s mouths. He would ring John Barnwell and say something like: ‘I supposed it’s a game for men, not boys, tomorrow?’ and John would say: ‘yes’. In the article, Eddie would quote Barney as saying: ‘Tomorrow’s game is one for men, not boys’.
“He could get away with criticising people, too. He got that scoop in his freelance days about the supposed unrest that made Stan so livid. Cullis went player to player in front of Eddie, Phil Morgan and others and said to each: ‘Have you asked for a transfer?’‘ Have you? Have you? And so on. I think quite a few of them had gone within the year, though!”
Dave Instone says: “Eddie was also big on boxing and golf. He could be very gruff but was a big character in the area. He covered some of the Muhammad Ali fights and, I think, secured a one-on-one interview with him in America once. The Ryder Cup at The Belfry in 1985 was his last main fling before retirement. I was covering it with him but he insisted that he did the main article afterwards, which was fair enough. Of course, as Wolves correspondent, he had the Andy Gray signing and the 1980 League Cup on his watch.”
The Star next turned to Dave Harrison. David Instone picks up the thread. “He was Tipton born and bred and I first knew him when he worked on the Midland Chronicle in West Bromwich. He was with the Post & Mail for several years afterwards before coming to the Star.
“One of his first assignments here was going to the World Cup in Spain but he was very much at the heart of the coverage of Wolves’ fight for survival. He got on well with Derek Dougan, Graham Hawkins and Jim Barron but, like everyone else, could never track down the Bhattis. He was a very good operator and it was only a matter of time before he went on to the national press.”
Steve Gordos remembers Harrison in the same vein, adding: “He got on well with people. It was not like today when a journalist has little chance of getting to a player. In those days, you could grab a coffee with someone and have a chinwag. People are far more likely to give you useful hints and tip-offs in that setting rather than down the phone. Phil Morgan was not as much in contact with the players in this way, unlike the likes of Dee, Harrison and Instone. Anyway, there was no room for interviews in the paper in those days.”
Peter White, who would go on to The Sun in the late 1980s, came in. Dave Instone says: “Trevor Gedge, the Walsall correspondent, had died from a heart attack in 1982-83 and Peter came in from the Post & Mail. He was a big Villa man but there was a tendency here for a few years for reporters to be less attached to one club and to chop and change quite often. That was how the Post & Mail had done it for ages. Peter got close to Wolves when Brian Little was in the caretaker manager role as he knew him well and co-authored his book.”
Which leads us to the Instone era…..he joined the Express and Star in December, 1982 after stints with the Rugeley Times, the Dudley Herald and on the Derby Evening Telegraph as their home-and-away Notts County reporter.
“I knew the sports editor Brian Clifford as I had played against him in local cricket and also had a summer with his club, Wombourne. He gave me a call out of the blue at Derby one day and said there was a down-table job going at the Star. There was quite an influx of sports reporters in the 1980s. Sales of the paper were at their peak, close to a quarter of a million a night, and it was another feather in our cap when Martin Swain joined the brain drain from the Post & Mail as replacement for Peter White late in 1988.
“The decision not to stick totally with one club was partly because David Harrison was wasted covering only lower-division football and maybe because reporting on every Wolves game at that time was seen as too much for one person to suffer! I took over as the main Wolves writer at Easter in 1986. I had spent my first two years as a sub-editor, only being let out of the office on occasions when there were enough staff men around to allow me to cover games.
“Then I succeeded Eddie Griffiths as the Walsall writer and did that for 18 months during Alan Buckley’s time as manager. At Wolves, those two promotions from the Fourth and Third Divisions were highlights, as of course were the Sherpa Van Trophy and the arrival of Sir Jack. I had a lot of time for the chairman Dick Homden and the other director who fans will remember, Jack Harris.”
Instone is writing a book about his 30-plus years in and around Molineux but I was intrigued to ask him about the set-up at the Star and also address my curiosity about the process of rapidly getting the Pink to bed in those nostalgic days when the Saturday football paper was a “must”.
“Our desk was two flights of stairs or two lift stops up. The second floor in Queen Street was a huge open space with everyone there: sports editor and sub-editors, writers, news reporters and subs, photographers, dark rooms, librarians, the whole lot. Steve Gordos was a senior figure beneath Brian Clifford when I joined in 1982 and, in later years especially, there would be a daily editorial meeting attended by the sports editor for which I stepped in a couple of times. The idea was to discuss what would be on the anvil that day.
“To be honest, though, it wasn’t possible to accurately predict what would arise – that isn’t how news works, even in sport. We had a 10.30 deadline for our first edition and I certainly didn’t go to Molineux on a daily basis; maybe once or twice a week to see the manager or interview a player.
“Organised press conferences, which started properly in the second half of the 1990s, made everything more structured. Ray Brown, who used to be the voice on the tanoy in the late 1980s, said he was the first press officer at Molineux and, although it was only a match-day thing, I know he loved his two minutes escorting Graham Taylor up to the press room after matches.
“With Lorraine Hennessy in as a full-time press officer, pre-match press conferences would be on a Thursday or Friday before a Saturday game or on a Monday for a Tuesday night game. They tended to be at Molineux in the Mark McGhee era but have since been almost exclusively at the training ground.”
And what about the rapid Saturday-afternoon reporting for the sports papers at Derby and Wolverhampton? “There were, of course, no internet or mobiles in my early days and the kick-by-kick match reports were dictated using a landline. You would be sat in the press box, start dictating at 2.50 with the line-ups and team news – and not put the phone down until the final whistle went at 4.45.
“There was a team of copytakers back in the office taking down your words and there could be problems. At Wolves away games in the lower divisions, there were sometimes more reporters than phones and you had to share. I remember a 3-3 draw at Preston just after the winning of the Third Division in 1989, when the home side scored twice in a minute or two right at the end while someone else was on my phone.
“The sports desk secretary, Michelle, was taking my copy at that time and I had to convince her at first that I wasn’t joking about the score. Occasionally, copy would be lost between one department and another and you had to do it all again from memory as fast as you could.”
None of which sounds particularly glamorous! But if only….
* Tim Nash (two spells), Steve Marshall, Mark Douglas and Tim Spiers have covered Wolves for the Express & Star since David Instone’s departure from the paper a decade and a half ago.