A Winter’s Tale
Illuminating Memories From Beeb Favourite
Midlands TV viewers said goodbye to a highly familiar face last month when Ian Winter called time on his 35-year service to the BBC. The Blackburn-born sports presenter arrived on the patch in the mid-1980s to head up Radio WM’s sports team and, after a stint with the corporation at BBC Look East in Norwich, returned to Birmingham to work in TV.
We have caught up with him during lockdown to ask for some of his Wolves-related recollections from well over a decade as a sports reporter/presenter on Midlands Today. Putting some of his thoughts down in print was a task he was more than happy to take on and he started (where else?) at the end!
“The Mayor of Dudley must be an Albion fan!” said Steve Bull to round off another memorable interview. But this would be the last. It was Friday, December 11, my final working day with the BBC. And purely by chance, my swansong involved Bully. The local council was getting hot under the collar about a striking mural of the forward which had been painted on the garage door of a Wolves fan in Stourbridge. So I interviewed Steve, via Zoom. He and his wife Kirsty loved the artwork and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Neither could they believe it when I told them this was my last day with the Beeb.
For me, it was perfect timing and a remarkable coincidence because Bully has been a constant, recurring and enjoyable presence in my broadcasting career since the mid-1980s, when he signed for Wolves and I joined BBC Radio WM. He was the new hot-shot at Molineux, I was a fresh-faced sports reporter on the Midlands beat. We forged a good working relationship which evolved into a friendship that has stood the test of time. But for all his stunning goals and Black Country humour, B is not only for Bully. It also stands for Billy and Bert, not to mention the Bhattis!
It’s painful to recall now just how close Wolverhampton Wanderers came to extinction. In my first couple of seasons down here, things were extremely dire at the club. The unthinkable prospect of Molineux being razed to the ground to make way for a supermarket was very real. Younger readers of this site will find it hard to believe as they gaze around today’s magnificent Premier League stadium but, in 1985, the dilapidated old ground cut a forlorn image during those Fourth Division days as I got to know the place alongside WM’s popular and long-suffering Wolves reporter, John Pike.
It would have taken a foolish sports editor to dispense with Pikey because he was very well liked at Wolves and by listeners and was quite happy to trawl up and down the country to lower-division grounds, often with his son Russ. Rarely a day in his company passed without an impression or two of John Arlott and Richie Benaud – he was also proud of the fact that the BBC’s late sports presenter, David Vine, came from near where he did in Devon.
It was through John’s friendship with Billy Wright that the three of us came to be working together at Wembley on that unforgettable day in May, 1988 at the Sherpa Van Trophy final. The two of them had worked at Central TV for many years, so when John, who was in sales, enquired if Billy would like to join the BBC WM commentary team for the day, we were all delighted when the great man said yes.
Being part of that incredible 80,000-plus crowd to commentate on Wolves’ 2-0 victory over Burnley will always be one of my career highlights because it signalled the re-birth of a great club. My abiding memory, though, will always be the incredibly warm reception Billy received from fans of both clubs, and of all ages, as we made our way through that network of corridors, tunnels and lifts in the old stadium. A long while has passed but I probably did wonder whether we would make it up to the BBC commentary box in time for when we were due on air.
Bully didn’t score that day, but Billy certainly did… as his wise words over the airwaves left a lasting impression on thousands of ticketless fans listening back home. I wasn’t in the Midlands when he used to give his views on ATV’s Star Soccer on Sunday afternoons but I suspect he was happier when he wasn’t looking into a camera and could relax a little more with just a microphone to speak into. We loved having his company that day.
John was our roving touchline reporter, bringing us up-to-date with bits and pieces that we might have missed from high up in the Gods, and gave us a valuable insight in fortunate circumstances just as the teams were coming out for the second half. He had nipped down the tunnel at the end of half-time in search of a toilet and re-emerged to immediately announce on air that Mick Holmes wouldn’t be playing any further part in the game. I asked him how he could be so sure and he replied that he had been surprised to be shown into Wolves’ dressing room and invited to use the facilities there. In so doing, he saw poor Mick sitting with his foot in an ice bucket!
And so from Billy and Pikey to Bert, the legendary Wolves and England goalkeeper who was also a long-time team-mate of Billy’s with club and country. We first met as part of the publicity drive for his excellent book, A Cat in Wolf’s Clothing, and things took off from there. On several occasions, I was delighted to update Midlands Today viewers with news of Bert’s latest adventure … his 90th birthday party at Molineux, receiving his MBE from HM The Queen at Buckingham Palace and my own personal favourite, the memorable moment “When Banksy Met Bert.”
The two world-class keepers had been good friends for years but, as they grew older, opportunities to meet became less frequent. So it was quite a coup to fix up a reunion in front of the cameras. Bert had been looking forward to seeing Gordon again for weeks, almost like a kid counting down to Christmas Day. But when we arrived at his bungalow in Shifnal before going on to collect Gordon from home near Uttoxeter, we could tell something wasn’t right. “We’ll have to call it off,” said Bert, clearly distressed. “I’ve lost me false teeth and can’t meet Gordon without me teeth!”
For almost an hour, we scoured Bert’s home, which was a unique treasure trove of framed photos and endless other items of Wolves and England memorabilia. We were just about to call Gordon to break the bad news when my cameraman Hutch jumped off the couch, clutching the missing dentures. Bert had placed them in one of his England caps for safe-keeping! The resulting reunion had a happy ending and, in later years, I was deeply honoured to be asked by Bert’s family to deliver a eulogy at his funeral.
From a similar era, age-wise, I must mention Sir Jack Hayward – what a memorable and impressive man! I’ll never forget his enormous pride and beaming smile as he unveiled the club’s new training complex but, of all the interviews I did with him, I most fondly remember one in November, 2010. He was 87 and still had 250 employees in the Bahamas, and we sat in the Billy Wright Stand in the build-up to a visit from Manchester City. As ever, he never ducked a question and covered so many areas with his answers….the golden tit, the ‘tingle’ he still had from sitting in the stadium, the clamour for Paul Ince to become Wolves manager in 2006 and what he called the ‘obscene’ wages and fees City were starting to pay. “I like our cap on wages, rewards for success and so on,” he said.
I can imagine what Graham Turner must have thought of the huge spending Chelsea and City brought in. I won’t go back over the hardships he faced in his early years at Molineux but he belonged to an era when reporters could become friendly with players and managers in a way that just doesn’t happen now. At WM, we got to know his daughter Samantha, who ran a hairdressing business at Molineux for some time, because Jenny Wilkes invited her in for a look behind the scenes and the chance to be involved through answering the phones in competitions and things like that.
Graham Taylor was another guy you could feel close to because he took the trouble to show an interest in you and treat you with respect. I interviewed him many times in his first spell at Villa and then remember going to Lilleshall, where he was doing a presentation to some young players around the time he was becoming England manager. I was based in Manchester for a few months at the time, working as a producer on a BBC2 show called On The Line that Ray Stubbs presented.
Graham agreed to be interviewed by us about England on the basis that the piece wouldn’t be used until after the official announcement, which was typical of him – not many would have been so cooperative. We also had a word with Brian Glanville, the rather opinionated Sunday Times correspondent who voiced fears about the playing style Graham’s teams were associated with. Shortly afterwards, we had a call from Graham, not complaining at what Brian had said but suggesting it would have been useful for him to have known in advance so he could have pre-empted his comments. He was so professional and reasonable like that.
January has never been my favourite month, not least because it brings back sad memories from four years ago; first, the sudden death of Graham at 72, then the equally shocking news that Rachael Heyhoe Flint had passed away, aged 77. The funerals, in Watford and Wolverhampton, attracted huge crowds of mourners and well-wishers and I found them very challenging to cover from a professional point of view. Rachael’s bubbling enthusiasm for anything connected with cricket or Wolves was shared by Graham. It was also quite infectious. And it was through RHF that I had the pleasure of knowing Sir Jack. Whenever he was paying one of his flying visits to Molineux, she would call to see if I fancied an interview. Yes, please! He was 90 years young the last time we met in April, 2014 and spoke lovingly of his huge legacy to his beloved Wolverhampton. Sadly, nine months later, he too passed away, prompting another massive funeral which brought the city to a standstill.
And now more towards the present….what a joy it has been to be reflecting Wolves’ success of the last three or four years! The long run in the Europa League last season presented the broadcast media with the challenge of finding new angles and our ideas included filming in an Italian restaurant in Wolverhampton before the Torino tie, locating a Wolves fan in Greece before one of the games against Olympiakos and going out on the golf course with John Richards at The Wergs in Tettenhall before the Sevilla game.
Long may the good times continue at Molineux despite the recent blip and, on a personal note, farewell to Bert, Billy, Bully, Sir Jack, JR, the Grahams and all those other Wolves legends, past and present. It has been a real pleasure meeting you all and telling your stories over the past 35 years.