TV Thoroughbred On Stars Of Molineux Past
To a generation of football fans addicted to Star Soccer, Gerry Harrison’s voice became part of the staple Sunday afternoon fare. He was to East Anglia what Hugh Johns was to the Midlands, Gerald Sinstadt to Lancashire or Brian Moore to London. We may not have been familiar with his face but we quickly recognised his authoritative tones when home games played by Norwich and Ipswich were shown to us. We at Wolves Heroes are delighted to have caught up with Gerry (pictured at the top and bottom of this article) and secure some recollections of his time commentating on Wanderers matches and mixing with some of Molineux’s biggest names.
I’ll start these reminiscences with the great Billy Wright. I’d bumped into him a few times but was lucky enough to get to know him better at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, where he was ITV’s chef de mission and figurehead.
I was the junior of four ITV commentators there, relishing the first of the 13 World Cups I attended, and found chatting with Billy a real privilege. He didn’t like talking about himself and was much happier reflecting on his experiences in games and on other players – and that was fascinating.
Pre-tournament, I’d tried to get into one of Belgium’s training sessions to familiarise myself with their players but was turned away. So I asked Billy to accompany me the next day and bingo! “Hullo, Billy,“ said the same heavyweight on the gate, immediately recognising him. “Come on in.” I tagged along, thinking: ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know!’
That was my first season as a TV commentator and I had no contract and no job at the end of the tournament to look forward to. It was a unique occasion, though, and because I’d recently married, my wife Kate and I decided to go for broke after my work was over and have a break in Acapulco. She was an air stewardess and could get cheap flights but I was going to have to put her up in a hotel somewhere in the days before the final.
I was sharing a room with another commentator, Roger Malone, and the exchange rate was rubbish, so Mexico City was expensive. But Billy heard about our plan and said we could have his room and he’d move in with Roger. As the celebrity head of ITV in Mexico, he had a top-class suite and it was some gesture to give it up for the junior commentator. So, in addition to knowing something about Billy’s spectacular career, I learned a lot about his generous character.
Another Wolves skipper I spent time with was Mike Bailey. I often wrote for The Times in my early days as a freelance – a good way to get to know a wide variety of teams better.
Wolves were well worth watching in the early 1970s and I was fortunate enough to be sent by the paper to the tie against ADO Den Haag early in their run to the 1972 UEFA Cup final.
They did the hard work by winning the away first leg 3-1 but what I best recall are post-match events. A small group of players and journalists were wandering around The Hague, killing time and looking for a beer or a coffee before flying home next morning.
My big memory is of Mike, very much the leader, keeping us all entertained as the unofficial guide. It was the first and only time I’ve met him despite his roots in Cambridgeshire and I could see why he was such a valued skipper over the years – and a fun guy.
I’m sure some Wolves fans will remember that the second leg at Molineux was won 4-0, with Den Haag conceding three own goals in the second half. It’s not often you see that.
Mike was near the end of his career when injuries meant he played in defence on a very dramatic Molineux night at the start of May, 1976.
It was the last big club game of the season in England, with Southampton having won the FA Cup at the weekend. Wolves were favourites to be relegated but weren’t going quietly whereas their opponents, Liverpool, needed a win or low-scoring draw to overhaul QPR and win the title. Over 48,000 were crammed into Molineux, helping create a great game and atmosphere, and Steve Kindon’s early goal had me writing away excitedly for The Times.
It was still 1-0 until Kevin Keegan equalised in the 76th minute, then John Toshack and Ray Kennedy made it 3-1 and had away fans spilling on to the pitch in celebration.
As a reporter, you’ve got your work cut out to create a balanced report out of all that drama, followed by the hunt for post-match quotes. Doing a re-write amid the mayhem was quite a challenge and I remember staggering into the press room at the end of it all, looking for a cup of tea or a beer. The steward was apologetic and said: “Sorry, we’ve run dry. You can have a sherry if you like. It’s all we’ve got left.” I thanked him but sherry isn’t top of my tipple list, so I declined.
I was living in Cheshire at the time and we got word that the M6 was gridlocked with thousands of Liverpool supporters travelling back up north, so I eventually headed for home along the much quieter back roads.
In one Cheshire village, I overtook a parked police car, who sped up behind me as I went round the next corner, the blue lights providing a frightening sight. “You overtook on a pedestrian crossing,” the officer said.
I denied it but was asked where I had been and he breathalysed me. It was negative, of course, but I was doubly grateful for declining that sherry!
Wolves were in a much happier frame of mind when Anglia TV used one of their games at Norwich to push on with an ambitious experiment.
I have fast-forwarded to early 1980 and a League match that fell on a Saturday afternoon soon after Wolves won at Carrow Road in the FA Cup. The follow-up fixture wasn’t only an embarrassment for Norwich – it wasn’t a major success for me either.
We had a very good relationship with clubs and managers in the region and the rule of thumb was that if you wanted to try anything different, persuade Bobby Robson and John Bond to do it first. If they agreed, others usually followed their example.
One experiment which worked well for a while was getting the managers to say on air pre-match how they were going to play – formation, tactics etc and who or what they were looking for in the opposition. That audio-only clip would be cut into the film as we showed the team sheets and close-ups during the kick-in.
Then, at half-time, we would speak to the managers again to ask how they thought it was going and talk about any changes they were making. The pre-match interview was simple enough but there were obvious risks with the second one, which was also conducted by me, linked up to the manager by head-set and mic only as we couldn’t run to another camera, or another reporter for that matter.
Although it started on a signal from the director, the feature had some big unknowns, such as how long it took the manager to get to his seat. His mood after first-half events was another variable.
At the game in question, Wolves were full of confidence. They were going really well in the League as well as already through to the League Cup final under John Barnwell, who I had frequently enjoyed bumping into at Peterborough when he was working there with Noel Cantwell.
There was only one team in it in the first half and a Kenny Hibbitt penalty and Mel Eves goal gave them a good lead. John Bond was a straight talker, so when I was told he was in position in the main stand opposite our gantry, I just led into it with: “Dare I ask you what points you made at half-time, John?” He was away. “You daren’t, Gerry. Disgusted, disappointed etc, etc.”
As we spoke, Wolves went on the attack again seconds after the restart and John Richards made it three. There was a clatter in my headphones and I had to do my best to pick up the action, not knowing whether John was still on the line. At the front of my mind was the dilemma of whether I should ask him another question.
I decided that was a bad idea and found out later that John had thrown the head-set down in disgust. I was left to sort out the action replay and aftermath – and his and Norwich’s afternoon became worse when Hibbitt scored from another penalty to complete a 4-0 victory.
London Weekend’s ‘Big Match’ made a big issue out of it, particularly the sound of the head-set being thrown. Which was a bit ironic as they had tried the same experiment after seeing it work well with us. Not all the managers would agree to do it, though, so they dropped the idea.
I wonder how Bill McGarry would have reacted if he had been asked to take part!
*Essex-born Gerry was on the mic at seven World Cups, attended four more as a producer and a couple as a ‘bits and pieces’ contributor. He was executive producer of IMG’s launch into football production in the early 1990s, which eventually involved the production and distribution of the Premier League worldwide, as well as other foreign leagues and competitions. Later, he was a producer and consultant for FIFA Films. The two ITV photos of Gerry show him (top) paying tribute after the death of Ipswich legend Kevin Beattie and (below) on air at Anglia TV.