Saturday 10 December 2016

'The thing I regret most is loss of trust'

Dermot Gilleece joined The Irish Press in October, 1958. In his 57 years working in the newspaper business, he has witnessed an enormous change in the relationship between sports journalists and the men and women they write about

Published 27/04/2015 | 02:30

Dermot Gilleece
Dermot Gilleece

An ancient curiosity which my grandchildren may one day be able to knock some loot out of, is a portable East German typewriter I acquired in 1984. It was bought for £50 from the Royal and Ancient no less, after serving its purpose as part of the media-centre equipment for the Open Championship at St Andrews.

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The very idea of many such machines, clattering away in the production of hard copy, would be an alien concept to current scribes. As would the pall of cigarette smoke which accompanied our activities. Much has changed since my early days on the road, though not all of it could be considered progress.

Sports coverage in Ireland was essentially local when I embarked on a career in journalism in 1960, having spent almost two years learning my craft in the Irish Press Group. Overseas travel was limited to events such as the Olympic Games and the odd rugby and soccer international. And it was a time when the concern of the travelling journalist had to do more with actually making contact with base, rather than the quality of his endeavours.

As for the Irish system: I remember covering the South of Ireland Golf Championship at Lahinch during the 1960s when the press facilities consisted of a tent located by the 18th green. Inside was a table and a bench and one telephone, Lahinch 5. Of the wind-up variety, it involved the local operator routing a call through Ennistymon, then on to Ennis and Limerick before the prized connection was made to Dublin. It was a time when writers were the stars. For the most part, sportspeople were extremely grateful for any attention bestowed on them by the leading journalists, whom they treated with due deference, often as Mr. In a total reversal of the current situation, soccer players probably imagined us being paid huge sums as perceived experts in our field, compared to their own fairly modest wages, even at the top English clubs.

Gradually, deference turned to familiarity, which meant scribes and sports people socialising together. I can recall some lively nights with Irish international soccer players here for Dublin matches, and with home-based players when they travelled with their clubs to the continent.

It was a time when the opinion of the writer was considered far more valuable than a quote from a player. Which meant that players' views were rarely sought and they could be far more trusting of scribes. I remember James Mossop, formerly of the Sunday Express, telling me how he and Jack Charlton went celebrating in London's West End when England won the World Cup at Wembley in 1966. It was also common knowledge that the England manager, Alf Ramsey, socialised with a small group of journalists whom he trusted implicitly.

The same applied in golf. On trips to The Open, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus would happily play cards with leading British scribes such as Pat Ward-Thomas, Henry Longhurst and Peter Ryde. And on visits to Dublin, Ward-Thomas was almost invariably a guest of Joe Carr's at his Sutton home.

In many ways it was a time of innocence. The general belief is that major changes occurred, not with the advent of modern communication technology, but when sport was invaded by the gossip columnists of the British tabloids. This happened to coincide with an explosion in the earning power of leading sports people. So, from a time when they depended on scribes and newspapers to keep them in the public eye, promoters and PR people were now largely satisfying this need, especially through television.

On a personal level, the thing I regret most is the loss of trust. And while it is easy to dismiss some sportspeople as mindless millionaires, the fracturing of once close relationships has been, unquestionably, a two-way process.

Sunday Independent

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