Thursday 27 June 2019

His grace under pressure was immense - Jim Lawton will be sorely, sadly missed

James Lawton - a tribute

James Lawton passed away, aged 75
James Lawton passed away, aged 75
David Kelly

David Kelly

James Lawton - "Oh, call me Jim!" - was a name you could trust. There it was within the pages of this newspaper, only yesterday, promising yet again more of the carefully crafted, yet cutely cutting prose that would, once again, slice through the latest outrage of pomposity emanating from the once venerable corridor of Old Trafford.

The soap opera there, and Jim's wistful, almost resigned sadness at the modern rarity of decency and honour in so much sport reminded one that the sporting world he had chronicled for more than half a century had changed utterly.

Now, tragically, for it is all our loss, but so much more for his family, we will never enjoy those words again.

Thankfully, he has bequeathed us all with a lasting legacy of a frankly voluminous mountain of achievement, not only an exhaustive account of a sporting life experienced at its fullest, but occasionally a eulogy for more innocent times.

And yet Jim never allowed himself - or his written word - to drown in the cynicism that so swiftly engulfs those of far fewer years and experience; he still yearned deeply for, and often discovered, a sporting hero's essence.

And when he did so - be it Rory McIlroy or Ruby Walsh, Katie Taylor or Lionel Messi - rhapsodise contentedly, painting word pictures of such eloquence that they could storyboard a highlights reel for any of sport's blue-riband occasions.

Be it football, cricket, boxing, golf, rugby, American football, horse racing, baseball, ice hockey or Indy car racing, he could mine nuggets of verbal gold with such languid ease.

He covered the Olympics from 1976 until London 2012, eight FIFA World Cups since 1966, Rugby World Cups, boat races, derbies, Grand Nationals, Test matches, golf Majors.

One almost craved, this week, for him to puncture, ever so lightly, the grand pomposity of the Ryder Cup yet knowing at the same time he would be enraptured by the enthralling comeback of Tiger Woods.

Born in 1944, in Flintshire in England, Lawton began his career in the 'Flintshire Leader' before moving on to the 'Daily Telegraph' in 1963.

He claimed to have never excelled in school - a common complaint for many afflicted with a desperate passion for sport - he only joined the local paper because it seemed the right thing to do.

He never looked back.

After two years as a sports sub-editor on the 'Daily Telegraph', a short spell at the 'Daily Herald' and a mammoth stint on the 'Daily Express' from 1965 to 1980, he spent seven years in Canada writing columns for the 'Vancouver Sun'.

This breadth of experience allowed him an independence of spirit that, fittingly, would find residence when the 'London Independent' was founded; that is where many of my generation would first become admirers.

He could swim against the tide of often parochial concerns; scepticism, whether for the talents of Frank Bruno or David Beckham, would not allow his deep conviction be swayed by often cheerleading public opinion.

He once had a memorable contretemps with West Indies great Viv Richards, which knocked a US-USSR summit off the front pages before the pair made up in Langton's Brasserie.

When so many others dithered about cheating, Jim's consistent view was always that it promulgated the death of sport.

He witnessed death, too; at Hillsborough, he remembered having to walk to the Nottingham Forest end.

'People are going to die there," he said, fatefully. The injustice of it all would sear to him for ever more.

He railed against the bandwagon of London 2012, refusing to succumb to the glitz while the government neglected his beloved land's playing fields, and the health and wealth of his nation was based on one's class.

Despite his well-travelled air and fondness for the fine things in life, a keen sense of social conscience always pervaded.

He wrote numerous books, a wonderful treatment of Manchester City amongst them, as well as collections on cricket and boxing.

When he was cruelly released from the 'Independent' in 2013 - just three years after being named sports journalist of the year - it seemed to mark the demise of an era.

It is to this newspaper's eternal credit that, by assigning him to our pages, the appreciation of his talents were not allowed to dim. Nor, indeed, did his.

He tells a great story of being with his granddad, a construction worker in Warrington, a heartland of rugby league. They were at a game when Jim revealed his ambition to write what he saw.

"That's great lad. Keep working and perhaps you'll be with the big boys at Belle Vue greyhounds some day."

Many years later, he remembered that conversation when at the 'Garden' to watch Muhammad Ali, his sporting hero. "Granddad would be quite pleased now."

Never meet your heroes, they say. When I first met him, we shared a cigarette (he would soon give them up) and then agreed to meet for a drink. I craved his knowledge; without bending, he shared it without patronage or pity.

We shared a keen sense of the often ridiculous nonsense that pervades sport, but also the belief that beauty and heroism can shine through.

Worldly wisdom, kind advice and often stabbing humour would puncture the sadly rare meetings of his great mind and my hungry one.

His grace under pressure was immense. In truth, Jim Lawton was an immense presence. One that will be sorely, sadly missed.

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