Discovering that the chairman of the residents association where I live is one Phil Gardner took me back forty years to when I was a sports reporter. Phil was captain of Ebbw Vale rugby team, known to its slightly jittery opponents as ‘the Steelmen’. At seventy he still looks as though he could lead a veterans fifteen, or ensure that a team reduced to ten men still had a chance of winning.
My newspaper required its general reporting staff to take on sports duties. It was impossible to ‘cover’ the leading Welsh clubs in our circulation area with any conviction unless one person had responsibility for attending its (mostly) home games and writing a weekly bylined account of what was going on at the club and with the team. Those were pre-professional days, when players turned out for the love of the game plus undisclosed ‘expenses’, which varied depending on the club’s wealth. ‘Shamateurism’ the cynics called it, with no little justification. Apart from that, it was a different era with a different – perhaps rougher-edged and more leisurely – approach to the game, in which players with exceptional talent stood out. No sooner had I joined the paper than I was half-pressed into taking charge of, first, the Cross Keys club, then Abertillery. Though both in theory of equal status, Abertillery was deemed to be of higher rank, partly because it had once boasted two of the world’s best rugby players, Alun Pask and Haydn Morgan. Its former scrum-half, Allan Lewis, too, had played for the British Lions, and was credited with perfecting, if not inventing, the spin pass from the scrum, which allowed the backs to position themselves at a greater distance because the ball travelled further and faster and was easier to take on the run.
I didn’t have to be a sports reporter but like a lot of other newsroom tasks at that time, the job was expected of you. There was, of course, a small team of full-time sports scribes, who pushed pens at desks, wrote opinion columns and took charge of the best rugby and football teams as well as blanket coverage of other sports, such as swimming and cricket. In those days, rugby was an often scrappy game. The set-piece line-outs and scrummages were untidy, dangerous and notorious for infringements, some of them unseen by the referees, who were themselves of variable competence. Abertillery ‘trained’ on Wednesday nights at Abertillery Park on a baize-flat pitch at the bottom of a steep-sided valley. When the floodlights were switched off, the night was Bible-black, with a quarter-mile walk to the unlit car park. I was assigned to the club at the start of the season, just after the clocks went back, and turned up on my first Wednesday hoping to see the team maintaining its fitness and skills. After two laps of the pitch, a few press-ups and some desultory kicking and passing of the ball, the players had had enough. This was the pattern. The standard of play reflected the preparation. During matches, moments of brilliance never outnumbered incidents of clumsiness. Tries were often messily scrambled affairs often difficult to credit to a particular player. In bad weather, when the thirty players on the field were indistinguishable from one another, it was guesswork, the sought-for intelligence often relayed to the Press and committee box via the touchline and assorted runners. On Saturday afternoon, I was required to phone to my newspaper 100 words after twenty minutes, another 100 plus the score at half-time, another 100 midway through the second half and then the final score. When games began to be arranged for Wednesday nights (training was held on another night or not at all), I had orders from up to half a dozen national newspapers to send 100-word reports at the end of the game. In winter, this meant writing and sending on a black Bakelite phone by torchlight. Once, I was fired on by someone with an air rifle on the opposite side of the valley; as the saying went at the time, they could have had my eye out – then I would have made my own news. First thing next morning, I would have to have a report for my own paper ready for submission. This freelance work for ‘the London papers’ paid well: about £250 a month, which in the 1970s looked after the food bills and more. It also attracted the interest of the Inland Revenue, ever on the scent of the little man and his snivelling propensity for tax-avoidance. With a young family I had no opportunity or inclination to spend more time than was necessary at Abertillery Park. I did cover games between Abertillery and Ebbw Vale. Phil Gardner must have been playing in most of them. I don’t remember. Ebbw Vale also had its luminaries, including Clive Burgess and Paul Ringer, Gardner’s back-row colleagues. John Billot, of the Western Mail, nicknamed Burgess ‘Budgie’ and Gardner ‘Grey Wolf’; John Billot, who started at the Western Mail as an office-boy, and became deputy to J.B.G Thomas, its leading rugby writer, and one of the worst so-called ‘authorities’ on the game one could imagine. JBG couldn’t write; Billot could, amounting to almost a stylist. At the end of a wet and windy Wednesday, good sports journalism was all about writing well, accuracy being taken as read.