I STARTED as a lot of sports journalists have started. I applied for unpaid work experience on a few local papers, did OK (I turned up on time, I dressed smartly and I didn’t steal anything) and, as a result, managed to get some regular paid shifts as a news reporter. From there, it was a case of making enthusiastic noises about sport in the office and waiting for the right chance to come along.
I didn’t have any journalistic qualifications, though.
Now there are a lot of journalists of a certain generation who would (and do) respond to the word “qualifications” by rambling on for several minutes about instinct and cunning and drinking, and things that just can’t be taught (apart from drinking).
But even they know that very few people get a first job in journalism these days without a qualification recognised by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. So I went to college in Preston to get one.
I was lucky enough to get a bursary from the company that owned the Lancashire Evening Post, which paid my tuition fees during my one-year postgraduate course. As part of the deal, I was to spend Saturday mornings working at the LEP office, which is notable for being ridiculously difficult to get to by public transport for 8am at the weekends, as it is stuck out on an isolated industrial estate by the M6. I was living with my parents near Preston at the time, and so my mum took pity on me and let me borrow her car.
After a few Saturday mornings of writing stories about winter fuel discounts for the elderly to fill the News In Brief column, I began to wonder if my talents were being wasted. I got friendly with the sports editor, asked if any local non-league teams needed covering on a Saturday afternoon, and started reporting on North West Counties League matches.
I did midweek games, too, much to the bemusement of my fellow students. As they spent their Tuesday nights getting drunk, copping off and playing pool, I would excuse myself to go and watch Clitheroe play Atherton Collieries in front of 100 people at Shawbridge. I trod a fine line between dedication and insanity. I still do.
Just over midway through that season, in February 2000, the LEP sent me to cover Chorley’s Unibond League First Division match away at Burscough, a well-to-do commuter village between Preston and Liverpool.
The assignment was a little more complex than I was used to, in that I was covering the match for three newspapers. One of those was the Manchester Evening News Football Pink, then in its final season of being a Saturday publication, which needed me to phone through a report while the game was going on.
I had never done this before, so was a touch nervous. But I got to Mart Lane, Burscough’s ground, in plenty of time, and I had my mobile phone with me, so I felt sure everything would be OK.
As I watched the players warm up, I noticed that time seemed to be moving very slowly. Then I realised that my watch had stopped. Panic. I needed some way of timing the game, so I would know when crucial incidents had occurred, and when to phone through my report.
Nobody had a timepiece they were prepared to lend me, unsurprisingly, so I dashed out of the ground, and on to the high street, which was only a couple of minutes away. Rushing into a hardware store, I looked frantically for watches.
Scrabbling round, I managed to find the next best thing. An alarm clock. It was small, pink, plastic and analogue. Crucially, it was battery powered and cheap. I threw my £4 at the startled man behind the counter, raced back into the ground and wound the clock’s minute handle up to the 12 for kick-off.
I had to phone through my first-half report – only around 75 words – to the M.E.N. at half-time. Two minutes before the interval, Ryan Lowe scored for Burscough. After a hasty rewrite on my notepad, I was ready to phone through.
No signal. Bugger.
I dashed from my seat in the main stand down to a spot of open terracing by a burger stall, and phoned in my report from there, while a group of bemused Burscough fans queuing for refreshments mercilessly took the mickey out of this pillock walking round with a notepad and a mobile phone.
Lowe, who plays for Bury these days, had only just return to the Burscough line-up, having missed a couple of games. During the second half, I tried to find out a bit more.
“Does anyone know why Ryan Lowe hasn’t been playing?” I asked.
“He’s been unavailable,” said a smart, dark-haired man behind me in a long black coat, in a tone of voice that suggested I should leave my enquiries there. I did.
I covered a couple more Chorley games that season, including a home defeat against Gretna which was one of the five worst games of football I have ever seen. I’d enjoyed my stint covering non-league football, but my course was coming to end, and I needed to think about getting a full-time job.
And the alarm clock? It was bleeding useless. You wouldn’t need the alarm to wake you – because the seconds hand made such a loud ticking noise as it moved round that you’d never get to sleep in the first place.