I SEEM to have spent an awful lot of my journalistic career standing in for other people. In the days before squad numbers, I would probably have gone into work with a No. 12 on my back.
This isn’t a status that has been entirely foisted on me. I learned very early on in my career that I wasn’t the kind of reporter who could cover one team day in, day out for 20 to 30 years. I like a bit more variety in my work. For that reason alone, I was probably destined to end up as a freelance.
Even in my staff days, I was the kind of person who wanted to have a go at everything. You can pick up a lot of skills that way, but you can also end up being the office dogsbody if you’re not careful. And nobody respects a dogsbody.
There’s a journalism jobs website called Hold The Front Page which also specialises in stories about local newspapers and their staff. These stories tend to fall into one of five categories: a) Journalists winning awards, b) Editors being appointed, c) Journalists being made redundant, d) Former journalists dying, e) Young reporters bungee jumping/running marathons/joining the circus/insert other crazy madcap antics here.
Hold The Front Page’s dream story, I think, would be a 25-year-old reporter winning a posthumous award for bravery from his paper’s newly-appointed editor after plunging to his death during a bungee jump just hours before he was due to be made redundant.
The site ran a story on me two years ago when I carried out an interview in London with Thaksin Shinawatra for the Manchester Evening News following his takeover at Manchester City.
As far as HTFP’s reporter was concerned, it wasn’t the fact that the M.E.N. was one of only two media organisations to get an interview with Thaksin that attracted their attention. No, it was the fact that the interview was done by me – because I was covering for the paper’s regular City reporter, who was on holiday. And I spent most of my days working as a sub-editor, not a reporter. Crazy. Madcap.
The article, headlined ‘Sports sub fields the questions as Sven is lined up by City’, adopts a tone of astonishment that I managed to get all the way from Manchester to London, conduct a half-hour interview and then get home again without having a nervous breakdown. I had, at that time, been a fully-qualified journalist for seven years, and had been the holiday cover reporter on City for almost two. Still, I got off lightly, considering the other story HTFP had written about me.
I was a little less experienced at this holiday cover lark when Carlton Palmer was appointed as Stockport County player-manager in November 2001. The Stockport Express sports editor was on holiday at the time, and I was his stand-in.
Palmer was easily the biggest name ever to have managed Stockport. He may have been something of a joke figure to some pundits, who questioned his skill as a midfielder, and who associated him with Graham Taylor’s dreadful tenure as England boss, but he had still been a Premier League player with Coventry less than 12 months earlier.
Stockport was his first job in management, and it could hardly have been more difficult. The club were miles adrift at the bottom of what is now the Championship, after years of over-achievement, and looked set to plummet back to the lower leagues from which they has risen during the 1990s.
His first press conference, held in a function suite at Edgeley Park, was packed. Sky, the BBC and Granada were all there, along with several radio stations and a smattering of Manchester-based national newspaper reporters.
“This appointment is going to create so much publicity for us,” a Stockport club official said to me as Palmer met and greeted the reporters.
Palmer watched his first County game from the sidelines, as they scraped a 1-1 draw at Watford despite being thoroughly outplayed. For his first home game, against Norwich, Palmer decided to put his boots on.
The game had been moved to a Thursday night so it could be shown live on the ITV Sport Channel, and the evening kick-off added to the sense of atmosphere. Norwich were third in the division, and might have been expected to win comfortably – especially as Stockport hadn’t won at home all season.
But Glynn Hurst put County 1-0 up at the break, and then it happened. Twenty minutes into the second half, a Stockport free kick came in from the left, and Palmer charged in to hit a sweet volley into the top corner. The radio commentator sitting in front of me burst out laughing. All the frustration of the season’s first three months disappeared in a second.
Phil Mulryne pulled a late goal back for Norwich, and County’s Ali Gibb was sent off for two bookable offences, but Palmer’s side held on.
Afterwards, he laughed and joked with the press outside the tunnel, claiming that he had scored a far better goal than that during his Southampton days. It was clear he had a knack for management. The excitement at Stockport grew as Palmer prepared for his next game, away to former club Sheffield Wednesday. The only way was up.
County lost 5-0 at Hillsborough, the first of a club-record run of 10 consecutive defeats. They didn’t win again until March. Embarrassingly, they were mathematically relegated on March 16. Palmer lasted less than two years as manager. In 2006, Stockport only avoided relegation to the Conference on the final day of the season.
Bright starts, I learned, were not always a sign of things to come.