Sunday, 14 October 2012

The big man

It’s entirely consistent with the theme of my contribution to Tales from the Vicarage that I don’t know any of my fellow contributors personally. But I have met one of them, many years ago.

In autumn 1989, I’d just started a journalism course. We each had to choose a specialism, and I picked sport – not because I had any ambition to be the next Brian Glanville (if I’d become a football reporter, I wouldn’t have been able to watch Watford every week), but just because it sounded like fun.

For our first assignment we were told to interview a sports writer we admired. I didn’t have to think about it for very long. For as long as I could remember, I’d spent every Friday poring over the three or four pages of the Watford Observer devoted to the Hornets, most of it written by Oliver Phillips. So I wrote to him at the paper, explaining my request, and was granted an audience.

On the big day, I turned up at the Observer offices on the Rickmansworth Road and was shown into a meeting room, where my nerves had time to simmer nicely (this was one of the first interviews I’d ever done) while I waited for the great man to arrive.

If there’s one thing everyone knows about Oliver Phillips, from the days when he would come out onto the pitch before the last game of the season to present the awards, it’s that he’s exceedingly tall. When you’re in a small room with him, that effect is magnified, and I can’t pretend I wasn’t intimidated.

It didn’t help that he wasn’t the friendliest of interviewees. He wasn’t unfriendly either, just… ‘stern’ is the closest I can get to describing his manner. The interview got off to a shaky start when he noticed that I wasn’t taking notes in shorthand. Why not? I explained apologetically that I’d only been learning shorthand for a couple of weeks. Then I told him a bit about the course, and sensed further disapproval when I explained that, because I was studying magazine journalism, I wouldn’t be taking the NCTJ exam that you needed to pass in those days if you wanted to work in newspapers. As a newspaper man of the old school, he didn’t seem to have much sympathy with magazines and the frivolous people who worked for them.

Undeterred, I asked him my prepared questions about how he’d got into journalism and his experiences following, and writing about, Watford, and in the process of answering them he mellowed a little. (I’ve occasionally thought about digging out the interview and posting it on this blog – but it was strictly off the record, and even after all these years, I have a residual fear that me might come after me with a writ if I did.) The story that always stuck with me was the one about the day in the early 60s when he got married in the morning and went to Vicarage Road to report on a match in the afternoon. Respect, as they say.

And respect for the man was what I ultimately came away from the interview with. I’d naively expected to meet a fellow enthusiast who I could chat to about the great players and matches he’d seen. He was an enthusiast, no doubt about it, but he was also deadly serious about his work, a professional journalist to his fingertips, and his duty to his readers came first. That's what made him – despite what various managers, directors and chairmen over the years may have thought – one of the finest and most loyal servants the club ever had. We were lucky to have him working on our behalf for so long.