ALTRUISTS will tell you there can be dignity in impending death. For me, a nationwide search party will be required to find this particular quality. I’m damned if I can locate it.
Stage Four prostate cancer has brought me literally to my knees. There is a worrying numbness in my left leg, in particular. But the joints that used to support me so valiantly are now creaking in protest at every movement and I am glad of the three-wheeled walker that helps me steer an uneven path around our apartment. I fear there is no way back. I know there is no way back. My lot is decided.
Recently, the doctor who has ministered to my needs with a selfless magnificence since last November asked me to consider a third blood transfusion. My platelets evidently have slumped again. After much consultation with my beloved wife Margaret, I decided against this option. Why? It’s summed up in a word: Coronovirus.
Like so many others before (suffering from heart, cancer and all representatives of similar horrors), I was terrified of the consequences of spending most of a day in hospital and perhaps inviting into my body the prospect of the evil virus that is afflicting our universe right now. No, I have enough problems of my own, thank you, despite being told that the odds on me catching something would linger around the 5-1 mark. Disrespect, by the way, should not be directed at the hospital where I have been treated. It’s doing its best, despite being hampered by the ham-fists of government.
So, in essence, with a personal prognosis now probably reduced to weeks rather than months, what can the medical profession do for me now? Not a lot, I’m afraid – an eventuality compounded the other day when that same doctor phoned me to say he was joining another practice. Was that the sound of hope leaving the building? God’s curse my suspicious nature. He will not abandon me and already is phoning me regularly out of friendship.
Now, we arrive at a most important matter. Friendship. It has overwhelmed me recently, made me weep, contrived to make me feel a deep sense of shame that I could have in any way doubted the loyalty of men with whom I worked over the years. Consider those frenetic days of the revamped Scottish Daily Mail of 1995 to 1997 when time and consideration of family were lobbed out of the window and we recruits formed the building blocks of a new newspaper era. We downplayed the 12-hour-plus days and the conditions of prohibition – in an overcrowded office where there was no allowance for safe distancing.
My profound thanks are extended to all those good people who have contacted me these past few weeks and months – to Dougie, Jasa, Tommo, Jeff – and in other areas, to Jim, Tony, Frank, Steve. Oh, they all know who they are. Hey, two of their wives (Avril and Marie) have even put serious illness aside to convey their feelings. It’s the sincerity with which they communicate that makes me wonder why there can be any bitterness within me at all.
But I’m human and therefore susceptible to those foibles associated with man. Events, or rather non-events, make it necessary to expectorate on a strawberry patch which I grew to love – and despise. Enter the Daily Mail. Back in March of ’97, I received a summons to arms from that doyen of all editors, Paul Dacre. I had been about to join the Scotsman under Martin Clarke, but Dacre’s offer turned my head so quickly I needed a neck brace for some time.
Associate editor, Head of Sport: The temptation was too great. I signed, as they say, on the dotted line that day in the lounge of the Royal Garden hotel, only after an alteration to Dacre’s sense of maths.
Dacre was the word of law; generally, he was feared and he encouraged that fear. Unfortunately, his sports staff in Kensington were so set in their ways they wouldn’t have recognised the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse if they had road into town. They had set their own standards and, in many cases, had decided that the best story of any day was lunch, plus a few Harry Lifters.
And thus things changed. This former drunk – who’d once been told, rather peremptorily by once editor David English that he didn’t not fit the Mail template – set about that change. People had to go. And soon they went. Of course, you can imagine the chagrin, the jealousy, the rage of those who were considered as untouchable as Elliot Ness and his gang. But, significantly, I had the editor’s backing. The back end of the newspaper, consequently, began to throb and thrive and challenge the red tops’ hegemony.
Ill health – an overdose of potassium – necessitated my resignation in 2000-1. Fame and fortune are ephemeral, of course and, therefore, within six years I was gone and perhaps the legacy forgotten. My contact with the Mail ostensibly ended, save for the odd email exchange from former mentor Dacre.
What leads me to the new gun-slinging editor in London town. Geordie Greig is the name and I’m told he is an affable sort, not given to the tempestuous rages exhibited by the man I once christened Big Bollocks. But where, oh where, are his manners? Some weeks ago, I wrote my first blog on this accursed illness and sent it to Mr Greig in the hope that he might be able to use it as a kind of instruction kit for those of consigned to the inevitable.
Some hope! In spite of receiving favourable reports from a wide spectrum of people, all I heard from Derry Street was the sound of a deathly silence. Not even an email, an acknowledgment, or even a message that my time had gone and should not be resurrected.
Now, that’s one source of bitterness; am I displaying a lack of dignity? Quite possibly. But, hey, I possess a concessionary ticket, don’t I? It doesn’t end there, however. I am still trying to work out the whereabouts of a famous football manager with whom I have engaged in almost constant contact these past few years, often sharing sensitive information He has disappeared from my landscape as if it had been ordained by the Magic Circle. I won’t name him or possibly shame him, but shame on him all the same. A phone call would have been appropriate.
The same applies to an even more famous footballer, who was once moved to phone me on a Sunday morning to congratulate on a piece I had written. I left a message for him recently but there was no reply forthcoming. Oh, dear. Football personages continually talk about there being some kind of entente cordial between the fraternity. There is, as long as it suits them or their needs.
But, honestly, we’re all bound up by hypocrisy, aren’t we? It smothers society; dilutes the best intentions. Maybe these people qualify as wimps on the embarrassment factor, and find themselves overwhelmed by influences beyond their control. Maybe I should have held judgment. But the thing is, in reality, I just don’t have the time. If there is to be any satisfactory recrimination, now is the hour.
And thus we arrive at the biggest disappointment of my life. An extraordinarily gifted youngster arrived at the Scottish Daily Mail in 1995 and, after an awkward beginning, proceeded to help me form my team. His name: Graham Hunter. Soon, I had two tender-feet by my side for the joint princely sum of £30,500: Fraser Mackie and John Greechan. These young sports journalists rose quickly in the ranks, were rewarded fiscally and deserved their respective elevations.
You could not subdue this man Hunter or his talent for the unexpected. He managed to unearth the Jean Marc Bosman scandal which would change the face of football forever – something those laid-back Metropolitans in Derry Street inexplicably failed to recognise. You reward talent and this I attempted to do. When I moved to London in 1997, Hunter followed and, as far as I was led to believe, was happy to do so. Soon, the title of chief football writer was his; then, doubtless too early in his fledgling career, deputy sports editor.
Hunter, as is common to those of his talent, was spliced with complication. He arrived at the arrived at the SDM office unannounced and yet you could almost hear a fanfare of trumpets playing his song. He sealed his place in the team with an exclusive on Pierre van Hooijdonk’s late arrival at Celtic. Let’s say we debated the matter enthusiastically before he was dispatched to Parkhead.
Ultimately, he made mistakes – and I pointed these out in my rather graphic e-book autobiography, *Fingerprints of a Football Rascal. The greatest mistake, however, belonged to me. Imagine promoting to such a stature, someone who possessed only a glimpse of the perils of promotion and experience. Set aside the debilitating effects of potassium poisoning, what the hell was I thinking?
Still, I did not expect what was coming my way. Hunter, by now domiciled in Barcelona and embracing fame with a rare enthusiasm owing to his brilliant book on the local heroes, was being interviewed by an old Daily Star colleague of mine. Christopher Davies had done well in the autumn of his life, finding himself at the ultra-Tory newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, after years of comparative obscurity.
Their joint effort at balanced journalism appeared on the Football Writers’ Association – ironically delivered on May 22, 2013. I have waited too long to respond, although I was tempted to litigate. It claimed that, just before the van Hooijdonk signing, I had my hands around Hunter’s throat and was throwing him out of the door when someone came running in and shouted announced that there was a press conference at Parkhead, where a new- as yet unknown signature was about to be announced. Hunter was immediately emancipated from his ‘purgatory.’ and dispatched. Who, I mean, who writes this kind of unsubstantiated crap?
Davies, for one. I sent him a Facebook message on reading what was a palpable libel. Hey, I have enough smudges on my CV without being tarnished with an outright untruth. Strangely, I did not receive a reply, far less an explanation. If only he had telephoned me for the delivery of the real story which was witnessed by my deputy Doug McRobb, who ‘saw no ships.’ Why? Because there were no gunboats firing that day.
Hunter and I, as you would expect, have pursued a policy of estrangement over the intervening years. Please excuse this exercise in possible hyperbole, but blame it on the fragility of a dying man’s displaced voice.
Infinitely more pleasant memories are discovered at the christening of Hunter’s daughter, Cara, in the late 90s. We all met near Hill Street on a Sunday, the highlight of which was my introduction to Hunter’s father. A solicitor by profession, he thanked me profusely for his son’s chance in life and followed this up with a thank you card.
The disappointment in me deepens to despair that his son failed to recognise the benefits of such good grace and dignity.
*Fingerprints of a Football Rascal: £2.99 Kindle Edition, Amazon e-books.
Dignity in Death