1969, and the times they are a-changing, symbolised by the second Isle of Wight rock concert. At the first one, the previous year, flower power still prevailed. It was Bob Dylan, John Sebastian, joss sticks and Hare Krishna. The second one ended with a spaced out Jimi Hendrix playing the last major concert of his short life, to a sinister backbeat provided by French anarchists trying to batter down the fences around the arena. Stark reality was breaking in, in more ways than one.
After three years in college, on a government grant (meagre, but adequate when backed up by summer jobs, mainly as a tea boy at Llanwern steelworks) it looked fairly inevitable that I would have to start doing some proper work. But first I had to find out whether the quest (which at times made the Arthurian search for the Holy Grail look a bit of a cushy number) would be aided by a degree.
These days you probably get the result by text message or, if you are one of the few to fail, a visit from a team of counsellors. I had to get on a train to London and find the University (after studying externally at Pompey). And there in the courtyard were what seemed like thousands of people trying to get to the front of jostling groups around the results boards. Amid all the elbowing, cheering, weeping and wailing I finally got through to discover … my name was there! Towards the bottom, but there.
Technically I had become Randall Butt BA (London). In fact my last term of frantic swotting in my Southsea digs had earned me what is known as the gentleman’s degree. These days it’s called a Douglas, after Douglas Hurd. A Third. The degree for those of us who enjoyed three entertaining years and just about managed to ‘get it together’, in finals week. Someone told me maths genius Carol Vorderman is a surprising member of the club, but a more typical Hurdy-gurdy man is Cambridge resident Rory McGrath. And so, armed with this dubious distinction, I sort of tackled the employment thing, still with little idea about what I wanted to do.
I will flash forward through the hosts of useless interviews for marketing and personnel management jobs. The only notable event during this period was a trip to Liverpool for an interview at the university for a post-graduate course I found out afterwards I couldn’t afford to take. The Reds happened to be at home that evening. I wandered along, and found myself on the famous Kop. Can’t remember a thing about the game – I think it was against Sunderland – but I experienced one of those amazing coincidences in life. There, a few feet away from me on the packed terrace, was the only person I knew in Liverpool, the brother of my college flatmate Jim Mansell, whom I’d met once in Portsmouth.
Back home in Wales, Christmas came and went. Christine, the long-haired London lady, came and stayed. My parents had moved from their terraced valley house to a flat, linked to Dad’s admin job at Llanwern steelworks. It was a small flat; the arrangement was not exactly ideal. That elusive job needed to come along pretty soon.
Then, in the Daily Telegraph, I saw the advert: ‘The Morecambe Visitor newspaper requires a graduate trainee’. Just getting there by rail from South Wales was probably as impressive as the interview, during which I think I talked expansively about my work for the college newspaper. It was inventive, imaginative and totally untrue – a tip there for any jobseeker in today’s difficult times.
A few weeks later I was sitting in the Visitor’s editorial room, where not only did I not have a clue how to tackle any kind of report, I couldn’t even type. But guided by the brilliance of editor Derek Mosey, an ex-Daily Mail man and brother of former Test Match Special pundit Don (The Alderman), plus chief reporter Mike Whalley, I realised: ‘Hey, I can do this.’ Once the hierarchy also cottoned on, I was given huge amounts of work: features writer, theatre critic, film reviewer, as well as the usual court, council and committee reporting, and sport.
There were only about nine reporters and sub-editors, fewer than the CEN sports desk I eventually joined. Three or four night jobs a week, plus a match on Saturday, were not uncommon, all for the princely wage of £15 13s per week (£1 deducted to pay for a portable typewriter).
My only real claim to fame in the three years (you were ‘indentured’ and had to stay that long) was a letter from John Le Mesurier, Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army, referring to my film review column. I have the letter here. In flowing longhand on purple, patterned paper he wrote: ‘Dear Mr Butt, You mentioned me in your review of the film, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. I do not think you can have watched it very closely as I am not in it. The entire sequence I was involved in, in Brighton, was cut.’
There were three cinemas in Morecambe and a lot of films per week, so most of my ‘reviews’ were borrowed from a less than accurate trade magazine. But I wasn’t sacked. In fact, less than a year after joining the paper I was made Sports Editor. Nobody else could be persuaded to take over from the man who had moved on to greater things. This meant I had to lay out and sub two huge broadsheet pages, as well as all those other jobs. It also meant tackling Harry Kite’s unique football copy.
Harry was the paper’s dogged newshound. He didn’t bother to detail his expenses, just wrote: ‘Chasing front page leads’. He did it brilliantly. There was only one snag: he couldn’t write. The subs translated his news output into English while I wrestled with his Lancaster City reports, in which quite often ‘the spheroid’ would ‘nestle in the onion bag’ after beating the ‘custodian’.
I covered Morecambe as they plodded along in the Northern Premier
League. The only really memorable experience (with hindsight) was an interview with a player that helped me get a scoop in Cambridge eight years later.
So into the time machine and on to 1980, the year of United's most exalted cup campaign. That surprise you? Yes, those FA Cup quarter-finals were thrilling, but the U’s lost to the big boys. Back in 1980 they knocked a couple over. Wolves were League Cup holders when United beat them 3-1 at the Abbey and 1-0 away. Mighty Aston Villa, who went on to win the First Division title that year, were next, and a goal up at the Abbey in six minutes. Twelve minutes later they were 2-1 down and on their way out.
The scoop: that autumn I was down at the Abbey one Tuesday morning, as usual, trying to find stuff for my Friday page. I was walking along with John Docherty, who told me there wasn’t much happening, no sackings or signings etc. I will digress briefly here to explain that almost all football managers have absolutely no problem lying to reporters. They don’t just say ‘I can’t comment’, or ‘I can’t confirm or deny that’. They simply trot out a porky or two whenever they need to. They know we know. We know they know we know. No hard feelings, it’s part of the game.
So on this day of nothing happening we walk past the changing room, and somebody shouts: ‘Randall Butt! What are you doing here?’ What was I doing there? What was the man who scored two goals in the FA Cup final for West Ham doing there?
Alan Taylor was that part-timer I'd interviewed back in Morecambe. A skinny lad then, but as quick and sharp as a ferret. ‘I’d love to be a professional,’ he had said, ‘just to be able to play full-time.’ He did that all right, and was still a great goal grabber when he arrived at the Abbey in a £100,000 transfer from Vancouver Whitecaps. He returned to Canada after a while in another £100,000 ‘transfer’. Apparently loan moves between the clubs were not allowed!
He is pictured in an iconic United photo as the U’s celebrated following the 1-1 draw at Coventry in the round after the victory over Villa. And that brings me to one of the biggest mysteries of my decades at the CEN: why, oh why did the Doc drop him for the replay? It was Alan who got the 49th minute equaliser at Coventry, but a week later 10,171 of us, plus Alan on the sub’s bench, watched in frustration as dismal United, trailing from the first minute, slumped to a 1-0 defeat, missing a penalty on the way. Doh!