And so to Cambridge, which could have been just about anywhere, depending on the job adverts in the UK Press Gazette. After three very happy – and invaluable career-wise – years in Morecambe it was time to move on, to specialise, hopefully to earn more than the pittance paid by a northern weekly newspaper, and to reclaim my surname.
Butt may not be one of the greatest names (as my cousin’s wife discovered when she went to the USA, especially and unfortunately since her first name is Gay), but it was worse oop north, where the ‘u’ as in rut, became the ‘u’ as in put. I even had to say it that way myself to avoid becoming, to Lancastrian ears, Mr Batt.
Specialising in one area of journalism was even more important, in order to get away from councils, courts, committees and particularly inquests. Sitting in a grim Lancaster courtroom as rain invariably ran down the windows listening to a police doctor describing the stomach contents of the unfortunate deceased took me back to endless hours in double physics in a South Wales classroom. The choice was sport or features, and the Cambridge Evening News was advertising for a sports writer/sub-editor while, in the same edition of the UKPG, the Bristol evening paper wanted a features sub-editor/writer.
With the cunning I had always employed while working out my weekly expenses at the Visitor, I arranged interviews on the same day, thereby getting two lots of travelling costs for one round trip. And despite being as useless as ever at interviews – ‘Is there anything you’d like to ask us?’ ‘Errm … not really.’ – I was offered both jobs. But the Bristol one was more production-based (stuck in the office subbing), so I was off to the Fens, a man from the mountains on his way to a place below sea level.
I stayed the first night in the Lensfield Hotel and in the morning strolled across Parker’s Piece to the CEN office in Newmarket Road. I was immediately amazed by how big and noisy it was. The Visitor ‘office’ was a tiny room above the company’s stationery shop. The CEN looked enormous and, in the days before computers, was full of huge typewriters with rolls of copy paper feeding down into them.
Journalists do not touch-type. Anybody who did would have to pretend to use just two fingers in order not to be viewed as some kind of effete weirdo. We go at a keyboard like Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, thrusting knives into an electric organ. The machine gun effect could be deafening, sub-editors would be yelling ‘copy’ to the runners who took the stories out to the Linotypers whose machines were even louder. Then, when print time came, the rumble from the presses made it feel as though you were near the engine room of an ocean liner. We had three editions a day back then, deadline after deadline, and the whole experience was thoroughly exhilarating. Walk into the computer-filled Cambridge News offices in Milton today and you could be in the echoing silence of Ely Cathedral.
There was much noise also up at the Abbey Stadium, where Bill Leivers’ United were going for promotion to the Third Division, three years after forcing their way past the ‘old pals act’ to break out of the Southern League. I arrived in March 1973, and started off covering Cambridge City. But I was at the Abbey on April 28 to see the match that was to characterise my three decades on the paper: the nail-biting roller-coaster ride as the U’s and Mansfield locked horns in the last match promotion decider.
As a new boy I couldn’t get a place in the ‘press box’, which was a tiny room on stilts, later used as the police box for a while. So I was crammed into the Habbin, unable to move an arm, and just about able to see most of the action, in the crowd of 10,542. You all know the story: United trailing twice before the big hero Brian Greenhalgh sent Ronnie Walton through for the 61st minute winner, which was protected in a tense, almost unbearable last half hour by towering Terry Eades and his defenders.
My other major memory of my early months on the newspaper was not quite so happily upbeat,
United slid towards their doom in a bonkers season during which they had to play an eerie weekday afternoon match in front of 450 at Rochdale, as well as on consecutive days away at Wrexham and Aldershot.
although I suppose it was exciting, in the way that sheer panic can be. It concerned covering one of my first away matches – Cambridge City at Dover … I got there at half-time!
I drove out of the Dartford Tunnel into what looked like a gigantic car park. It was a Saturday in August and it seemed most of London was on the way to Kent and the Channel ferries. We all nudged our way along the motorway, kick-off time edging ever nearer. It was gone 3pm when I got close to Dover, and with the traffic easing I raced into the … and past the turn-off for the ground. No Satnav in those days, and I hadn’t bothered to check where the ground was. I’d just drive into Dover and look for the floodlights … of which there were none. Panicking even more as half-time approached, I was forced to ask for directions, and sent back along the road I had hammered down.
Arriving late at a game you are supposed to be reporting is never a very good thing. But in 1974 it was much worse because it was the era of the good old Light Blue sports edition, for which I should have been supplying copy throughout the first half. What the battle-hardened subs in Newmarket Road must have thought about the new boy I dread to think. I was saved by the press box camaraderie, which still exists today. Whatever teams are playing, the journos are all on the same side. The local guys gave me all the first-half facts and figures, and I was able to phone through the copy in time to catch up by the time the second half kicked off.
Up at the Abbey Stadium they were also having their problems that year, as life in Division Three proved too tough for the promoted side. I must have been doing something right though, because sports editor Brian Potter told me he was going to give me some United games to cover. That could have been very tricky with my more experienced colleague Mike Finnis, but religion came to my rescue. Which was fairly amazing since the dreary days of Christian Endeavour classes at Cwmcarn Zion Methodist Chapel had turned me away from that path. But Mike was a Methodist, from Mildenhall, and when Ted Heath’s dreaded three-day week meant clubs were forced to play on some Sundays he conscientiously abstained from the work.
So I got to be part of football history when I covered the first ever Sunday FA Cup tie: United v Oldham in round two, the game that went to a second replay in a quagmire at
Bill Leivers (above) seems to be unamused by Keith Emerson's theatrics (photo: Gorupdebesanez). Emerson's keyboard-stabbing antics bore an uncanny resemblance to my typing technique. The solid and sensible Leivers took United up to the Third Division but couldn't keep them there despite the signings of Nigel Cassidy (centre) and Bobby Shinton, pictured left with coach Ray Freeman.
Nottingham Forest. United went out to an 81st minute goal, but the weirdest aspect of the tie was that U’s chairman Geoff Proctor died on the eve of the first game, then the Oldham chairman passed away hours before the replay. I wonder what the people protesting with ‘Lord’s Day’ banners outside the ground made of that.
In the League, United slid towards their doom in a bonkers season during which they had to play an eerie weekday afternoon match in front of 450 at Rochdale, as well as on consecutive days away at Wrexham and Aldershot (where, hardly surprisingly, they were hammered 6-0).
I have two major memories of that year: an amazing day in the office as news came through of United smashing their transfer (buying) record twice in a matter of hours, and of meeting one of the legends of English football.
It was transfer deadline day, but no one expected Leivers, a solid and sensible Derbyshire man, to splash much cash. But then the news came in that he’d spent £25,000 on Oxford striker Nigel Cassidy. United had never before forked out more than £6,000. Not long after I got a call from a Birmingham colleague to say United had offered £35,000 for Walsall’s Bobby Shinton.
Younger people will look at those fees and wonder what all the fuss was about. Well, you could buy a pretty good house on the outskirts of Cambridge for ten grand in those days, so it was the equivalent of today's U's signing a couple of strikers for around three quarters of a million. Leivers threw both men straight into the team, and the U’s lost the next two matches 2-0 to Blackburn and Charlton.
The legend: a couple of weeks later United were down at Brighton. They lost again, and in the post-match press conference one of the local scribes asked the Albion manager a question about United. He pointed at me and said: ‘I think that yoong man there could answer that better than me.’ Yes, I can say with ridiculous pride that I was called ‘yoong man’ by Brian Clough.
I stayed overnight, and the next morning saw Cloughie on Brighton station. He was just standing there, as though in a trance. People were nudging each other and whispering: ‘That’s Brian Clough.’ It looked as if he was longing to get the next train out of town. Little did he know that his next stop would be brief and extraordinary, at Leeds. If you get a chance to read The Damned United, do so. It’s bizarre but brilliant, light years better than the film.