Last Saturday afternoon in Frankfurt’s tent-like Waldstadion, British football writing’s dumpling eminence Malcolm Brodie, 80 next birthday, laid out his pad and his pencils at his pressbox desk. ‘What’s new?’ he could have been excused for muttering in that tinny Ulster snort of his, but the rheumy eyes, deep set in his weathered, walnutty old face, were bright with anticipation for the start of the Belfast Telegraph man’s 14th World Cup. It was all of 52 summers ago that Malcolm first picked up his telephone to dictate a report of a World Cup match — Scotland’s narrow 0–1 defeat by Austria in Zurich in 1954’s fifth World Cup in Switzerland.
Brodie’s astonishing log of successive finals is ahead, by one, of the 13 logged by each of two other celebrated doyens of olde Grub Street, Brian Glanville and David Miller, who each began their live World Cup watch — when they could drum up a decent telephone link to London, that is — at Sweden’s finals of 1958 (the only occasion when all four of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland qualified for the trip). Show Miller an autobahn and in his daydream reverie, I can vouch, he will unfailingly mutate into the intrepid Schumaker-plays-Mr-Toad role, and through this month, almost half a century on, he is screechingly Saab-ing all over to collide, dead on, with all those tightest of Daily Telegraph deadlines. More sedately on Germany’s sleek public transport, but with no less industrious energy, will Glanville, beaky nose and beady eye, be minutely examining every aspect, daily and Sunday, for the Times.
Both Miller and Glanville are Carthusians, possibly the most renowned of history’s ‘association’ schools. Miller won Cambridge Blues at soccer and athletics while reading the philosophy of science at Peterhouse and then — as an 18-guineas-a-week trainee subeditor hired by the Times to collate the daily small-print fixtures-and-results column — happened to mention to sports editor John Hennessey in the spring of 1958 that his planned honeymoon with Marita in Sweden coincided (just fancy that) with the summer’s World Cup. Hennessey cheerfully fell for it, as long as the boy paid his own way …and, well, a star was born. Meanwhile, those 48 summers ago, Glanville himself was already a bit of a boy wonder, having published his still acclaimed ‘young love’ novel set in Florence, Along the Arno, as well as ghosting the autobiography of his Arsenal football favourite Cliff Bastin. For weeks, young Brian relentlessly nagged the Sunday Times sportsdesk (as, I fancy, only he can still), till the boss, taciturn Mancunian Ken Compston, finally gave in — £20 per weekly piece and no expenses — and a bushy-tailed Brian booked himself into a hotel in Gothenburg, pencils and adjectives sharpened and ready for England’s first match (England 2, USSR 2).
All a doddle for journos now, girdling the globe with emails, all modcons at the press of a button. In olden days we prayed more for a phone-line which might work than for a match which might stir — and, once connected to London, a sympathetic touch-typing whizz of a copytaker; or, in the case of this celebration piece, to Belfast. I still remember vividly dining out on the Brodie classic that unforgettable Valencia night in 1982’s finals when Northern Ireland beat the hosts, Spain, and Malcolm whoopingly spelling out his hollered intro down the line: ‘Olé! Olé! Olé!…’ only to be interrupted by the bored copytaker back home: ‘For God’s sake, Brodie, I heard you the first time.’