The tag-line “The Man Who Gives It To You Straight” headed John Sadler’s forthright but skilfully crafted columns in his 26 years as chief sportswriter for The Sun, so it was perhaps unsurprising that he also became the ghost writer for the archetypal plain speaker, Brian Clough.
Sadler, who has died after a short illness at the age of 74, was the voice of sport on Britain’s best-selling newspaper between 1976 and 2002. His career took off in the pre-Sky era when the press corps could still be collectively bracketed under the “Fleet Street” banner; when, as his successor Steven Howard wrote in a tribute to him, “the print journalists were the stars”.
He was a genial, pipe-smoking companion as well as one of the outstanding sports wordsmiths of his generation, and his quips and comments in the press-boxes of England’s football grounds were an education for aspiring journalists – as was the seamless, insightful “running” copy he calmly dictated to his paper during the most frenzied of matches before laptops became ubiquitous.
Sadler was a son of South Yorkshire who cited Rotherham United as his favourite team and also loved cricket. He came to prominence as the Sun’s Northern football reporter in the 1960s before the title was bought by Rupert Murdoch. Covering the Yorkshire area - Leeds United and the two Sheffield clubs played in what is now the Premier League – he formed a knowledgeable and humorous quartet with Peter Cooper (Daily Mirror), Bill Mallinson (Daily Mail) and Mike Morgan (Daily Express).
When his editor in London told him that Derby County had become part of his “patch”, Sadler went to the Baseball Ground to introduce himself to the club’s brash young manager. “It’s your lucky day,” Clough said. “If you’re prepared to get off your arse and come to see me, then I promise that in one hour, I’ll fill your newspaper for a week.”
Thus began a rapport that would produce two bestselling books, Clough: The Autobiography (1994) and Cloughie: Walking On Water (2002) as well as countless ghosted columns, interviews and exclusives. In 1974, on the day Clough introduced himself to his new charges at Leeds by telling them they had won their League championship medals by cheating, Sadler – sideburns long, maroon kipper tie in place and puffing on his sweet cherry tobacco – was one of three scribes lined up in the Yorkshire TV studio to question him in a Calendar Special hosted by Austin Mitchell.
He would later describe the future double European Cup winner as “the most remarkable human being I’ve ever met”. However, much of their time together was, he said, spent “chewing the fat” over unremarkable, everyday matters such as “football, families and politics”. Another journalist who worked with Clough and later produced a volume of “insider” anecdotes about him, the Daily Star’s Dave Armitage, remarked on Sadler’s death that “No one wrote Clough-speak better”.
Yet there was more to his trade than capturing the idiosyncrasies of Ol’ Big ’Ead. Defying the lazy assumption that phrase-making was the domain of broadsheet rather than tabloid writers, Sadler combined a seemingly effortless facility for wordplay with well-argued judgements. In the build-up to the Ryder Cup in 2002, the British golfer Colin Montgomerie criticised Tiger Woods. In one exquisitely turned sentence, Sadler backed the American: “Woods is his talent’s best friend and Montgomerie his own worst enemy.”
He warmed to the part passion, instinct and raw talent played in sporting triumph rather than strategy and science. During Euro 96, when England beat Scotland, he suggested they had prevailed despite “[Terry] Venables’ tendency to leave his players lost in the long grass of the blackboard jungle”. Filing from the 1990 World Cup, after England had fortuitously scraped past Belgium, he penned a mock letter to Bobby Robson which began: “Dear Bobby, We are still in the World Cup. Can you please tell us how?”
When the Leicester and England striker Stan Collymore let off a fire-hydrant in a Spanish hotel in 2000, Sadler claimed it was “fast becoming apparent that there are high-profile and handsomely paid players who are unworthy of the people that idolise them”.
He retired in 2002, he and his wife moving to south-west France. Three years later he won damages of £41,000 for breach of contract from the multi-millionaire former Darlington chairman (and convicted safe-cracker) George Reynolds, who had reneged on an agreement for Sadler to ghost his memoir.
In 2007-08 Sadler penned a blog for The Guardian in which the sense of a man out of love with modern football was pronounced. The pieces were nostalgic, often hilarious love letters to the era when he cut his teeth. Even if the logic sometimes seemed awry – a polemic about how players had more mutual respect then was predicated on the story of a nasty spat between Dave Mackay and Billy Bremner – there were lines to savour. Mackay, he recalled, “tackled like a JCB”. Shortly before his death he and his wife had been preparing to return to England to live nearer their children and grandchildren.
John Sadler, sports journalist: born Maltby, Yorkshire 21 June 1940; married Jo Forfar (one son, four daughters); died Toulouse 19 May 2015.Reuse content