When sporting journalists were real reporters

The death of Tony Pawson deprives journalism of a jolly good sport

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My first job in what was then called Fleet Street was on the sports desk of the Observer. There I encountered some of the great figures of journalism in the modern era.

The desk was run by a Welshman called Peter Corrigan, whose genial approach belied an utterly professional attitude, and a deep respect for the office he held. It sometimes felt like government by catchphrase, as Peter's aphorisms – "bags of swank," would always be his advice to a reporter leaving on an assignment, and "we're a bad team, but we have a laugh", a borrowed, studied piece of self-deprecation that was only half-right – rang across the office.

A sports desk was a very different place in those days, manned (and I use the word advisedly) by career journalists who had learned their trade on local and regional papers. There were one or two exceptions – for instance, Christopher Brasher, Olympic gold medallist, was athletics correspondent – but the idea that a sportsman or woman would finish active service and then step immediately into a job in the media was, at the time, certainly not fully formed.

If you spool forward a few decades, our newspapers, our radio stations and our TV channels are full of correspondents and analysts who may not have journalistic training, but are able to put their medals on the table. (I remember a friend of mine telling me of a lunch given by his newspaper prior to a recent Cricket World Cup. He looked round the table at his fellow correspondents, an army of former Test players. "Blimey," he said, "I thought we were going to report on the World Cup, not try to win it!")

I was reminded of this shift when I learnt of the death of Tony Pawson, who was one of the exceptional figures of the Observer sports desk of all those years ago. Not only was he a softly-spoken, undemonstrative, modest character, but he had actually been an international sportsman of some repute. He lived until he was 91 years old, a man who breathed the Corinthian spirit in a professional age. As Corrigan said, "his self-effacing nature would make braggarts of us all", and his unassuming ways would give no clue that here was a man who scored seven first-class centuries for Kent, played First Division football for Charlton, and won the world individual fly-fishing championship.

Thirty years ago, when disabled sport was still very much in the shadows, he was campaigning to improve access for disabled anglers, and this, together with his estimable sporting record, brought him an OBE in 1988.

But my memory of Tony is rather more prosaic. No matter what arduous, unglamorous assignment he was handed – a night match at Middlesbrough, say – his response would always be the same. "Jolly good," he'd say, cheerfully accepting his lot. How perfect.

He's not exactly the last of a breed, but Tony Pawson was that rare creature: a jolly good sport.

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