IT WAS Cassius Clay who was the springboard for Steve Curry’s career as a football writer.
And when a young, innocent lad from Lancashire came to London his life literally went to pot.
Curry forged a reputation as one of Fleet Street’s leading football news reporters, working hard and playing hard in an era when journalists were able to eat, drink and be merry with managers and players. And Ronnie Biggs.
These days, much of his time is spent helping his wife Carol at Morts wine bar/restaurant in Walton-on-Thames. “She does all the cooking,” said Curry who is a meeter and greeter to customers at the former Ruby’s.
A far cry from his first job on the weekly Blackburn Times where he began covering weddings, council meetings and law courts, reporting on Rovers at the weekend. He then moved to the Preston-based evening newspaper Lancashire Evening Post before being transferred to their offices in London in 1964 when he joined the Football Writers’ Association, making him one of the longest-serving members.
“Though basically a sub, I was allowed to write a Saturday column,” said Curry. “I did a piece on Cassius Clay, as he was still called then, which caught the eye of the editor. This earned me my transfer to London which was when I started to specialise in sport, principally football.”
Curry moved into a flat in Fawley Road, Hampstead with five girls who worked for United Newspapers. Upstairs were some guys who played in a jazz band and Curry said: “I was pretty naive and when I walked into the flat I sniffed the air and thought how peculiar it smelt. I asked one of the girls what it was and it turned out the entire block was smoking pot. Needless to say I didn’t get involved in that.”
In 1966, Curry covered England’s World Cup final win over West Germany which remains the highlight of his career. Clive Toye had left the Daily Express which created a vacancy for a football writer and with Toye’s recommendation, Curry got the nod ahead of Peter Corrigan who went on to serve the Observer so well.
A Fleet Street rookie, Curry was initially helped by the Daily Express football correspondent Desmond Hackett, who wore a trademark brown bowler in press boxes, and Geoffrey Green of The Times. “They were the doyens of the football writing circuit and were fantastic to me. They also taught me how to drink…”
At the Daily Express, Curry and the late Joe Melling were an outstanding news team, regularly leading the way with transfers and managerial appointments. “Joe was a great scuffler and had really good contacts in the game which rightly won him awards.”
After 30 years with the Daily Express “almost to the day” Curry left for the Sunday Telegraph where, in the mid to late Nineties, the sports desk enjoyed a golden era under sports editor Colin Gibson, now head of media and communications for the International Cricket Council.
The paper had a series of exclusives in 1998 including the breakaway European League and the demolition of the Wembley twin towers.
“We cleaned up the awards,” said Curry. “I was named sports news reporter of the year, Colin was sports journalist of the year, golf writer Derek Lawrenson won the sports correspondent of the year…it was almost a clean sweep.
“I’d say Colin and David Emery, my sports editor at the Daily Express, have been the two biggest influences in my career. Both were former writers, which is a help when you become sports editor and why I think Matt Lawton will do a good job in his new role on the Daily Mail sports desk.”
A 10-month spell at the Sunday Times was followed by a move to the Daily Mail which he left in 2006. Curry still does “bits and pieces for the Daily Mail” and the occasional newspaper review for Sky but most of all he is thankful he was able to experience reporting during the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties when football writers and players mixed freely, an impossible dream for the current generation.
He said: “Access was so much easier. We used to stroll into training grounds, stand on the touchline, shout at the players and have fun. It was all one happy family. Now, of course, you almost have to make an appointment to visit a training ground. They’re like Fort Knox.
“With England, we’d watch the training at the Bank of England sports ground at Roehampton, wait in a lounge in armchairs, Alf would come in booted and suited with his suitcase and the eight or 10 reporters present would chat to him. No cameras…it was far more relaxed than it is now.
“We made friends with footballers. After England won the World Cup I remember giving Alan Ball a piggy-back round the reception of the Royal Garden hotel in Kensington late in the night.”
Forty six years later the only contact football writers have with England players is in the mixed zone after internationals.
Curry continued: “My contacts book was full of home numbers – there were no mobiles then.”
No mobiles and no lap-tops which made filing reports far more challenging from the present era of pressing “send” and within seconds a story is with the sports desk. “In those days you had to have a phone installed in a press box. Not just that, you couldn’t ring out, you had to wait for the office to ring you. We’d sit there with our copy ready waiting and praying it would ring.
“There were occasions when only one paper could get a line out and after the reporter had put his report over to the copy taker, his switchboard would somehow transfer to another paper.”
The job has moved on in many ways and the current generation of football writers operate under far more pressure than those of yesteryear where working conditions were more free and easy.
Curry said: “I remember being in the Bernabeu in 1965 when Sir Alf Ramsey first played without wingers against Spain. It was a bitterly cold night and a chap was a walking round with some fiery liquid. By the time the match finished Geoffrey Green must have drunk almost a gallon of this stuff and was a little the worse for wear. Yet as always the next morning his report read like prose.”
England’s visit to South America in 1984, when John Barnes scored his supergoal against Brazil in the Maracana, was a particularly memorable trip for Curry. He said: “Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail and I went to a beef restaurant in Rio he knew and inside were Bob Driscoll [Daily Star] and Alex Montgomery [Sun] talking to this English chap about life in Brazil.
“They had no idea who he was, but I recognised him. It was Ronnie Biggs who was delighted to chat to us while we bought him drinks.”
The flight back from South America was delayed and Team Curry found themselves in a hotel in Montevideo where the foursome decided to try the Uruguayan Bloody Mary. They were soon joined by other football writers who also found the cocktail the perfect companion for killing time.
“After a while the waiter, dressed in a dicky bow, said as he put down the final round of drinks ‘Congratulations, you have now drunk 100 Bloody Mary’s.”
A bar tab, Curry maintains with a hint of pride, he has never given to anyone at Mort’s.