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Sports Mail memories

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Monday October 8, 2012 All Day
Fratton Park, Portsmouth, England  (map)

So many memories mean Sports Mail will never die The front page of the Football Mail from 1949, the day Pompey were crowned first division champions

By Neil Allen

Published on Monday 8 October 2012 10:44

It’s a funeral I have attended before.

Previously it was the Sports Argus, the backing track to my footballing childhood.

Now I have bid an emotional farewell to another much-loved friend.

The voice of experience tells me this is how progress works, things move on, our day-to-day existence is constantly evolving.

Nonetheless, the internet has claimed another newspaper victim. Only this time it has struck down a popular friend of the Pompey family.

There are, after all, three things certain in life – death, taxes... and the end of Saturday sports papers.

Ever since the bombshell was dropped from far, far above to those of us at The News Centre on Wednesday afternoon that this would be the last-ever Sports Mail, I have stood stoically at the back to witness the service.

Others’ lips have been trembling, eyes have been dabbed and silences have been observed.

Not me, I have been here previously, in May 2006 no less, when what was once the largest-selling sports paper in Britain – Birmingham’s Sports Argus – went to the great publisher in the sky.

Pain felt towards the Sports Mail’s tragic demise has undoubtedly been numbed by such memories. My grieving took place a long time ago.

Yesterday, however, I did break.

Perhaps it was prompted by the man who told the story on how he met his wife 15 years ago when she asked to read his copy of the Sports Mail.

Or it could have been Peter Bone’s touching e-mail reliving how he devoured every word of Mike Neasom and Reg Betts and remains ‘nostalgic, sad, puzzled and, curiously bereaved’ over the paper’s passing.

Then there was Bob Beech’s Twitter disclosure that when his father died, for his final journey, he had with him his pipe, baccy and a Football Mail.

Maybe the moment of clarity was provided by Peter Higgins, he of Betting Room fame, who for once was reduced to silence when I delivered the notification of death in person amid the backdrop of a Port Solent pub.

Suddenly the situation struck home.

Today, after 109 years, the Sports Mail, a constant companion through the lives of so many, ceases to exist.

We all thought the old girl would last forever, yet economics dictated otherwise. And so we all are left to mourn.

Deemed not financially viable in a climate when newspaper sales are being devoured by advances in technology, somebody in The News’ hierarchy has decided to read the last rites.

And here we are, gathered here together, standing room only, watching the Sports Mail lowered into the ground.

There surely cannot be a dry eye in the house.

Forgive me, as a relative newcomer to the south coast, my association with the Sports Mail stretches back only 12 years.

My experiences do not possess the emotional depth so many of its readers feel towards the loss of such a loved one. I have no recollection of the publication being pink or broadsheet.

Nonetheless, it was back in November 2000 when our paths first crossed. Back then my remit was to cover Southampton on Saturdays and it so happened my debut would be a Dell match against Aston Villa.

That week I had walked away from the midlands to embark on a new life on the south coast, armed with nothing more than my proud collection of Rothmans yearbooks.

Yet a few months earlier, my previous job allowed me to share a candid hour with then-Villa manager John Gregory in his office at Bodymoor Heath, the majority of which was off the record.

Fearlessly, he launched a furious, and at times, white-knuckled tirade against his employer and Villa chairman Doug Ellis from the impenetrable confines of his office – in confidence, of course.

There he was, however, at The Dell and back in Hampshire following his Pompey exit as manager 10 years earlier.

My instructions from then-sports editor Colin Channon was to get Gregory, a former Pompey manager, on his own afterwards and persuade him to speak exclusively to The News.

Upon seeing me, Gregory was encouragingly welcoming, a reassuringly-recognisable face in foreign lands.

Except when he heard who I was nowadays working on behalf, his demeanour turned to thunderous.

‘The Portsmouth News’, he uttered. ‘No chance am I speaking to you lot after what you did to me.’

And he was off.

At the time his actions baffled. Since then Pompey education has taught me he was referring to his unsuccessful spell at Fratton Park as manager and the way he perceived he was treated.

Still, it would be November 2001 when I tasted my first Pompey runner in the Sports Mail, with then-chief sports writer Mark Storey absent.

I was despatched to cover the trip to Hillsborough as Graham Rix’s side took on Sheffield Wednesday.

There were, however, teething problems along the way, particularly in Loughborough.

The journey saw me write my car off, the engine keeling over and dying while in the outside lane of the M1. It subsequently turned out there was a critical absence of oil.

A taxi from Leicestershire saved the day, even if the pre-match team news was then conducted over the phone while sprinting to Hillsborough.

As I took my seat, I witnessed Yoshi Kawaguchi conceding a goal – 36 seconds into his debut.

Pompey managed to win 3-2 that day – a successful start to my Pompey reporting in the Mail. At least on the field of play.

It wouldn’t be until I was appointed chief sports writer in the summer of 2007 that I would inherit that gig on a regular basis.

Since then, I have reported on some of the greatest moments in Pompey’s modern-day history – including the 2008 Cup final success and 4-1 thrashing of Southampton at St Mary’s – as well as the continued devastating lows.

Now I have penned the obituary for the Sports Mail, my last assignment. Not that anybody needs lecturing on what this famous, old sports paper means to the people of this city.

Age may have claimed it, but for many, a lifetime of memories will never diminish.

The Sports Mail has offered generations the elixir of youth, keeping people forever young. A true time-travelling companion.

Now it is the end – except it will never be the end.

Sleep well.

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