John Samuel: the man who helped transform sports journalism

I would normally have spent this afternoon preparing and writing a preview for Sunday’s women’s and girl’s football in the region. Instead, I attended the funeral of a man I met for the first time little more than two months ago but whose work helped influence the writing you see on Sent Her Forward

Order of service from the funeral of John Samuel Nov 28 2014The last time I saw John Samuel was exactly a month ago, when he popped his head around the door of the room where I had been giving him a massage just a few minutes earlier.

“Please forgive me – so rude of me. I forgot to ask how you were,” he said.

John Samuel, 86, but in fine fettle, save for a dodgy back which had deprived him of much opportunity for his beloved golf in recent months, had traipsed back, probably from the car park, through reception and up the stairs to my room to enquire after my health, knowing that my mild arthritis had begun to give me pain when performing massage.

He said, apologetically, that he had focused on himself during our 30-minute consultation – not surprising, given that’s what he was there for.

When he didn’t turn up for his appointment today, I called his home and spoke to Mary, his wife, about whom he had frequently spoken in loving and admiring terms during his handful of treatments with me.

“He’s being buried today,” she told me before issuing an apology that she had not been able to contact me to cancel his appointment because she had not yet found his diary.

Mrs Samuel also insisted on asking for my telephone number, saying that she would pass it on to potential new clients, since John had been so pleased with his progress since I had begun treating him.

How telling that those two gestures should highlight a generosity of spirit and thought at times when those two people had every right to put their own difficulties first.

Insightful stories

I’d like to say how typical it was of John, at least. But since I met him for the first time only 10 weeks ago I could hardly claim to have known him well enough.

But it was certainly typical of the John Samuel I had seen, a retired sports journalist who had been responsible for launching or enhancing the careers of many great writers and of helping transform broadsheet newspapers’ coverage of sport.

As a journalist myself, influenced by the sorts of writer his editorship spawned or nurtured – the likes of David Lacey, John Arlott, Matthew Engel and Frank Keating, and their modern-day successors, Hugh McIlvanney, Oliver Kay and Paul Hayward – I found every conversation with him fascinating.

The half-hours (well, nearer 50 or 60 minutes, given his penchant for telling wonderful, insightful stories) I spent in his company tending to that back complaint, passed more quickly than any others in that treatment room.

Having worked at, among other places, Reuters, where he once also plied his trade, and grown up reading the oeuvres of writers he had either hired or worked alongside, I used to look forward to our monthly meetings. They didn’t feel like work for me, and they probably felt to John like new opportunities to tell old – and new – stories.

I’d like to say we exchanged yarns about the good old days, but my memory, at the age of 54, is flaky. His, at 86, was razor-sharp – just like his intellect.

I’ve had the privilege since knowing him of reading some of his more recent writing, in which he recalled his long and hugely successful career. His effortless style and captivating prose were echoed when he told stories orally, too – a rare gift, even among journalists, who make their livings from words.


John, who grew up in Hove, began his journalistic career on the Brighton Argus, reporting, according to his daughter, on the VE Day celebrations.

His talent took him to Fleet Street, where he made a mark at Reuters, the Daily Record, The Observer and especially The Guardian, where he was sports editor from 1968 to 1986, in charge of the likes of Arlott and luring back legendary cricket writer, Sir Neville Cardus.

At his funeral service in Cuckfield today, Matthew Engel, who became one of the finest cricket writers of his generation, told the congregation: “John revolutionised the coverage of sport in the quality newspapers.”

He said: “I owe a huge debt of gratitude to John – and I’m not the only one.”

John Samuel died from complications after suffering a heart attack a couple of weeks ago. Mary believes he would have recovered from it had it not been for the devastating stroke that followed – one that would have left him paralysed down one side and unable to talk.

Such a prison would have been purgatory for a man whose lifestyle reflected his active mind and body, who played golf when his back would permit, cricket into middle-age and still exercised daily to minimise the impact of old age.

Not to have been able to communicate would have been unimaginable for him, for Mary, and for their two chldren, David and Caragh.

In the end, death relieved them all of that ordeal, allowing them instead to remember a giant of a man in terms of intellect and talent, a loving father, brother and grandfather.

During those precious minutes his widow kindly afforded me this morning when I called, clueless to his fate, she told me he had indeed managed to get back on the golf course, just a couple of days before what proved to be his fatal illness struck.

He had beaten a man 10 years his junior. Mary told me I could share in that triumph, his back having eased considerably in the time I had been treating him.

In such a sombre moment I’ll readily take that. For me it’s a rare golfing success.

More importantly, by attending his funeral, alongside 100 or so others, I got to pay my respect to a man who commanded it by the bucketload.

John Samuel 1928-2014.

Donations in lieu of flowers can be made to The Stroke Association or British Heart Foundation.

See also:
John Samuel obituary (The Guardian) 
John Samuel, doyen of Fleet Street sports desks (Sports Journalists’ Association)
Demob happy with Hutton, Richards and Cotton (Sports Journalists’ Association)
Sport’s changing times (Sports Journalists’ Association)


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