Before the internet, journalists relied on phones send in their copy and it was one unfortunate person’s job to organise the whole thing
8 December ~ “Have you got a phone that doesn’t reek of fox piss?” was one of the rarer requests I had during my time working in the press boxes of London’s football stadiums.
In the early 1990s, when mobile phones resembled kettlebells, weighed similar and were even less likely to be seen in public, I had a weekend job as a “phone assistant” for the Hayters Sports Agency. I’d attend matches for free, allocate telephones to reporters and then, in theory, sit back and relax in the press box doing minor duties such as phoning the BBC’s Grandstand to report goals and red cards, or file post-match player ratings to the Sunday papers.
For a football fan longing to be reporter it was a dream start. Except for those occasions when it turned into an absolute nightmare. The realities of demand and supply, technical faults, petty theft and the rising urban fox population of south London all conspired to ensure that there were never enough phones to go round.
It was common for my bosses to take multiple bookings for the same telephone line – and leave me to juggle the limited supply among the increasing numbers of journalists attending the early 1990s revival of the game.
Because the clubs allotted press seats that never tallied with the telephone sockets my pre-match “drill” involved redirecting the great and the good of the fourth estate in a quick-step around the cramped confines of a press box to a cacophony of cursing from dislodged reporters and jobsworth stewards.
Some things I picked up immediately. I discovered that a “runner” means the reporter needs the phone throughout the whole match. I also found out that nothing rams home the urgency of a newspaper deadline than having to tell the hack who’s trying to meet one that a rival reporter is using “their” phone. I learned that game-changing incidents in the dying seconds will make adult males engage in ferocious tug-of-war disputes over telephones.
Every Thursday before a game – when I’d receive the instructions for the weekend fixtures – I would shake a little as I discovered who I’d be covering and what ratio of journalists to phones I was going to have to cope with.
A London derby was a godsend – but anything else and I’d usually spend the next two sleepless nights mentally fitting square pegs into round holes. My girlfriend would shake me awake when my nocturnal mutterings about “…have to make sure the Express & Star man has a phone on the whistle…” became too loud.
Not only was it a logistical challenge – phones would get stolen or used by fans after the game to call mates or even order a takeaway to collect on the way home – but it was a physical one too. At the final whistle I’d have to pack up the handsets left by those doing “runners” into a holdall and sprint to the press lounge to plug them all in again for the post-match conferences.
Then I’d have to sprint back up to the press box and retrieve any left by reporters who’d been filing after the whistle, bag them up and head back down before the floodlights were switched off. At Upton Park, where press box and press lounge were then several staircases and corridors apart, it was like doing an ironman event.
Things came to a head in my third season, the inaugural one for the Premier League, when I was sent to Selhurst Park for the opening fixture: Crystal Palace against Blackburn Rovers. The nationals and the capital’s media plus a pack of Lancashire regionals would be descending on the press box en masse – all in need of phones which were, I would soon discover, in something of a mess.
I got to the ground an hour before kick-off to prepare for the onslaught, only to be greeted by an acrid aroma as I entered the press room. The barman there pointed to a mound of gnarled wiring and stained plastic and informed me that during the close season a fox had made Palace its home and had whiled away the summer months chewing several telephone handsets to pieces and urinating on the bag that contained the rest.
As he left the room to get some air I stayed and prayed for a forgettable 0-0. The ensuing 90 minutes of what Sky TV were calling “a whole new ball game” erupted into an action-packed 3-3 goalfest – most of which I spent scampering around the floor of the splintered wooden press gallery plugging and unplugging fox-soiled telephones and reallocating them among a pack of increasingly angry journalists according to their need. Even the roar of a new season crowd failed to drown out the constant cries of “Hayters! Where’s my fucking phone?”.
After that game the job did (and only could) get better. I developed a series of what psychologists call “coping mechanisms” to get me through 90 minutes each Saturday. These included writing place cards for reporters – prompting sarky comments along the lines of “what’s for dessert?” – so they could share a double-booked line. I purchased a spare phone handset and loaned it to the more volatile journalists and carried a torch for when cash-careful clubs switched off the stadium lights – plunging the reporters phoning over their copy into darkness mid-quote.
In the end, either through sympathy or because he foresaw the dawn of the digital/mobile age and the death of the phone assistant, a reporter offered a position on a sports desk. I grabbed it and have never set foot in a press box since. Rob Kemp
Illustration by Matt Littler