The Indomitable John Morrell by Mike Whalley

John Morrell, a journalist for 45 years, who has died at the age of 78, was one of that special breed of reporter who spent Saturday afternoons lashed by rain, wind and snow recording the progress of the local football club.

I use the word 'spent' advisedly, because today's crop of soccer journalists live in relative luxury - under cover for the most part, laptops and I-pads at the ready, replay screens and an array of other IT aids on hand!

When John began his newspaper career in October 1954, as a junior reporter at the Morecambe Visitor, life for the soccer reporter was quite different - Charles Dickens would have had a field day describing some of the conditions. Oliver Twist eat your heart out!

John's enthusiasm for sport - he was an excellent junior golfer, footballer and cricketer - and his knowledge of the subject (he enjoyed an amazing memory for detail - he'd have given Leslie Welch a run for his money) were quickly spotted by the powers-that-be at The Visitor.  He was put in charge of the newspaper's two big broadsheet sports pages which he made his own. They reflected his flair and innovation. He introduced markings out of ten for players' performances and player-of-the-year awards in both football and cricket.  John recognised the importance of sport in the life of the district and was determined that it should be well represented on The Visitor sports pages, which were packed with news and proved hugely popular.  John covered Morecambe Cricket Club and Morecambe Football club matches and his reports reflected his own exuberance and enthusiasm.

As Morecambe FC director Rod Taylor said: "John's reporting in The Visitor of Morecambe FC games remain legendary; reading his accounts brought a game to life. A proper journalist."

John's reports could also prove controversial. He was actually banned by Mossley Town FC after a particularly hard-hitting account of a home match against the Shrimps. John thought Mossley had been unduly physical - he noted that a sign on the outskirts of the town saying, 'Mossley welcomes light industry" could be changed to, 'welcomes heavy industry - i.e. tanks'!  One irate councillor read John's report out during a town council meeting and the club duly banned John.  Needless to say, he was back there the following season, standing incognito in the crowd, making notes for his next report.

His frankness in reporting could also have consequences. Unimpressed with one Morecambe player in an away game, he suggested the person in question had run around like a headless chicken. Which was all well and good, until the following Saturday's home match back at Christie Park. Sitting at the press desk, he felt a tap on his shoulder and on turning saw a big burly man towering over him, declaring, menacingly, "I am the father of the headless chicken"!

John enjoyed good relations with Morecambe Football Club, recording its progress under a succession of managers - Albert Dainty, Ken Horton, Joe Dunn, Geoff Twentyman, Ken Waterhouse, Ronnie Clayton and Gerry Irving and Ronnie Mitchell. He particularly admired Joe Dunn and Ken Waterhouse.

John always thought himself fortunate in following Morecambe during a period of great success on the field. He saw the Shrimps win Division 1 championships in the Lancashire Combination in 1961-62, 1962-63 and again in 1966-67 and 1967-68. And he was there, scribbling away, when the Shrimps won the Lancashire Senior Cup on a frenzied night of action and near-hysteria, when they despatched Burnley 2-1 in the final, a certain Martin Dobson having netted for Burnley.  But these were also the years when sports journalists had to endure SAS-style conditions, exposed to whatever the weather might hurl at them, turning notebooks into soggy quagmires, ink running in rivers across pages. Unreadable.  But they took it in their stride, with great cheerfulness, and reported for work Monday morning as if nothing had happened!

In 1970, John moved to the Lancashire Evening Post at Preston, joining the sports desk, following mainly Blackburn Rovers, but also covering national and international fixtures.  At Blackburn, he became friends of several managers, including Johnny Carey, Ken Furphy, Gordon Lee (for whom he had perhaps the greatest respect) and Jim Smith.

He also took great pride in ghosting weekly columns for Sir Tom Finney and Sir Bobby Charlton, becoming friends of both soccer legends. They in turn admired John's writing skills and, importantly, his trustworthiness as a journalist.

John travelled to many different grounds with the Rovers and, when I wasn't reporting on Lancaster City, I would accompany him and actually telephone his copy back to a typist in Preston at various intervals during a game. This could involve a certain number of words and the team before kick-off, more words after 20 minutes, then at half-time, three-quarter time and then the final whistle.  Telephoning copy wasn't always easy. During one FA Cup trip by Blackburn to the snowy wastes of Witton, I had to run to a nearby private house, in driving snow, to get the reports through. Even for the first report the ink had run across the page - John's handwriting wasn't brilliant at the best of times - think of a doctor's worst prescription and treble it! When I staggered back to John, resembling the abominable snowman, he promptly stuffed a further report into my frozen hand and off I went again. Never saw the game!

While still on The Visitor, John organised a number of charity cricket matches, in which stars of the local shows would take on players from Morecambe Cricket Club.

These proved highly entertaining and successful. Stars appearing at the Winter Gardens (Black and White Minstrels), The Palace Theatre and Central Pier would turn out.

It wasn't always above board, when the stars fell short of players for one match, Morecambe Cricket Club's Frank Wilkinson was invited by John to bolster their team and to pretend he was one of the divers at the Super Swimming Stadium.  When he cracked a couple of successive fours, comedian Billy Stutt, for the stars, remarked: "You seem to have played before." And for Charlie Clough, Morecambe's captain at the time, there was the bizarre statistic: bowled Jimmy Jewel, caught Ben Warriss!

John was to work at the LEP for almost 30 years, latterly as the newspaper's entertainments editor.

John Morrell is pictured at Wembley interviewing the legendary Jack Crompton, Manchester United goalkeeper from 1944 to 1956. Jack was in the United team that won the FA Cup in 1948 and the league title in 1952.  It is not clear in which year the picture was taken, but it was certainly in the 1970s - United were in three finals in that decade, in 1975-76 when they lost 1-0 to Southampton; in 1976-77 when they defeated Liverpool 2-1; and again in 1978-79 when Arsenal beat them 3-2.

John was no stranger to Wembley - his FA Cup record was impressive - he saw every final between 1959 and 1974, which was a very special year: he was at Wembley three times within a couple of weeks - Morecambe's FA Trophy final, the FA Cup final and the England v Scotland home international.

And in 1966 he reported on every World Cup game at Goodison Park plus the semi-final and the final.

John, who retired in 1999, lived for many years with his wife, Enid, in Bowerham, Lancaster, before moving to Morecambe four years ago.  He battled against ill health in recent years but his spirit remained indomitable and he never lost a brilliant sense of humour.  And he never forgot those early days with Morecambe FC and the Lancashire Combination.

Somehow a happier time.

© Soccer Nostalgia

Design: David Ainsworth