By David Evans
Paul Marston spent well over 50 years writing about Walsall Football Club for a number of newspapers including the likes of the Birmingham Mail, Express and Star, Sporting Star, Sunday Mercury, Sports Argus, Walsall Observer, Birmingham Post, the Press Association as well as nationally for the likes of the Daily Mail, Daily Express, and Sunday Express. Throw in Liverpool Echo and spots on television and radio and the list is endless!
He also had hundreds of features in the matchday programme over the decades and became such a household name amongst Saddlers supporters with his concise and balanced reporting that was often hard-hitting with plenty of exclusives along the way. He also covered other West Midland clubs at various times but it was his reporting of all things Walsall that his wonderful career is best known for and he must surely hold a record for the number of reports written for one team.
Paul’s story goes back to his days of National Service where he played football for the South Staffordshire Regiment, based at Whittington Barracks near Lichfield. He found himself in the same team that included striker Jimmy Murray who went on to have a great career in the game and was destined to have a spell at Walsall at the end of his professional career. Paul takes up the story.. “Jimmy played for our army team on Wednesday and Wolves on Saturday. In one game I was playing against South Wales Borderers. I missed a couple of chances and my Sergeant Major bellowed out ‘Bonehead’ however I had the last laugh as I eventually scored twice in a 6-2 win.”
During his time at the Walsall Observer, a senior journalist invited Paul to help out at Fellows Park and he soon got hooked on watching the Saddlers. Besides reporting on Walsall, he found himself being asked to cover some World Cup games in 1966 including Portugal’s 3-0 win over Bulgaria at Old Trafford and West Germany’s 4-0 demolition of Uruguay at Hillsborough. At Fellows Park, the first chairman Paul encountered was Ernie Thomas before witnessing Bill Harrison’s ‘bloodless revolution’ which swept everyone aside. He reported on so many changes that occurred under the new regime like the purchasing and demolition of the old Laundry and the building of the terrace at that Laundry End and what became the start of a very thriving Saddlers Club.
Thumbing through Paul’s excellent record book, its clear it must have been a very busy period being a reporter following our fortunes as there was something happening almost every day with an endless chain of players arriving and new and innovative ideas being implemented as WFC at last began to shake of its Cinderella image. It was a shock for everyone that in May 1968 Bill Harrison passed away but the family dynasty continued with his son Ron taking over as chairman and Paul told me of two examples of the difference between a senior official then compared to the present.
“There was one occasion when I was called out of a court case at Aldridge and Ron Harrison wanted me to know that they had finally got permission to demolish the famous old laundry at one end of the Fellows Park pitch which was quite a big story at the time and he didn’t want me to miss it. I filed my story from the old red call box opposite Aldridge police station and just made the deadline – no mobile phones in those days. Then there was a time that Ron heard I couldn’t make the trip to Plymouth as I had another sporting engagement early that Saturday evening. He asked me, ‘Will you go if I fly you there?’ So Ron and the pilot flew me there from Birmingham airport. That was the kind of co-operation the media and fans used to receive from the top in those good old days”.
Paul has seen scores of managers come and go in his time and got on with all of them however he told me that the great ‘Iron Man’ Bill Moore generally disliked the media and what they wrote about his team. The following occurred at the start of the 1971-2 season,
“When Bill Moore invited me to travel with the team to Barnsley and have a pre-match meal with them I was flattered. However he had set me up, as when I was patiently waiting for the players to turn up after the game I was told the coach had left Oakwell without me. I found out later he had disliked something I had written a week earlier so that was his ‘revenge’. I had a call from the club secretary the following Monday saying the manager would like me to travel with them again for the Tuesday game at Stockport. But I declined.”
Besides football, another passion is golf. He was the Great Barr Golf Club masters champion in 1988 and is a former national champion, winning the National Football Writer’s Golf Tournament at Mottram Hall in 2002. Over the years Paul played against a number of managers including the likes of Alan Ashman, Chris Nicholl, Ray Graydon and Dean Smith. Players include Mick Kearns who gave him the nickname ‘Scoop’. In 1978 Walsall FC appointed Alan Ashman as team manager and although he was only boss at Fellows Park for a few months he showed his sense of fun at the expense of our scribe…” I took him to Great Barr golf club for a game and we decided to play for a new golf ball, which were individually wrapped in those days. I beat him and sure enough he handed me what appeared to be a brand new ball which I decided to keep and use in the next competition at my club. A fortnight later I unwrapped it on the first tee only to find it was a tatty old ball with a big cut in it. When I told him on the Monday he burst out laughing and said, ‘I have been waiting for you to open that!’ ‘I have the new one here for you on my desk.”
Alan Ashman’s sense of humour surfaced again as Paul told me of this one..”.I was on a tight deadline for Friday team news and Alan told me to go to the training ground over the bridge from Fellows Park on Broadway West field and he was to leave the players and give me the team news. Sure enough he came over to me but as I was poised to make notes he said, ‘Jump in your car’ and we headed back to Fellows Park. I switched off the engine and went to make a note but he said ‘Come into my office.’ The girl in reception said there was a message for him, he unlocked his door and slammed it in my face. By then I was sweating bullets on deadline and five minutes later the door opened and joker Alan said, ‘Paul Marston – what are you doing here? Then he added, ‘Its the same team as last week. Will that do?’
In our chat, Paul acknowledged the many wonderful characters he has met and got to know over the decades including us, the fans, giving the example of Stan Blandford who has hardly missed game home or away down the years. Stan Bennett got a mention, who is God father to his daughter Bianca and he acknowledged Stan was the sort of player the fans loved too. Of his press colleagues over the years the following were recalled, ” There was a cartoonist on the Evening Mail who described Walsall fans as ‘Gurroles’…’Gurrole Walsall, come on lads’.Other soccer-writing characters were Jim Tatler, a lovely man who liked a pint or two,Trevor Gedge (Express and Star), Bill Pemberton (Birmingham Post), David Whinyates (Walsall Observer) and Dave Instone ( Express and Star).
There was an occasion where this snapper’s quip left a mark on those present…”There was a real Black Country Guy – Norman Pearson – who began taking pictures for the Express and Star who wasn’t very fond of football but always covered home games. He came into the director’s suite at Fellows Park after one match, soaked to the skin and a visiting director asked politely, ‘I was watching you out there by the goals and it must have been quite dangerous.’ ‘Dangerous?’ Snorted Norman, ‘Its the safest place in the ground, They will never hit you when you are that close to the goals’.
Paul had an excellent relationship with Ron Jukes, the scouting legend who had so many years at Walsall with some amazing discoveries and Ron would phone up Paul daily, watching games and asking his friend his opinion on certain players. Now here’s a revelation – talk about a case of what might have been, as Paul explains, “There was a good chance of him returning to Walsall as Chief Scout from Derby County and Ron told me the first thing he would do if he did go back to Fellows Park would be the Saddlers to sign a lad called Stevie Bull from the Baggies reserves. But suddenly Graham Turner, a pal of Ron’s, was appointed Wolves boss and the first thing he did was to appoint Ron chief scout. That’s why Bully ended up at Wolves. Not many people know that.”
On talent spotting, Paul went on to say, “Walsall have had some wonderful local lads over the years, going back to the likes of Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke, Stan Bennett, Nick Atthey, Colin Harrison, Colin ‘Cannonball’ Taylor – what a shot he had in his left foot – Brian Caswell, Tony Richards, Frank Gregg, Mick Evans, Phil Parkes and many more proving there is loads of talent in Walsall and surrounding areas if you have a scout smart enough to spot them.”
Then there was the story of the parting of the ways with Frank Sibley, who succeeded Alan Ashman.. “As the team warmed up before the kick off, a fan calls out to us in the press box, ‘Hey lads where’s the manager, Frank isn’t here.’ I rang his wife in London and she was none the wiser. So a question was asked to Chairman Ken Wheldon if and when he had been sacked. ‘There will be a statement after the game.’ Was Mr Wheldon’s reply.
Mick Kearns came into our conversation. “He is the biggest wind up merchant on the golf course. He tells people Walsall did a video on. winning promotion under Ray Graydon and my voice was used to raise the highlights during the action. But Mick says there was too much of me and not enough f the action. The club had hundreds of them left over and sold them to NHS sufferers with insomnia. Ten minutes in they would be asleep!”
Ever the joker, Kearnsy almost went too far on this occasion…”At the Britannia Stadium one Saturday afternoon when I was in the press box dictating the Stoke City and Walsall teams to my Sports Argus copytaker, he crept up behind me after warming up our keepers, ruffled my hair with the greeting, ‘ Hiya Scoop.’ My specs came off and I scrambled frantically on my hands and knees. I replied,’ You prat Kearnsy.. If I can’t find my lenses I won’t be able to see the game. To which he quipped, ‘Don’t worry, it will be a better report!” One of the best goalkeeping displays was from Mick Kearns, in the FA Cup second replay against Chesterfield in 1976-7 at the Baseball ground. The win meant Walsall had a money-spinning tie in the next round with Man United at Old Trafford.Their manager, former Walsall coach Arthur Cox commented afterwards, The big bastard cost us the game!”
One man who Paul holds in high regard as both a player and manager is Alan Buckley. ” He was signed on loan initially and to pay just around £18,000 for his services from Nottingham Forest was an absolute bargain. So many wonderful goals and I remember one such goal at Charlton. Manager Doug Fraser told us afterwards, ‘He ran from the half way line and dummied so many players that when the ball flew into the top corner the crowd went the wrong way.’ Buck would sometimes get the hump and ignore him if he had written something too critical of his team but would always stop and say hello to his daughter Bianca but Paul was heartened by this tribute, ” I was doing a game at Blundell Park once when Alan was Grimsby manager and someone said to me he has heaped praise on you in the programme and said if he was starting out his career again he would like me as his agent.” My own observation of the Buck’s admiration for him was in the back room of the Saddlers Club when he was signing copies of his book Pass and Move. His face lit up when he saw his friend and as Paul walked out he stopped the book signing for a few seconds and with a big smile on his face said to us, ” I don’t believe it – Paul Marston has just come in to see me.”
When chairman Ken Wheldon made public knowledge of his absurd plans for Walsall to groundshare with Birmingham City at St Andrews in 1986 the Evening Mail dedicated as much space as possible to their Save The Saddlers campaign and Paul played a big part in reporting in that paper of the various news that was coming out and gave great coverage of the part the Save Walsall Action Group played. Paul spoke of the terrific work that Barrie Blower did in particular to rally the Walsall townspeople to fight Wheldon and then in turn find Terry Ramsden to take over. I remember a terrific exclusive interview Paul did for that paper in Terry’s plush London office in mid August of 1986 which carried the headline, ‘Why I bought The Saddlers’.
There were so many exclusives and real in-depth investigative reports over the decades that were so compelling for the Saddlers faithful to read and absorb in the pre-internet age and it was reporting at its very best. Paul was constantly searching for that next exclusive and takes up the story of one such occasion with one of the most famous managers ever in the game…” On the week leading up to the FA Cup tie at Old Trafford in 1998 I rang up Manchester United on the off chance of getting a few quotes from Alex Fergusson (as he was then) and his secretary replied that he wasn’t around at that moment but when he is I will see if he can ring you back. Not being too hopeful I popped out to my local shop for something and on my return home my wife Jen calmly advised me I missed the famous man. When I rang back United having missed Alex’s call I didn’t expect to get him but I apologised profusely to his secretary who said she would see if he would call me back as he was out again. I thought I had blown it. To my amazement the big man did ring me back and we had a really good chat which provided me with a big exclusive for the Birmingham Mail.”
Talking of exclusives, Paul wrote one about the possible sale of Martin O’Connor to Peterborough United in the Birmingham Mail. “Manager Chris Nicholl said at the time, ‘ If you f’k up Martin O’Connor I will punch your face in.’ We became good friends, played a lot of golf together and whenever I mentioned that incident to people, Chris would just laugh and say, ‘I was only joking’ to which I would reply, ‘Well why was I running then?!’ Martin was sold to Peterborough for £350,000 so my report was correct.”
‘Skip’ was one of the names at the top of his list when I asked him who were the best signings Walsall have made. “Well there was Martin O’Connor, the Walsall lad they signed on loan from Crystal Palace. He controlled midfield and the fans chanted ‘Sign Him Up’ It was the only time in my career with the Sports Argus reporting on games that I gave a player man of the match three games in a row.
Fans came to Paul’s assistance in this quirky story that occurred in November 1992.. “There was a story with me inside a big builders bath at Spotland during a match with Rochdale. the previous month. They were building a new stand and there was no press box, just a table near the wall surrounding the pitch. It started to pour with rain and there was no cover but I spotted that big drum and got some fans to turn it on one end for me and I was able to phone from my mobile with me in it. I didn’t realise a snapper from the Manchester Evening News had taken a snap of me which he sent to the Argus, and the first I knew of it was when I opened the Argus and saw the picture with a story about my ‘early bath.”
Paul covered other sports too and one particular travel experience left him amazed…”I had annual trips abroad to write travel features one of which was to go to Singapore for a week as guest of Singapore Airlines. I stayed in the Sheraton Hotel and the first morning my phone rang and a young lady said she was my Butler for the week and would be round in ten minutes to pour my coffee and give me the morning paper. Sure enough she arrived, poured my coffee and handed me a copy of the Straits Times, published in English. I was browsing through it and decided to switch to the back page and guess what? There was a story about Walsall FC. They had signed Trevor Christie from Manchester City. How about that, you couldn’t make it up! I also had annual trips to write features about skiing and my last trip was nine days in the Rockies.
Regarding the state of play at Bescot in recent times. During the 2018 -2019 season Paul was special guest on the Express and Star podcasts on a couple of occasions. He may have hung up his pen on covering Saddlers in 2016 but still has plenty to say on the appointment of managers, the quality of signings – or lack of – and the continual non- willingness of the owner to speak to the press and the supporters. He told me, “Jon Whitney was good with the press. He was loyal and excellent though he was a physio at the club, he unfortunately couldn’t get results as a manager. Someone like Adrian Viveash would have been ideal. In my first E and S podcast (in September) when asked where Saddlers are likely to finish in the table I said around 16th and on my second podcast appearance (in January) after witnessing the abysmal performance against Bristol Rovers on Boxing Day I feared that not only would we be relegated this season, but there’s a danger of slipping out of the Football League next year. Look at the way the likes of Wrexham, Leyton Orient and Chesterfield have fallen and there’s a real chance Notts County, the oldest club in the Football League doing the same.”
“That prospect is here with Walsall.”
“Darrell Clarke needs to recruit better. We didn’t even have a team a few days before the start of last season. He needs to recruit bigger and more physical players who won’t get knocked off the ball. Our corner taking is awful – there are so many small players who don’t reach the ball. I think it was too soon for Dean Keates to get the job at a third tier club. He hadn’t been in charge of non-league Wrexham long enough to prove anything. Walsall have appointed a proven manager now to make real progress and not joining so many clubs who are struggling in non league. If Chris Nicholl had been manager now and some of the current players had performed as poorly as they have, they would have been frightened to come to work. He would have had them by the throat and they would have run till they dropped.”
On the present owner , Paul remarked, “Jeff Bonser has kept League football in Walsall, but I wish he had been more open with the fans and explained what his plans were.”
“Why, for instance, haven’t the Sunday Market and the many facilities now available at the stadium brought about the on-field improvement we were promised? The huge following at Wembley proves that support there is for the club if more ambition was shown.” And in conclusion, “Once a Saddler, always a Saddler. Let’s hope Mr Bonser and his board wake up and realise what loyal fans the club has and how they deserve much better than has been served up over the past couple of years.”
And finally, a few of Paul’s career bests and worsts…
Chairmen – Bill and Ron Harrison.
Manager – ‘Sir’ Ray Graydon.
Secretaries – Roy Whalley and Ernie Wilson.
Groundsman – Roger Johnson.
Statician – Geoff Allman
Scout – Ron Jukes.
Fan – Stan Blandford.
Team – Ray Graydon’s promotion winners – discipline and desire.
Manager – You tell me!
Team – The one just relegated.
Mistake- Building a new stadium with a small pitch and stanchions.