Sportswriter. An appreciation

Born: October 11, 1931;

Died: September 26, 2019

FOR journalists in all fields, whether local, national or foreign news, features or crime – and probably for a large majority of readers - sportswriters are often considered la crème de la crème. Ken Jones, who has died aged 87, was one of the greatest sportswriters I had the good fortune to meet and work with. He was best-known for his work in the Daily and Sunday Mirror, the Observer and latterly the fledgling Independent who “headhunted” him when it launched in 1986.

In Ken’s heyday, unlike today, sporting heroes from Muhammad Ali to English World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore, would seek him out rather than the other way round.

Why do fellow journalists and readers respect and envy sportswriters so much? Well, most of us love shouting from the terraces or in the pubs but people like Ken got to be at the big events and write not only about what he saw, but what he felt. More often than not, he made us feel the same – the ecstasy of the winners, the chagrin of the losers. He made us feel as though we were there.

He worked mostly before the Twitter era, or the era where comments appear below your stories online. But he would either have answered them sincerely, or ignored the trolls which now defile the Internet. Unfortunately, many would-be sportswriters these days, encouraged by editors to come up with “something controversial,” are thinking more about subsequent tweets or comments than of their articles themselves. Ken, who often used his healthy newspaper expenses to buy an after-match pint or three for such football greats as Bobby Moore and Jimmy Greaves, said in his later years: “The day the relationship between footballers and reporters changed was when it was the players who could better afford to buy a round than the journalists they were drinking with.”

Although a fiercely proud Welshman, Ken loved Scotland. He honeymooned with Kathy in Edinburgh in 1955 and regularly took his family to the Highlands. That love deepened when he met, worked and bonded with one of the other great sportswriters of the last 50 years, the late Kilmarnock-born Hugh McIlvanney. Ken and “Hughie” were like Verlaine and Rimbaud, Van Gogh and Gauguin. Different personalities but bonded by their shared gift.

When the two men were younger, whatever sporting event they covered in the world, their flight connections tended to pass through New York City (they were on expenses from their newspapers) so they regularly found themselves in Costello’s bar on the corner of 44th Street and Third Avenue. It was known as the “Literati Bar” because it had been frequented by Ernest Hemingway and other great artists.

By all accounts, the Welshman and the Scot shut most of the literati up most of the time with good, loud and sometimes rowdy common sense. “They were diehard best friends for nearly 60 years,” Ken’s daughter Lesley-Ann Jones, herself a glass-ceiling-breaking Fleet Street journalist in the days of male domination, told The Herald.

Ken had a special bond with Muhammad Ali. After Ali beat George Foreman in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, Ken wrote: “Even before the fighters reached the ring, I trembled in anticipation. When the referee, Zack Clayton, called them together, Ali said (to Foreman) ‘You have heard of me since you were young. You've been following me since you were a little boy. Now you must meet me, your master!’ Foreman blinked and tapped Ali's glove.”

After the early morning fight, the champ invited Ken and McIlvanney to lunch at his villa in N’Sele. Ken recalled Ali chomping on two giant steaks and a dozen scrambled eggs as he told the journalists: “Muhammad Ali stops George Foreman. I kicked a lot of asses – not only George's. All those writers who said I was washed up, all those people who thought I had nothin' left to offer but my mouth, all them that been against me from the start and waitin' for me to get the biggest beatin' of all times. They thought big bad George Foreman, the baddest man alive, could do it for them, but they know better now.”

Years after England’s 1966 World Cup triumph at Wembley, Ken wrote: “It was the greatest moment in the history of English sport … as important to the national identity as 1066 and the Battle of Hastings … I’m a Welshman but I had great affection for that England team.”

Kenneth Powell Jones was born in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, on October 11, 1931, to an already-famous Welsh footballing family. His father Emlyn Jones played for Southend United before joining the great Everton team alongside the legendary centre forward Dixie Dean. Ken’s uncle Bryn Jones played for Wolves, Arsenal and Wales and his cousin Cliff Jones, a goal-happy left-winger, remains an icon in Swansea (indeed all of Wales) and at Tottenham FC, where he (“the Welsh wizard”) was a key member of the 1961 First Division and FA Cup double-winning side.

Ken himself played for Southend United until a ruptured Achilles tendon ended his career while still in his ‘20s. Football remained in his blood and so, after an apprenticeship in Fleet Street – at the time the hub of world journalism – he got a job as a sports reporter with the Daily Mirror, bringing cups of tea and learning from one of the great sportswriters of the time, Frank McGhee. Ken covered all sports but is best-known for his poetic reporting on football and boxing.

Ken Jones often visited Scotland. Lesley-Ann recalls happy holidays in the Highlands, including Loch Ness, when she was a child. “Dad teased the life out of us that Nessie was going to rise up out of the deep and drag us back to his lair,” she told The Herald. “I don’t think I slept for the entire fortnight that we were up there, fearful that the beastie was going to come for us.” She said one the family’s dearest friends was Glaswegian singer-songwriter Jim Diamond who died in 2015. “He and dad were like long-lost brothers, they bonded instantly.”

In his later career at The Independent, Ken fell between the carriages of a slow-moving train at a London station and had to have the lower half of his right arm amputated. But he was back at work within days, typing with his left hand and learning one-handed golf.

He was three times chairman of the Football Writers’ Association, and honoured by the Sports Journalists’ Association with its highest award, the Doug Gardner trophy, for the continual excellence of his writing. He also wrote or edited several books.

Ken Jones is survived by his wife Kathleen, children Gareth, Lesley-Ann, Beverley and Samantha, nine grandchildren and one great grandchild.