GIBBO’S CHOICE – in conversation with award winning sports journalist & author, John Gibson (1/2)

Top North East journalist John Gibson greets me with a ‘Hello kidda how yer daein’ and we’re immediately at ease. Sports stories come later, but first, who is John Gibson ?

During the war I was born in Benwell in the west end of Newcastle and brought up mainly by my Grandmother and Grandfather. We lived in a flat with green mould on the walls and an outside netty. People said you were poor but we were happy and no one else around where we lived was rich, we were all the same in Benwell.

When I was a kid everybody wanted to play for Newcastle United. I for some unknown reason wanted to write about them. I’ve still got scrapbooks from when I was 4 or 5, I would stick in pictures of players and write in pencil a little story underneath about them. My daughter has them now.

YOUNG MAGPIE

Aunty Grace was the only one in the family who had a postage stamp sized black and white television and we all gathered around to watch Newcastle United in the cup finals of ’51, ’52 and ’55. My Grandmother, who used to make clippie mat‘s, made me a black and white rosette. They won the cup three times in five years. I thought this is wonderful.

When I was a schoolboy my uncle Frank used to take me to St James’ Park. I used to be transfixed by the player Bobby Mitchell, and funnily later in life got to know him well when I was covering non-league football at Gateshead and he was manager there.

When Newcastle were playing away I used to walk from Benwell down over the Redheugh bridge to Gateshead and watch them play in the old third division North. Wonderful thing was I ended up later owning Gateshead football club for 11 years.

HAVE YOU HEARD THE NEWS ?

Nobody in my family was a writer or in sport so not sure where it came from, but I always knew I wanted to be a sports journalist. When I was at school I wrote to every paper in the North East asking for a job. One paper offered me a job and that was the Hexham Courant.

When you start you cover everything. I used to stand outside church and take the name of every mourner at a funeral. I went to Haltwhistle and Hexham for court cases and on Saturday the local football matches. The first was Hexham GPO winning 5-3, I had all week to write my report because it was a weekly paper.

My mum framed that report and put it on her cabinet, when I covered Newcastle United versus Ujpest Dozsa in a European final that replaced the Hexham GPO cutting.

I first got the Chronicle job in 1966 when I came back from London. I was in Fleet Street because I thought that was where you needed to be as a writer, all the glamour you know. But I was offered a job following Newcastle United and writing about the love of my life, I couldn’t resist coming back. 

When they rang me up offering the job it was great, but I asked for a bit more – as they say shy bairns get nowt. I said I’ll only come if you let me cover the World Cup finals and the Olympic games as well as Newcastle. I still would have walked back if they said no, but unbelievably they said yes.

The first job was the Cup games in the North East, North Korea at Middlesbrough beating Italy which was sensational. When the group stage was over I hooked my wagon to England. So within months of coming back to the Chronicle I saw England winning the World Cup, and within three year I saw Newcastle winning the European Fairs Cup.

I thought this is wonderful I’m going to be knee deep in success all my life. But really it’s easy to remember the dates cos they very rarely win anything.

BLACK & WHITE ARMY

I wrote about Joe Harvey and Jackie Milburn because the ‘50s was the great time, thing was I went on to be personal friends with them when working for the Chronicle. When I first covered Newcastle United Joe Harvey was manager.

I wrote five or six books with Jackie Milburn, we worked together in the press box and went to the Fairs cup final in 1969 together. He became a dear friend of mine and when he passed away with cancer I spoke at a commemorative service for him in his hometown Ashington. It was a very emotional time.

Today players are less approachable you only see them at press conferences. Malcolm MacDonald who played during the ‘70s, I was best man at his wedding to Carol who used to be married to Brian Johnson, singer of AC/DC. They married in Jesmond Dene. Irving Nattrass and Bob Moncur were Godparents to two of my daughters. Mick Mahoney was a good mate when he lived near me in Whickham.

We met up in Los Angeles, USA during the World Cup, Mick slept on my hotel floor when I was there reporting on the final in LA. When he left Newcastle he played in America and stayed there and got a job driving trucks. He lives back in the UK now.

Johnny Rep, (Bastia & Holland).

We talked about great players we’ve seen who’ve graced St James’ Park. Footballers who glide across the pitch and never seem to break sweat. Trevor Brooking for West Ham, Bayern Munich’s Michael Ballack and when Newcastle played French team Bastia – Johnny Rep. Even on a rainy night in November ’77 the Leazes End applauded his magic.

Newcastle had beaten Bohemians from Ireland in the first round. I was out there and the Dublin club were wonderful people but then we faced Bastia. Before the game United’s midfielder Tommy Craig said to me ‘Johnny Rep, what a reputation, he’s the biggest non-entity I’ve ever seen’. I said can I quote you on that ? Yeah, yeah, no problem.

Johnny Rep was sensational that night. He ripped us from pillar to post and at the end of the game I went over to Tommy who said ‘Don’t say anything, I know what you’re going to say’. Not long after, manager Dicky Dinnis got the sack.

Sometimes when you are beaten by better players, and teams, I can stand that, you can hold your hands up and say ok, that’s alright. It’s when you’re beaten by poor sides like Hereford in the FA Cup – that’s hard to take.

Have you been on duty when a world shattering event has taken place ?

I was actually part of it when I was covering the Munich Olympics in ’72. One day I was sitting reporting on the track events, then next I hear Black September, the Palestinian terrorist group, had broken in to the Olympic village where we were staying and were holding some Israeli athletes hostage.

I’m there doing a normal sports gig, albeit at the highest level, then suddenly for 48 hours it’s like being a war correspondent. The games had stopped, we were reporting on hostages being held, you could hear the gun fire.

Mark Spitz was an American swimmer, he was winning everything in world record time. Spitz who was Jewish, was frightened, he held a press conference to say he was flying back to the States. At the conference he was sat down and surrounded by armed guards – you couldn’t see him, just hear his voice.

Hostages were taken to the airport and stupidly me and a few other reporters gave chase in a taxi. It was daft because this was the dead of night and what we thought we might see goodness knows.

Unbeknown to us the airfield was full of German snipers lying in wait. We heard the guns and explosion happening and our taxi driver put on the anchors, shouted an expletive and took to his toes leaving us in the taxi with the door wide open.

We were traumatised going through all this, next day it was announced the games would go on and I thought it was the wrong decision. They had taken us into the Israeli compound and you could see the blood spattered walls and bullet holes.

The games did go on and with hindsight it was the right decision because if you give in to terrorists and close the games down that’s what they want. So you cannot give in.

I remember sitting at the closing ceremony and everybody was terrified because they put out the lights then other lights were flashing around for dramatic effect but everybody’s in the dark looking around thinking where’s the next shot coming from.

It was a huge event, like a 9/11. Without a shadow of doubt, one of the worst and most frightening I’ve covered. You didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. It was a big stand off for 48 hours. The whole world stopped and watched what was happening in Munich.

There was a time the I.R.A were going to shoot George Best if he played for Manchester United at Newcastle. They got the word through to the team at the Gateshead Hotel where they were staying. The police went on the coach when they were driving into St James’ Park, Besty was lying on the floor. Again you can’t give in and call the match off.

At a few talk show events that I’ve done with George he talked about that time and said ‘If I don’t play they win. In that hour and a half I was running everywhere on the pitch’ (laughs).

But seriously they had snipers on top of the stands at St James’. Unbelievable courage from the kid. Man United won the game 1-0. And who scored the goal ? Yep, George Best.

John Gibson, with Glenn McCrory (features in next post) and Malcolm McDonald, at the signing of the Gibbo Files at Waterstones in Newcastle. (pic Newcastle Chronicle)

IRISH EYES

Talking about Ireland, George Best was a Belfast lad from the North and in the Republic you had the Geordie connection with Big Jack Charlton managing the football team and taking them to considerable success at the World Cup in America ’94.

I have some wonderful memories from the ‘90s and Newcastle have had some great nights like the Barcelona game beating them 3-2 with the Asprilla hat trick. I’m fortunate enough because I’m old enough, to have seen them win the European Fairs cup in 1969. Now I’ve done 55 consecutive years covering United which is a unique record and I’m proud of it.

Has the North East had its fair share of talent ?

I may be biased as a proud Geordie but right across the spectrum the North East has produced quality. Whether it’s the footballers we’ve talked about or the sportsman Steve Cram or Brendan Foster who’ve done so much in athletics, cricketers Steve Harmison from Ashington, Paul Collingwood from Shotley Bridge, they played wonderful for Durham and England, or showbiz and music which I’ve always loved.

That leads us into the next post where Gibbo talks about Brian Johnson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Malcolm MacDonald, Kevin Keegan, Jimmy Nail & Ian La Frenais.

You can read more stories in the 16 books that John has authored. These are a select few titles:

The Newcastle United Story 1985.

Spirit of Tyneside 1990

Kevin Keegan, Portrait Of A Superstar 1984

North East Hundred Heroes 1993

Newcastle United Greats 1989

Newcastle United’s Perfect Ten 2007

Gibbo Files 2014

Interview by Gary Alikivi  July 2021.

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