Sat, 13 April, 2024

Tony Smith

Posted: July 11th, 2014

TONY SMITH, legendary sports editor of the Sunday Mirror, died on July 10 (2014), aged 81, after a long illness. (The funeral is on July 23 at St Peters Church, Rectory Lane, Woodmansterne  SM7 3NL at 12.30, followed by a committal for just the family at Randalls Park, Leatherhead.  After the church service there is a reception at Oaks Park Golf, Woodmansterne Road, Carshalton SM5 4AN from 2pm.Everyone is welcome. Family flowers only please, but donations in Tony’s memory for the Princess Alice Hospice in Esher, which made it possible for Vilma to keep him at home, can be sent to the undertakers W A Truelove 121 High Street, Banstead, Surrey, SM7 2NS (tel 01737 212160). An online donation link will be set up shortly.)

(With thanks to Roy Greenslade and Dave Ellis): TONY SMITH was one of those people who brought a smile to the face of anyone who met him and worked with him. He was sports editor of the Sunday Mirror for 15 years after spending 11 years sports editing the paper’s northern editions.

He masterminded sports pull-out sections – now de riguer for most British newspapers – in Manchester in the 70s, and, as former Mirror Group executive Gerald Mowbray recalls, also pioneered cut-out figures soon after the introduction of editorial colour at MGN in the late 90s. His designs, said Mowbray, “then became increasingly ambitious as they weaved through the text… it started a trend”.

Tony reigned in the days when England’s football team won the World Cup, Henry Cooper knocked down Muhammad Ali and Ted Dexter was the England cricket captain.

Born in Woolwich, the son of a railwayman, Tony was a lifelong Charlton fan. He would often queue as a kid outside The Valley to meet his hero, goalkeeper Sam Bartram. Sam became a People football reporter when he retired from the game, inviting Tony over for a drink on one memorable occasion.

Like so many Fleet Street journalists born in the 1930s, Tony’s route into journalism was anything but conventional. On his return from evacuation to Worthing at the war’s end, he eventually got a start in the publicity department in the Scouts’ headquarters in Buckingham Palace Road, and a year later was seconded to work as “a messenger” at St James’s Palace.

Tony used to recall: “A policeman would hold back the crowds at Buckingham Palace so that this little whipper-snapper could get through the gate and take messages to the Royal household.” His duties included entertaining the sons of the Duke of Gloucester, so Tony, a 15-year-old working-class lad, found himself playing games with Princes William and Richard, then aged six and three respectively.

Tony later achieved his ambition to work on The Scout magazine proper, writing a weekly column and interviewing the likes of speed ace Sir Malcolm Campbell and England hero Denis Compton.

In 1949 Tony got a job as a junior reporter in the London office of the Edinburgh Evening Despatch. “The wages were horrific,” he later said, “but the experience was a gold mine.”

After National Service he was head-hunted in 1955 by the Sunday Pictorial (retitled the Sunday Mirror in 1963) to become assistant to the northern sports editor. He was appointed as sports editor in the Manchester office in 1960.

London editor Mike Christiansen recognised a fantastic talent and in 1971 Tony swapped the Swan with Two Necks for The Stab and revamped the Holborn sports pages. In came in the big headlines, the big names and the big exclusives.

He became friendly with a host of sports stars who worked for the Sunday Mirror, including cricketer Ted Dexter, footballers George Best, Bobby Moore, Brian Clough, Bobby Robson, Kevin Keegan and Alan Ball, boxers Henry Cooper, Joe Bugner and John Conteh and tennis player Sue Barker. He even twisted Lord Ted’s arm and had him turning out for the Sunday Mirror soccer team. “Not a bad player,” was Tony’s verdict.

Roy Greenslade recalls: “I first met Tony in Manchester when he hired me as a Saturday casual on the Sunday Mirror sports desk. In the second week Tony confided: ‘You’re doing all right, kid. By the way, what position do you play?’ So began a thoroughly enjoyable period of football subbing under editor Tony and football playing under captain Tony. We became colleagues also at the London office of the Sunday Mirror in the mid-1970s.”

Tony liked a pint or three, and could often be found in The Stab surrounded by colleagues drawn into his web of stories and jokes that made him one of the most popular men in newspapers. Chief sports writer Ken Jones paid this tribute: “Tony Smith’s greatest quality was that he had balls. Whatever it took to get the job done, he would do it – no matter what the problems were. He’d take on anybody.”

Tony’s deputy Dave Ellis recalls: “Tony wasn’t just a great journalist and a great colleague, he was a great mate who cared passionately about the Sunday Mirror and the people who worked for it.”

Daily Mirror sports editor Keith Fisher, who was best man at Tony and Vilma’s wedding in 1984, said, simply: “Tony Smith was my idol and my mentor.”

Tony became an assistant editor in 1986 but the Robert Maxwell era became too much to bear and he accepted redundancy. A week later, such was life under Maxwell, he was re-engaged by the publisher as sports editor of The European. He stayed with the paper until Maxwell’s death in 1991 and then turned his hand to travel writing for the Sunday People, eventually becoming its travel editor. He retired in 2002 due to ill health.

Tony is survived by his second wife, Vilma (née Allen, former secretary to the Sunday Mirror’s deputy editor, Joe Grizzard) his son from his first marriage, Richard, daughter-in-law Ann and grandchildren Rebecca, Vicky and Lizzie.

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