James Lawton: A lion and a gentleman with a remarkable gift

Writer who has died aged 75 was able to bottle the temporary magic that is live sport

The first time I ever saw him, he was settling into his seat on a British Airways flight from Heathrow which would carry him to the Olympic Games in Sydney. He was travelling in a way that few journalists ever do, which is to say: in business. He wore a salmon-coloured shirt, a mane of ruffled white hair and carried a leather satchel along with a vague air of chaos.

It took a few seconds, shuffling towards economy, to recognise, in living colour, a face I’d only seen on the byline of Fleet Street newspapers. Wow, I thought happily. That’s James f***ing Lawton.

That moment came back in the burst of tributes after Jim Lawton, a lion and a gentleman, died suddenly on Thursday at the age of 75. If you’ve no picture of him, well, imagine a tousled, distracted figure with a discerning expression and a glint of absolute mischief.

If you’ve not heard him speak, he had one of those great English voices, evocative without being fussy and gravelly from a gazillion cigarettes smoked through a lot of late nights down the years. And if you’ve not read his sports-writing, well, the good news is that there is plenty of opportunity to do that.

When Muhammad Ali invites you for lunch . . . then you bloody well show up

If it proves to be the case that written journalism is ultimately done for; that its resources are to be slowly and unstoppably gobbled up by Google and the mind-boggling banality that is Facebook, then it can be said that the newspapermen and women of Jim Lawton's generation got to experience the golden age, when the advertisers flooded to buy space on the smudgy pages and the words fired down on the bromide plates held a power that was absolute. He began his career in MacMillan's England, a cub reporter aged of 16 in the Flintshire Leader and found his way into covering sports on both sides of the Atlantic.

He came to prominence at a time when newsprint publications and columnists held a kind of an unchallenged authority and belonged to a generation of sportswriters who covered sport much as critics covered the theatre, sitting high in the gallery and then writing, often to absurd deadlines, a snapshot/verdict. Nobody did it as well or from as many time zones. He could be unsparing when he chose to be – he once provoked cricketer Viv Richards into storming into the press box to deliver a dressing down over a piece written during a tempestuous Test series in the mid-1980s.

But his brilliance, it always seemed to me, was located in an empathetic sensibility and a gift for effortlessly catching the feel or mood of the epic sports events to which he spent a lifetime travelling. He got that even though the races and fights and matches would and will be replayed for years, the mood in the arena or stadium was a temporary magic. And he somehow managed to bottle a sense of that in his dispatches from around the world.

He was acutely aware of the instantaneous nature of sporting moments

I only knew Lawton through his writing but during occasional chance meetings was, like everyone, disarmed by the easy charm and genuine warmth of the man. He seemed to travel to everything – the golf Majors, the teeming football derbies, England’s cricket glories and debacles and the fights, always the fights. He told me about visiting Muhammad Ali one year in his training camp in Pennsylvania. He and another journalist had driven, at short notice, for four hours from wherever they were staying.

The visit had been a triumph: Ali was in terrific form and spoke with them for hours. In fact, as they were leaving, the boxer invited them back for lunch the following afternoon. On the long drive back, Lawton’s companion remarked that it was a shame that they couldn’t take up the invitation. Lawton turned in astonishment and asked what he meant. His companion pointed out that they had all the material they needed and couldn’t really justify another eight-hour round trip. Lawton paused for a moment before offering, in his laconic style, the following advice. “When Muhammad Ali invites you for lunch . . . then you bloody well show up.”

Melancholy streak

He retained a boyish admiration for the feats of sporting genius he got to witness first hand without ever forgetting that the protagonists were all too human, with flaws and weaknesses and demons. He was acutely aware of the instantaneous nature of sporting moments and because of that there was often a melancholy streak running through his writing.

For a few years you'd hear him on the Matt Cooper show on a Friday evening addressing the latest lurid outrage or Premier League tantrum in a tone of amusing despair. In 2013, as Fleet Street felt the squeeze, he was made redundant from the London Independent, the publication which had always seemed the most natural home for what was a wonderful voice.

Mercifully for readers here, he had a column in the Irish Independent in recent years. The one blessing of that cold door-closing in London was that it gave him time to write Forever Boys, the book in which he returns to the Manchester City team of his youth which held him in thrall. The project was inspired by attending the funeral of Malcolm Allison, the flamboyant former City manager whose column Lawton had ghosted. In it, he writes with unflinching honesty about suddenly understanding the bewilderment common to sports stars when the speed or gift begins to leave or when injury takes it all away and they no longer are who they thought they were.

“This, as it happened, came to me so late, so absurdly so when measured against the experiences of the heroes of this story, the idea of self-pity could not be entertained, not even when putting down the phone on a man I had never met who told me that my days as the chief sports writer of a national newspaper were over,” he recalls in the first pages which are a long and luminously brilliant reflection on the roaring decades he spent on the road.

“Most haunting for me was the drive away from covering my last major sporting occasion – the 2013 Open at Muirfield, where Phil Mickelson, maybe ransacking the last of his burning but sometimes fragile brilliance, added another prize to buttress the last days of his prime.

Maybe distracted by the weight of memory, I missed the motorway turn to the south and found myself wending slowly through the border country. At one point I stopped to smoke a cigarette above a small richly hued valley were a farmer was bringing in his herd, and wondered how he might, as he went his seamless way, look upon the writhing angst and vanities of a time-expired sportswriter.

Probably with not much more sympathy, I had to suspect, than that of the old man at the bar who a little earlier was surprised to hear that the stranger was lost and offered the sketchiest redirections. ‘Go left for south, not right,’ he said, ‘for that is the road to hell – and Glasgow.’ There was much to remember on that last drive away from the excitement of a life which for so long had been enjoyed not as a privilege but a randomly bestowed birthright.”

It’s all there and it will travel well.