BACK in the 1980s, a rather amusing TV series called Hold the Back Page, scripted by Stan Hey, told the story of a Fleet Street sportswriter (played by David Warner) who had moved from a broadsheet to a tabloid in order to make some money out of his profession. The series, which was critically panned – although I must admit, I really enjoyed it – portrayed sports journalists as beer-swilling opportunists living in a blokeish environment that shifted from pub to press box to wine bar. Women? They did the typing and made the coffee in this world.
During this period, the game was a male-dominated environment, but a certain Julie Welch had already made her mark as a football reporter. She is still a very active writer and her latest book, Too Marvellous for Words, an account of her time at boarding school, has just been published.
You may know Julie from her Channel 4 film, Those Glory, Glory Days, a heart-warming production based on her affection for Tottenham Hotspur and, in particular, Danny Blanchflower. From her very young days, Julie fell in love with football. “From age six, I knew I was going to be a writer, and I was also passionate about sport. I had one of those brains which could file away things like racehorse pedigrees and the line-up of FA Cup-winning sides from before the war,” she recalls.
After graduating from university, Julie secured a job as a secretary in the Observer’s sports department and in 1973, she reported on Coventry City v Tottenham Hotspur. “It caused quite a stir, which rather surprised me, but of course it was nice to get all that attention,” she says.
Needless to say, there were hurdles to overcome, such as sneering jobsworths barring the way to the press room with the warning, “girlfriends aren’t allowed in here”. “I was always aware that I had invaded what you might call a ‘male safe space’ so I didn’t throw my weight about…I could also get irritated sometimes if someone said ‘a football reporter! That’s an unusual job for a woman isn’t it?’. But most of the men were brilliant with me, Fleet Street was never really a sexist place. And the managers and players were lovely.”
Julie was a pioneer, not just in bringing diversity to a role that had very well publicised stereotypes, but also in her script for Those Glory, Glory Days. She introduced the autobiographical style that was peddled a decade later by the likes of Nick Hornby and a host of other writers who wanted to tell the story of their devotion to their team. Although she stresses the adventures in the film were “pretty much fictional”, there are aspects of the story based on real life. “When I was 12, I really did go around with three lovely Jewish girls whose families supported Spurs and I went through my teens calling myself Danny.”
The film starts with a female sports writer exiting White Hart Lane after a game and bumping into Tottenham’s legendary skipper Danny Blanchflower, then a sports writer with a Fleet Street paper. One of the endearing moments of the film is the young Julia talking to cardboard cut-outs of the Spurs team as they prepare for their double winning season, and of course, Blanchflower was her idol. “I met Danny for the first time in early September 1974, at Selhurst Park, and he really did give me a lift back to Fleet Street afterwards. It’s always difficult meeting God, but he was always brilliant to me. Incredibly talkative. A fine, fine man. Always my hero, for ever!”.
And talking of heroes, when I mentioned to Sue Webb, former editor of the Mercury and a Tottenham fan and sports writer, that I was interviewing Julie, her comment was: “My work heroine”.
It does beg the question, how many young girls have actually been influenced or inspired by Julie Welch? Certainly there are plenty of women reporting on the game today and sport in general. Amy Lawrence, for example, may be at the opposite end of North London to Tottenham in so far that she supports Arsenal, but Julie highlights her, and Louise Taylor, as reporters to admire.
I’m sure that both of these reporters will share Julie’s passion for a job that must be considered among the best around. “It was a fantastic life, being able to combine what I loved most – writing and football – and being paid to do it.”
A special thanks to Julie Welch for her time.