About the series
The Thundercliffe interviews: Nigel Lowther
29 June 2004
There are many dream jobs in the world. Chief taster for Stella Artois; Kylie's buttock cleaner; test driver for Ferrari... they would all come close. For anybody with an interest in Grimsby Town and writing, however, the dream job must be football correspondent of the Grimsby Telegraph.
In recent years that title has been besmirched a little by the antics of Stuart Rowson, but in the early nineties the job was done with passion and panache by Nigel Lowther, the man who discovered Harry Haddock and the fourth subject of Tea With Thundercliffe.
Now the deputy editor of the local newspaper, Nigel invited me and my mate Christian inside the hallowed walls of DN31 for a whistle-stop tour of the building, printing press and all. He was clearly proud of his work environment, a place he has been for over 15 years.
He started as a trainee on the news desk and wrote a weekly column in the Grimsby Target about the Mariners. In 1990 – by which time Nigel's work included a weekly column in the Telegraph, 'Mariners on the Road'; you may recall the Stobarts and Wagon Wheels – came the call from above. "The editor liked my stuff and asked me: 'Do you want the Grimsby Town job?'" recalls Nigel. "I remember thinking: 'What does he want a reporter to cover a railway station for?' And then it dawned on me. For me, it was second only to putting on the shirt and playing."
Ah, yes. The Dream Job. "Being a Town fan came first," says a passionate Nige. "I was six years old, in the old Osmond stand with no segregation. I remember a real terrible defeat in Tom Casey's time but I cannot remember my first game.
"Buckley had really settled in at the stage I took over. The team in that season when we were steamrolling teams. They couldn't live with us. Cockerill and Cunnington did so much running in that midfield and I don't think they have ever been replaced." It doesn't need Sherlock Holmes to work that one out.
The Telegraph turned from broadsheet to tabloid in his first season, and Lowther was keen to embrace the change. "One of my ideas was to get a players' column in the Sports Telegraph and Buckley asked Cockers to do it. For me to talk to John like that on a weekly basis was fantastic. It wasn't ghost written, but others have been since. We just talked about the game at that time."
Nigel is very animated when talking about the early days. "I got on well with a lot of the players; some of the wives not so," he adds mysteriously. "Buckley was great with me. Hassled him every day at half ten and he came up with the goods." But wasn't he supposed to be a difficult sod? "I fell out with him over a certain story about Paul Futcher being called up for a Football League XI against an Italian league XI and he wasn't in the Town team at the time. Alan wasn't very pleased but with Arthur Mann's help, we smoothed it over. It was a sensitive story, and we had a job to do."
This did not stop Nigel from breaking stories, in a world where the internet had not yet arrived. "We broke the transfer stories mainly, but we also broke the West Brom story and I was the only journalist Buckley spoke to before he went."
The departure of Sir Alan was also the cue for Nigel to hang up his notebook and pencil. "I did it for four years. I was fortunate to report on the club when they were on the up. They were great times. It was a great job, I interviewed Gary Lineker when he was England captain and we played Spurs. I interviewed Bobby Charlton and George Best and, for once, I was stuck for words. Once I had done that I felt that I wanted a change."
Was Nigel bored with the job? "I didn't want to be a soccer writer for a long time and then look back and wonder what might have been. Soccer reporters get criticised because they might be soft on clubs, and then they might get criticised for being too hard on the club by the club. It's a difficult tightrope to walk. I don't think people appreciate how difficult it is to get that balance."
Nigel was promoted into a managerial position on the news desk and found he could still watch the Mariners from afar. "Even as deputy editor football is my number one passion. When I left the job as soccer writer, I could still show an interest in football. I was able to step back from Laws, who I didn't get on with, but I could still go and watch the team – although I don't go as much as I would like."
Nigel does go to games and in recent years has shared in everyone's disappointment. "Last season was disastrous. There was an air of inevitably about the whole thing. There was something wrong very early on. The change of manager was another disaster in a disastrous season. Standing on the terraces at Tranmere was really sad. It was a fantastic occasion; I've not experienced an away feeling since Liverpool. It was a real party, costumes, balloons. The fans were a credit to the club and the whole area and we were let down badly."
Who does he blame? "The players have got to take responsibility. When you hear stories about agents in the dressing room before the game, and after the game – which happened – whilst we were chanting for the players to come out, it's a sad state of affairs. You know, you hear stories about players not attending functions, and they have got to put something back into the town, I feel. You are never going to get that passion with players living in Sheffield and Doncaster."
Such was Nigel's anger last season he found himself on the back pages again, as he wrote an evocative piece that struck many a chord with his fellow sufferers. "I wrote a piece from the heart. I felt things needed to be said. I can step aside a little bit and I thought it was right to say it. The club were not too happy about parts of it but like everybody else I was entitled to that view."
Nigel is fervent in his support of fans having their say, and as somebody who has had many a letter published I can wholeheartedly back up this policy. "Other evening papers do not give the fans the say we do. There was some really strong stuff coming from those letters and I felt that they sat really well on the page. The fans only know so much but they are talking from a passionate perspective."
With the new season fast approaching, what does Nigel make of the new regime? "You've got to give Slade time. He's been a breath of fresh air from a PR perspective. He has got to put out a team that can give the fans the results they deserve and he has got a hell of a job on." Nigel is quick to remind us: "There is no safety net there any more. You drop out of the League and you drop into oblivion."
Would Conference status for Town have serious repercussions for the paper? "They do need each other. The club is very important to the paper and the paper is important to the club."
But with a 100,000 readership in the area, the Grimsby Telegraph could surely be doing a better job at motivating the townsfolk to support their club? "I'm convinced that given the facilities and the team on the pitch we can sustain a 12,000 average. We took 30,000 to Wembley not so long ago. It was terrible how we had 30,000 at Wembley in the May and then 3,500 for the first game of the season. That was scandalous. We should have filled the ground with season ticket holders. Why that didn't happen I don't know. There should have been a major marketing exercise. Some huge mistakes were made there. For a long time the club has not got those sort of things right."
The Telegraph has tried to help along the way, with the successful 'Up the Mariners' campaign. "That was totally Stuart Rowson's idea. He completely drove it and a lot of credit should go to Stuart for that." Why hasn't the paper done something similar since? "Last season there was never anything to cling to. To do that campaign again it has to be even better."
So what of the aforementioned Rowson? How did the ambulance story affect relations with the club? Nigel is not especially forthcoming. "It was highly unfortunate what happened and I don't really want to go over it. Mistakes were made at this end, and I think things have moved on in a positive way. I think Stuart Rowson is a very good journalist but things move on. He's now got a very good job and is doing very well for himself."
Does Lowther see himself moving? "I don't think I would go national now. I'm settled in the area and I can't see us moving to London. But you have to keep all options open. If the right opportunities come along I would love to take it. I have had a lot of luck to get where I am."
Nigel's best Town XI has some surprises but is picked for how they would play together.
The interview just breezes along, with Nigel obviously accustomed to answering searching questions. Including outside the Longship, live on Calendar. "After the presenter had been hit with the eggs I was close to the ground. They just came out of nowhere. Fortunately they aimed them at him."
Nigel is just as passionate about his music as he is journalism. "Favourite artist? Springsteen, no hesitation." He's not very modern, though, Nige. "He is modern! Have you not heard his latest album? He has been an inspiration for many, many years: school, college and my working life."
Nigel makes a cup of tea in the following order: "Tea bag, water, stew, stir, nice and strong. Milk in." He spends all of his spare time with his young family. He cites Alec Bovill as the best mayor the town has had.
And that's that. As we are about to do the photo shoot he recalls a story from those early days before he was the football correspondent of the Grimsby Telegraph.
"It was the time of the inflatable balloons at Man City. I was on the sports desk, doing a terrace report. Town were at Middlesborough in the cup and Marc North scored both goals. I noticed the odd inflatable banana and I said that the inflatable fish were on order. When we beat Reading and drew Wimbledon, somebody took me at my word."
So an idle quip in his weekly column becomes a nationwide search. "I said: 'Leave me for an hour of two and I will find some inflatable fish.' And I did. I tracked some down to this warehouse in north London. Five of us got together on the sports desk, put in £100 each to buy them, and I went down to London with this £500. I got to this warehouse which was full of blow-up dolls. It was quite a seedy place."
Nigel got them back to the north and the place went mad. "We announced they were on sale and we had queues all the way down Freeman Street. We then bought out this warehouse of inflatable fish – about 1,500 – and even sent one to Des Lynam. It was incredible how it took off. We didn't make any profit out of them. We were going to sell them outside the ground. It was terrific stuff and we did lots of interviews."
Nigle Lowther, Mariners through and through, deputy editor of the Telegraph, Springsteen fan and all-round Good Egg.
"That day at Wimbledon, apart from Wembley, was the best day supporting Town. Seven thousand fans and two thousand fish."