OBITUARY: Peter Corrigan, former Observer sports editor and acclaimed columnist

‘Everyone loved him for his generosity of spirit, compassion, and fun’. Peter Jackson looks at the career of acclaimed columnist Peter Corrigan.
OBITUARY: Peter Corrigan, former Observer sports editor and acclaimed columnist

Charlie Corrigan followed his yellow brick road out of Donegal towards the fag-end of the 19th century without a clue where it would take him, never mind his descendants.

His journey from Moville to Barry Docks during the boom that made the Welsh port the world’s biggest exporter of coal just before the Great War paved the way for another equally implausible journey, as taken by the eldest of his three grandsons long after Charlie’s death in the 1950s.

Peter Corrigan’s journalistic adventure from tea-boy to orchestrating the most stellar team of sportswriters ever housed under the same roof in Fleet Street gave him more than a few claims to fame as a reporter, raconteur, and unflinching defender of the underdog.

The species whose cause he championed with the passion of a convert’s zeal, the golfing millions busting a weekly gut in hopeless pursuit of getting round in under 100, may clutch a straw of comfort from his passing last month at the age of 80.

If there is any justice, it ought to accelerate his beatification as patron saint of the hacker.

As author of the eponymous column, Corrigan wrote about them with unwavering empathy and humour over the last 15 years, winning a cult following along the way.

“Hackers of the world unite,” he proclaimed at the launch of his column in The Independent. “Hackers are unique in sport because theirs actively encourages them to keep banging their heads against the brickwalls of their incompetence.”

His lifelong career that had rarely been short of hilarity, every step of the way from the teenaged dogsbody on the Cardiff evening paper, the South Wales Echo, to the Herald, Mail, Guardian before editing sport for the oldest Sunday in the world, The Observer.

There, in between stints as football, golf correspondent and assistant editor, he spent 10 years as sports editor, baton in hand conducting an ensemble headed by Hugh McIlvanney, supreme on football and boxing.

The venerable Scot was among more than 300 who packed All Saints’ Church to the rafters for the funeral in Penarth, a few miles along the coast from his grandfather’s el dorado in Barry. The multitude included footballers, cricketers, rugby players, old friends and new, and golfers galore, united in his magnetic memory, bore towering testament to Corrigan the human being.

Everyone loved him for his generosity of spirit, compassion, and fun, everyone except the manager of England’s most famous football team. Alf Ramsey knew all the main football writers and barely tolerated them, never mind those further down the food chain of whom the young Corrigan was one and therefore not alone in realising he was more likely to get blood out of a stone than information out of Ramsey.

Ironically, he inspired surely Corrigan’s best opening line, a single sentence of self-deprecation written to mark the England manager’s death in 1996:

‘’Sir Alf Ramsey didn’t suffer fools gladly which is why I never got on with him.’’ Classic, Corrigan. Theirs had been a non-relationship before Ramsey learnt of the press box antics at Wembley on the occasion of the most celebrated game of football ever played in England, the World Cup final against West Germany 50 years ago this very month. At the start of that season, Corrigan and his neglected band of brothers across the gamut of the British nationals would spend hours plotting how to ambush Ramsey as he left the England training ground.

“All we wanted was a bit of injury news — a groin strain would have brought tears of joy,” Corrigan wrote. “It was even worse after matches at Wembley. While the star writers were fashioning their deathless prose up in the press box, we were shivering in the draught Wembley tunnel waiting to get a quote from Alf to supply to our superiors and collect any titbit that might get us a couple of inches in the paper next morning. Eventually he would emerge, always with a discouraging look. Whatever the result, he would declare it ‘quite satisfactory’ in that deliberate, quiet and clipped tone. I remember one game that possessed very little in the way of excitement or interest but one England player whose name I’ve forgotten had been carried off. I ventured to ask what had been wrong with him.

“‘He has a cut leg,’ Alf replied.

“‘Did it need stitching?’ I asked.

“‘Yes,’ he said.

“‘How many stitches?’

“‘Why do you need to know that?’

“‘Well, if it’s two stitches, it’s minor. If it’s 22, it could be quiet serious.’

“He glared at me and, with a perfectly delivered sentence I can vividly remember to this day, said: ‘Suffice to say, the wound has been stitched.’

“Thereupon he turned abruptly on his heel. The score would have been 10 out of 10 from the elocution teacher but nought out of 10 from my fellow reporters.” Corrigan’s metaphorical stitching had been removed in good time for the World Cup final that summer. His performance late in the second half of normal time had less to do with a Welshman’s natural antipathy towards the English than a keen desire to protect his investment in a German victory.

“My stock with Sir Alf suffered further,” he wrote. “When he was advised that not only had I backed West Germany at 25-1 to win the World Cup but that when Wolfgang Weber scored the last-minute equaliser, I was the sole occupant of the British section of the press box to leap up and shout: ‘Go on, my son!’ “

I can vouch for that, because I happened to be sitting behind him. A more unusual aspect of that German team, as coached by the bald Helmut Schoen and led by another refugee from a Coots’ Convention in Uwe Seeler, prompted an unforgettable example of Corrigan’s eye for the unusual as captured in one striking sentence: ‘Not a Herr out of place.’

Golf, a growing passion from his mid-40s, remained a mystery to the very end.

“I have won the odd trophy,” he said during his final year. “But now that I’m heading towards 80, my handicap has drifted up to 28 which is the maximum.

“Ladies are allowed a maximum of 36 but it’s not worth the operation…”

As captain, chief snake, and president of Glamorganshire Golf Club near his home in Penarth, Corrigan had some unforgettable moments, notably one wintry Sunday a few years back when 72 players gathered, four to each tee, awaiting the shotgun start except the club didn’t have a shotgun.

This is how Corrigan told it. “We have the benefit of a course perched high above the Bristol Channel so I borrowed the starting cannon from the local yacht club.

“Unfortunately, this gave off a thundering bang that woke up half the town but wasn’t heard on holes 11 to 16 on the other side of the hill that bisects the course. We tried klaxon horns but the wind was always in the wrong direction. Then we hit on the idea of a flare. We bought a flare gun, a supply of red flares and at 9am sharp on Sunday morning, I fired one into the grey skies. It was seen at every tee and play started precisely on time.

“When my game was over and our foursome returned to the clubhouse, I saw a policeman flanked by two men waiting for me.

“‘Mr Corrigan?’ he asked. I admitted it and he went on: ‘May I introduce the coxswain of the Penarth Lifeboat and the coxswain of the Barry Lifeboat. They have spent all morning searching the Bristol Channel after a lady reported seeing a red distress flare at nine o’clock. I understand that you fired it…’’’

As surly old Sir Alf would have said, suffice to say he never fired another.

Peter Anthony Corrigan, born October 26, 1935, died June 16, 2016. Survived by son James (golf correspondent of the Telegraph), daughter Sally, daughter-in-law Laura and grandson, Paddy, aged 8.

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