The QT

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Sunshine, Scrabble and a risky business

As Newcastle United prepare to wrap up the club’s post-season trip Down Under, The QT’s Associate Editor, Simon Rushworth, recalls the last time the Magpies took flight at the end of a Premier League campaign

This time 24 years ago I was probably supping on a pint of pina colada, taking in the calming thrum of the steel drums and wondering whether it would be Andy Griffin or Aaron Hughes who’d be the first to conjure up a winning three-letter word (two was the norm) in the insanely competitive poolside Scrabble contest.

Newcastle United were in the final throes of their post-season trip to Trinidad and Tobago as part of the Britsoccer series.

And while Premier League rivals were already on the beach, the Magpies’ first team squad was, well… already on the beach.

But this was no holiday, you understand.

Not for them, not for me and most certainly not for Sir Bobby Robson, who even found time to wrap up the Christian Bassedas transfer over two lemonades at the hotel bar in Tobago.

This was, make no mistake, a working trip. In the working sense of the word.

Warren Barton (with back to camera) briefs the United squad on the application of suncream

It just so happened that most of my work that week took place under the late summer Caribbean sun and the office — in my case — was a well-padded lounger adjacent to the pool at the magnificent Mount Irvine Bay hotel complex.

It beat a dreary desk in the corner of a Bigg Market carbuncle by some considerable distance. 

But it gets better.

There was no mobile phone reception, I couldn’t plug my laptop into the mains and the fax machine was only turned on once a day, around mid-morning. Internet? I’m not sure it had even been invented by then. Truthfully, it was sheer bliss.

However, in return for taking on this arduous assignment I had promised my sports editor one comprehensive column and at least two page leads every day. Each morning, after breakfast, I’d politely ask reception for four sheets of plain A4 paper and hand write my copy for the following day’s Journal.

Newcastle’s bench (literally) at the Roxborough Stadium in Tobago

After that I’d add it to the top of the small pile of documents to be faxed from the hotel and cross my fingers it would all work out. I’d explained the concept of deadlines to Joyce on reception several times but this was the Caribbean. The wonderful people of Tobago are so laid back they’re almost unconscious.

So I only knew, for certain, that the system was working when I was flicking through the pages of the Trinidad Guardian and noticed my match report from two days earlier had been reproduced word for word in the local rag. 

The original, hand written piece had been faxed to Tyneside and a photocopy of the Journal back page faxed all the way back again.

Latest news, T&T style.

In fact, I think it was while I was over there that the Trinidad Guardian exclusively revealed that Margaret Thatcher had stepped down as prime minister, Bros were celebrating their first number one single and Alan Shearer had signed for his hometown club in a record breaking £15m deal.

Sir Bobby celebrates a goal at United’s Trinidadian training base

On that note, my big pal, Big Al, didn’t board the plane for the West Indies. 

It’s a shame, really, as I’d imagined us bonding over a game of head tennis and a couple of bottles of the local Carib lager, before putting to bed some of the minor disagreements that had hitherto dogged our occasionally fractious working relationship.

Alas, Al was preparing to link up with England ahead of Euro 2000. But his best mate Rob Lee quickly emerged as the life and soul of the touring party and he was joined by an array of first team stars including Nobby Solano, Shay Given, Steve Howey and Warren Barton.

Now it’s fair to say that not all of Sir Bobby’s players had entirely bought into the radical concept of a post-season tour when they’d long since promised their wives and girlfriends that they’d be jetting off to Florida, Vegas or the Maldives in May.

But for youngsters like Paul Robinson, Stuart Green, Jamie McClen and Brian Kerr this was like getting paid for going on a lads’ holiday.

From left: Jamie McClen, Steve Howey, Shay Given and Paul Robinson enjoying a night out at Tobago’s famous rain forest restaurant

Except, of course, it wasn’t a holiday. Not for them, not for me and most certainly not for chairman Freddy Shepherd. He was here to conduct business, do deals and establish long-standing links with the likes of Jack Warner…

Freddy, to be fair, had played a blinder as far as I was concerned.

He’d arranged this trip at a time when my good friend and rival Alan Oliver — of the Evening Chronicle — was, himself, on holiday. An actual holiday — nothing like this working trip.

Consequently, I was the only print journalist on the Caribbean tour and I had a free run at Sir Bobby, his players and the staff. Honestly, they must have been over the moon and especially when I was upgraded from The Old Donkey Cart Inn (I’m not even making this up) to their swanky pad at the Mount Irvine Bay.

Given I’d only been in post on The Journal for a matter of months this was an invaluable opportunity to cultivate fresh contacts, nurture existing relationships and watch a man with four fingers and one eye explain to Scotland striker Kevin Gallagher that cutting the tops off coconuts was a job for life.

United line up ahead of the club’s second clash of 2000’s Caribbean tour

That memorable encounter was one of many moments of TV gold featured in the cult ITV documentary Goals To Trinidad. The only other journalist to cover Newcastle United’s 2000 tour was Ian Payne and it was largely thanks to my favourite Tyne Tees presenter (after Amy Lea) that I was able to populate the daily Caribbean Diary with a number of ‘offbeat’ entries.

On reflection, I gained an invaluable insight into broadcast journalism and the art of presenting to camera on that trip. I also learnt bits and bobs from Ian.

What I did learn from the North East’s most famous Ipswich Town fan was that there’s no better man to have watching your back when you’re suddenly bundled into the back of a car by four burly, intoxicated locals and told to hand over a wedge of hard cash before you can even think about phoning home.

As regular readers of Off The Record (thanks to Steve at The QT and my old English teacher) will realise, journalism can be a pretty hairy profession at times. 

One day, once his legal team agrees, I’ll tell the harrowing story of how The Daily Telegraph’s Luke Edwards was held to ransom by a Bosnian mafia boss.

Or I’ll lift the lid on the dangers of drinking illegal Ukrainian moonshine in the back streets of Kyiv. And don’t get me started on being assaulted by a former England manager up against the wall at Elland Road.

The Roxborough Stadium steel band — featuring The QT’s Steve Jackson (second from right)

On this occasion, I took my life into my hands in Scarborough’s ‘hood’. But needs must when The Journal deadline is mere minutes away: back then I’d rather have taken a trip into Tobago’s suburban underworld than faced the wrath of my pocket rocket sports editor.

Ian and I had been covering the second of two exhibition games on the tour — a regulation 4-2 victory for the visitors at the Roxborough Stadium in the island’s capital of Scarborough. Dwight Yorke’s manor, no less.

Once again I had no mobile reception. The organiser of United’s trip suggested I spoke to Mr Shepherd as his state-of-the-art mobile device apparently supported overseas calls — even in the dead zone that was Tobago.

With renewed optimism I approached Newcastle’s chairman, explained the situation and was surprised at how quick he was to hand over the phone. It was only a few seconds later that he added ‘you can have the phone but just so you know, the battery’s flat’.

Freddy and his pals in the VIP section (a row of garden chairs, neatly aligned) found it hilarious. I, on the other hand, was back to square one.

Newcastle United were a big draw at Scarborough’s Roxborough Stadium

“Have a word with my brother,” said one of the locals who’d been following the tour. “He works for the club here and runs the bar.”

At half-time I fought my way through the well-oiled crowds in carnival mood and found the chap in question. Delroy, Dwayne, DeMarcus? It began with a ‘D’ but I can’t quite remember. To be fair, six Caribs in, neither could he.

Anyway, he told me that if I met him in the same spot immediately after the full-time whistle then he and his pals would drive me up the road and let me use his mother’s home phone to ring back the copy. For cash.

He also pointed out that he’d have ‘had a few by then but would do his best to remember me’. Turns out Delroy/Dwayne/DeMarcus drank almost as much as he served on a match day.

Perhaps it was the heat. Or perhaps it was the thought of missing the deadline and incurring the wrath of my demanding boss — either way, this all seemed like the best idea in the world, ever. 

Sir Bobby and Mick Wardsworth enjoying some down time on Newcastle’s end of season tour

How else was I going to get the match report filed? The hotel fax machine had been switched off hours ago and, anyway, I was miles away from the Mount Irvine. 

Now, when I look back on the decision I made that evening it probably wasn’t one of my wisest. Essentially, I’d agreed to get into a car with some blokes I’d never met, in a town I didn’t know, with a wallet full of Trinidadian dollars and no means of contacting anyone. I didn’t even know where the bartender’s mother lived. But this was the laid-back island of Tobago. What could possibly go wrong?

The only person who had a clue what I was about to do was Ian. He promised he wouldn’t leave until I was safely delivered back to the Roxborough Stadium. But I had my doubts: by now Ian had become friends with the captivating British actress Haydn Gwynne — taking a break from Peak Practice and holidaying with her family. 

Ian was super excited about his new best pal — and the fact that Sir Bobby had introduced him as a second half substitute, wearing Nobby Solano’s boots — and I felt he could take his eye off the ball at any moment.

Even so, I met my driver at the designated point and we drove a few miles up the hill to the bartender’s mother’s house, as arranged. So far, so incredibly lucky. I showed the bar tender’s mother my cash and her eyes lit up. She offered me a fresh Trini roti filled with curried chicken. But time was of the essence. I had to file. And now!

The Newcastle United itinerary in May 2000

It took me a moment or two before I heard the calming tones of Sandy the copytaker. I told him where I was — vaguely — just in case he was the last ever person to hear my voice. He said it would be a shame if the worst did happen, as he’d always liked me.

The bartender’s mother’s telephone was on a tiny table next to the wall. I faced the wall and tried to talk in relatively hushed tones. I suspected some of my comments relating to the Tobago XI’s back four wouldn’t go down too well — and I was right.

As I went on to describe the defensive disarray leading up to United’s third, I heard a collective groan and a sudden burst of chatter behind me. When I’d entered the room there was me, my driver and the bartender’s mother.

As I turned around to see what all the fuss was about, I realised 40-50 ‘friends and neighbours’ had packed into the tiny front room as I’d been relaying the first few pars to Sandy. Turns out they’d been invited for a few drinks and for the chance to listen to an English sports reporter ‘telling a tale’.

Warren Barton working with young offenders in Trinidad

The next five minutes were incredibly uncomfortable. “Given pulled off a remarkable save to prevent Tobago’s third. Point. New par. But United were never truly in danger against the part-time hosts. Point. New par.” 

The crowd was hanging on every word, every point and every new par. By now it was dark. I was already worried about getting back to the Roxborough Stadium and wondering whether Ian had remembered he was waiting for me. The last thing I needed was an angry mob chasing me down the street after criticising the cream of the island’s footballers.

I put the phone down on Sandy, paid the bartender’s mother her agreed fee, accepted a curried chicken roti (it seemed polite) for the walk back down the hill and hoped I’d see Ian’s smiley face somewhere along the road.

For a while I felt like a walking tumbleweed. People were actually opening their front doors and standing on their porches, gazing, mouths wide open, at the sight of a skinny white bloke with a Kangol bucket hat and man bag scuttling through the streets of Scarborough, following the lights of the local football stadium.

When I say scuttling, I may well have broken out into a jog. By now I was desperate to see Ian and the Tyne Tees boys — I’d attracted a crew of hooded youths on BMX bikes who were following me every step of the way.

Then I saw it. The stadium. Deserted but still illuminated and with one tiny minibus, headlights on, tucked away in the corner of the car park. Ian hadn’t gone off with Haydn Gwynne, after all. 

“Good night,” he asked me. “It is now,” I replied. And we motored back to Mount Irvine Bay. 

The next morning I was back to watching Griffin and Hughes battle it out for the poolside Scrabble title. “Five letters,” said Aaron. He’d started to hit his stride after eight days. “Risky. R.I.S.K.Y.” If only he knew. But in this game, you risk everything to hit a deadline.


Leave a Comment


We want to hear what you think of The QT – especially if it’s good!


Is there something you think we should know or investigate?


It’s all you need to know.

Sign up for our free Newsletter

Scroll to Top