Magical time in the company of a legend

THE two hours spent in the company of John Elsworthy remain the most magical in my entire time in sports journalism.

Nick Garnham

THE two hours spent in the company of John Elsworthy remain the most magical in my entire time in sports journalism.

When you consider that stretches over a quarter-of-a-century and includes interviewing many leading sports personalities, then you will understand that it is not a remark made lightly.

Interviews have included each of the 12 Ipswich Town players who won the 1978 FA Cup for the only time in the club's history, three cricketing knights - Sirs Ian Botham, Richard Hadlee and Viv Richards - former England captains Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, plus Dennis Lillee, arguably the greatest fast bowler of all.

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Equally notable interviewees include Welsh rugby legend Gareth Edwards, plus 1966 World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton and the man who masterminded England's triumph Sir Alf Ramsey, although the latter could not be quoted directly as he was under contract to a national newspaper.

However, all too often the conversations have been the result of a snatched five or 10 minutes at a promotional function or before a sporting dinner or even over the telephone, which is why I will always treasure those two hours on a dank Friday afternoon in January last year at the Elsworthy household on the outskirts of Ipswich.

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John had agreed to an interview ahead of the 50th anniversary of the greatest sporting tragedy ever - the Munich air crash on February 6, 1958.

The connection was, of course, that Elsworthy was in the Ipswich Town side that was the last team to play the Busby Babes at Old Trafford 12 days before their ill-fated venture into Europe that was to claim the lives of eight players.

His wife, Ann, greeted me at the door and was quick to point out that John, then aged 76, was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, a fact I was already aware of before my visit.

Although John repeated himself on several occasions, the legacy of his crippling disease, my patience was rewarded as over the next two hours he recalled the match in incredible detail, transporting his mind back over half-a-century as if it was the previous week.

Photographer Owen Hines, who had arrived soon after to take some pictures to accompany the article, was still present as John recalled the fourth round FA Cup tie that United eventually won 2-0 against their plucky lower division opponents in front of 53,550 spectators - the biggest crowd ever to watch an Ipswich match at that time.

Ipswich, recently promoted from the Third Division to the Second Division, gave a good account of themselves against the Busby Babes, losing to two Bobby Charlton goals, the second just five minutes from time finally ending their brave resistance.

John talked about the brilliance of Charlton, who he was in direct opposition to in midfield, getting up out of his chair to illustrate how the then youthful Sir Bobby would leave opponents standing.

Moving effortlessly sideways across the room considering his advancing years Elsworthy said: “In my day you had to be good over two yards. He would make room for himself and be gone. He had electrifying pace and you could not do anything about it.”

Owen captured the moment and the image encapsulated the essence of the day that two very special footballers came face to face.

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