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The King and I: The man who ghost wrote Barry John’s columns

06 Feb 2024 9 minute read
Barry John, former Wales and British and Irish Lions fly-half, who has died aged 79. Photo PA/PA Wire.

Simon Thomas

They say you should never meet your heroes, but that wasn’t the case with Barry John.

I was just a bit too young to have seen him play, given he retired at the age of 27 in 1972.

But I grew up with his genius hanging in the air. There were the mesmerising clips of him in action for Wales on the Crowning Years video, there was the grainy footage of his exploits on the Lions’ triumphant tour of New Zealand in 1971 and then there was his regal title. He was dubbed The King, for heaven’s sake. That’s not your standard rugby nickname.

Ireland’s Barry McGann (no.10) tackling Gareth Edwards of Wales, with teammate Barry John to the right. Photo PA/PA Wire.

The fact he had hung up his boots so early merely added to the mystique around him.

So, when my job as a journalist first brought me into contact with him some 25 years ago, it was a somewhat surreal and daunting experience.

Rewarding

But it was to prove the beginning of probably the most rewarding working relationship of my career. Moreover, Barry was to become a good friend and, consequently, his death this week has hit hard.

I spoke to him for a wide variety of articles over the years, but it was while working with him on his weekly column for Wales on Sunday that I really got to know him.

Now I’ve ghosted columns for countless rugby folk in my time, players both past and present.

Generally, the way it works is you sit down for a chat, either before or after a match, I ask questions on assorted issues and then go away and write up the ghosted article.

It obviously differs from person to person, but usually there is a fair bit of sorting and arranging to be done, where you cherry pick the best comments and move sections around to produce a cohesive, readable whole.

But it wasn’t like that with Barry.

He would say ‘Ready?’ and away he would go.

Notes

With maybe just a couple of lines written on the back of an envelope as notes, he would be off and running.

There were times when I wouldn’t ask a single question, there was no need.

He already had the column written in his head. He would start at A and finish at Z, with barely a pause. How he did it, I still don’t know to this day.

But when he stopped talking, there the article was – ready to be published.

I hardly ever had to change a word or move anything around. It was all there in my notebook, already in its finished form. With Barry, I was a typist.

There were varying settings for our conversations.

Former Wales players Barry John (centre) and Gareth Edwards (right) enjoy the opening ceremony of the 1999 Rugby World Cup. 2024. David Jones/PA Wire.

When it came to home Wales matches, we would sit next to each other in the Principality Stadium press box.

That, in itself, was an education, as he would spot things out on the pitch before they had actually happened.

His ability to read the game, which had been so innate as a player, remained as sharp as ever,

Quite often, I would have Barry on one side and fellow columnist Graham Price on the other. That really was a case of all bases covered, while they made for a very entertaining double act!

Dictating

Then, as soon as the final whistle sounded, Barry would begin dictating his column. He didn’t like to hang about!

For away fixtures, he would come into the office and we would sit down to watch the game on TV.

That tended to be where we would do his pre-match columns as well.

His arrival in the office, with Daily Express under his arm, was one of the highlights of the week. He would always have a story to tell and he clearly enjoyed the newsroom environment.

Usually, when someone arrived at the Media Wales building, you would have to go down to reception or the security lodge to meet them and bring them upstairs.

But that was never the case with Barry. He just arrived at the sports desk unannounced, having ghosted his way through security just as he had ghosted his way through the English defence for that hip-swinging try of his in 1969. Then again, he was the King after all, so that tended to open doors!

He took his column very seriously and once a time was arranged for a chat, he was always punctual, with his words prepared as ever.

Elusive 

However, it could sometimes be tricky getting hold of him in the first place as he never owned a mobile phone. It was perhaps fitting that the most elusive of fly-halves could not be pinned down.

Yet once you left a message on his landline, you knew he would get back to you soon enough and it was always the same words when I answered the phone. “You rang” he would chime. I will really miss those calls.

The other thing with Barry was that he was very good at reading the zeitgeist, gauging the mood of the nation and knowing what tone to strike.

One example sticks out in my mind.

It was an Italy-Wales Six Nations game in Rome and we were watching it in the office.

At half-time, the Azzurri were leading by a couple of points following a really lacklustre display from Wales in the opening 40 minutes.

Barry was not a happy man.

“This is awful,” he said. “What a terrible performance. Get your pen ready!”

He was preparing himself for a no-holds barred, highly critical column, the kind of punchy, no-nonsense verdict he was always ready to deliver if the occasion demanded it.

Come the second half, however, Wales started to play and ended up running away with the game, winning by 30 odd points.

At the final whistle, I turned to Barry, he turned to me and he began dictating his column.

“Heroes all!” he declared, as his opening gambit.

I told that story at a function to mark his 25th anniversary as a Wales on Sunday columnist. Happily, he laughed!

By that point, we had got to know each other pretty well and would meet up socially a fair bit.

Tradition

It became something of a tradition on the Sunday evening after a Wales game that we would catch up for a pint at The Conway in Pontcanna to chat some more about the match and his column. He was habitually keen to know if I thought his piece had been on the money and it almost always was.

I look back on those evenings very fondly.

One other night stands out. We had arranged to meet in the Arms Park clubhouse a couple of days before a Wales-New Zealand match.

As we were chatting away for an article, in walked a group of travelling Kiwi fans. The look on their faces when they saw ‘The King’ is something I will never forget.

It made you realise just how revered he is in the land of the All Blacks as a result of his sheer brilliance on that 1971 Lions tour.

It also reminded you just what a superstar he had been in his playing days. In ‘71, he came third in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, with Princess Anne first and Jackie Stewart second.

This Is Your Life

Then a month later, he was the first rugby player to be the subject of This Is Your Life, remarkably being greeted by Eamonn Andrews and that famous red book as he came off the field at Twickenham.

He was earning a level of fame and adulation that contributed, in part, to his early retirement the following year.

The last time I spoke at length to Barry was on his 76th birthday in 2021. It was also the 50th anniversary of that historic Lions tour of New Zealand, so a fitting moment for an article.

We talked about his childhood, growing up as the son of a miner in Cefneithin, we talked about colliery accidents and his stark memories of the Aberfan disaster. With Barry, a conversation would often move far beyond rugby.

File photo dated 17-08-1971 of Barry John (foreground), one of the heroes of the 1971 British Lions rugby tour of New Zealand. Credit: PA/PA Wire.

We also chatted about the great friendships he made in the.sport.

“Gareth, Gerald and I were like the Three Musketeers – have boots, passport and we would travel anywhere.”

On the subject of the 1971 Lions tour, I asked him whether he had watched the matches back much over the years.

“Not really,” he replied. “I don’t have to, you see. I was there.”

I really should have known better!

Then there was his decision to stop playing at 27. It wasn’t an issue we broached too often and he didn’t want to speak about it at any length.

Circumstances

He left it at this: “I didn’t want to retire, but it was the circumstances. It was like three doesn’t go into two.

“People didn’t understand how you had to go to work, how you had to be fit for international rugby.

“I was getting lethargic, tired. You can’t be like that on the international stage, especially at No 10.

“You can’t be p***ing around, seemingly not interested. Oh, no, no.”

And with that, my final interview with the great man came to an end and I thanked him for his time.

I will always cherish his reply.

“There are only a handful of people I would speak to, you are near the top,” he said.

“I would have made an excuse by now that there is somebody at the door or something!”

That was Barry. One of a kind and I will miss him so much.


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Cymro Penperllenni
Cymro Penperllenni
4 months ago

Brilliant article. Diolch yn Fawr Simon

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