It’s the end of an era at the Peterborough Telegraph...no, actually, it’s the end of an era in Peterborough sport.
After 42 years at this newspaper, sports editor Bob French has retired. The author of the much-missed, must-read ‘French on Friday’ column, the witty, risk-taking raconteur of the much-loved PT Sports awards, the much respected Godfather (the type you’re more likely to see at a christening than a Mafia meeting) of the city’s sports coverage has gone.
He’s retired to spend more time with wife Gina, the children, the grandchildren, and most probably the landlord at the Bull, Newborough, where he will continue to fleece the locals at the Friday night poker school.
It’s been quite a career for a Peterborough man through and through, one raised in Dogsthorpe, educated at Newark Hill Primary School and Deacon’s Grammar School.
It started at the weekly Peterborough Standard in September 1974. He was a news reporter on £12 a week.
He then bettered himself by joining the Evening Telegraph as a sports reporter in February, 1977, where he went on to become sports editor in the early 1980s, a time when smoking at your desk was permitted and drinking at lunch-time was compulsory... much to Bob’s joy.
It was a dream job for Bob, a man who was a good-enough all-round sportsman to play for Peterborough Boys at football, to play on the wing for Peterborough Rugby Club first XV for six years and to win the 100m and 800m at the County Schools Athletics Championships.
One of his most prized possessions in the office was the programme for the 1969 English Schools Championships which showed him competing in the 800m final.
He finished last, but felt pride at registering as one of the top eight in the country at that distance at his age.
His pride when son Daniel (he also has a daughter, Jessica) won a Posh playing contract in the 1990s was also obvious.
In contrast, he still wears the scars of his biggest sporting disappointment, losing on his dominoes debut for the Bull in 10 minutes flat to Phil Mitcham of the Rose & Crown, Thorney.
Thankfully it didn’t put him off minority sports. His mantra as sports editor was nothing is too small or insignificant to be included in his pages. “If people care to tell us about it, we should care to print it,” Bob would say when asking the work experience lad to type out the pigeon racing results or the cribbage tables.
Most recently as one of two on the PT sports desk, he’d rather stay later, work harder and ask for extra pages than leave out a report on the World Tae Kwon Do Championships that had apparently taken place at the scout hut on Mounsteven Avenue.
Bob could mix it with the best reporters at the biggest events though.
He travelled to Maryland to report on Fen Tiger Dave ‘Boy’ Green’s efforts in a world welterweight boxing title fight against the great Sugar Ray Leonard.
He’s interviewed athletics and boxing greats like Seb Coe and Henry Cooper.
He even interviewed grumpy Geoff Capes, no friend of the press, and lived to tell the tale.
No wonder he used to regularly clean up at local media awards nights.
He has tales of his own of course...
“My career highlight has to be going to America to see Dave ‘Boy’ Green fight Sugar Ray Leonard,” Bob said. “But it wasn’t just memorable for the boxing.
“After Dave was ko’d in the third round, gunshots were heard from the back of the massive arena.
“I was sat at ringside next to Peter Wilson of the Daily Mirror and when I turned to ask him what the heck was going on he’d disappeared under the ring. So funny, but scary at the time.
“Also watching Gary De Roux win the British featherweight title against Sean Murphy was a highlight. That was an epic battle.
“And watching Borough win their first East Midlands Cup final back in 1976 when super skipper Selwyn Goss fittingly scored the crucial try was memorable.
“The biggest influence on my career was Clive Frusher my old sports editor at the Peterborough Standard. After hearing me interview Geoff Capes about smashing the European shot putt record, Clive made me ring him back because I forgot to ask him his age. I felt such a prat. Stickler for detail was Clive!
“The biggest gamble in my career was taking on a debt collector from the city council with no journalistic experience to become the ET cricket writer. Happy to say it was a gamble that paid off for me and for Alan Swann!
“Then there was getting to interview sporting legends like Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, David Duckham, Joe Frazier, Henry Cooper, Roberto Duran and Barry McGuigan (to name but a few), and producing a ‘light-hearted look at Peterborough sport’ column once a week for 20 odd years called French On Friday. Great fun and I was only sued for libel once!
“My career low was being forced to take part in the first Great Eastern Run (not sure of the date, but about 1979) because the ET were joint sponsors.
“I completed the course in a respectable 1:40 but was sick in an old lady’s front garden just past the Cock Inn at Werrington. Coco Pops all over her lawn! I was also so disappointed to be overtaken by a couple of old plodders like Mick Vincent and Dave Oxer (from what was then Hereward Sports) down Eastern Avenue.
“On reflection, Peterborough sport has been my life since I began competing at primary school over 50 years ago. To get to write about something I loved doing and later watching was perfect.
“I loved every minute of it and met some fantastic people, many of whom became great friends.
“I shall certainly miss the day-to-day involvement of it all, but will no doubt still be getting out and about to watch a bit of rugby.
“I am by no means clapped out, but the industry is heading in the wrong direction for my liking. I am a newspaper man, always have been and always will be.”
Former Peterborough Telegraph editor David Rowell said : “Bob was sports editor of the then Evening Telegraph when I edited it in the late eighties and early nineties. He already knew the local sports scene inside out and had been covering both rugby and boxing – going ringside to report on the international careers of locals Joe Bugner and Dave ‘Boy’ Green among others.
“He went on to take over the running of the desk and has been the engine room of sports reporting in Peterborough ever since.
“I can’t imagine how many hundreds of headlines he has written or countless words he has sub edited in that time.
“He was always a great one for puns – and I still recall one of his headlines during my time. Over a story about a guy called Parrot who had won motor sport honours. His headline read: ‘As slick as a parrot …’
Current Peterborough Telegraph editor Mark Edwards said: “Bob’s not only reported on the local sports scene for decades, he cares very deeply about it. He is a top professional and his enthusiasm is as great as it’s ever been.
“He is the leading figure in our sports awards – his pre-presentaton speeches are legendary – and a familiar face ringside, on touchlines, tracks and in stands across the region. Bob has been a passionate champion of sport at all levels.
“To me he has been a brilliant colleague, regular adviser and completely reliable in whatever circumstances this great and varied profession has thrown at us.
“Bob may be retiring and taking a deserved break – but I know he won’t be taking a break from watching sport and I hope his byline will still grace our pages occasionally in the years to come.”
Former editor-in-chief Alex Gordon said: “Bob was a great transfer from our rival paper at the time.
“He had the knowledge of the sporting scene across the city, he knew everyone who mattered and he had everyone’s respect.
“Bob was never afraid of hard work and could be found in the office at all hours dligently producing first class sports pages for the paper right to the day he left.
“He will be missed.”
Champion shotputter and strongman Geoff Capes and his son Lewis Capes said: “Bob has been a great help to promote all sports at all levels over the years. Thanks for all your help, you have been a great ambassador.”
Andy Moore, Peterborough Lions rugby club chairman, said: “Bob will always be remembered by me and many sporting personalities for ‘French on Friday.’
“Everyone bought the ET with trepidation at the end of the week to see if their latest mishap or sporting calamity was there for all to gloat on! Absolutely priceless! Retire In Peace.”