After 45 years covering Rotherham United The Star’s Les Payne has called it a day. Martin Smith speaks to the Millers man.
‘Correct!’ The master has spoken. In tones clipped closer than his silvering stubble Les Payne’s pithy approval to a sporting quiz answer is all us amateurs require.
If Les says it’s right, it’ll be right. When Google don’t know the answer, they go to Les. But after almost a working lifetime of 45 years spent covering Rotherham United, the team he has loved all his life, Les is retiring.
The glorious finale came for 65-year-old Les at Wembley on May 25 and now he’s heading off to family, fine wines and even MORE football and cricket matches, if that’s possible.
The Millers made the wonderful gesture of naming the press room at New York Stadium after Les at his last game of the season. But they needn’t have bothered, it had been his for 30 years anyway. Always helpful and supportive of visiting and younger reporters in the press box Les, diminutive, precise, natty, knew everything about the Millers and most about their opponents and was keen to share,
But he didn’t suffer fools. A daft question would get the sideways look, as he exuded an air of disbelief that such an inquiry could ever be deemed necessary.
Then there’d be the Bond-villain belly laugh, or the wheezy chuckle and, of course, the correct answer.
Blessed with an astonishing memory and insisting on a forensic attention to detail Les also ensured fair play when the press box balti pies were being dished out.
Rawmarsh born and bred the Millers are in his bones and he’s been a football and cricket fanatic since he could walk.
Many pride themselves on their football knowledge and depth of addiction to club and game but Les Payne takes it up another three levels. Sometimes scarily so.
It’s estimated he’s watched 2,000 Rotherham United games on 146 grounds in his 45 years covering the club but such is his devotion to local football that that figure will probably be 5,000-plus all told.
His record is 123 games in 134 days. Across all levels of football from Sunday league juniors to European Cup finals Les watches them all, and will continue to do so.
“It doesn’t matter who it is I’ll go anywhere, any time any place to watch football,” says father of three and grandfather, Les, who has also covered Wednesday, United, Doncaster, Chesterfield and Barnsley for The Star. “In the late ’60s and ’70s I could name every decent player in South Yorkshire and his position, I had watched all the teams.”
And his devotion didn’t stop there. As a boy Les would create his own teams, hold a mock third round FA Cup draw in the lounge at home in Rawmarsh and sit hour after hour writing match reports on fictitous games, complete with scores, scorers, attendance figures and referees.
And he would go through all the rounds all the way to ‘Wembley’ and all written in a stack of ledgers.
Born to be a football writer Les carried on his habit of writing and has a record of every real game – professional and amateur – he has watched since 1969, all filed in a series of 45 diaries. Did he ever think such levels of devotion were unusual?
“I wanted to be a sports reporter when I was at school and used to imagine I was writing for the Green Un even back then,” said former Wath Grammar School boy Les who, surprisingly considering his devotion to sports writing, spent three years at English Steel as an office boy before taking up his calling.
“I used to spend hours night after night writing reports on the games in my fictitious FA Cup. I suppose the equivalent today are the kids who get hooked on Xbox.
“What I remember most about English Steel is talking football with the blokes in the South Machine Shop, it’s still there today.”
Les eventually got a job at the Rotherham Advertiser – sharing a desk for a while with a sport-hating young Jeremy Clarkson – and after a spell as a news reporter found his way onto the sports desk.
“The sports editor was off one day so they told me to go to Millmoor to see Tommy Docherty, then manager, because we had heard that Bobby Todd had asked for a transfer,” recalls Les of an incident in 1968.
“I went up there, dead nervous. The Doc and Jim McAnearney were sitting in the office and I asked them if the rumour was true. Docherty said: “I’ve not heard anything, have you Jim?
Jim shook his head.
“Docherty eventually said: ‘Aye he has lad, and when he comes in on Monday morning to ask if there has been any interest I’ll tell him: ‘Yes, there’s been some interest – from the Royal Oak pub! So get out there training!’ There you are son, you have your story.”
There are so many tales down the years. Like the Easter Mondays when he covered three games in a day, the time Rotherham striker Vic Halom asked Les to go easy on the team in his match report – Les refused. The day Les persuaded manager Ian Porterfield to try a certain free kick: “We tried your free-kick, Les!” beamed Porterfield after the game. “Yes, but you didn’t score did you,” chimes Les.
He’s played and refereed in the same Rotherham Association League game, took refereeing and coaching courses and would run the line on Sunday morning just to be involved in a game.
He was manager, coach and occasional player for the Horse and Jockey, Rawmarsh, in the top flight of the Meadowhall Sunday League
The pride and satisfaction he felt when then Wednesday manager Ron Atkinson asked his opinion on Shaun Goodwin, a Rotherham player he was thinking of signing.
Les’s encouragement and nurturing of a young Michael Vaughan in Vaughan’s first venture into the media when he started to write a cricket column in The Star. And of course the dream-come-true last game at Wembley.
But no matter where the game and at what level, Les’s philosophy is simple.
“You never know what you might see at a football match, that’s why we love the game.”
And it’s why we love Les. The way he crinkles his plastic cup as he talks football at the water fountain, the ‘crack’ noise he habitually makes with the corner of a sheet of paper as he walks from the printer, the pirate-ship guffaws as he holds court in the office break area and that hint of an Oliver Hardy flourish as he straightens his already immaculate tie.
All very Les, all priceless and all to be greatly missed.
The incomparable Les Payne has left his mark on this newspaper, Rotherham United and South Yorkshire sport and we are all the better for it. Enjoy your retirement Les, see you at the match.
What they say about Les
Former Millers player and manager Ronnie Moore
“Les was always fair and honest with me. Les was fantastic and his football knowledge was second to none. It’s a shame someone with his knowledge is putting their feet up now.
“His recall of Rotherham United was unbelievable. He has a brilliant memory, he could remember goals and incidents that I couldn’’t until he brought them up. It was a great gesture when they named the press room after him.”
Current Millers manager Steve Evans
“Les is someone who will be greatly missed. The man is not only intelligent, sincere and honest as the day is long but he has a great knowledge of this wonderful game of football. He is a man whom I respect and everyone at Rotherham United always knew what he wrote was balanced and fair.
“I take great pride in playing a small part in delivering him his greatest day as a Miller recently at Wembley. It was a fitting end to what was a great story in itself.”