Award winning Star writer leaves after 22 years

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
Have your say

Interviewing someone who is coolly dissecting a piece of ​mackerel​ for lunch is not a usual circumstance.

But then again, Martin Smith is not your average person and, as he prepares to say farewell to The Star after almost 23 years at York Street, he’ll be remembered as someone truly extraordinary.

Martin Smith'Head

Martin Smith'Head

You may have read Martin’s work over the years and occasionally wondered about the person behind it.

What kind of writer can turn the mundane into genius, complicated business into prose ​to be​ understood by the masses or encapsulate a frantic sporting encounter into several powerful, on-the-money paragraphs?

The trick is in the living, not the writing.

Martin left school with no qualifications to his name but now walks around with a Masters degree in Critical Theory.

He’s a man who has laboured on building sites and as a sheet metal worker but creates little masterpieces every time his fingers go near a keyboard.

He strikes you as a local sort of fellow; content to live in the same county where he was born, but he’s married to Karen, a woman he met​ while living ​ in the cosmopolitan melting pot that is San Francisco.

Friends, colleagues, subjects of his features and people who have been all three (of which this writer would like to count himself amongst) will universally describe him as a ‘top man’.

The Top Man.

He is so good at what he does - the stack of awards we’ll come to later is testament to that - there’s no point trying to be like him; just watch, listen and learn. That’ll be the task for a lucky group of students who will find Mr Smith standing before them at Sheffield Hallam University next semester.

Leaving The Star isn’t the end of Martin’s involvement in journalism, and maybe he’ll have an even bigger impact in training the next generation of writers. But like the virtuoso football player, I don’t know, someone like Martin’s hero Denis Law, who becomes a manager and has to pass on his genius to a squad that may not possess his natural talent, how will he do that?

The ​mackerel​ gets brief respite as he considers an answer: “I think subjects like ​media l​aw and investigative skills are fairly self explanatory. When it comes to the writing, though, there’s no point saying how I do it because everyone is different. Everyone sees a story different​ly​.

“I’ll have to look at what the students have written and give them pointers on how I would have approached it​ or how they might do it slightly differently, but still in their own style​.”

Warming to his theme now: “The great thing about being a journalist is how it lets you get behind a story - maybe we don’t get as much time as we did - but I always like to look at things from a different angle.

“If everyone is standing over there, I’ll go someone else and get a different perspective.

“Yes, the industry has changed and you have to get news out there quicker but if you’re good at what you do you’ll still get the story first.

“There’s still a place for the considered piece, rather than a rushed job – even with all the information that’s out there and the various channels it is available to us. There’s more to life than tweets.”

Martin delivers the final line not as someone from the ‘old school’ belittling the new, but as someone who has always seen the bigger picture.

From work placement at the Chad in Mansfield through to a first job as a trainee on the Worksop Guardian, Martin’s writing always stood out.

A year at Sheffield-based news agency Whites, where boss Graham Boon said they sprinkled a young Smith with sawdust rather than stardust to give him his final grounding, before a move to The Star’s subbing desk.

Fellow Manchester United fan Bob Westerdale, now The Star’s Sports Editor, recognised that Martin was wasted in a position where he wasn’t expected to write.

“Bob told the then editor Peter Charlton that I was the best​ ​​reporter in the building,​ which was very generous of him,​” said Martin.

“I was given a trial on the news desk as a reporter and went on from there.”

Martin become the first editor of the paper’s popular Action Desk before roles as chief reporter and assistant news editor led to him being named sports editor in 1998.

Seven years later an itch to do something different developed, literally, into a pain.

“I’d been at the gym and felt a pain in my arm,” he said.

“It didn’t feel serious but I decided to go to the hospital and when the tests came back they said I’d had a heart attack.

“I’​ve never been ill ​with it ​before or since so I really don’t know what caused it - I keep expecting to be contacted​ and told​ they’ve developed a new test and they’ll tell me I didn’t actually have a heart attack.”

Moving away from sport, Martin became The Star’s writer in chief, which has led to the position he’ll vacate today - Features Editor.

Given the freedom to write, Martin began to win even more awards - ​‘​more gongs than Ryan Giggs’​, as he ​jokingly says.

Twelve major titles in all including Yorkshire Journalist of the Year in 2010 and three Regional Sports Writer of the Year trophies from the Sports Journalism Association in 2003, 2005 and 2010.

His work around Milan Mandaric’s takeover of Sheffield Wednesday was particularly exceptional.

The man can write - that much is perfectly clear.

It’s a question often thrown at politicians rather than journalists, but did having a life before entering the trade make him the writer he became?

“It might have,” he said. “I know that when I was knocking on a door on the Manor it helped to have had a bit of experience behind me.

“You understand people a bit more and know what they go through.”

For someone who left school at 16 with not much more than an education in​​ ‘smoking, football and little else’ he’s not done badly.

With three grown-up children: Hannah, 30, is a child counsellor, Ellen, 25, a vet​ nurse​, and Joe, 21, a student studying Internet ​and ​Media Technology​ at Salford University​ - teaching students should pose no problems for Martin.

Star readers can be reassured that he’ll be carrying on his weekly sports column and food reviews. “I really like the food reviews,” he said. “Whenever I write a feature I try and ​describe​ the ​occasion​ for the reader so they can see what I see.

“Food reviews are perfect for doing that. You can really tell a story.”

And with that the ​mackerel​ is finished off (I can’t wait to read that review), the fork placed neatly down on the plate and the best newspaper writer most of us will ever work with departs for his next challenge.