Bob Westerdale: The Star's departing sports editor looks back on four decades in journalism

"It's very much the right time," says Bob Westerdale who – after more than 30 years with The Star as crime reporter, news editor and head of sport – is starting semi-retirement.

By Richard Blackledge
Saturday, 22 June, 2019, 11:17
Bob Westerdale. Picture: Chris Etchells

He is departing, he emphasises, very much on his own terms; fitting for a journalist who, for more than four decades, has beaten his own path by following his finely-tuned nose for a tale.

His has been a career virtually impossible to replicate in the regional press today, from travelling across the US and Europe chasing Sheffield stories to getting to the heart of the Hillsborough disaster by developing the kind of police contacts that would be unheard of in 2019.

Bob Westerdale in The Star newsroom in his reporting days.

For a long period he doubled up as a reporter for the Sunday Mirror, pulling in front-page leads – such as a remarkable interview with a jailed killer who had been Britain's most wanted man – and going to enormous lengths to land exclusives, on one occasion even camping out on Saddleworth Moor waiting for a heavily-guarded visit from Myra Hindley and Ian Brady.

All this before Bob switched to handling sport – as, since 2008, he has overseen The Star's valuable football writers as well as covering his beloved boxing and ice hockey himself. Not that sport is without its risks; Bob was, after all, punched in the face by snooker player Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins on two separate occasions.

But the move fulfilled his earliest ambition. Son of Bernard, a Navy veteran and textile merchant who never missed his copy of the Daily Express, and Doreen, who worked in a wartime munitions factory, Bob was born in Stretford and yearned to have the job of David Meek, then Manchester United reporter on the Manchester Evening News.

"They turned me down, which I was gutted about. I liked writing – it was something I could do whereas I can't count, I can't make anything," says Bob who, after training in Cardiff, joined the weekly Stockport Express in 1975.

"I'm not the most educated person in the world, so when the Express said 'Yes', it was an incredible thing for me at 18 to get a job in the industry I wanted. I thought to myself 'I'll get a few years in and then become David Meek'. It never worked out that way, I actually liked the news side of it more than the sport."

The Express, he thinks, had a special quality. "It's still to this day, out of the papers I've worked for, the closest to the community. They didn't bother with the posh parts, they just went after where they thought they could sell – and did, in big numbers. It had that rugged edge to it. They were fanatically proud of Stockport but saw its problems."

He draws parallels with The Star today and its Editor Nancy Fielder. "Nancy really wants to portray Sheffield in a good light but, on occasion, she doesn't veer away from showing the other side of it. And of course she stands up for her staff. That means something to me. It's not just turning up for work, cracking open your laptop, doing half a dozen stories and going home, it's attaching yourself to things that matter."

At the Express, 19-year-old Bob was sent to write features about the Army in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He remembers Crossmaglen, a town close to the Irish border, as 'a rifleman's paradise' that crackled with tension. "I did a few tours over there, and that makes you grow up quite quickly."

After Stockport he progressed to the Lancashire Evening Post in Preston, an unexpectedly newsy patch, where he produced the story he's still proudest of. Bob tracked down Noel Fellowes, an ex-policeman wrongly convicted of manslaughter, for an exclusive story proclaiming his innocence.

He subsequently wrote a book with Fellowes who went on to become a priest. This was a fruitful relationship as, through Fellowes, Bob was able to meet Frederick Joseph Sewell - an armed robber who murdered a high-ranking policeman in Blackpool - as he served a 30-year prison term. A little subterfuge was required, with Bob wearing his shirt back-to-front in a makeshift attempt to look like a fellow cleric.

"I had Sewell on my own for about half an hour," says Bob. Sewell, it transpired, had made deals on London properties while in jail, potentially making him a millionaire on release. "It became a front page lead in the Sunday Mirror, I was massively proud of that."

Back in the office, Bob was never afraid of penning the odd carefully-worded letter to a prisoner. "If you don't try anything, you won't get anything. There's that one in ten chance they'll come back to you with a great story."

Seeking a fresh opportunity, he went to The Star in 1988. "The only time I'd been to Sheffield was for football matches – I didn't know anything about it, and I didn't like it to begin with. I found it hard to settle in."

His first digs were 'a horrorhouse in Handsworth', and the 'autocratic, dictatorial' South Yorkshire Police grilled him on his first day, reciting family details 'they really shouldn't have known'.

However, by the time of the Hillsborough tragedy in April 1989, Bob had found his feet and made good enough contacts to get close to the truth about the chain of events that led to 96 Liverpool fans' deaths.

"I saw things there that I don't particularly enjoy recalling. That whole week was probably the most exhausting of my life. Stories were like confetti, including that nonsense about fans urinating on and pickpocketing the dead. I can remember that coming in, and thinking 'I've got more serious stuff to look at'. Unfortunately papers did write that and caused an enormous amount of grief to a community that didn't deserve it."

He became friends with Trevor Hicks, whose daughters died in the disaster. "It's ironic really, because he's a Liverpool fan and I'm a Manchester United fan. In sport terms we'd rip each other's eyes out."

A Star campaign focused on saving children living in sewers in Bucharest had an emotional impact, too. Truckers were persuaded to drive across Europe with building materials to construct proper homes.

"Those Star readers really put everything into helping some kids they'd never seen before and would never see again. That was just amazing. The Star had such a good rapport with its readers it could count on dozens and dozens of people to give up their holidays, and spend money, to get across to Romania."

Just before becoming news editor, Bob flew to America to research background on the nail-bombing of Eileen Caunton, from Millhouses. A scheduled court hearing was delayed but he managed to photocopy all of the case documents after charming the judge.

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He agrees he was given a surprising amount of latitude to hunt stories – but conditions applied. "I can't think they'd have let me go if I'd had a track record of not bringing the bacon home."

By comparison, Bob assumed that transferring to sport would be 'a walk in the park'.

"How wrong could I be? News never stops but the inclination is for sport to happen outside normal working hours."

There was some resistance at first, he says, to a 'news jockey' switching sides.

"They were very reserved with me, because it was sort of 'News, sport, never the twain shall meet'. But they knew I wasn't trying to change what they did."

He's avidly followed the twists and turns of the Sheffield Steelers, and as boxing correspondent has charted the heroics of city fighters Kell Brook, Charlie Edwards and Junior Witter, among others.

"I think it's a really noble sport," he says, reflecting on the bouts he's witnessed. "A young kid who's got some promise at 17 or 18, never had any breaks in his life but prepared to work hard and be disciplined - you hope they become successful, and occasionally they might even become a world champion. For me it's like no other. If you've got a good coach, that coach actually mentors your life, Brendan Ingle being the obvious example. Glyn Rhodes – there are people who would step in front of a bus for him."

He hopes to catch more games at Old Trafford in his spare time as well as seeing more of his wife, Sue, and his large family – as well as daughters Emma, Kate and Becky he has a stepdaughter, two stepsons, two grandchildren, four step-grandchildren and two dogs.

"This is a brand new life for me now where I can spend quality time with quality people. My daughters and my wife are my best friends," he says. "My best story is about who I am, in the sense that I got the most wonderful woman in the world to marry me 27 years after I split up with her."

Bob and Sue, who works for a cosmetics firm, were teenage sweethearts in Manchester but only wed in 2007 after reuniting by chance. Sue was helping her children with their homework online, researching J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels, but instead mistakenly typed 'Lord of the Rinks' – the title of a Steelers book by Bob.

"My email came up and she just wrote 'Remember me?' Of course I did. At the time I was going through a divorce, hers was on the rocks, so we decided to meet halfway in Glossop. The moment I saw her I knew there was never going to be any turning back."

Bob, aged 63, also plans to finally collect his father's Arctic Star, a medal awarded for sailing through perilous waters to Russia during World War Two.

But he's not leaving journalism completely, and will still be covering the Steelers on a freelance basis.

"I'm fortunate to be able to still do some work for The Star which I feel good about," he says, having not lost the appetite for seeing his words in print. "Digital news is quicker, cleaner and cheaper to provide but I can't work for newspapers all these years and have anything but affection for them. Long may they continue."

Waiting for Hindley and Brady

Bob Westerdale worked for The Sunday Mirror for 14 years in his home city of Manchester - in an era when national newspapers maintained well-staffed offices away from their London headquarters.

In the late 1980s, child murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady were released from jail and went back to Saddleworth Moor separately to look for the bodies of victims that had never been recovered, and the Sunday paper wanted to be first with the story.

"The trouble is, the cops would never tell you when they were coming," Bob says. "So the Sunday Mirror bought, or rented, a caravan and put it on the edge of Saddleworth Moor. An astonishing amount of revenue must have been used and it'd probably never happen now... but every day, for 24 hours, the Sunday Mirror had somebody in that caravan."

A prank developed – possibly out of boredom, as 'work' consisted of sitting in the mobile home drinking tea – whereby journalists would take it in turns to see how many moorland sheep they could round up, coax and cram into the caravan.

"It was not easy and very few people managed it," Bob remarks. "But it was a gory set of circumstances and you'd seek respite from that pressure. If Hindley and Brady were there on your shift, and you didn't get that, you'd be ripped apart."

Hindley arrived on the bleak moor wearing red gloves that were visible on photographs. "It just looked like blood on her hands. It told the story better than any words would. It became a historic thing."

Bob, who lives in Dronfield, has 'no regrets at all' about not becoming a full-time Fleet Street journalist. "I see so many people who have, and they've done alright for themselves, but they don't live in the same environment I do. I live on the edge of the Peak District in one of the most beautiful places in the country."