A TRUE legend of the Swindon Advertiser, Alan Johnson, who spent well over half his life working in various capacities for the newspaper – from news editor and chief sub editor to sports editor – has died aged 77.

Tributes from as far as Australia, Dubai, the United States and New Zealand have poured in for the man dubbed “Swindon’s Mr Sport”.

Past and present Adver journalists have remembered with great fondness the man whose humour and compassion were aligned to an outstanding news sense and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the local sports scene.

Born in 1939, Alan, who grew up in Wantage, joined the Swindon Evening Advertiser in 1957, working as a reporter and sub editor for five years until leaving the area for family reasons.

He returned to the five editions-a-day Advertiser in 1970 as a sub editor before becoming deputy chief sub in 1972, chief sub in 1974 and news editor in 1977.

Already well known at the County Ground press box, Alan was appointed sports editor in 1990 where his comprehensive knowledge of local sports became invaluable.

Retiring in 1999, he was quickly asked back on a part-time basis – subbing, designing pages and writing with style and authority on anything from hockey to horse racing.

Known as Al or AJ to colleagues, he finally stepped down in 2008 having worked at the Adver for 43 years.

Sports editor Owen Houlihan, who first worked with Alan in 2001, said: “As a young journalist, sitting alongside him was like having a walking, talking encyclopaedia of Swindon and the surrounding area on hand.

“Alan always knew – and if he didn’t, which was rare, he knew somebody who would – that missing titbit of information from the distant past of the Swindon sport scene you were seeking.

“Alan’s decades of experience meant that when he spoke, you listened – and you always learned something.

“His knowledge, wisdom and experience, as well as the support he gave me at an early point in my career were invaluable and something I’ll always cherish.”

John O’Hara, who worked with Alan for 17 years – ten as his deputy on the sports desk – recalled: “During that time Town spent their only season (so far) in the Premiership. It was a mad time made bearable by the camaraderie of the desk led by Alan.

“A wonderful man and a good friend. When you went to work in the morning and Alan was on shift you knew that whatever disasters occurred, the day was going to be fun.”

Steve Kelly, who became an editor in Australia said: “My lasting memory of Alan is his laugh. It was loud, hearty and infectious.

“He was one of those guys who command love and respect in equal measure without seeming to be aware of it.

“He was a great mentor. I learned more from Alan about the craft of journalism than anyone else.”

Fellow former Adver reporter Jim Hatley said: “He was a gent – a news editor who used carrot rather than stick with the very odd bunch of reporters in the Adver newsroom in the early 1980s.

“We adored him and he tolerated us and got results because he knew our strengths and multiple weaknesses.”

Jim fondly recalls sitting in the Belle Vue (now Longs) listening to Alan’s stories as he sipped his rum and pep.

“He was a funny, talented and warm man who knew his patch like the back of his hand. In more than 40 years in journalism I’ve never had a better boss.”

Paul Wilenius, who worked at the Adver from 1975 to 1979, then moved to Fleet Street and later the BBC, said: “Alan Johnson was one of the best chief sub editors I have ever worked with. He was calm, professional and he had a sharp wit, but most of all he could spot a story instantly and when it came to presenting it in the paper he had the genuine flair most people envied.

“Alan was also a great bloke, and was not at all like the stereotypical highly strung and loud-mouthed newspapermen often seen in fiction. It would be hard to find anyone who had a bad word to say about him, and most of us who worked closely with him loved him dearly. He will be sorely missed.”

Dubai-based author/publisher Stewart Cruttenden remembered: “Alan was news editor when I turned up for my first day as a teenage trainee journalist in 1978.

“Today they would say he was a great motivator but in those days we saw him as a kind, enthusiastic boss who gave you all the support and encouragement you needed to do the best possible job.”

Now in the States, former Adver reporter Nick Hyman, said: “For me, Alan was the perfect news editor.

“Never panicked, always kept a cool head. I can’t recall him ever getting angry.

“He was patient, tolerant and encouraged a reporter to do his or her best whatever the circumstances.”

Former Adver sub-editor Bill Calthrop, now in New Zealand added: “A warm and kind man, Alan was deft at getting his point across… he got what he wanted very gently.”

Having fought cancer in recent years, Alan died peacefully at his home in Shellingford near Faringdon on July 3 surrounded by family. He leaves a wife Nan (Agnes) and four sons Steve, 54, Neil, 51, Alan, 47 and David, 43, ten grandchildren and a great grandchild.

Legend of the Adver sports desk

Production editor at Newsquest Oxfordshire John Carter said: “AJ was a one-of-a-kind and there was never a dull moment on the sports desk.

“I joined as a sports reporter in 1998 and one of my favourite memories was working alongside him the day the Sporting Pink was relaunched.

“We were up against it as we grappled with the system with the deadline fast approaching.”

Suddenly, some of the match report vanished from the screen and AJ went into overdrive to resurrect it.

“Somehow he managed and somehow we met our deadline.

“In the months that followed I realised that was just the way AJ liked it. He always seemed to enjoy pushing things as close to deadline as he could get away with.

“A true legend of the Adver sports desk.”     

  • Alan Johnson’s funeral will take place at Kingsdown Crematorium on Friday, July 22 at 1.30pm.