OBITUARY: Legendary sports editor Brian Swain's life-long love affair with Luton Town
In the days before the internet, Luton Town supporters hung on every word that was written or spoken about the club by legendary Luton News and Dunstable Gazette sports editor Brian Swain.
So Hatters fan will be extremely saddened to learn that Brian, who reported on the Town for 25 years, passed away on Sunday, April 30 at the age of 78.
Born in Luton, on May 9, 1938, his love affair with Luton Town began during the Second World War when, aged five, he drifted into Kenilworth Road for a now long-forgotten reserve match and was hooked.
Later, he even joined the St John Ambulance so that he could sit by the touchline at matches.
Brian attended Dunstable Grammar School from 1949 until 1954. He wanted to be a journalist right from the outset. There were no vacancies at the Luton News at that time, so he joined Whitbread Brewery in the town for a few months until one arose.
At that point he became a copy boy in the Readers’ department. His long-time sports desk colleague Eric Norris was already working in the department.
He became a reporter and after his indentures moved to a Manchester evening newspaper based in Bolton.
The Bolton paper closed and Brian returned to Luton as deputy chief reporter before becoming industrial correspondent.
In 1972 sports editor Eric Pugh (bylined as Chiltern) died and at Christmas of the same year Brian was appointed in his place. He said: “It was my dream job and the best Christmas present I ever had.” He also became the first LN sports editor to write under his own name.
For 25 years, Brian drove the highways of the country to report on Luton home and away, and after leaving the Luton News in 1997, he spent a further seven years as a freelance, working for a variety of national papers and at the same time becoming programme editor for the Town, unsurprisingly winning awards for his work on it.
His last home game before retirement was Luton’s 3-2 win over Sheffield Wednesday and the following week, he brought down the curtain on 1,629 domestic matches at Chesterfield, where the hosts acknowledged his service and presented him with a bottle of champagne.
Brian and his wife, Rosemary, also a former Luton News employee, left for Falmouth, the Cornish town that Brian had fallen in love with as a youngster on family holidays, to fulfil a plan to settle there.
He owned two motorbikes whilst living in Cornwall and enjoyed zooming around the Cornish lanes, recalling the pre-M1/M6 days when he’d driven up and down from Luton to Manchester.
Even in retirement, and ever the long-distance traveller, Brian would set off early from Falmouth a couple of times a year, present himself at the Rising Sun in Slip End or the now-defunct Harrow at Woodside at opening time, have a few drinks with old friends, go down to Kenilworth Road for the match, return to the pub for one final drink, set off for Cornwall and be home in time for Match of the Day.
Brian’s travels were legendary. He would use the train but mainly it would be a series of heavy-duty cars that took the strain.
His most memorable journey was when he battled through the snow to Anfield in 1987 only to find that the game was off because the Hatters’ flight from Heathrow had been grounded. An incandescent Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager at the time, kept pointing at Brian and shouting: “He managed to get here!”
The boredom of the travelling was enlivened by the company Brian kept. If the match was in the North, Brian would often meet up with the late Roger Duckworth, formerly of the Evening Post and The Sun.
But his constant companion was the late Roy Bentley, former sports news editor of The Sun and Luton Town “nut”. Over the years, he would be joined by any combination of Luton News photographer Mark Richards, deputy sports editor the late Eric Norris, Evening Post reporter the late Eric Harris, former LN deputy editor Denis O’Donoghue and press box assistant Danny Fallon.
Over the course of 25 years Brian reported faithfully and honestly on the highs and lows at Kenilworth Road – the dark days when the sale of midfielder Peter Anderson staved off bankruptcy, the acrimony over the proposed move to Milton Keynes, the plastic pitch and the ban on away fans, as well as promotion and relegation.
During this time Brian had also became the voice of Luton Town on Chiltern Radio and his most memorable moment came in 1983 when Luton had to beat Manchester City to remain in the First Division.
In those pre-internet days, Brian’s bulletins were the only way those who couldn’t attend knew what was happening. With five minutes to go Mike Vince, the studio presenter, said: “Well, we’re hearing that a goal has been scored at Maine Road and we’ll go over to Brian Swain after this record”, at which point Brian could be heard shouting in the background: “Put me on! Put me on! Put me on NOW! Luton have scored!”
A later innovation with which Brian was connected was Club Call, a premium-rate line on which Brian would update callers on Luton developments.
He cunningly spun out his intros to make sure that subscribers paid a good sum to find out the latest.
Denis O’Donoghue, who helped Brian in the press box for 25 years, said at the time of his retirement: “He is an absolute professional. In all the years I’ve been with him while he’s broadcasting and filing reports, I haven’t seen him actually write down a single word of copy!
“He dictates everything off the top of his head. And it’s all totally accurate, beautifully constructed and a pleasure to read and hear. He is a remarkable journalist who would have been a great asset to any Fleet Street newspaper, but who chose to stay with the life and club he loves. On top of that, he has a heart as big as a house.”
Another ex-colleague he made an impression on was David Renwick, who was a reporter on the Luton News in the early 70s. He used Brian’s surname as the inspiration for Victor Meldrew’s neighbour Nick Swainey in One Foot In The Grave.
John Buckledee, former editor of the Luton News, said he grew to rely very much upon Brian’s journalistic skills during the great controversy when Luton Council drew back from a long-mooted plan to allow Luton Town FC to build a new stadium on the park at Lewsey.
The angry reaction from the club’s directors was to propose moving the club, and its precious position in the football league, to the new town of Milton Keynes, where a warm welcome to Luton was being promised.
The idea caused fury in Luton and Brian, who had just wanted to be a football reporter, found himself providing regular front-page news stories from political and business sources far removed from the sports field.
But Brian was much happier covering the on-field successes of the Hatters, particularly in the more-relaxed times when players and managers were readily accessible to the media.
John remembers listening with fascination as Brian, just before press-time, made a series of telephone calls to their home numbers to make sure he’d not missed anything important.
And the background information which he assembled and stored enabled him to understand just how valuable to the club were the transfer deals of shrewd managers like David Pleat.
John said: “I never ceased to be amazed by Brian’s energy and enthusiasm. Readers perhaps didn’t realise that covering Luton Town was just part of his job.
“When Luton had a Tuesday-night game he would come into the office very early to help finalise the sports pages dealing minor-league teams, then drive up in the afternoon to somewhere like Liverpool, do a live broadcast for Chiltern Radio, phone through a report for next morning’s Luton News, and then drive back home. And he would be back in the office the next morning ready to begin again.”
Brian was a sociable man who loved his football and the company of football fans.
Once settled in Cornwall, his love of football continued and he joined the Executive Committee of Falmouth Town FC as secretary in January 2008, a position he held until April 2012.
During his time with Falmouth, he reunited with Luton Town legend Bruce Rioch, who had moved to the area, and who came in to help with the training just to keep his hand in.
Brian had been a respected local league referee in Luton, who was often told to “take your glasses off, ref!!”, and was a founder member and later vice-president of the Luton Town Supporters Club. For many years, he was also secretary of the Luton Midweek Cricket League. He was a keen trade unionist and held positions at regional level in the National Union of Journalists.
His health declined over a number of years but Brian was still determined to make one more day trip to Kenilworth Road. Sadly, it was not to be, but he was proud to be able to make the drive to Plymouth last year to see his beloved Hatters one more time.
Brian’s funeral service is at Penmount Crematorium, Newquay Road, Truro TR4 9AA on Friday, May 12, at 1pm.
What are your memories of Brian? Email [email protected]