The tormented late days in the life of journalist and broadcaster Mike Gibson provided a tragic coda to the story of a greatly talented man who lit up all areas of the media into which he strayed. Mike, a lifetime believer in the North Sydney Bears, was found dead at his home on September 23, 2015. He was 75. The many tributes that followed were heartfelt, telling of his eclectic passage through the varied halls of print, radio and television journalism. But there was a gap in the remembrances too - and it concerned Mike Gibson and rugby league. The tributes offered a gentle nod to Mike the league writer, but the over-riding focus was on his successful later years when he blossomed into a knockabout star of commercial radio and TV.
It is entirely appropriate that this MOL journal should balance the ledger in the story. My overall view of him is that he was THE great all-rounder of the modern Australian media – and that in the comparatively brief period he was a full-time league correspondent, he became something of a pioneer in the game with his crisp and colourful writing - plus developing into a breezy and expert commentator on radio and TV
Mike Gibson joined the Daily & Sunday Telegraphs in the late ‘50s, and, gravitating towards the Sports Department, became the Tele’s greyhound writer. In 1963, he took the first firm step that began his restless progress through the working years, when he paid his way to England and covered for the Tele a triumphant Kangaroo tour - one that featured what is now recognised as the finest of all `Roo teams. Four years later he would be along for the ride on the sensational Bowler Hat tour of ’1967. So it was that he covered the full stories of arguably the two most colourful Kangaroo tours in rugby league history.
Gibbo was the Daily and Sunday Telegraph’s chief rugby league writer between 1965-mid ’69, succeeding George Crawford, a devoted hand from the old school whose writing was strictly wedded to formal Tele style – i.e. simple active voice…. and plain. I chanced to be Mike’s offsider through most of that period, benefitting substantially from the ongoing Gibson Masterclass. In ’73, when he joined the Roo tour for a few weeks we were room-mates at the historic George Hotel in Huddersfield, the place where rugby league was born in 1895.
Mike became a change agent in coverage of the game with his turn of phrase and colourful words - underpinned by a particularly lively imagination. His brief years at the Tele produced some of the most stylish writing rugby league had or has ever experienced.
A genial character with a puckish sense of humour, he wrote sport with affection and freshness.
He left behind many gems – and a brief scatter of his words follow here. Typical was a famous column he penned in the ‘70s concerning the state of the injured knee of UK and Manly ace Malcolm Reilly which had dominated the league news of the time. Gibbo went right to the heart of the matter – and interviewed the knee itself ….which spoke in a thick Yorkshire accent.
Norm Tasker, who worked alongside Mike in the Tele sports-room for several years, recalls: “The tour story he wrote about the dart board at the Kangaroos pub being so worn out as to not hold the darts anymore, reflecting the boredom the tourists faced in the north of England, announced him as a writer of consummate skill.”
Mike could write hard when the occasion called for it:
“The Australians handed France the Ashes on a platter….they treated the French team as a bit of a joke and the French tour as a lark” (on the Ashes winning and misbehaving Kangaroos of 1967, dropping the ball and losing the series on the French leg)
“ New Zealand is a second rate rugby league country. We are obliging by sending a second rate team” - slamming the Australian selectors in 1969
Almost always he wrote colourfully :
“He was akin to `Captain Marvel, Superman, Brick Bradford and Batman and Robin all rolled into one” – on the flying Norths winger Ken Irvine.
In 1966, when Mighty St George stumbled at last, and lost a semi-final he called them presciently: “a legend on `lollypop’ legs. Saints 11 year reign ended the following week.
When Easts beat Parra 15-14 in final round of 1967 …Mike tagged them rugby league’s ‘Cinderella team’……the team that could not win a game last year, the team that became a bar room joke’.
There is much of it in the archives…………although…not enough
There exists a personal favourite…….reflective of both the Gibson humour and style: a telegram sent to my wife (Joy, known to friends as `Scott’) and me on the arrival of twins in 1975, when only one child was anticipated.
Mike’s words read simply: Great Scott! Two Heads are better than one.
I savour too the memory of a speech he gave at a Sportswriters dinner around 1980 in which he praised the quality of the brigade of sporting scribes, despite the sniffy view of them held by some in loftier sections of newspapers. Mike reckoned the sports blokes had the last laugh, with his affectionate view of them (an all-male domain back then) being of: “just a bunch of blokes having fun up the back of the paper.”
For sure Mike Gibson himself had plenty of fun along the way …….and all of us saddened by his death last Septembert on the cusp of yet another grand final not featuring his beloved Bears, could at least take some solace from that.
Mike was close to the great coach Jack Gibson who he interviewed humorously and brilliantly for tapes that dwell within the wonderful library of film-maker Graham McNeice. The Big Bloke could be an awkward interview subject, but he relaxed in the company of the “other Gibbo”. I suspect that Jack’s final words on the Mike and his contribution would have been simply this:
“Kid – you played strong, done fine”.