My Big Break: Donald Cowey, recent former sports editor, The Herald

DONALD Cowey left his post as sports editor at The Herald on Hogmanay, having occupied the position for 13 years.

Among the changes he had overseen was the introduction of a separate stand-alone sports section.

He says other highlights include Spanish language ‘wraparounds’, for the Champions League final (won by Real Madrid) and UEFA Cup final (won by Sevilla) at Hampden Park, in Glasgow, and in-depth coverage of the Commonwealth Games, also in Glasgow, last year.

He has been involved in the industry for more than 35 years, following completion of a single-year, pre-entry journalism course at the then Napier College in Edinburgh.

Says Donald: “Among my ‘partners in crime’ on the calendar-year course – it was then the only course in Scotland for those aiming to enter the industry – were Valerie Darroch, Sandra Dick, John Penman, Archie Plunkett and Stuart Somerville, all of whom have made stalwart contributions to Scottish regional and national journalism since.

“The academic year course which overlapped with the second half of the calendar-year one included sportswriting luminaries, Stephen Halliday and Lindsay Herron.”

He added, of his decision to step down, last month from The Herald: “I felt the time was right to vacate the position but I don’t not rule out working in newspapers in the weeks/months/years to come, although I am also keen to explore other possibilities.”

When did working in the media become an ambition?

It didn’t really; it more came about by default. While other options did not appeal – a place at Aberdeen University to study English and History was body-swerved at the last minute, to parents’ consternation – I couldn’t find much reason to object to journalism, hard though I tried.

I applied to what’s now called Edinburgh Napier University and, much to my surprise, secured a place.

A course packed with lectures and shorthand provided a sound foundation and I applied myself sufficiently to make good my escape with the necessary qualifications. Never did pass 100 words per minute at shorthand (in three attempts) but this proved only a contrary stumbling block as I did pass 110 and 120wpm, each at the first attempt.

What was your first ‘media job’?

Although the course was no longer able to guarantee graduates a place in a local newspaper – it had done so throughout the previous decade – I was fortunate that a vacancy occurred at the Helensburgh Advertiser, my own local paper, within a month of my having finished.

I had secured a work placement there the previous summer, though I suspect that was down to the fact I was, in those days, a reasonable tennis and table tennis player. The gruff but fatherly then editor, Donald Fullarton was himself a dab hand at both.

Describe briefly how your career has unfolded between your first media job and where you are now.

After two solid years as a trainee then junior reporter on the Advertiser, I began to focus more and more on sport, not least because the other reporters had no interest.

Soon, while keeping my hand in with news, I was doing nearly all the sport for the Advertiser and its sister paper, the County Reporter, later the Dumbarton and Vale of Leven Reporter.

Eventually, I was given a new title of sports editor of both, covering and collating acres of local, amateur sport as well as reporting on any and all developments at Dumbarton Football Club.

My timing, for once, was impeccable as it coincided with the Sons’ only season in the top flight of Scottish football, post-reorganisation in 1975; a draw at home to Celtic and one away to Rangers were highlights of a season which was to end in honourable relegation from the top ten.

I left the Advertiser/Reporter beat for a shot at an evening paper in England – such opportunities were few and far between in Scotland – and washed up at the North-West Evening Mail in Barrow-in-Furness, where I acted as deputy sports editor to another Scot, John McLellan, and had an eventful seven months before succumbing to the lure of Glasgow and the editor’s position at the Celtic View magazine.

On this occasion, my timing was less impressive: the club had won the 1989 Scottish Cup a few months before my arrival but would not secure any further mainstream silverware – does the Tennent’s Sixes not count, I hear a plaintive cry? – before my departure in January 1994, only weeks before Fergus McCann’s takeover was successful.

The lot of the freelance sub-editor was to be mine and I was fortunate to be given opportunities on the sports and features desks of the Evening Times, The Scotsman and the Edinburgh Evening News before I was offered a position on the last of those three in April 1994.

A transfer to Scotland on Sunday followed within a year and, four years later, I was appointed sports editor.

Payback for those barren years at Celtic came within the first week as I was charged with preparing a pullout to salute the league champions. The only problem? The identity of said champions would only be known at 4.50pm on the Saturday.

So, a pullout for the event of Celtic title triumph had to be prepared in parallel to one in case Rangers should claim a tenth successive championship. Only when Harald Brattbakk scored Celtic’s second late on, to secure victory against St Johnstone, could the Rangers eight-pager be abandoned.

A few months into my time as sports editor came the biggest decision of my career: I was approached to become sports editor at the soon-to-be-launched Sunday Herald.

It was a huge gamble but I took the plunge and did not have cause to regret it; it was enormously daunting to launch into the most competitive newspaper market in the world but rewarding to contribute to the first year of a new, dynamic publication which has continued to defy the prophets of doom by doing things its own way under inspired leadership.

My eagerness to dip my toe in the exciting new world that was the internet led to me being lured to, first, Teletext, and, within a year, back to Celtic, yet neither of them were ready to make a full commitment to match their ambitions back then and so the opportunity to take up the reins at The Herald proved too good to turn down.

Any particular big breaks along the way?

Yes: people being prepared to take a chance on me. I’m not great at selling myself but seem to have managed to convince some outstanding folk that I was worth a shot.

Who would you like to thank more than most?

Dozens. All those who gave me a chance and supported me – notably, Donald Fullarton, Paul Greaves, Brian Groom, Kevin McKenna, Andrew Jaspan, Mark Douglas-Home – and so many talented colleagues, including, but by no means only, Morven McKillop, Myrid Ramsay, John McLellan, Andrew Smith, Joe Sullivan, Rachel Kelly, Martin Dempster, Neil Drysdale, Kevin McCarra, Jonathan Northcroft, Graham Spiers, Paul Cuddihy, Michael Grant, David Dick, Richard Bath, Simon Cunningham, Jonathan Jobson, Stephen Sullivan, Alison McConnell, Hugh MacDonald, James Porteous, James Morgan, Martin Sheach, Gordon Stevenson, Richard Winton, Graeme Elder, Doug Gillon, Darryl Broadfoot, Douglas Lowe, Kevin Ferrie, Nick Rodger, Martin Greig, Mark Wilson, Alasdair Reid, Stewart Fisher, Graeme Macpherson, Chris Tait, Callum Baird, Richard Wilson, Jonathan Coates and Gary Keown.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started?

That, while there are so many wonderful people, and informed, authoritative writers, out there, there are plenty of ‘chancers’ too. I didn’t dare believe I was ready to work in the national press until I was around 30.

I soon found out that I could have done it years earlier. It is refreshing that, now, talented folk are taking to it like a ‘duck to water’ at a far younger age. I just hope opportunities continue to be presented to them.