It is difficult to find a term to describe press officer John Fennelly. ‘Larger than life’ just doesn’t quite do the big fella justice.
John has been in situ in the press office for some 16 years now, making him the longest-serving club official at the Lane. But Fenners is no blazer tangled in a web of red tape and officialdom. In fact, he is about as much a member of the blazerati as he is a card-carrying member of WeightWatchers. If you get the drift.
However, Fenners is one of a small number who could be described as ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’. The great Bill Nicholson christened him ‘Scoop’ from his reporting days. These days the rotund Mr Fennelly’s brief is to ensure that scoops are of a premium, and club news is filtered out through the proper channels.
Despite his previous predatory news instincts as one of the hack pack, Fenners keeps both his counsel and confidences. "I wouldn’t still be here now if I didn’t know when to keep my mouth shut," he once replied when pressed for a bit of inside info.
Born in Dublin, the family Fenners headed for London when John was nine. One of five children, his mother, a nurse, felt the kids would all end up on the mainland one day so she decided to head across sooner rather than later.
"We had a terrible trip from Dublin," recalled Fenners. "I’ll never forget it, she was ill and it was a trip to Liverpool and then here to London. We actually went by the ground on the train by White Hart Lane.
"Even though I played football, I didn’t know much about English teams, and I remember asking my old man ‘who plays there?’. Within a couple of years he bought me down here for a match, we were playing Burnley, I think it was 1967.
"What I do remember was I thought we were playing West Ham because it was the same strip — I was a dopey kid. All the other kids at school were West Ham supporters because I went to school in Chingford. It was around that time after the World Cup and everyone was talking about the West Ham contribution.
"Because we lived in Cheshunt I just felt I had to be a Spurs fan. You live in an area and support the local team. So although all the other kids were West Ham supporters and they were going well, Spurs trained in Cheshunt, I lived there and they were the local team.
"I started coming here regularly when I was 13 or 14 and stuck through it. That is not why I am here as press officer, but it’s a great help knowing the history and that."
Fenners first donned his reporters’ cap on leaving school, joining the sports news agency Hayters. He went on to do an apprenticeship at the Enfield Gazette before hitting the Spurs beat at the Tottenham Weekly Herald.
"That’s where the Spurs association started. They used to have a back page lead on Spurs and sometimes the front page. I joined - Harry Harris was the man there and he went off to Newcastle - and Spurs were in the second division when I took over. That’s how I built up the contacts here that bought me back years later."
He took a break from events at the Lane by switching to the news desk as news editor before accepting a post on The Evening Post and Echo in Hemel Hempstead. On rejoining Hayters, Fenners spent time on the Daily Mail and two years working on the Mail on Sunday while attached to the agency.
Meanwhile, Spurs elected to create the role of press officer and the journalist appointed lasted only a couple of weeks. Up stepped Fenners.
"Before I came here full-time, I had already launched Spurs News on their behalf through Hayters. Even while I was trying to break into newspapers on a staff basis I used to write for the programme, then I came here to work and have been here ever since.
"One of the main reasons I came here was for Irving Scholar because he was such a great character and was great to work for. Then the situation is that everything is continually changing here.
"One of the original plans was I would be the press officer and we were going to launch a basketball team. I would oversee the programme for that and for the football. That plan got bombed, Manchester United took it on and it didn’t work.
"It was then around the time when the club started to run out of money, but it was great fun working with Scholar, it really was."
Fenners originally planned that him gamekeeping stint would last for around two years before ‘Scoop’ would start digging again.
"It’s amazing how the job keeps changing enough to keep you here and then the more you’re here the less you are going to go back into the mainstream. You meet people in the press and they are under so much pressure I think ‘I’ll stay where I am’. They are under such pressure for stories that they are making stuff up and I thought ‘I don’t want that’.
So is the press officer’s brief to simply fight fires on the Fleet Street front and promote the gospel that is Tottenham Hotspur?
"It should be more a part of it, and under ENIC I think it will be. I think I’ll be doing more of that next season and less of the programme work because ENIC want to be proactive and work with the press rather than just fighting fires all the time.
So it could be safe to say that the days of opening your daily newspaper and being confronted by a cracked emblem and a screaming headline proclaiming ‘Crisis at Tottenham’ will hopefully be a thing of the past.
"I hope so, but that’s just lazy journalism. Once they get into that trend the next time a journalist writes something it’s ‘crisis club Tottenham’ and they do it again and again. Once you’re in that it’s very difficult to get out again, reporters come to matches and just follow on.
"They are not writing it because it’s true, they look at the cuttings from the week before and carry it on. Once they think they’ve got you they do hammer you."
As the appointed defender of the faith, it would be imagined that torrents of negative publicity would place intolerable pressure on the press officer.
"It didn’t in the past because basically there was an attitude here of not talking to the press to a huge extent.
"You say to yourself if you don’t need to stick your head above the parapet that why do it?
"Daniel Levy and David Buchler have come in and were surprised we weren’t more proactive with the press. So they could see why we were being hammered.
"With the help of those two — and they are two very positive things about this club — we can now liaise more with press and the Tottenham Trust, as Dave Buchler has done. We should use Daniel and David more. They are sincere honest men and they come across very well.
"We’ve got to have more of a go at it and take it more seriously. Before weren’t going to get involved if they want to write this and that.
"For that reason I thought the Media Monitor was actually a good thing at first. We could genuinely tell the fans what was really happening. But you’re not buying a player every single day, as the papers would suggest, and all we were doing was knocking it back and I think the fans enjoy the speculation - it is another aspect of supporting a football club.
"I think people don’t want to keep calling the Monitor and it’s ‘no, no, no’ all the time. I thought it would help with communicating, but there wasn’t always a lot happening and it became a negative."
In his 16 years at the Lane, Fenners has clicked glasses or crossed swords with a multitude of characters — and a few get a special mention.
"The first one I’d say would be Jurgen Klinsmann. I got on famously with him and he had an amazing sense of humour. He was a great player. You get a bit cynical in this game and players come and go but, when we signed him, I couldn’t wait for him to get started. He did a good job second time around, but it wasn’t the same — the first was brilliant.
"Going right back to the early days, people like Glenn. I’m roughly the same age as him and he came through the ranks here and got in the first team about the time I started. Hod was always welcoming and was very patient.
"Peter Taylor was a tremendous character — a great mimic and teller of jokes. I remember meeting him at Southend for a drink and he was great fun.
"There have been some good old boys over the years — Steve Perryman, Ray Clemence, Terry Yorath — loads."
Players do come and go, but the good old boy in the press office is likely to be here for some years to come.
By Richard Hubbard
The first in a series of features on the Spurs shadow squad - loyal members of staff whose accomplished performances don't see them hit the back pages. First in the spotlight is press officer and programme editor John Fennelly.