Perhaps the most remarkable character I met during my two-scores-year-and-five at the Portadown Times was Allen McClay (later Sir Allen), founder of the global phenomenon, Almac Pharmaceuticals of Seagoe.
Go to their website, dear reader, and you’ll find all the modern corporate jargon you could imagine - ‘Core Values and Mission’, ‘Corporate Videos’ and ‘Executive Teams’. But had you been with me on the day in 2002 that Almac was founded, those phrases would have been the last thing on your mind.
For some reason or other, Sir Allen put all the big Almac stories my way. He’d ring the Portadown Times personally and ask if ‘The Old Vic’ was there. And little did I know that Almac’s inauspicious beginnings would turn out to be one of my greatest scoops.
“Come on down to Seagoe,” he said. “You’ll never get another story like this. This is BIG.” Well, you didn’t defy the bold Allen. So down I went to be suitably unimpressed by his set-up – a glorified garden shed, a phone, a few desks and five employees. As well as Allen, they included the two Heathers (Stephenson, still the company secretary) and Topley (his partner and widow, now Lady Heather McClay whom he married just before he sadly died in a Philadelphia Hospital in January 2010).
He had on the wall of the shed a small plaque that proclaimed ‘ALMAC’ and suggested (nay ordered) that we place the story and picture on the front page “for this will be global”. Well, he had guided Almac’s predecessor Galen to great things, so maybe…
There was no maybe about it. Today Almac is indeed global. And – prior to his unexpected death – he made sure that ‘The Old Vic’ had the exclusive story that Almac were establishing a £100m expansion in Philadelphia. Today they employ 4,000 worldwide. From five to 4,000 inside 13 years, and we got all the original scoops! Bless him!
His death was a terrible blow. And when he and Lady Heather wed in the Philadelphia hospital ward, only one newspaper got the pictures. The PT! My wife and I sent him over a rather jocular Christmas card with a director at the turn of his final year (he loved humour) and he sent back a rather raucous one that belches out the Yuletide greeting ‘Have a Jolly Holly Christmas’. We place it on our mantelpiece every Christmas to remember a great friend and a great man.
I was invited to his belated ‘wake’, a joyous affair at the Slieve Donard Hotel (Newcastle), complete with superb jazz band and a slap-up four-course meal.
We’re proud that Galen include three of the Portadown Times tribute reports on the aforementioned website. And there’s an advert on one of them, propagating what’s coming shortly to ‘The Old Vic’ in London! I’m sure he’s pulling the strings on that one, from the great Puppet Show in the Sky!
One man, though, who didn’t rejoice at my scoops was one Gilbert (Gibby) Mackenzie, Portadown football manager who seemed to spend his life disagreeing with the stories what I wrote (to quote Little Ern). I have already, in this series, stated that I had to cover the football for two seasons, with The Gib having sent me to Coventry.
He had a great penchant for sending his best players “across the water” for trials, to the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Ipswich Town among others. And there was always a mole or 10 connected to Shamrock Park who spilled the beans to their leading local newspaper. It was often said that Gibby presided over more trials than Judge Roy Bean – the fact that he got a 10 per cent ‘cut’ of all transfers encouraged the exodus.
Anyway, the straw that broke the camel’s back in our fraught relationship was the day I rang and asked him was it true he was signing Billy Sinclair, who had vast experience with a plethora of clubs.
In fairness, Gibby never swore, but he came close that day when he bellowed – “There’s no way you could have found that out! Dinna you ever ring me again!”
Well, it was quite simple – I’d wearily rung him that Wednesday afternoon, awaiting the usual tirade, when I realised I had a crossed line between the two men! Just for the craic of it, I immediately rang the red-headed Scot with the fanatical zeal for the game (Malcolm Brodie’s famous description) for what turned out to be the last time!
I couldn’t let this column go without paying tribute to the mentor of Morton Newspapers – the great mogul, James Morton, who was fair but firm and really appreciated top-notch journalism.
I had the dubious honour of being the group’s union rep in the Morton days (with the high-sounding name of ‘Father of Chapel’ - nobody else would take it) along with pleasant Dubliner Jim Eadie who was the Irish organiser. The two Jims got on like a house on fire, relationships were amiable. Especially one day when Jim (Eadie, not Morton) effected the sacking of a photographer. Yes, the union man was the catalyst for getting rid of the employee.
Mr Morton had called me over to his boardroom in Lurgan to tell me that the journalist was launching his own freesheet in opposition to the Morton publication in his home town.
“What do think I should do?” he asked. “Show him the door,” I replied, as I made for the door.
“We’ll see what Jim Eadie thinks,” he said, reaching for the phone. He then told his namesake that he’d give the young man a month to think it over.
“You’ll do not such thing, Jim, “said Jim. “He’s not going to bring this union into disrepute.” And the budding entrepreneur left the Morton employ. I don’t know what became of the publication.
Finally, this week, my old friend and expert, assiduous court reporter Brian Courtney tells a great tale of an angry dangerous driver whose case had ended in a steep fine.
The unsuccessful defendant came into our Portadown office, steaming about his case and verbally leathered into the hapless Brian, who hurriedly flicked through his notebook to check the facts. “Ah yes,” said Brian. “Dangerous driving. Did I report it wrongly?”
“I don’t know,” said the visitor. “It’s not in the paper – and look at that careless driving case. Mine’s much more important than his. I was fined far more than him. I want it in next week.”
As Brian escorted him out, he explained as kindly as he could that if the case didn’t make the immediate paper, the law said it mustn’t be used. And to think of the number of times that the ‘guilty’ have offered (and been refused) to pay to keep their cases out…