Not only players become legends at a football club – this gentleman was too in my humble opinion. He had an incredible life and our club would have benefited even more had he been part of it for longer.

It has been nearly two years since the clubs Public Relations Guru Dennis Signy passed away on 6th June 2012 aged 85 and I have said many times that I wished I had met him 30 years earlier. When he became involved with the club we became instant firm friends and I simply loved being in his company, no-one could tell a story like Dennis. He also had a profound influence on my humble ramblings in the programme, always available for some advice (or offering it at some ungodly hour over the phone – I smile as I type that), always encouraging and helping. He also knew he could rely on me to find out a bit of gossip, remember who scored that goal or scan a photograph and if I didn't have the info I would probably know someone who did.
This is a feature that appeared in a programme in 2008 and I apologise if it appears to be decorated with a little too much glitter but it really is very factual and I really do miss this old boy.

Reckless Meets Dennis Signy OBE

It is called ‘Signy’s Soundbites’, it used to be called “Signy Says’ and it is a news and current affairs column in the Barnet FC match programme. I wager that every instalment is read meticulously by everyone who purchases a copy. Love it or hate it, agree with it or oppose it, the gentleman who composes it is doing what he has done for the best part of 65 years in the world of journalism – reporting from the front line. Dennis Signy, a sprightly 82 years old, is the Public Relations Consultant to the Board at Barnet and I met up with him recently in his penthouse apartment in Hendon. It would be an unqualified understatement to state that he has had an extremely colourful career in the football world.

Dennis Irving Signy was born during the General Strike in July 1926. His grandparents had emigrated from Russia at the turn of the century before his mother and father settled first in Maida Vale and then later Hendon. “My dad was (pause)……let’s just say an Entrepreneur” he chuckled. Dennis attended Wessex Gardens School and then Finchley County. Hendon FC was his local football team and he was a regular visitor but his allegiance to a professional team was strangely given to Brentford. “All the lads at school were Arsenal because they were the team of the 1930’s but I rebelled against that and chose another team. Brentford was at that time the county town of Middlesex and I lived in Hendon in Middlesex. My first professional game however was at Highbury verses Portsmouth in 1935 and Arsenal won 2-0. I became a football nut – the three F’s, ‘football, fags and females’ that was my bag!”

Dennis left school at 16 and walked straight into a job at the Hendon Times newspaper. “It was during the War and chaps were being drafted into the forces. In next to no time I was one of the oldest male employees there and worked as a local cub reporter knocking on doors earning four quid a week plus whatever expenses I could wangle. I called myself a ‘fire engine chaser’”. He smiled, “You understand Reckless? Wherever a siren was heading there was always a chance of a story. One of my first duties as a Times reporter in the London Blitz early in the 1940s was to get called out to Elm Park Gardens, Hendon, following an air raid ... and tipping an incendiary bomb, from a rafter, into a bucket of water held by my editor, Barrett Newbery! I had breakfast every morning in Hendon Police Station getting to know the officers listening out for local news – robberies and scandals, I got a juicy story most mornings. On Saturdays I would become the football reporter covering Finchley, Hendon, Edgware and Barnet. That was my first association with Underhill”. Dennis was called up in 1944 and joined The Army Intelligence Corps. “14894617 Sergeant Signy believe that or not” he grinned. “I spent time in India and Austria and when I got de-mobbed I immediately rejoined the HT. This would be 1948”.
Into the 1950’s and 1960’s - Dennis began writing for all the national newspapers through an established sports agency. “That’s how it worked then and all with notebooks and pencils, no type writers. You handed the script to the sub editor and that was that. I covered football obviously, but also snooker, rugby and even bowls, you had to be an all rounder. What a thrill it was to pick up a national and see your name and story on the back page!”

Dennis eventually became freelance reporting for the News of the World with whom he had an association for some 17 years. The Times, The Mail On Sunday, The Sunday Mirror and The Sunday Express, where incidentally he was blessed with the opportunities to interview celebrities galore, were also benefactors of the Signy skills. “In 1964 I went to the USA on tour with West Ham and Kilmarnock and got very close to the Hammers lads particularly John Lyall and Ron Greenwood. I was fortunate to get to know some of the most fabulous names in the game - Sir Stanley Matthews and Sir Tom Finney who both became family friends. Finney was the better player in my opinion by the way. Sir Bobby Charlton, Billy Wright, Sir Geoff Hurst, Denis Law, George Best and of course Jimmy Greaves”.

During the 1966 World Cup campaign the England players were based at the Hendon Hall Hotel. “I lived literally across the road and spent a lot of time with them including attending the training sessions – a very privileged position to be in along with just a dozen or so other reporters but the players trusted us implicitly, felt comfortable with us. I would be drinking coffees most evenings with Jack Charlton or Bobby Moore almost socialising. The gossip and the scandals, and there were a few of those, never ever got into print otherwise I would have lost my ‘in’. It was very civilised then but nowadays there will be hundreds of press guys hanging around praying for a trashy story or a picture of a player picking his nose”.
Dennis while at QPR

In 1967 the Brentford Chairman, MP for Nottingham and indeed future Chairman of the Football League Jack Dunnett offered Dennis a job at Griffin Park. “I had reported on matches at Brentford and Queens Park Rangers so often over the years that Fleet Street came to know me as their man in West London so to speak. As the new General Manager I dealt with the player’s contracts and transfers while Billy Gray ran the team affairs. When the talk of a possible merger between Brentford and QPR originated I was in the middle of all the business negotiations. It was like playing Monopoly with real money” he siggered, sorry sniggered.

During this period Dennis was commissioned to write or ghost write scores of football books, copies of which are all neatly filed in his home office. Biographies, histories of various clubs, commentaries and year books featuring the crème de la crème of the football world, it was quite staggering to see them end to end. It is a collection of which he is justifiably proud. His volume ‘A Pictorial History of Soccer’ published in 1968 was a best seller and still fetches good money on E Bay today. “I took a fee for that and should have taken a royalty” he frowned. For his writing Dennis has used many pseudonyms over the years including David Wilson, Dennis Irving and John Bull. “I can’t remember them all now, we used them to keep the peace with the other newspapers. John Bull was chosen not by me but for my work in Scotland and seemed a bit silly bearing in mind John Bull was an obvious pioneer in the printing world and quintessentially English”.

Into the 1970’s - Signy by now had settled in Hendon with a child bride Pat – they married in 1966 and spent part of their honeymoon at the World Cup Final - and five children, Steven, Julie, Richard and twins Claire and Kathryn. He returned to the HT as Group Editor while continuing to freelance for the nationals before QPR Chairman Jim Gregory approached him with a job offer. “I have had a special relationship with Rangers as a club since the 1950’s, including writing ‘The History of Queens Park Rangers’ in 1968 and Jim hated dealing with press but he always seemed comfortable with me. Time and time again he said ‘come and work for me Dennis’ and I always politely refused. Eventually in 1985 I succumbed, mainly because I was approaching retirement age and there was no way I was going to give up my day to day involvement with football. I became Chief Executive at Loftus Road, albeit for a short time, but with a large portion of déjà vu. Almost immediately I became entangled with the much publicised merger talks between QPR and Fulham. It was fascinating to get yet another insight into that side of the football world. The union obviously didn’t happen but it was a close run thing!”

Dennis narrates; “As an Editor I was the out and about type and subsequently got involved with dozens of Barnet Borough charity organisations including helping to co-ordinate 12 Mayoral Appeals. They alone raised hundreds of thousands of pounds. One day at Mill Hill Barracks we were planting a tree on behalf of the Army Benevolent Fund of which come to think about it I might still be Chairman” he laughed. “Anyway Margaret Thatcher was present. The story goes that as she drove away she turned to her aide and said ‘I keep seeing that do-gooder Signy fellow at these events get me his CV’ and the next thing I know I was nominated for the OBE”.
Dennis with Margaret Thatcher

In June 1983 Dennis, Pat and two of the children drove into Buckingham Palace courtyard and were stopped by a Police Officer who asked for the bonnet of the car to be opened as a security measure. He continued, “As he slammed the bonnet shut the bloody number plate fell off. The Queen is supposedly the only person who can drive without registration plates but so can Signy! Anyway I took up my position in the line next to the world famous pianist Semprini who was literally shaking like a leaf, the last thing you would expect of a man who had performed in front of millions, including royalty. There I am calming him down while being told ‘Approach, then bow and don’t say anything unless she talks to you. Then back off bow again and walk out’. I have met Her Majesty three times and on each occasion she has said something to me but on each occasion I hadn’t the foggiest what she had actually said. I mumbled yes Ma’am backed away and realised I had forgotten to bow. I jumped back to complete the etiquette and promptly stumbled making myself look a complete nincompoop".

In 1993 Dennis became PR consultant to the Football League, juggling this with the position of joint Secretary of the Football Writers Association with his wife Pat. As a team they worked with the Association for some 30 years. In fact he was Chairman first in 1976 and again in 1991.
Pat and Dennis Signy 2007

As a Football League representative I got to know and admire Tony Kleanthous and his ever-increasing struggle with the new ground situation at Barnet. On that ill-fated day in May 2001 when Barnet were relegated into the Conference after being beaten by Torquay United I organised the press for the club – there were scores of reporters hounding Tony and Manager John Still as you can imagine. Normally they would have to fend off just one or two. After the game Tony was understandably distraught. I do not wish to brag and say that I was the saviour of the day but I sat down with him and offered my shoulder. We then wrote down all the current pros and cons within the football club. The cons vastly outweighed the pros as you can imagine; in fact we had no pros against about ten cons. Eventually I asked him ‘well why are you here then?’ He said ‘I want to leave Barnet in a better position than when I came here’. That ambition statement somehow seemed to swing it and he gathered the strength to carry on”.

Dennis officially retired from his duties within the Football League in May 2005 - “although I still cover for illness and holidays” - and accepted the labour of love position as PR to the Board at Underhill where he remains to this day spending perhaps three days a week in the office and at the training ground plus he attends all the home matches and most of the away fixtures. “I will always support a person who has the courage to put their money where their mouth is”. He can normally be found entertaining the visiting Directors and Corporate Guests in the Durham Suite on matchdays. He has become a staunch Barnet supporter and does not consider his work as a job. He loves working for Barnet Football Club. “I supported Brentford as a young man sure, but as writer you can show no bias, now I am free of those shackles I have chosen to support the real Bees. I have affinities with Brentford mainly through my younger brother Larry, although the situation got a little messy when I left plus I had a wonderful relationship with Ron Greenwood at Upton Park, I could easily have become a Hammer too”.

Dennis got very serious just for a moment. “I must say that I owe the ultimate debt of gratitude to current Manager Paul Fairclough as he literally saved my life”. Dennis collapsed after a reserve team fixture at Underhill while walking to his car and lost consciousness. Paul resuscitated him before putting him into the recovery position until the ambulance arrived. “I lost two minutes as my pulse went down to 27 beats. I received many get well messages and visits while in hospital from supporters, thank you all….. I now have a pacemaker!” he said tapping his chest while the smile returned to his face.

I asked him about his writing heroes and friends. “I always admired Geoffrey Green in The Times for his beautiful writing plus David Lacey. I went to Monaco representing The Daily Mail to cover Glen Hoddle’s first game and I was in direct competition to David representing the Guardian. I had an inferiority complex of going head to head with him which is was completely out of character for me. Finally Reg Drury, my dear friend, who was simply the best ‘scoop’ man I ever knew. In the football world I keep in regular contact with Dave Mackay, George Cohen, Sir Geoff Hurst and of course Jimmy Greaves”.
BBC Lifetime Achievement

Finally I asked him what was his key to success in journalism? – He pondered for a moment and then offered, “When you make a contact you must make the effort to keep that contact and gain their confidence. That is how you get the exclusives”.

There is always one last story however…………..Dennis and Pat arranged for Pele to attend a Footballer of the Year Awards Dinner at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London. The appearance was hush hush and only a handful of people knew that the great man was in the hotel. As smuggler Dennis, and Pele alighted from a lift someone was heard to say “Who is that chap with Dennis Signy?”
Dennis at home pictured during this interview

1 comment:

  1. Received a lovely E mail from Larry Signy, brother of the great man.

    I have just seen your Reckless Guide to Barnet blog's interview with Big Den - my brother Dennis Signy.

    The piece has, in fact, been doing the rounds of the family today - from Israel to Australia to various parts of North London, Herts and Surrey. We are all agreed that it has genuinely brought a soppy lump to our throats and for some reason made our eyes water. It was a superb piece.
    Larry Signy