A sporting paradise lost? My favourite interview defined his success his own way
Some interviews just stick in your mind.
More often than not, it is down to the stature of the person but it can be the rapport you strike up or the significance of the topic or situation.
And then, on a rare occasion, the essence of the person surprises you, impresses you or, better still, teaches you a lesson in life.
I have been privileged to interview a number of famous footballers. There have been one-to-ones with Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, and every significant Arsenal player of the Arsene Wenger era bar one*. Outside of the beautiful game, the likes of Roger Federer, Idris Elba, Roger Daltrey and Kevin Costner stand out.
But perhaps the most impressive was Arthur Milton.
It was 2005 and Arsenal were preparing to leave Highbury. The marketing campaign was called the Final Salute and my role was to create content for the website and big screens in the stadium. As this was a historical project, we mined a rich seam of ex-players from the club’s long history, travelling thousands of motorway miles and using up a stack of favours in the process.
A camera op and I would bowl up, assemble our kit (part of which was a vast, unwieldy Final Salute branded backdrop) and rattle through their Arsenal life story in about an hour or so.
I recall interviewing David Seaman on his tennis court, David O’Leary at Aston Villa’s training ground and I have faint memories of speaking to George Graham in an outhouse somewhere. A more distinct recollection is while we sat down with Sammy Nelson in an executive box at the Clock End, unbeknownst to us, the July 7 bombings were taking place just a few miles across North London. I remember being non-plussed at my phone’s inability to obtain a signal when I turned it on afterwards.
In comparison to all those names, Arthur Milton was an Arsenal also-ran. After leaving the RAF, he made 84 appearances (21 goals) at right-half between 1951 and 1955 but had been a bit-part player in the last two seasons. He returned to Bristol, his hometown, joining City for £4,000 but soon gave up the game entirely to concentrate on his other career.
You see Milton’s main claim to fame is that he is the last man to represent England at football and cricket – the primary sports of the English winter and summer respectively. When I was growing up the odd footballer tried to supplement their meagre income between April and July by turning out for a county side. But precious few received international honours. Even cricketing demi-god Ian Botham was only a regulation centre-back at Scunthorpe.
Milton’s solitary England football cap came in 1951 after just 12 appearances for Arsenal. With typical modesty, he said later “Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews were injured. My pal Jimmy Logie was the first to tell me I'd been picked. He said I was wanted at Wembley, and they'd probably picked me as I was nearby, nearer than anyone else."
Seven years later Milton would win the first of his six Test match caps, however, his career with Gloucestershire would span 585 matches between 1948 and 1974 - a time when cricket drew healthy crowds in England.
So the person I had before me as we sat knee to knee in the genteel front room in Bristol, underneath that teetering bloody backdrop, was a multi-talented sportsman – one of only 12 people to represent England in its two major sports.
But what impressed me that day was the fact his pride and appreciation seemed entirely elsewhere.
The importance of his sporting career was not defined by the honours he had accumulated or newspaper headlines he might have commanded. On the contrary, his sense of satisfaction was not centred inwardly at all. It was about the teams of which he had been a part.
And even that was not bounded by the baubles and trinkets of victory.
Arthur Milton defined his sporting success by the friends he had made and the enjoyment they had shared.
Unlike almost every other athlete I have ever interviewed, he was not capable of talking about or really even dwelling on the winning. It really was about how he’d played the game, and, of course, whom he’d played it with.
As usual, I’d prepared questions about competitiveness, success and the glory of victory. It was the all-too-familiar groove into which the sports narrative tends to fall. Arthur sat there and shrugged most of them away offering instead “yes that was nice, but I just liked playing with my mates”.
He had clearly started participating in sport for fun and that approach never left him. The fact the standard and the crowds kept increasing was entirely immaterial.
The lasting legacy of his Arsenal career was not the title win in 1952 or the FA Cup final defeat a year earlier, it was his wife, Joan. He introduced her with a wink and said: “I married my landlord’s daughter”. I got the impression it was a well-worn line.
When Milton’s playing days were over he coached cricket at Oxford University but was reportedly sceptical of the benefits of trying to hone talent. His abilities, which extended to golf and snooker too, were all natural.
In his later years, he became a postman, again enjoying the outdoors and people he met. When he was forced to give up that he delivered newspapers, partly I recall him saying, to stay connected to his regulars.
"I loved the quiet of the early morning, looking at the stars,” he once said. “People used to say I'd missed the big money of present-day sport. I told them I was still a millionaire, out on my bike as life stirred so excitingly."
When Arthur died, just over two years after our interview, I added a personal addendum to his obituary as an insight to a sportsman I barely knew but hugely respected.
One of the problems with sports journalism is that the handful of simple narratives we employ cannot accommodate the wildly differing mentalities and motivation of those on the pitch.
We want a story, a good guy, a bad guy, a singular defining moment and a trophy. A leads to B then C ushers in a conclusive D and we can all start preparing for the open-top bus parade.
But successful athletes are a different breed using a different alphabet.
And, for me at least, Arthur Milton spoke a sporting language worthy of the highest admiration.
* Sylvain Wiltord was a very reluctant interviewee