Belfast Telegraph

Obituary: Tele sport stalwart Ronnie Harper, who cued up Alex Higgins for fame

Belfast Telegraph sport stalwart Ronnie Harper dies aged 77

Ronnie Harper, who has died at the age of 77, was a long-standing member of the Belfast Telegraph sport department, one of a group of us who learned our craft at the feet of the master, Malcolm Brodie.

He went on to become a friend and confidant of many in Northern Ireland sport, including snooker world champions Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor.

Indeed, he liked to claim he had the distinction of being Higgins' first manager - and the first to sack him.

From the Shore Road in north Belfast, Ronnie joined the Telegraph sport department in the early 1960s, covering all aspects of sport from football to greyhound racing, but specialising in snooker and bowls.

He was one of the first to spot the outrageous talent of a wayward Belfast youngster called Alex Higgins and did much to promote his early career. He took Higgins under his wing, booking dates for him around the local snooker halls.

But when Ronnie arrived for one of the appearances he had arranged for Higgins, and Alex didn't, he sacked him. It was a decision he lived to regret as Higgins went on to become a two-time world champion, and Ronnie was tableside for both.

In fact, he was one of only two journalists who saw Higgins win the title for the first time, beating John Spencer in the far from salubrious setting of the British Legion Hall in Selby near Birmingham in 1972.

And he was there, too, to see Higgins regain the title 10 years later on snooker's big stage, the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, and to report on Dennis Taylor downing Steve Davis in that late night black ball fight in 1985.

Away from smokey snooker halls Ronnie loved the summer and the bowls season when he could (often) bask in the sun as he followed the Irish team and great champions like Jim Baker, David Corkhill and Margaret Johnston around the greens of Eastbourne, Bournemouth and the like.

He was a larger than life character, quick-witted, an office prankster and raconteur who was renowned for his sharp put-downs, and painfully thin to the point of being skinny.

So much so that when he decided to take up boxing, he went into the boys' club's record books as an undefeated champion - when his opponents saw how tall he was for his weight, they all withdrew.

In his journalistic adventures he volunteered to be a passenger in a racing sidecar and an apprentice jockey with one of Ireland's leading race horse trainers. All went well until he forgot to close a gate behind him and a valuable horse bolted down the road.

But no one encapsulated the spirit and camaraderie of the Telegraph sport department like Ronnie through the halcyon days of Ulster achievements on the sporting field in the Sixties to the Nineties when he revelled in the company of colleagues such as Jack Magowan, Derek Murray, Jimmy Walker and, of course, Malcolm Brodie.

Our careers ran parallel for many years to the extent that on one occasion in the early days he was called into the editor's office to be told he was getting a pay rise. "You're doing a good job Mr Hamill, keep it up." Ronnie explained he was actually Mr Harper and got a pay rise too.

He retired in 2001 but in recent times had suffered ill health before his death early yesterday.

Ronnie is survived by his wife Helen, sons Darren and Gareth, daughter Ann and the wider family circle.

Sammy Hamill

Belfast Telegraph

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