TV legend Fred Dinenage at 80: Portsmouth St Valentine's Day Massacre peacemaker, Tiswas flans, Aston Villa trials, the Krays and unusual fan tattoos

As a left-back of blossoming repute with YMCA Royals, Fred Dinenage was urged to write to local club Aston Villa requesting a trial.

Thursday, 2nd June 2022, 6:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 2nd June 2022, 6:12 pm

The letter was sufficiently persuasive to warrant the Division Two club summoning the Birmingham Mail tea boy to their training ground to assess his talents.

Despite reared in the Villa stronghold of Sutton Coldfield, the teenager defiantly supported Birmingham City. Now he sought assistance from their fierce rivals in fulfilling his footballing ambition.

‘A couple of people told me I was doing all right in local football and could do well should I get the opportunity to play higher,’ Dinenage told The News.

‘Let’s get it into perspective, it wasn't just me on trial at Villa, but two teams of players – and first-team manager Joe Mercer was watching.

‘In the first minute of the game, a cross came into our box. Now I should have let it go out for a goal kick, but I thought “I’ll catch Mr Mercer’s eye here”.

‘I tried to hook it over my head and up the field – it would have been sensational – but instead the ball flew off my toe and became a Pele-style overhead kick into my own net. I wasn’t invited back.

‘I interviewed Joe Mercer many times after that, but, on the first occasion, I told him “You missed out on the finest left-back in English football”.

Fred Dinenage celebrates with Milan Mandaric after Pompey's First Division survival was secured in May 2001, following a 3-0 win over Barnsley. Picture: Malcolm Wells

‘To which he replied: “Son, I think you’ve chosen the right career”.’

Hambledon-based Dinenage turns 80 next week and is broadcasting royalty.

An instantly recognisable figure on our television screens since 1963, his versatility ranges from children’s TV programmes How and How 2, to presenting Meridian Tonight, ITV’s World of Sport and Murder Casebook.

He also possesses the curious distinction of sitting on Pompey’s club board as a non-executive director during two lengthy spells from 1995 until 2006.

Fred Dinenage left ITV Meridian Tonight in December 2021 following 38 years as its news anchor

It’s a Blues affiliation established in August 1956, when the 14-year-old joined his dad to watch a Fratton Park encounter with Birmingham City during a Southsea family holiday – and instantly converted.

He added: ‘I was never involved in any sackings at Pompey, although was present for Milan Mandaric’s dismissal of Alan Ball. Bally was really wanting it, to be quite honest.

‘Coming back from a 2-0 loss at Nottingham Forest, I sat with him at the front of the team coach and asked if he was all right.

‘He replied: “Not really Fred, I’ve had enough of all this now, I want to be sweeping up the leaves at the front of my house. I’d rather be in the garden.”.

Fred Dinenage laughs along with Harry Redknapp and Milan Mandaric at The News' Sports Awards in February 2004. Picture: Steve Reid

‘Two weeks later, in a meeting at Southampton’s De Vere Grand Harbour Hotel – Milan sacked him.

‘He could be difficult with managers. Under Graham Rix, we signed Japanese goalkeeper Yoshi Kawaguchi, which Milan believed was worth £1m commercially.

‘Yoshi was the loveliest lad, but not getting into the team, with Dave Beasant preferred. However, pressure was coming from sponsors in Japan.

‘Driving up together to Sheffield Wednesday in November 2001, Milan told chief executive Martin Murphy to ring Rix and tell him he had to play Yoshi.

‘Graham now admits it was a mistake to agree, he should have stood by his guns or walked. Yoshi conceded 26 seconds into his debut, but we still won 3-2.

‘Eventually Milan realised Yoshi wasn’t going to make it and asked me to accompany him in breaking the news. The keeper lived in Port Solent and hardly spoke a word of English, so we brought an interpreter along.

Fred Dinenage attending Pompey's 3-2 in over Lincoln City at Fratton Park in April 2022. Picture: Jason Brown/ProSportsImages

‘Milan told her: “Will you explain that we have the highest regard for Yoshi, but we’re going to have to sell him”. When she translated, he burst into tears.

‘It was one of the saddest days of my life, football is a brutal game at times. I put my arms around him, this could have been my son.

‘That same season, I first met Robert Prosinecki in the Pizza House Restaurant in Hilsea, he was drinking beer and chain smoking.

‘I asked Milan “Why have you brought him in?”. He said “Because Fred, he’s the greatest player you will ever see and he’s going to be amazing”.

‘And he was, the man was incredible – and always smoking, even at half-time of games.’

Dinenage’s favourite Fratton Park period was delivered by Harry Redknapp.

The ex-West Ham boss led Pompey to the First Division title in 2002-03, earning admittance into the Premier League for the first time in the club’s history.

However, Redknapp’s relationship with the club’s owner was volatile.

‘There were some huge bust-ups, massive, massive arguments,’ added Dinenage, who was given an MBE in 2010.

‘We beat Stoke at Fratton Park in November 2002 to remain top of the First Division, with a big supporters’ club event scheduled afterwards. Milan and Harry were the star speakers.

‘Except Milan was in a funny mood and had been on the white wine, which was never a good sign, it affected his temperament.

‘When Harry came into the boardroom, John Jenkins handed him a big glass of red wine, which he downed, which again was not a good sign. John got him another.

‘Sitting down with Milan, Harry said: “It’s a good win, but I need more players. I’m down to the bare bones”. Milan replied: “Well, I’m not sure some of your players have been the best buys”.

‘That was a red rag to the bull. Harry wasn't having that, and got very, very cross.

‘I don’t quite know how, but Milan’s white wine finished over Harry – while Harry’s red wine was over Milan and halfway up the boardroom wall. It was like the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.

‘Milan said “That’s it, I’m leaving, I’m selling the club” and walked out. Harry said “That’s it, I’m quitting” and also stormed off.

‘The next morning, an emotional and apologetic Milan rang, asking whether I thought Harry would return. I said “We’ll need a player, Milan”. He agreed.

‘So I called Harry. “I’m allowed anyone? I’ll have Thierry Henry then!”. Well, he never got him – instead it was a then-unknown Yakubu.’

Dinenage achieved his big break in 1963, while employed as a news reporter for the Brighton Argus, responsibilities coupled with covering non-league side Whitehawk on Saturdays.

Friend Annie Nightingale, later to become Radio 1’s first female presenter, put forward his name for new ITV children’s magazine show Three Go Round.

Dinenage was handed a seven-week contract – and 59 years later remains in television.

‘Ahead of the audition, I’d been in the pub the night before, then overslept, didn’t have a car and missed the train – so never went,’ he laughs.

‘The following Sunday, there was a knock at the front door. This guy introduced himself as Angus Wright: “I’m the producer of the show you were supposed to audition for, but you never turned up. Furthermore, you didn’t have the good manners to ring and tell me”.

‘I apologised, we went for a coffee, and he offered another audition. I got the job – and I’m still here.

‘I was once invited onto Tiswas while publicising How. They had built a World of Sport set, with Norman Collier and Lenny Henry dressed in wigs and dresses acting as the typists in the background.

‘I was to introduce it as “Welcome to the World of Sport, Tiswas is cancelled today, sorry children”, yet halfway through the spiel they put two or three flans into my face.

‘On air, I said to Chris Tarrant “You can’t do that, I’m a serious sports presenter”, to which he responded “You were mate. You were”.

‘Not everybody was amused, though. Head of ITV Sport John Bromley told me off for not treating World of Sport seriously.’

His time on Pompey’s board ended in 2006, following Sacha Gaydamak’s takeover of the Premier League club from Mandaric.

It was a deal entangled with Gaydamak’s father, Arkady, who would later be sentenced to three years in a French prison for money laundering and tax offences.

Ultimately, their involvement precipitated Pompey’s financial implosion.

Dinenage said: ‘We met Sacha and a couple of other Russians at the Portsmouth Marriott Hotel – and his people made it perfectly obvious I was no longer wanted.

‘I didn’t want to stay anyway, but still terribly sad to leave.

‘Gaydamak was a strange man, I didn’t really like him. It was all very odd and I was better off out of it. It didn’t feel right, you don’t want to get involved in anything like that.

‘For my own career, it also felt necessary to put distance between the club. No-one had ever put any pressure on me, but my governor at ITV told me “Your timing’s right” and I think it was. As things turned out, Pompey became an absolute shambles.

‘That was the only time I met Gaydamak. I didn’t like him, it was a gut instinct. Don’t forget, I worked with the Kray twins!’

From his HMP Parkhurst cell on the Isle of Wight, Reggie Kray had been touched by a Coast to Coast story focused on a Gosport girl receiving a life-changing transplant.

It prompted the notorious East End gangster to write to the presenter – Dinenage – via the TVS studios, offering to raise funds for the charity.

He ended up commissioned to write the Kray twins’ autobiography, Our Story. Published in 1988, it became a Sunday Times Top Ten best seller.

‘It took me about three years to write the Krays’ autobiography. I could only see them for an hour or two every month,’ the 79-year-old said.

‘The publisher wanted a serialisation, with three newspapers in for it – The News Of The World, The Sunday Times and The Mirror.

‘The Krays were desperate to improve their image, to create a bit of respectability, so I advised The Sunday Times. Typical Reg and Ron, they went for the money and chose The News Of The World.

‘The day before serialisation, a concerned Ronnie rang: “They are going to be sympathetic aren’t they, Fred? They’re going to treat this with respect?”.

‘I called the editor, who assured me: “Oh Fred, this will be very tasteful. Very tasteful”.

The News Of The World came out with a front page featuring the caricature of a madman with bulging eyes pulling prison bars apart with the headline “Ronnie Kray: I’m mad and gay”.

‘On the same day, after not getting the serialisation, The Sunday Mirror’s headline read “Ban this man from children’s television” – with a picture of me!’

Having served as ITV Meridian’s news anchor for 38 years, Dinenage retired in December 2021.

Upon the news, Piers Morgan Tweeted a ‘true TV news legend’, while Phillip Schofield commented ‘When you leave TV, I’m worried the whole lot’s going to crumble’.

Added Dinenage: ‘I’d rather go out on top of my game than have someone coming up to me saying “You’re looking good mate and it’s going well, but you’re 80 now”.

‘I wanted to be the one to do it – and it’s lovely. I didn’t realise I was like a mouse in a wheel, it's a nice balance now.

‘I can’t stop altogether, so I’ve carried on with my crime series and children’s TV work, while I’ve written Graham Rix’s forthcoming autobiography ‘Honest’ - and it is.

‘I’m still around. Not long ago, a chap walked up to me in Fareham town centre and said: “Hello Fred, can I show you something?”.

‘He rolled up his right trouser leg and there was a tattoo of my face, quite an old picture too, with big glasses.

‘I asked why and he replied “Well, I love Pompey and I love you”. So I said: “What does your wife think about going to bed with it every night?”.

‘He responded: “To be quite honest, she’s not very keen. She doesn't like you very much”.

‘Joe Mercer was right, I chose the right career.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Fred Dinenage pictured at Fratton Park in the 1970s
Fred Dinenage has been a mainstay of children's TV programmes How and How 2. Pictured here with co-presenters Gail McKenna and Gareth Jones.
Fred Dinenage was given an MBE by the Queen at Windsor Castle in November 2010. Picture: Lewis Whyld/PA Wire