The death of Robert Mills at the age of 51 has left a massive gap in the lives of those who knew him, in the spectrum of sport in Yorkshire and in the columns of the Yorkshire Post.
Whether covering county or Test cricket, Robert Mills had a delightfully individualistic, occasionally even eccentric, style. He could be cutting and caustic; witty and withering; fulsome and forgiving, but never boring.
His sense of humour, written and verbal, was of the dry variety; you had to be alert to pick up his punchlines. Praise was given where it was due but he was never afraid of saying what he thought, a trait which endeared him to many and disappointed some, although he never held a trace of malice and was always quick in his earnest attempts to rebuild creaking relationships.
His contacts were many and varied, his use of them always meeting the highest standards of his profession.
His interviewing technique was wonderful to behold, a pipe at hand, a notebook, a pen and a couple of leading, always polite, questions. Then let the subject talk himself into the notebook, quickly being brought into line if he tried to escape the point of the question. The results were often magical. One interview with Brian Close, over a Yorkshire pudding filled with roast beef and gravy, remains in the memory as Robert Mills, the master at work.
His daily reports on Yorkshire cricket, his espousal of old-fashioned cricketing standards and his sense of history – as befits a classics scholar – made him essential reading for anyone interested in the county’s national sport.
For many of his colleagues, the best thing he did was the Postcard from Paradise sequence from an England tour of the West Indies. He produced these Saturday morning gems at the end of a long, hard week, with his time between matches often being spent squeezed into a tiny aeroplane along with the West Indies team, several of whom stretched well over 6ft 5ins, plus all their baggage.
Others preferred his weekly Mills on Sport column, which was born of a decision at one of those office brainstorming sessions where the thought was put forward: “We are not making the most of Mills.”
We soon did, and the impact was marvellous.
We discovered several new facets to our chief sports writer and our readers came to relish their weekly visits to the distinctive sporting world of a rare individual. He was happy to turn his talents to producing a book – Field of Dreams- on the history of Headingley Cricket Ground, which was further testimony to his varied skills, and he was a keen contributor to the football and rugby league columns of the newspaper, especially when asked to write about York City FC and York RLFC.
He was not afraid, either, to make his point when things did not suit him professionally. His disgust when the company introduced a no-smoking policy in head office left nothing to the imagination. His understanding and application of the varied electronic devices introduced in an effort to make journalism more efficient and even enjoyable were untrusting at best. But always the job was done, the deadline met and the game went on.
Until this week, Mills – still catching up on time owing from another summer on the cricket grounds of England – was due in the office. He wanted to meet the new deputy editor. He also wanted to submit his expenses and had promised to invest some of the returns over the bar while last season’s cricket and York City’s prospects were dissected.
Mills was born at his parents’ home in York in 1952 and attended Archbishop Holgate’s School in the city from 1964 to 1971, where he twice won the classics prize. He took an honours degree in classics at Bristol University and while studying there undertook a course in publishing and printing.
He listed his interests, in descending order, as cricket, soccer, rugby league and practical archaeology – adding with relish that he was a member of the British School of Archaeology in Athens. He explored a number of fields before becoming a trainee reporter on the Evening Press, York. He soon moved on to sports journalism and took over coverage of York rugby league club before moving on to the Yorkshire Evening Post in Leeds where he began feature writing as well as reporting on football and cricket.
The attraction of writing on his favourite game on a day-to-day basis proved impossible to resist when the Hull Daily Mail offered him the position of cricket correspondent in 1985. After four years on Humberside he switched to the Yorkshire Post and rapidly proved a worthy successor to David Hopps, Terry Brindle and the great JM Kilburn. Yorkshire winning the county championship in 2001 under the captaincy of his friend David Byas was the highlight of his too-brief writing career. The fact that the title was won at his beloved Scarborough made the triumph all the sweeter.
He was named Sports Writer of the Year in the Press Gazette awards in 1993 after being commended in the same category 12 months earlier.
He leaves his wife of 26 years, Angela, whom he met at Bristol University, and their three children, Francesca, 21, who is in her final year studying mathematics at Oxford University, and 19-year-old twins Alex and Lewis. Alex is studying English literature at Newcastle and Lewis theology at Plymouth.
Bill Bridge, sports editor, Yorkshire Post (©Yorkshire Post)
Bill Bridge, sports editor, Yorkshire Post