A legend has gone
Hugh McIlvanney OBE – sports writer extraordinaire.
Born, Kilmarnock: 2 February, 1934
Died, London: 24 January, 2019, aged 84
By Matt Vallance
In Ayrshire, 25 January, 2019 is as good a day as any to reflect on the life of a giant of literature – Hugh McIlvanney, who died last night.
McIlvanney was a unique talent, the only sports writer ever to be named Journalist of the Year, a man who, for over half a century was at the peak of his craft in describing sport, that religion of the masses.
Yet, he himself would point-out, he wasn’t even the best writer in his family, giving primacy to his late younger brother Willie, one of Scotland’s greatest novelists. The McIlvanneys were born in Riccarton, which locals will tell you is the true heart of Kilmarnock. Hughie shone at Kilmarnock Academy, leaving to begin his long career in journalism as a trainee reporter with the local paper, the Kilmarnock Standard.
From there, by now a news reporter who worked in the Ayr office of the Scottish Daily Express, he moved on for a short spell in their Glasgow office, before heading along the A8 to North Bridge and the impressive offices of The Scotsman.
It was here that he became a sports writer, and a very good one. His report on the legendary real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfort European Cup Final of 1960, a “runner” – that is, a series of short paragraphs, dictated down the telephone to a copy-taker in the office while the game is in progress is often held-up as one of the finest examples of this now lost art.
His final paragraph stands-out as a fitting tribute to one of the greatest matches ever: “Fittingly, the great Glasgow stadium responded with the loudest and most sustained ovation it has given to non-Scottish athletes. The strange emotionalism that overcame the huge crowd as the triumphant Madrid team circled the field at the end, carrying the trophy they have held since its inception, showed they had not simply been entertained. They had been moved by the experience of seeing sport played to its ultimate standards.”
Almost as good was his follow-up, a report on a short conversation he had as he left the ground, with one of the then movers and shakers in the SFA, who McIlvanney reported as saying: “Of course, the Scottish football public would not pay to watch that kind of football every week.” Aye right!
Scotland could not hold that level of talent, so he took Johnson’s High Road South, to The Observer, where he quickly became Chief Sports Writer, a post he filled with distinction for over 30-years. He travelled the world, covering World Cups, Heavyweight title fights, major golf tournaments and Olympic Games. Bringing to every report his unique insight and his great gift for having the exact phrase for the occasion.
He was a keen student of the Turf, making significant financial donations, at least to the bookmakers’ profits, and revelling in the atmosphere of Aintree on Grand National Day, Derby Day at Epsom, Royal Ascot and, perhaps his favourite occasion – the Cheltenham Festival.
His description of “Himself,” the great Arkle, running-down Mill House is perhaps the best example you can find of descriptive big race reporting: “As Arkle jockey Pat Taaffe, who had planned it all that way, began to close on the turn at the top of the hill, the incredible Irish support, the farmers and stableboys and priests, roared in unison: ‘Here he comes.’ It was like a beleaguered army greeting the hero who brings relief. He came all right, to run the heart out of Mill House, and that great horse was never the same again.” That takes you right there.
Has anyone ever captured the genius of George Best with the same elan as this McIlvanney piece on the Irish legend: “Best had come in along the goal line from the corner-flag in a blur of intricate deception. Having briskly embarrassed three or four challengers, he drove the ball high into the net with a fierce simplicity that made spectators wonder if the acuteness of the angle had been an optical illusion.
“What was the time of that goal?” asked a young reporter in the Manchester United press box. “Never mind the time, son,” said an older voice beside him. “Just write down the date.”
Or there was his take on Muhammad Ali thrashing George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974: “We should have known that Muhammad Ali would not settle for any ordinary old resurrection. His had to have an additional flourish. So, having rolled away the rock, he hit George Foreman on the head with it.”
After that fight McIlvanney demonstrated he had mastered old-fashioned foot in the door news reporting, pounding the streets of Kilmarnock and Glasgow all those years before. He took a taxi out to Ali’s villa, blagged his way in, got an exclusive interview and life-time admission to The Greatest’s inner circle. Gallus or what?
And, did any of the many Scottish journalists there capture the magic and insanity of Lisbon, 1967 quite as well as this extract from McIlvanney’ s Observer piece: “At the airport, the impression is of a Dunkirk with happiness. The discomforts of mass evacuation are tolerable when your team have just won the greatest victory yet achieved by a British football club, and completed a clean sweep of the trophies available to them that has never been equalled anywhere in the world.
“They even cheered Helenio Herrera and his shattered Inter when the Italians left for Milan yesterday evening. “Inter, Inter, Inter.” The chant resounded convincingly through the departure lounge, but no one was misled. In that mood, overflowing with conquerors’ magnanimity they might have given Scot Symon a round of applause.
“Typically, within a minute the same happily dishevelled groups were singing: “Ee Aye Addio, Herrera’s on the Burroo.” The suggestion that the most highly paid manager in Europe is likely to be queueing at the Labour Exchange is rather wild but the comment emphasised that even the least analytical fan had seen through the hectic excitement of a unique performance to the essential meaning of the event.”
Even his one-liners were special: Joe Bugner – the physique of a Greek statue, but fewer moves.” Or his take on Carlos Teves’ departure from Manchester City: “Whatever it costs Manchester City to get rid of him is a tolerable outlay on disinfectant.”
He had a volcanic temper, he could be a handful in drink, and the denizens of Irvine, who witnessed the dispute still speak in awe of a full-out argument/scrap with brother Willie, when they fell-out at a Burns Night dinner.
But when, cigar clamped between his teeth, he sat down at his typewriter or lap top to write his match reports – and at his best he was a match reporter – he immediately went into the “zone”, from which he did not emerge until he was happy with every word, comma or full stop. He was a perfectionist.
But, he wasn’t perfect. His Scotsman character assassination of poor Frank Haffey after Wembley 1961 was verging on the cruel – we Scottish goalkeepers have never forgotten.
He was showered with honours: made OBE in 1996, the Scottish Press Awards gave him a special Lifetime Achieve Award in 2004; a year later came that Journalist of the Year Award; in 2008 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. And a record seven Sports Writer of the Year awards.
Somewhat embarrassingly, in 2011 the Scottish Football Hall of Fame secretly inducted him into membership. It had to be done secretly, since he was Chairman of the Induction Committee, who acted without telling him. He is also in the Press Gazette and English Football Museum’s Halls of Fame.
After 30-years, he left The Observer in 1993, for a short spell as a Correspondent at Large for the Daily Express, before settling down to 23 years with the Sunday Times, only finally logging off in 2016. Along the way, be wrote with insight and feeling about the great Scottish football men: the great players: Baxter, Johnstone, Law and Dalglish, but more clearly the great managers – Busby, Shankly, Stein and Ferguson.
His books: ‘McIlvanney on Boxing,’ (1982), ‘McIlvanney on Football,’ (1994) and ‘McIlvanney on Horse Racing’ (co-written with another master, the late Sir Peter O’Sullivan in 1995) are “must haves” for every serious collector of writings on sport.
That said, he was, at his best a reporter – the most information and colour in the fewest words – while other great Scottish sports writers: Norman Mair, Bob Crampsey or Ian Archer, were more essayists.
Hugh McIlvanney was married to Caroline, they had two children, Conn and Elizabeth, who survive him. And the McIlvanney literary legacy is in the safe hands of his nephew, Willie’s son, the New Zealand-based novelist and crime writer Liam McIlvanney.