Hugh McIlvanney, who died recently aged 84, was perhaps Britain’s greatest ever sportswriter.
Hugh McIlvanney – 1934-2019
Britain’s Greatest Ever Sportswriter
By Dave Bowler
Combining a bitingly savage perception with a lyricism that could only have come from long study at the font of Burns, McIlvanney had a style redolent of the great Scottish football men on whom he doted, of Shankly, Busby, Stein and Ferguson. As he said of himself, “I think it can be said without pomposity, while straying in that very direction, that I have a recognisable voice in my writing. I would be surprised if there wasn’t some Scottishness there, and certainly an attitude to language.
“The feeling that you could be quite strongly expressive and still very accurate relates in a way to how I was brought up, listening to a lot of people who were very eloquent – although they might not have been very well educated, but who had a great respect for language, especially in the west of Scotland.”
A Different Kind Of Voice
McIlvanney was, from the outset, a different kind of voice, emerging from the sports pages at the same time as his only real competitor, Brian Glanville. But where Glanville was very much a football man, McIlvanney’s pen raged far and wide, across the sports, always looking for somewhere to land.
Not for him the pursuit of the scandal, the controversy or the hyperbole that fuels so much of what passes for sports journalism these days, McIlvanney was a master at teasing the humanity out of a story, finding a subject that not illuminated the game and its practitioners, but the human condition too. Sports writing is nothing if it talks only about goals and points and lap times. If, in the reading, it doesn’t explain to us a little something of ourselves, there’s no value in it. Just look at the results instead and save your time for a good book.
McIlvanney put his name to a few of those. His football and boxing anthologies are both masterful, as was his reading of the World Cups of 1966 and 1970, documents of English triumph and disaster, though, for McIlvanney, not necessarily in that order.
Encounter With Sir Alf Ramsey
One priceless encounter with Sir Alf Ramsey began with the England manager asking, “How many caps have you got?” after he had criticised the team’s performance. “None,” McIlvanney replied, adding, “but if I send a turnip around the world, it doesn’t return an expert on geography.”
If you can lay your hands on any of those books do so, while a trawl of YouTube for his Shakespearean rendering of the tale of “The Football Men” will repay the effort. It tells you all you need to know about Busby, Shankly and Stein, about the game of football and about a world that is slowing simply into folk memory. It should be on the national curriculum. And if you need further convincing of his genius, here are a few pieces of evidence to place on the record.
On Celtic winger Jimmy Johnstone talking about his manager Jock Stein:
“‘Y’know he’s got spies everywhere,’” that marvellous little eccentric once told me, staring into my face with his eyes as large as dish aerials. “He’s even got spies in the noggin.” For a moment I thought Jimmy was suggesting some infiltration of his mind, a touch of the Manchurian Candidates. Then I latched onto the fact that The Noggin was a pub.”
On the Rumble in the Jungle:
“We should have known that Muhammad Ali would not settle for any ordinary resurrection. His had to have an additional flourish. So, having rolled away the rock, he hit George Foreman on the head with it.”
On Scottish fighting men:
“Anyone who suggests that the Scots are infatuated with their own image as fighting men has failed to distinguish infatuation and the real thing. On the corner of any one of a thousand grey streets from Wick to Berwick-upon-Tweed, you are in danger of finding people who will earnestly ponder the question of whether it would take one or two Scottish regiments to cope with the Red Army and who will argue persuasively that Benny Lynch, if caught on a sober night, would have floored Muhammad Ali in mid-shuffle.”
On Lester Piggott:
“The point about Piggott’s complexity is that it is self-perpetuating. It produces a quality of remoteness that would make a Henry James heroine appear as obtrusively cordial as Hughie Green. He even looks remote. The lank, fairish hair is combed straight back from the pale, thin face. The eyes are light and cool. The mouth is usually pursed in an expression which may not be hostile but is certainly not likely to encourage casual exchanges.”
On Johnny Owen, the Welsh bantamweight who died after a title fight in Los Angeles in 1980:
“Outside the ring he was an inaudible and almost invisible personality. Inside, he became astonishingly positive and self-assured. He seemed to be more at home there than anywhere else. It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.”
McIlvanney was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (2009) and the Scottish Football Hall of Fame (2011). He was the first journalist inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame two years ago and he was awarded an OBE in 1996.