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Hugh McIlvanney - press box statesman who turned sports writing into literature



Hugh McIlvanney, widely considered to be one of the finest British sports journalists, has died at the age of 84. Photo: PA

Hugh McIlvanney, widely considered to be one of the finest British sports journalists, has died at the age of 84. Photo: PA


Hugh McIlvanney, widely considered to be one of the finest British sports journalists, has died at the age of 84. Photo: PA

From the 1970s on, many young authors who liked books and sport tried to write like Martin Amis or Hugh McIlvanney - and sometimes both. Plenty ended up on the floor in a tangle of words.

McIlvanney, who has died aged 84, was inspired by the great American tradition of reportage to turn sports writing in this part of the world into literature.

In his youth, sports reports in newspapers would have been blocks of information or formulaic dispatches.

In a golden age for both sport and the reporting of it, McIlvanney saw a chance to make epic non-fiction in particular out of football, boxing and horse racing - his three favourite sports.

Journalists, and sport itself, owe him and his contemporaries a debt for delving so fiercely into the unreported drama below the surface of results.

Fleet Street giants, from a time before the internet 'democratised' reporting, and published any and every opinion, McIlvanney and his generation thrived on the accessibility of the best performers, who were yet to be cocooned by armies of agents and minders demanding copy and headline approval.

In today's media world, McIlvanney would have been permanently at war with people blocking his path to sportsmen and women.

And only a brave or deluded soul would have stood in the way of his urge to go beyond sound bites and superficial portraits.

Pele and Muhammad Ali were among the idols around whom he weaved his literary aspirations in an age when free expression on the field of play began to find its voice in sports journalism.

To a young reporter, McIlvanney was an inspiring and daunting press-box statesman, perennially anxious about how he was ranked.

As a fresh face in the press room, you stepped round him, until he gave some sign that you had been acknowledged (this was a delusion - he was always generous with his time).

Though he could take a hard line with opinions that contradicted his, he respected those that were sensibly constructed.

A personal memory is of sitting up late with him one night in Las Vegas in the build-up to a big fight and listening to him express a fear that younger reporters were lining up to depose him as the profession's nonpareil.

It sounded absurd back then, and it sounds no more rational now, but lots of driven people who have lived in the glow of praise use external threats this way.

It was evidence, above all, of McIlvanney's manic need to perform brilliantly every time he committed words to print.

That obsession was recorded by sub-editors who lived in fear of the great writer's fury should they misplace a comma or otherwise disturb the flow of his sentences, which were intricately constructed to flow with poignance and force.

It was hard work for him, too. Late in the working week, as his Sunday publication date approached, he would disappear into 'the tunnel' where he laboured to produce the definitive account. Any imagined falling short would lead to painful introspection.

But beyond the self-punishing drive to reach standards matched elsewhere in his family - particularly by the novelist William, his late brother - McIlvanney was a bon viveur, cigar smoker, drinker, story teller, reader and thinker who was grateful to be on the ride he was on.

He was appreciative too of the golden time he spent with Jock Stein, Bill Shankly, Alex Ferguson or Ali.

He was always mining them for insights, always noticing things, constantly searching for lines and essences that would illuminate what they did.

Though he worked primarily for himself, as a serious writer, he was also the reader's envoy. He possessed the vital journalistic instinct to reveal and report to those who were not there at the scene.

His pieces on the 'Rumble in the Jungle' between Ali and George Foreman and the death of the Welsh boxer Johnny Owen in 1980 are among many hailed as classics not only of sports writing but reportage. McIlvanney brought to his writing the vital quality of empathy. He looked through the business of winning and losing to see the human struggle behind it.

Without that essential compassion, we might remember him chiefly as an architect of beautiful sentences.

In an interview in 'The Sunday Times', after his retirement, McIlvanney made a valuable point about perspective.

He said: "Forgetting what happened in the past, imagining everything occurring now to be the best, is just a failure of intelligence."

His own intelligence never failed him.

( © Daily Telegraph, London)