The news came overnight that Hugh McIlvanney had died at the age of 84. Without doubt he ranks among the all-time great sport journalists, not just those produced in the UK but anywhere in the world.
Like many others I shall wait for the obituaries that will record, sum up and assess his career better that I could. Today I merely wish to salute the man and his work, which had a huge influence upon me as I grew up and made my first tentative steps in my own career as a wordsmith.
With his Scottish burr and ‘old school’ Fleet Street hack image – I type that with deep respect and affection for those who spent their lives travelling the world covering sporting events great and small in hairy conditions and a compressed haze of two-bit hotels, bars, cramped reporting conditions, frantic deadlines and endless chaos – McIlvanney was at the forefront of those few who could be relied upon not only to conjure up the essence of a contest in twelve hundred words or less but, with seeming effortlessness, churn out copy that could stand alone as a piece of English composition to be read for sheer pleasure and admiration on its own, irrespective of the subject matter.
You cannot do that simply by having a certain skill with words. As former BBC and Thames Television executive Bryan Cowgill was fond of saying in the context of sporting journalism “You have to learn the grammar of your trade” – by which he was referring not just the basics of reporting, which can be learned by rote, but to putting in the hard yards of slogging experience at the reporting coal face, which inevitably hone the rough edges of a skill into sharpened tip.
Even then, the truly great must have an additional something extra and special. Hugh McIlvanney had whatever that was in spades.
For Rusters who might be interested, here are some examples I found (whilst googling just now on the internet) that ‘blew me away’ at the time they were written and first published – and still do today:
From a website called theunitedpages.com, reheating a McIlvanney piece on – THE GENIUS OF GEORGE BEST
From The Observer on 20th September 1980 – THE DEATH OF JOHNNY OWEN
From The Observer on 3rd November 1974 – IN THE AFTERMATH OF ‘THE RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE’