Obituary: Brian Woolnough, sports journalist and television presenter
Born: 30 September, 1948, in Surrey. Died: 18 September, 2012, in Surrey, aged 63.
Brian “Wooly” Woolnough, who has died of cancer a few days short of his 64th birthday, was one of those television presenters whose affable manner never managed to conceal a comprehensive knowledge and considerable experience of involvement with his subject.
Woolnough presented the football-based Sunday Supplement on Sky from 2007 until earlier this year. Before that he co-hosted the programme with Jimmy Hill from 2001 onwards, having begun his television career with Hold The Back Page, also for Sky, in 1994. They made him nationally known and respected.
It is the second time in a few weeks that the worlds of sport and broadcasting have lost a figure renowned for both their gentlemanly qualities and their expertise, the death of horse racing’s Lord John Oaksey provoking similar grief among colleagues and public alike.
It is also just three months since his colleague, the Daily Star’s chief football writer Danny Fullbrook, died from cancer at the age of 40. It says much about Woolnough that he ignored his own plight with the bowel cancer that eventually took his life to offer support and counselling to the younger man.
That was typical of Woolnough, who was renowned throughout the newspaper industry as an assiduous worker and steadfast colleague.
As a mainly football and cricket writer for a tabloid newspaper, he could have been typecast as a purveyor of strident opinions – which he was – but there was always much, much more to him as a journalist.
Sports journalists tend to be more of a “club” than news reporters or feature writers, as they can spend many days and nights travelling and eating together, and as Woolnough was the most clubbable of men, he enjoyed considerable popularity among his peers as well as respect for his undoubted talents.
His career began in his native Surrey as soon as he left school at the age of 16, his mother having spotted an opening for a cub reporter on the Esher News.
It was at this first job that he met his future wife Linda, who was also a trainee reporter. She later became a teacher as they married and raised a family of three children, to whom Woolnough was devoted.
From childhood he was a member of Claygate Cricket Club in Surrey, and growing physically strong, he became a more than useful fast bowler, reaching county standard. He was also no mean youth footballer, but a knee injury curtailed his sporting activities.
His journalistic career blossomed and he joined the Evening Post in Hemel Hempstead and then moved to United Newspapers until the call came from The Sun. He worked his way up to become chief football writer and in all he stayed with The Sun for 27 years, becoming well known for his “supporting role” in the 1994 documentary on England manager Graham Taylor which helped gain Woolnough his entree to television broadcasting.
There was indeed an element of the “fan with typewriter” about Woolnough, whose passion for England’s football and cricket teams shone through his writing. It also meant that he gave managers like Taylor a hard time when England underachieved.
His “poaching” by Daily Star publisher Richard Desmond in 2001 caused a sensation in media circles due to the reputed £140,000 annual salary plus benefits that took the package to a reputed £200,000 – making him one of the best-paid journalists in Fleet Street and able to afford a luxury home in Surrey.
He deserved it because, as chief sports writer, he became the anchor of the Star’s sports coverage, which was one of its main selling points.
As well as his burgeoning broadcasting career – he was a regular pundit on numerous radio shows as well as Sunday Supplement – Woolnough also found the time to write and co-write some 14 books.
In 2004, he managed to pick a fight with Norwich City and their fans led by club owner Delia Smith after he called the team “gutless’ following an insipid performance against Chelsea.
Typically brave, Woolnough then visited the Carrow Road home of Norwich and was shown round by Delia Smith herself. He neatly turned the argument on the Norwich fans: “My message to supporters is to keep showing the passion that was directed towards me because it’s that sort of passion that keeps teams in the Premiership.”
In May this year, he wrote a characteristically forthright column suggesting that Manchester United might need a new leader if their rivals across town at Manchester City won the league, which they duly did in extraordinary fashion.
Very few journalists dare to take on Sir Alex Ferguson, but Woolnough did, and typical of the manager, Ferguson was one of the first to pay tribute to him, saying: “He was good man, a good journalist with a good personality. He asked good questions, sometimes too good! It is very sad news.”
Probably the most painful article, and one of the shortest, Woolnough had to write was after this summer’s European Championships when he opined that he could not find “one England player to put in my Euro 2012 team of the tournament”.
As both a chronicler and fan of the England team, it was a sad note on which to bring his stellar career to an end.
Woolnough is survived by his wife Linda and his three children, Emma, Benjamin and Jack and three grandchildren, Max, Joe and Poppy.
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